Asked and answered: Saint Thomas Aquinas

By Chris Sparks

He levitated during prayer.

Jesus said he’d written well of Him, and offered him anything he wanted — and he said, “Only Yourself, Lord.”

He had such a great mystical experience toward the end of his life that he put his pen down and left great works unfinished.

All this and more from one of the greatest saints, theologians, and mystics in the history of the Church — and a patron of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225/27-1274), whose feast we celebrate on Jan. 28, is a friend to the doubter, to the skeptic, and to the person who is confronted with the great mysteries of life.

Like the great philosopher Aristotle, whose writings informed much of Aquinas’ philosophical work, St. Thomas was interested in everything, in large part because he was interested in the One at the back of all things, the Creator of everything, without whom nothing exists.

Many Doctors
Saint Thomas is known as the Angelic Doctor of the Church (the great teacher whose knowledge seemed "angelic"  — leading us to God — and the Doctor who wrote most on angels), but he’s also known as the Common or Universal Doctor (the great and trustworthy teacher on most every subject). Like the great philosopher Aristotle, whose writings informed much of Aquinas’ philosophical work, St. Thomas was interested in everything, in large part because he was interested in the One at the back of all things, the Creator of everything, without whom nothing exists.

For love of God and neighbor, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote and taught, thought and prayed, ever pursuing the truth wherever it would lead, all in obedience to Holy Mother Church. Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, called St. Thomas “the theologian who explained in the greatest depth why Divine Mercy is central to the faith of the Church” in his book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI.

One of the greatest Dominicans to ever walk the earth, St. Thomas lived a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in spite of his aristocratic family background. He is a powerful intercessor for all of us who struggle with attachment to wealth or stuff, with temptations to impurity, or with pride and rebelliousness.

He’s also a great friend to every person who’s ever asked a question about God, the world, and the nature of reality. When you read his master work, the Summa Theologiae (Summary of Theology), you encounter a man who would gladly entertain all questions, present objections to the Catholic faith better and more reasonably than people who actually opposed Catholicism, and discern and discuss the truth with astounding clarity.

Whether or not you agree with his answers (and the Church herself over time has had disagreements with some of his answers — see, for instance, the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, even though Thomas famously concluded through some faulty premises that it was impossible), he’s a model of method, a master of the intellectual life, of open and honest inquiry in pursuit of truth.

Trust in God
His way of proceeding was one of trust. He trusted in God, approaching the world as a gift given by a wise and loving Creator, and so something that we could know. Faith and reason don’t ever conflict for Thomas; rather, they are mutually reinforcing, strengthening and elevating each other, till all layers of reality are open to human beings. By the grace and gift of God, we are welcomed into the mystery of mysteries, into the life of the Trinity and the household of God. Through virtue cooperating with grace, nothing true or good is off limits to us — and yet Thomas famously acknowledged toward the end of his life that he had been blessed to glimpse mysteries that made all his writings seem like straw.

Another great mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska, gives an apt description of that sort of experience when she writes about Eucharistic Adoration:

At the feet of the Lord. Hidden Jesus, Eternal Love, our Source of Life, Divine Madman, in that You forget yourself and see only us. Before creating heaven and earth, You carried us in the depths of Your Heart. O Love, O depth of Your Abasement, O mystery of happiness, why do so few people know You? Why is Your love not returned? O Divine Love, why do You hide Your beauty? O Infinite One beyond all understanding, the more I know You the less I comprehend You; but because I cannot comprehend You, I better comprehend Your greatness. I do not envy the Seraphim their fire, for I have a greater gift deposited in my heart. They admire You in rapture, but Your Blood mingles with mine. Love is heaven given us already here on earth. Oh, why do You hide in faith? Love tears away the veil. There is no veil before the eye of my soul, for You Yourself have drawn me into the bosom of secret love forever. Praise and glory be to You, O Indivisible Trinity, One God, unto ages of ages!
Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 278

Saint Thomas Aquinas is one of my Confirmation saints. We’ve always joked that my dad, Tom, is a doubting Thomas, always asking to see evidence, always wanting the science or the data behind a claim in the news. I chose the Dumb Ox as my patron, instead. He’s brilliant; he knows a lot about angels; he’s humble; and his writings have touched and transformed the Church down through the centuries.

Chesterton knew best
One of the first books I ever owned was G. K. Chesterton’s book St. Thomas Aquinas, a great place to begin if you want to get inside the mind of St. Thomas. A modern scholar, Etienne Gilson, praised Chesterton’s book:

I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a “clever” book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called “wit” of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas.

So as we mark the liturgical feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, let us ask his intercession as we attempt to learn and live the faith in the modern age. Let us turn to his writings for answers to the many questions we and our neighbors may have about the faith, and always remember that faith and reason bring us to the truth, never ultimately being in conflict. And let us ask his intercession for all of us practicing Catholics who are, in one way or another, his spiritual and intellectual descendants. We need his help and his brilliant, faithful reason now more than ever.

“To make peace, either in oneself or among others, shows a man to be a follower of God,” he wrote.

Amen to that. Saint Thomas Aquinas, man of virtue, learning, and piety, pray for us!


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