St. Thomas Aquinas: Hound of the Lord’s Wisdom
“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.” Wisdom 6:12
One such ardent seeker of Wisdom was St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church celebrates the feast of this well-known academic saint on January 28. Known for his towering intellect, his careful and clear philosophy, and his Summa Theologiae, Thomas is also a saint. His studiousness and sanctity go hand-in-hand and fed one another. He is a Doctor of the Church and is widely known as the Angelic Doctor. His desire for knowing and sharing the truth led him always to know and love Truth Himself.
Thomas was born to Count Landulf of Aquin and Countess Theodora of Teano in the family castle of Roccaseca, which is located near Naples. His family was not supremely powerful, but had supremely powerful connections, including being related to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. He was the youngest of seven brothers and from an early age, it was clear that little Thomas would not become a great soldier like some of his elder brothers. He was a quiet and shy boy who never had a great liking for noise and lots of activity. He delighted in generosity to the poor gave away what he could to beggars on the street as a child.
His uncle, Sinibald, was the abbot at the nearby Benedictine abbey of Monte Casino, and at the age of five Thomas was sent to the abbey for academic instruction. It is likely his parents desired that he would one day follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become the abbot of Monte Casino, which at the time was a wealthy and powerful monastery.
A famous story about the young Thomas says that one day he asked his teacher during a lesson, “What is God?” This is the question that would shape and form his entire life: pursuing knowledge of God.
Thomas was later sent to Naples for further study and showed great promise, excelling over and above his classmates. He then decided to do the unexpected and the unwelcome in the eyes of his family: he became a poor Dominican friar. Rather than continuing on the bright path of worldly honors as a Benedictine monk, he joyfully became a mendicant friar. Attracted by the academic and active life of the Friars Preachers, he left a purely contemplative life for a life of study and service. Horrified by her son’s choice, Thomas’s mother sent two of his elder brothers to capture him as he made his way to Paris with several other Dominicans. They captured him like highwaymen and locked him up in a castle for a little over a year trying to dissuade him from his choice. Thomas, however, was constant in his conviction and placidly spent his confinement in study and prayer.
There was one occasion during which his placid contemplation was justifiably shaken. His brothers, in a further attempt to weaken his resolve, brought a beautiful woman before him to tempt him to impurity. The normally quiet, slow-moving, gentle Thomas quickly moved to action: he grabbed the poker from the nearby fire and drove the woman out of the room. He emblazoned the sign of the cross on his door behind her, a sign of the triumph of purity and honor.
Thomas eventually escaped his family’s entrapment and made his way to the University of Paris to study, arriving in 1245. Paris was then the great city of scholars and philosophers. When the university became overcrowded, Thomas followed his teacher, St. Albert the Great, to Cologne to continue his studies there. He lived a quiet, steady, hidden life of study and prayer. He was so quiet and large a man that his classmates took to calling him the “Dumb Ox” thinking he was rather stupid. St. Albert is famous for his prophetic quip back, “You call him a dumb ox, but the time will come when so loud will be the bellowing of his doctrine, that it will resound to the ends of the earth.”
A more appropriate nickname for this intellectual giant might be the “Hound of the Lord’s Wisdom.”
He was a Dominican, after all, and word ‘Dominican’ can be broken down into domini (Lord) and canes (hound). The nickname of the Dominicans is thus “Hounds of the Lord.” Thomas was one such hound bound on a particular mission after the wisdom of the Lord. He was steady on the scent and pursued his object to the end. After his time as a student in Cologne, he went back to Paris to continue his studies in 1952. He began to teach, and his gift for teaching became quickly apparent. He began to write, and others beyond his immediate circle of students began to benefit from his clarity and insight. He wrote commentaries on well-known works and he wrote arguments in response to other philosophers. Thenceforward, he traveled far and wide across Europe to teach, to debate with other philosophers, and to confer with other theologians.
In addition to his intellectual prowess, he was also known for his calm manner and his courtesy as a debater. Thomas was gentle and innocent, and people were often charmed by his simple and unassuming manner. He was also known to be a somewhat “absent-minded professor.” The small concerns of daily life and the important events which engaged others did not particularly interest him. He was thinking about the One necessary thing, and how everything else related to the Lord and to each other. An illustrative example of this is the one time he went (under obedience) to the court of St. Louis, King of France. While everyone else was enjoying the meal, Thomas was consumed by his thoughts. Suddenly, he slammed his fist down on the table and cried aloud delightedly, “That will settle the Manicheans!” The king was not bothered by his guest’s lack of interest in the meal. He sent for a scribe to write down Thomas’s argument at once.
Many people know more about Thomas’s intellectual gifts to the Church than they know about his personal sanctity. Other saints are better known for their miracles or pithy spiritual sayings than Thomas is, and that’s probably the way he wanted it. In his own lifetime, he kept his spiritual experiences largely hidden. One experience that has come down to us, that after he defended the mystery of the Eucharist, while he was praying in the chapel, Christ spoke to him from the crucifix and asked him, “Thomas, you have written well of me. What would you have?” His response was something (the exact wording is disputed) to this effect, “Nothing, if not you, Lord.” His desire for knowledge of everything else of interest was subordinated to his desire for a deeper knowledge and love of the Lord. He truly loved the Lord with all his heart, all his mind, all his soul, and all his strength.
One day while celebrating the Mass, he received a vision of unutterable beauty and power that left him permanently changed. Brother Reginald, his trusted friend and confidante asked him to return to his regular habits of reading and writing (he was at the time working on the Summa Theologiae), and Thomas replied, “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.” He indeed wrote no more, and his magnum opus was left unfinished. He died of an illness while traveling to the Council of Lyons several months later in 1274.
This unequaled scholar is also a great saint, and a saint for our times. He insisted on the continuity and clarity of the Truth, and he unapologetically insisted that Faith and Reason must be always joined together. In our skeptical and relativistic times, Thomas is a saint whom we can look towards for guidance and good example. His entire life was shaped by the pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge not for its own sake or for great renown. He pursued knowledge so that he might love and serve the Lord more and better. He is still teaching us today through his timeless works of philosophy and theology, and he prays for us today as he beholds the Wisdom he always sought.