I’d like to say that I knew what I was doing when I asked to take the religious name “Thomas” (after St. Thomas Aquinas), but that just wouldn’t be true. While it wasn’t exactly a spur-of-the-moment decision, it was certainly based more on inclination than any well thought-out reasons. Of course, I had some inkling of who my patron was: a great genius who wielded his intellect in the service of the Truth; a profoundly prayerful man whose greatest recorded words of devotion were reserved for the Eucharist. This basic portrait was enough for me at the time, but I knew I had so much more to learn.
To say that Dominican life offers many opportunities to come to know St. Thomas is an understatement. Of course, we student brothers come into the most direct contact with his philosophical and theological wisdom in the classroom; but, in a more subtle way, his thought also pervades the air of the refectory and the common room, finding its way into conversations so frequently that it becomes difficult to notice. More subtle still is the constant repetition of St. Thomas’s prayer, “O Sacred Banquet,” every day before every “hour” of the Divine Office. Add to that some personal reading, a few biographies here and there, and one might be forgiven for thinking he has gained a few insights into the Common Doctor.
And no doubt I have gained some insights. But whenever I catch myself becoming a little too satisfied with that fact, I remember the countless Dominicans, living and deceased, who have dedicated their lives to the writings and thought of St. Thomas—men who have followed in the footsteps of so great a teacher in order to understand and share the Truth he so loved. And then I realize that even what little understanding I thought I had to begin with (even that “basic portrait” that led me to take the name “Thomas”) is so much better articulated by them.
For example, that inkling that I had of St. Thomas’s great genius, of his great intellect, has only been amplified and reinforced by a more focused study of his writings. And, just as remarkable as his thought itself, I have found, is the manner of its expression. Although his precise and, some would say, impersonal scholastic style never particularly troubled me, the great Dominican scholar, Yves Congar, provides a beautiful image for appreciating St. Thomas in this regard. In a homily on St. Thomas as “Servant of Truth,” he says (speaking of the thousands of articles in the Summa Theologiae), “There is not one of them that is not like a monstrance behind which the theologian hides in order to exhibit his God.”
Again, my initial admiration for the Eucharistic devotion of St. Thomas, as expressed in his hymns, has deepened, and it has continued to be a source of fruitful meditation, particularly in my effort to understand his spirituality. On this score, my eyes were opened just a few days ago as I was listening to a homily preached by Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P., president of Providence College, on the occasion of the annual St. Thomas Mass, organized by the Catholic University of America. He stressed how Thomas, throughout his great Eucharistic poem, Adoro Te Devote, constantly and tenderly addresses Christ in the Eucharist as “You.” Clearly, St. Thomas, for all his intellectual genius and seeming lack of passion, had an intensely personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. To us, his poetic fervor may seem to be in surprising contrast to his logical rigor, but then saints—and perhaps this one in particular—are always surprising.
Of course, a dozen different Dominicans could add a dozen further insights into the thought and spirituality of St. Thomas. It is the work of a lifetime just to scratch the surface. As the Church celebrates his feast today, it is good to take time to reflect on those insights and to ask his intercession for a world that so badly needs the Truth: Jesus Christ.
Image: Giovanni di Paulo, Dante and Beatrice Meet St. Thomas Aquinas, Leader of the First Circle of Twelve Wise Men; from a fifteenth-century Sienese Illuminated Manuscript of Dante’s Paradiso. (Seated from left to right are Gratian, Peter Lombard, Solomon, Dionysius the Areopagite, Orosius, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Richard of St. Victor, and Siger of Brabant; flying with crozier is St. Albert the Great.)