Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

The poor Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas was born into a family of the lower nobility. But his family had plans for him. Sent to school at Monte Cassino with the Benedictines, they probably hoped he would become an abbot and maybe even a bishop.

But God had other plans for Thomas.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

At the University of Naples he ran across the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, a mendicant order that saw voluntary poverty as part of their way of living out their vocation.

Dominic, the founder of the order, had come to this position when he was trying to convert the Albigensians in southern France. Many of those who tried to convert them came with their finery and fancy wagons. Dominic saw that the Albigensian leaders lived simply and poorly. And so Dominic saw the value of poverty.

Thomas’s decision to join the Dominicans did not make his family happy – but after being imprisoned by his brothers for a year, they let him join the Dominicans.

Thomas proceeded to become one of the most learned scholars of his age. But in this he did not forget the value of poverty.

Thomas defended the voluntary poverty of the mendicant (begging) orders and in fact he wrote of the poverty of Christ:

Christ chose to have parents who were poor but perfect in virtue, lest anyone should glory in his noble lineage and the riches of his parents. He lived a life of poverty to teach others to spurn riches. He lived an ordinary life having no high position to recall others from an inordinate greed for honors. He endured labor, hunger, thirst and bodily scourging, lest those who are intent on bodily pleasures and delights draw back from the good of virtue because of the rigors of such a life.

The poor Christ was his inspiration.

How can we live as followers of the poor Christ in our daily lives?

Playful Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

Though the church celebrates the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on January 28, Thomas actually died on March 7, 1274 – 740 years ago today.

I think Thomas is one of the most maligned theologians of the Catholic Church.

In part this is due to the scholasticism that reduced Thomas’ dialectical method into a set of propositions – forgetting the serious questions that pervade Thomas’s Summa Theologica.

We also forget that Thomas, though steeped in the scriptures and in the writings of the fathers of the church, was not adverse to seek inspiration in the writings of the pagan Aristotle as well as in the texts of Jewish and Islamic philosophers.

But I think we also miss that Thomas was a person steeped in the love of God and seek to live this out in his daily life.

He could be a little absent-minded – or, rather, super-focused on a problem. There is the story of his attending a banquet with King St. Louis where, in the middle of the banquet, he pounded the table and stated that he had just found the perfect way to respond to a heresy!

But I think he was also practical.

In grad school a friend told me that Thomas had a three-fold way to respond to feeling bad: a good meal, a bath, and sleep. I have no idea where this is found in Thomas’ works, but it’s rather good advice.

But what I really like about Thomas is what I found this past year in Timothy Radcliffe’s Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation:

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that an inability to play was a sign of moral weakness: ‘Therefore, unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for a good human life as rest’.

So, today, on the anniversary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ death, let’s play!

The bellowing of the Dumb Ox

Students, even members of religious orders, can sometimes be rather caustic in their evaluations of their fellow students.

The Dominican friars who studied with St. Albert the Great in Cologne called Thomas Aquinas “The Dumb Ox,” for they saw this rather large man as very taciturn.

St. Albert, however, advised them that the lowing of this dumb ox would one day resound throughout the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

For many years the work of St. Thomas was the norm for Catholic theology – though more in terms of scholastic treatises that ignored the dialectical nature of Thomas’ Summa Theologica, where he discusses the pros and contras of hundreds of questions about faith and practice.

Thomas at times has been dismissed as cold and dry, more interested in “truths” than in the life of faith.

I think this is mistaken. And this is not only because I took a grad school course on “The Perfection of the Universe according to Thomas Aquinas.”

One of the more interesting remarks about Thomas comes from G. K. Chesterton:

He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.

This quotation from Thomas’ Summa Theologica (Ia–2ae ii, 4) bears this out:

 Four general reasons can be brought forward to show that perfect happiness consists neither in riches, nor in fame, nor in power. Of which the first is that perfect happiness is not compatible with any evil. The second is that happiness is self-sufficient; once obtained, no other human prize is wanting, such as good health and wisdom. The third is that no harm results from happiness, whereas sometimes riches are kept to the hurt of the owner, and this may be also the case with the other goods we have mentioned. The fourth reason is this: true happiness wells from within, but the goods we have mentioned come from external causes and often from good luck.

Thomas has often been invoked as a defender of orthodoxy – of orthodox Catholic ideas; but this quote and others would indicate that he was a defender of an orthopraxy (right practice of the Christian faith) that includes a skepticism about riches, fame, and power.

—–

The quote above is taken from a collection of quotes from Aquinas gathered by the late Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, in America,  here.

 

Fools

“Fools, for Christ’s sake”
1 Corinthians 4: 10

It’s probably in my genes but I have a wry sense of humor; my dad was the ultimate punster.

laughing meI’m not as good a punster as he was but I’m pretty sure I inherited his puckish spirit.

I am also noted for my laugh. When something strikes me funny, I laugh, sometimes loudly. There have also been times when I laughed so hard that people were worried about me, as my face turned red.

But some people are so serious, especially some religious folk. It’s as if they forget that the resurrection is God’s joke – his way of showing that the seriousness of death is not the final word.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the joy I experience here among the poor in Honduras. But I find myself smiling and looking at things in playful ways – and at times being quite playful with kids.

What a gift! Maybe this will help me be a better follower of Christ and a more fully human person.

And this is not just my idea.

Timothy Radcliffe, notes, in  Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation, p. 16, that

St Thomas Aquinas believed that an inability to play was a sign of moral weakness: ‘Therefore, unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for a good human life as rest’.

So, today, April Fool’s Day, be playful – and if someone pulls your leg (or as we say here, pulls your hair), remember to laugh and to find a way to make that person laugh.

Be foolish, for Christ’s sake.

 

Love even your enemies

Twice in today’s Gospel (Luke 6: 27-38) Jesus tells us to “love your enemies.”

In light of the anniversary of the events of September 11 and the killings in Libya, some may say this is unrealistic. But Jesus says this – and St. Paul calls us to “bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12: 14).

This is not easy, especially since we often reduce loving to sentimentality.

But love is not mere sentimentality. Love means, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, willing the good of the other person. We want the other person’s welfare. We seek the others’ conversion to the good.

Blessed John Duns Scotus says that love is wishing the other person to be. Recognizing the other as a person we wish that person be, exist.

Such philosophic definitions are useful in helping us see that God wants life for all, wants us to seek the good of the other, even the enemy – which means, respecting that person’s life.

This does not mean that we overlook the evil actions of other but that we recognize that all of us humans are connected as children of God, with all our faults. At times we must speak the truth, as did today’s saint, John Chrysostom, who did not stop castigating the empress and others for their luxurious life styles and their neglect of the poor. But we must learn to do it with love.

And so today, I ask God to help me love all, to do good to all, even those who oppose me.

It’s not easy. Dorothy Day knew this as she often quoted this line from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.

 

Real orthodoxy

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican, philosopher and theologian, doctor of the church, whose writings have influenced the church’s theology for centuries, even though his writings were suspect when he taught and after his death in 1274.

In his work on St. Thomas, G. K. Chesterton has this amazing analysis of the angelic doctor:

“He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.”