“The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” So said a Dominican priest after receiving a mystical vision during Mass on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, 1273.
The priest, whose classmates had called him “the dumb ox” because of his huge stature and quiet demeanor, was Thomas Aquinas. No one knows exactly what was revealed to him in that vision, but Thomas, whose thought has been the anchor of Catholic theological training ever since the Council of Trent, never wrote another word until his death.
Aquinas, whose politically powerful family had destined him to follow his uncle as abbot of the ancient Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, had endured a year of imprisonment in his ancestral home when his parents learned he intended to become a Dominican instead. At last, his mother arranged for a window to be left unlocked in her wayward son’s prison, thinking that his escape and defection would be less shameful to the family than an outright capitulation to the new, upstart Order of Preachers.
Although he obviously never heard Phillips Brooks’ famous prayer, “Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the Truth: come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might,” Thomas would undoubtedly have been in sympathy with it, being as bullheaded as any ox in his pursuit of truth. For instance, he was very clear about the primacy of evidence and critical thinking over blind, unreflective faith.
“The truth of our faith,” he wrote, “becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”
One may wonder why a priest, who was destined to be named a Doctor of the Faith by Pope Pius V, would care what the “infidels” thought about the Catholic faith. The answer is twofold: first, ever since the Dominican order was first deployed to oppose the Albigensian heresy, an important principle of that order has been to understand one’s opponent’s positions, meet them on their own ground, and argue in good faith from their premises. Second, “infidel” thinkers had had a deep influence on Thomas’ own thought.
At the studium generale, or university in Naples, the young Thomas encountered the writings of the Muslim Averroes and the Jewish Maimonides, both of whom influenced is philosophical theology. It was also in Naples that he fell under the spell of Dominican preachers.
Most influential on the young Thomas’ thought, however, was Aristotle, whose works began recirculating during Thomas’ time, thanks to the efforts of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars in Spain, Northern Africa, and elsewhere. The “philosopher of common sense” was an exciting breath of fresh air among western Christian thinkers. Because of his pagan provenance, many conservatives began to denounce the writings of Aristotle as inimical to Christian faith. (For an educational and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the intellectual ferment that attended Aristotle’s reemergence, I highly recommend a book called Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages. )
Immersing himself in Aristotle’s thought, Thomas took on the very Dominican task of explaining Christian belief in a way that would resonate with disciples of Aristotle. In the 13th century, many regarded this as a radical and dangerous undertaking, and Aquinas spent much of his career skating around the edges of church approval. He was even accused of heresy. These days, when Thomas’s ideas are generally regarded as the foundation of Catholic theology, this may be hard to believe.
In 1272, Thomas helped found a theological school in Naples, and the following year, this doctor of the church, who had written so prolifically on so many topics pertaining to Christian faith and philosophy, received the vision that silenced him forever. When his friends urged him to finish his monumental Summa Theoligica, he replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”
His crowning achievement and most influential work remains unfinished to this day.
[Image Credit: Sandro Botticelli, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]