The Relevance of St. Thomas Aquinas Today - Liam Farrer

The task to which I have been appointed is no easy one, to explain the relevance that St. Thomas Aquinas has for today’s Christian. The obvious temptation in such a situation is to resort to St. Thomas’ theology; however, I shall attempt to avoid this, insomuch as that is possible, given that it was not St. Thomas’ theology that made him a great saint, but, rather, his sanctity that made him a great theologian.

There are clearly many instances within the life of the Angelic Doctor that would serve to edify us, however for the purposes of this reflection, I would like to focus on a series of events which were inarguably the climax of St. Thomas’ earthly life, events which I believe are often misunderstood.

At some point in the year 1273 St. Thomas finished his “Treatise on the Incarnation,” and as was his custom he literally brought his work before the altar and offered it to God. He celebrated Mass in his usual fashion and proceeded as usual to meditate before the tabernacle prior to the start of morning prayer. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until the crucifix spoke stating “Thomas you have written well of me, what reward do you ask for your labour?” Thomas responded simply “Non nisi te Domine”— Nothing but you Lord.

The same year on the feast of St. Nicholas, Thomas returned to the same chapel to celebrate Mass. While Thomas had experienced ecstatic experiences during Mass before, those who observed him noticed that this time he seemed distraught. Following Mass, he returned to his cell where he proceeded to pack up his writing instruments. Thomas was a changed man, something that was soon noticed by his confreres. When one of them inquired about the difference in his character, and why he had stopped writing his Summa Theologiae, he responded “Reginald, I cannot go on because all that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” Soon after this St. Thomas was summoned to the Council of Lyon. Unfortunately on his way he hit his head on a tree and suffered some sort of head injury. He was taken first to his niece’s castle and then to the Cistercian Monastery at Fossanuova where he passed away on 7 March 1274.

St. Thomas provides us with several important spiritual lessons within this story. The first is the concept of offering our work to the Lord. We, especially students, often ask for God’s help at the beginning of something, be it an essay, an exam, a project, or a job, but how often do we offer God the finished project? I remember when I was a high school student that a friend of mine pointed out to me that someone had taken out a thank-you note to St. Jude for favours granted in the advertisement section of the Calgary Herald. At the time I thought this was silly; however, looking back on it now it seems like the proper thing to do. We thank others for the good they do for us and give them credit when credit is due, why do we not do the same for God and His angels and saints (Thanks for the help with this article by the way).

Secondly let us learn from what St. Thomas asked for as a reward: Christ. Not a share in Christ’s glory, not a share in his riches, simply Christ. This is perhaps the first place where contextual exegesis is required. Many people today think of receiving Christ as receiving the grace of the Risen one, and it is; however, for St. Thomas it is also first and foremost the reception of Christ’s Passion. St. Thomas understood that in order to be united with Christ one must be united to what he himself described in Pange Linguae as “a life of woe.” By uniting ourselves to Christ’s passion we can truly drink from the cup which he drunk from we can truly come to share in Christ’s love and the love of His Father.

As several great spiritual writers (St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. John of the Cross, etc,) have noted, suffering is the beginning of the process of purgation which leads to greater union with our Triune God. This may sound disconcerting, but as another great St. Thomas (More) notes “we do not get to Heaven on feather beds.”

The third point I wish to highlight is perhaps the most important. What did St. Thomas mean when he said that his writing was “so much like straw” compared to the vision of Christ? In order to understand this properly one must look at one of the primary uses of straw in St. Thomas’ time, building. Straw was used for thatching roofs and making mud bricks. What St. Thomas is perhaps saying then is not that his Summa must be discarded but rather that he had been greatly humbled by realizing that his well-crafted works were in fact not the intellectual cathedrals that he had thought, but rather simply the first stage of the building process. We can learn both from St. Thomas’ humility and from his choice of words. We too, with humility, must see that God is infinitely greater than we are, and as such we must resist the urge to put God in the proverbial box. If we attempt to reduce God to systems (and please don’t mistake me: I love theological systems, they are very helpful) we can negate the God of surprises. The second lesson that we can learn from this is that we must build on St. Thomas.

If the Angelic Doctor’s writings are straw we must treat them as such, and use them to build. What I mean by this is simple. There is a great tendency in Catholicism to take the theology of St. Thomas as the final word on a subject, but to do this goes against everything St. Thomas stands for. We must use the straw that he and others have provided us to build up our own knowledge of the faith, but first one must learn how to build properly.

The best way to do this is to thoroughly apprentice oneself to Holy Scripture, via a good study bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of Catholic Social Teachings. This will undoubtedly be a long process but it will teach us how to make bricks from straw so that we continue to help, as St. Thomas did, to build the city of God here on Earth.

[Liam A. Farrer is a PhD Student at Regis College at the Toronto School of Theology at the U of T. He is also a Junior Scholar of the Lonergan Research Institute]


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