By Denise Trull
What does one say about such an intellectual giant of a man--this Angelic Doctor?
When I first met his writings as a little twenty year-old, I was surprised by, and utterly grateful for, the order of his thought. I had read St. Augustine’s works first, which were filled with fire and emotion and long, grammatically astounding sentences. I loved Augustine much, but he was a bit overwhelming at times, leaving me emotionally depleted when I was finished reading. Augustine was all poetry, fire, and desire. But sometimes there is simply a great need for the solid meat and potatoes of the thing.
Enter St. Thomas, who, quite dispassionately, poses a question. Three to four objections concerning this question are raised, telling us he has mulled these thoughts over a good long time before writing them down. A written body of perfectly logical sentences then follows with lovely syllogisms singing boom, boom, boom, quod erat demonstrandum. He wraps it all up quite elegantly, not forgetting to answer his original objections. St. Thomas can always conjure a sigh of contentment in my brain. Even looking at a page of his text shows that beautiful order unfolding in his mind.
Here also is a man who was gifted with a profound intellectual honesty and showed it by seriously poring over the works of Greek philosopher Aristotle, and the Muslim Andalusian, Averroes, which probably put the powers that be at his Catholic University in a tizzy about entertaining the thoughts of - pagans. (Those tizzies exist in every age, don't they?)
He had fiery Sicilian blood in him and it showed itself when he insisted he was called to be a mendicant friar of St. Dominic and none of his powerful, bossy relatives, including a scary, arch, Sicilian mother could dissuade him from his purpose.
And yet, for the most part, he was soft-spoken, and rather lumbering of gait. The fact that his fellows at school called him the ‘Dumb Ox’ tells us that there was nothing physically arresting about him. He was a silent fellow who was thinking deeply most of his waking hours. Yet, no one knew.
His humility was complete. My favorite story about him was told by an old Dominican professor. The Order had decided to send Thomas to the priory in Orvieto, Italy after he had spent several years as a Doctor of Theology at the prestigious Dominican house in Paris. The Order only sent the cream of their crop of friars to Paris and Cologne. The ‘B’ students, the regular Joes, learned their theology in their own ‘home’ priories. St Thomas was sent to the likes of these.
Just imagine the deflated, aspiring intellectual Dominican students at Orvieto who, despite their best efforts, just couldn’t make the cut to go to Paris. It must have been a tough cross to bear in an order so devoted to intellectual rigor. It’s so charming, then, to imagine St. Thomas lumbering slowly into the classroom, and announcing simply, “My name is Friar Thomas, and I’ll be your instructor.”
As it turns out, the course notes became the Summa Theologiae. How beautifully fitting that such a clear and articulate work would be born from St. Thomas’s charity towards his humble little brothers in the Order.
I, too, have felt his charity in my own life. Whenever I would sit down and study the Baltimore Catechism questions with my little guys in school, I would thank St. Thomas Aquinas. For the catechism is, in very truth, a distilled and simplified version of his great ordered thought given to children so they will know their Faith, know where they come from and where they are going. I read it even now and it always brings me a solid, truthful comfort: a Faith built upon the rock of St. Thomas’s humble intellect ever seeking to tell us of the One he loves with all his mind, heart, and soul.
Holy St. Thomas, pray for us who very much need ordered thought in our time!