Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel, Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics.
“Post honores, labores.” — “To honours succeed labours.”
LIKE some well-laden tree, Thomas, moved by the Spirit of Truth from on high, dropped the ripe fruits of learning. Saint Raymund of Pennafort, known in history as “The Master of the Decretals,” after resigning the rank of Master General of the Order of Preachers, retired to Spain, where he exercised his zeal in the conversion of the Jews and Moors. What he needed most was a philosophic exposition of Christian belief, to combat Arabian thought. Aware of the newly risen star, he besought Father Thomas in Paris to undertake the task. Writing is preaching, when the pen is dipped in grace, and is ever more enduring. So the holy Doctor responded to the appeal by commencing his first monumental work, the “Summa Contra Gentiles,” or, “The Sum of the Truth of Catholic Faith against the Gentiles”. [The exact date of completion of the “Summa Contra Gentiles” appears to be 1261 (Ptol. Lucca, L, xxii, C. 23).] Set forth in four books, it contains a complete demonstration of Christian Truth against false philosophies, demonstrating absolutely that the dogmas of Christianity can never be opposed to right reason. Its success was immense, and soon it was rendered out of Latin into Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew, in order to be more accessible to those against whose errors it was composed. In European schools from 1261 it became a text-book of the philosophy of religion. Next followed the mixed writings known as the “Quodlibets,” a collection in 160 Articles of questions proposed with their solutions: some of these questions were profound, others trivial, but all throw a side-light on the scholastic subtleties of his day. After this he put forth the opusculum of 104 articles upon “Truth,” this he followed up by the “Compendium of Theology”. The masterly collection known as the “Questiones Disputatae” was not written in any precise year: it is a compilation made in 400 articles, comprising his answers to discussions arising out of his lectures, and extending over twenty years. In his elaborated Commentary on the Book of Job, he draws out admirably the argument of God’s Providence governing the world.
The real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is a doctrine which cannot be denied without making shipwreck of the faith. By the term real is meant an objective, substantial, abiding presence: it proclaims the living Christ to be truly in the Sacrament, “Secundum rei Veritatem”. This doctrine is the very touchstone of Catholic belief, the centre of Catholic devotion. But in the age of Saint Thomas, while all professed this faith, there were conflicting opinions as to the manner of such presence. The Doctors of Paris were especially full of this question, and now, after many fruitless disputes, resolved to refer the matter to the Angelic Doctor, since with him, to seize upon a difficulty was to unravel it. For a time he withdrew to the solitude of his cell to give himself up to prayer, then, under the dictation of the Holy Spirit, he wrote a treatise, “Of Substance and Accidents in the Eucharist,” [The extant tractate is declared apocryphal by Père Mandonnet, O.P. Des Ecrits authentiques de Saint Thomas d’Aquin Fribourg, 1910, p. 97.] which he afterwards so pithily expressed in the “Lauda Sion”.
Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things, are all we see.
After finishing the work he retired to the church, where he placed it upon the altar, and thus addressed the crucifix: “Lord Jesus Christ, Who art really present and workest wonders in this Sacrament, I humbly beg of Thee, that if what I have written of Thee be true, Thou wilt say so: but if I have written aught which is not conformable to the faith, or contrary to this holy mystery, be pleased to hinder me from proceeding farther”. Father Reginald of Piperno and others who had followed him saw our Blessed Lord appear, standing on the manuscript, and heard Him speak these words of approbation: “Thou hast written ably of the Sacrament of My Body, and hast accurately determined the difficulty proposed to thee, in so far as it can be understood by man on earth, and be defined by human wisdom”. Then the spectators beheld the holy man uplifted miraculously from the ground, as if drawn heavenwards by the fervour of his devotion. From that day the University looked upon him not merely as a genius of thought, but as a man sent of God. According to the statutes the Master must retire on the expiry of one year, and Thomas complied; but so keen was the sense of loss, that after a few months he was invited to resume his course.
Saint Louis IX, King of France, held his relative Thomas Aquinas in the highest esteem, and made him a member of his Privy Council for State Affairs. It was his wont to inform the holy Doctor the evening before of all important business to be discussed on the morrow, so that he might come prepared to tender advice. One is not surprised to find these years synchronize with the monarch’s greatest temporal glory, opening an epoch of lasting benefit to France. He excused himself as often as he could with propriety from sitting at the royal table, but whether at Council board or supper, he was as recollected as in his cell. While sitting at table one evening with the King and Queen and guests, he was observed to be quite lost in thought. Vainly the Prior plucked his sleeve to arouse him, when suddenly the goblets and platters jumped from a blow of his fist on the trencher, and the sonorous voice rang out: “The argument is clinched against the Manichees!” All the while his train of thought had been of the heresy of the new Manichees, the Vaudois, and Cathari. The Prior rebuked him for such unseemly conduct, but the gentle Louis only smiled, and bade one of his secretaries write down the argument hastily, lest it might lose its force and clearness. The King furthermore employed him and Father Vincent de Beauvais, author of “The Threefold Mirror,” in arranging the royal library of rare manuscripts. Often might the spectacle be seen of the saintly King sitting as a rapt listener, while the great Doctor, now a man of commanding stature and build, poured out his eloquence within the walls of Notre Dame, or of Saint Jacques. A fairer sight it was to behold Thomas humbly serving at Mass in the conventual church, or making the rough ways plain to novices in logic.
In the General Chapter assembled at Valenciennes during Pentecost of 1259, he sat on the Commission for Studies, together with Masters Albert, Vincent de Beauvais, Peter de Tarentaise, [Afterwards Pope Innocent V.] Buonomo, and Florence, all of them Doctors of Paris. It was their task to draw up a Norma Studiorum, or fixed programme of higher studies, to be employed in all colleges of the order; the Ordinances then prescribed may be found in the Chapter Acts. [“Reichart Acta Capitulorum Generalium,” 1898, 1. 99; cf. Denifle “Chartularium,” Paris, 1889, I. B. 385, etc., n. 335.] From thence he returned to Paris for two more years, lecturing and writing as before. In the schools his deportment and spirit reminded the listeners of the mildness and modesty of Christ; never ruffled, never heated in argument, utterly devoid of pretence or display, he kept to his childlike way of holy simplicity. Saint John Chrysostom in his “Sixty-second Homily on Saint Matthew’s Gospel,” makes this deep observation, and Saint Thomas certainly lived up to it: “The full measure of philosophy is to be simple, with prudence: such is an angelic life”. Once when he was examining a candidate for the Licentiate, the cleric hazarded a thesis savouring of unorthodoxy; Thomas gently reproved the line of argument taken, and pointed out its fatal consequences, but with rare delicacy. When blamed for not at once confuting the error, he rejoined: “I did not wish to put him to shame before such a distinguished auditory, but to-morrow I will convince him of his mistake”. Next day came the final defension in the Archbishop’s palace, when the same opinion was advanced with emboldened insolence. Then the holy Doctor calmly objected by accepting the thesis, but with pitiless logic forced the candidate to draw out his argument to its ultimate conclusions which he had to admit were heretical and untenable. The defendant saw his error, withdrew the thesis, and apologized for the offensive manner assumed. The saint then administered a correction quite after his own fashion: “Ah, now you speak sound doctrine, as a true teacher should”.
How did Saint Thomas study? What was his method in writing? We gather it from the lips of his inseparable secretary and confessor and confidant, Father Reginald of Piperno. Before studying or lecturing he prayed much, distrusting his great natural gifts: when writing or dictating he would frequently rise and stand a while before the crucifix: at times he would withdraw to the altar where the adorable Sacrament reposed, and, leaning upon the altar table, or with head pressed against the Tabernacle door, collect his thoughts as he sought for light. During the composition of his Apology for the Faith, the “Summa Contra Gentiles,” he was often seen in rapture. The Vatican Library contains among its other treasures a genuine autograph copy, on whose margins he occasionally wrote the words “Ave Maria”.
Genius is twofold: it may be the dower of rare mental parts, but more commonly it is the faculty of taking pains over work, the art of constructiveness: and Saint Thomas shone in both. He took the greatest pains in forecasting his scheme, dividing and subdividing, after which he built up each portion in a separate article. There is an old adage in the schools:
Sanctus Doctor est doctrina simul et disciplina.
(The Holy Doctor is both doctrine and discipline.)
From him the scholar can learn science and method. “He did all things well,” as was said of our Lord. Employing both methods, analytic and synthesis, his aim was to construct each work on the basis of a vast synthesis. Of course this does not hold good of his Commentaries, where the purpose is all critical and expository. Nor does it apply to the “Catena Aurea,” which is simply the stringing together of quotations from the Fathers: but even here one marvels at the acumen shown in the fitness of the passages culled from each, like a handful from a meadow.
The beauty of his writings lies in four cardinal points: Sublimity of thought, Subtilty of argument, Simplicity of style, Unction of spirit. Above all things he is logical in sequel. No one can presume to abridge him without losing the charm of his rare diction: wilfully to excise an argument, especially one which he calls “a first and more obvious one,” such as the proof of God’s existence drawn from motion, is the freedom of a pigmy towards a giant. The best model for the Christian apologist to follow is his “Sum of the Truth of Catholic Faith against the Gentiles”. His attitude towards the princes of the ancients, Plato and Aristotle, is always one of reverence: [For question of the Church’s supposed condemnation of Aristotle’s Philosophy see “Siger de Brabant,” by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P., Louvain, 1911.] towards the leaders of the Arabian school he is more hostile, since their influence threatened to undermine Christian thought: hence all his destructive weapons were brought to bear upon Avicenna (1037), Avicebron (1070), and Averroes (1198). His philosophy is Aristotelian throughout, but refined and purified by the light of revelation: with all the elevation of Plato, he does not disdain at times to use the Socratic method. A master of analysis, he furnishes us with many an example of clear thought. Take for instance his treatise on the Incarnation of our Blessed Lord, which he disposes of in fifty-nine questions: it is all resumed under four headings: Ingressus, His birth; Progressus, His mission; Regressus, His passion and death; Exaltatio, His ascension and headship.
No one need ever hope to understand Saint Thomas who is not well grounded in Scholastic Philosophy: mere knowledge of latinity will not suffice. The student must attend to the holy Doctor’s method of constructiveness, as exhibited in every article. He first submits his proposition: as for instance— “Whether Grace be a quality of the soul”. Then he opens out with arguments to the contrary, varying from two to twenty, but commonly three in number: these objections are drawn either from reason or authority, and such authority is either of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, or the Philosophers. After apparently demolishing the proposition, he opens out his own line of argument by a “Sed Contra”, or, “But on the contrary”. In the body of the article he constructs the proof by solid arguments well reasoned out: frequently he adopts the historic method, narrating the opinions of past schools of thought, and demolishing each as he proceeds: finally he lays down the conclusion as established by irrefragable argument. All this is constructive method: now he passes to the destructive. Each objection proposed at the outset is weighed, distinguished, dismissed. The Scholastic rule of debate is this: “Never admit, seldom deny, always distinguish”. All are not Thomists who read Saint Thomas: Thomism is consistency with the principles and conclusions of the Master.
Great was the consternation and grief of Paris when the newly elected Pontiff, Urban IV, summoned Saint Thomas to Rome. For four years now, from 1261 to 1265, he was a stranger to the public schools: Universities vainly petitioned for his services, but the Pope would have him close by his side. Although never made Master of the Sacred Palace, he was set over the school of select scholars, and resided with them in the Lateran Palace. Urban IV was a promoter of learning, and insisted on the staff and students following him in all his journeys and residences through Italy: thus it came about that during five years Thomas held his “prelections,” as they were termed, in Rome, Viterbo, Fondi, Orvieto, Anagni, Perugia, and Bologna, He was now a member of the papal household, a Consultor of the Holy Father, a teacher of the coming princes and bishops of the Church: at the same time he gave himself to preaching in these towns, to the great profit of souls. The uppermost thought in Urban’s mind was the reunion of East with West, since the Eastern Church was unfortunately severed by heresy and schism. The Greek Church had stood aloof for ages from the centre of unity, the Chair of Peter, in a state of stagnation as to learning and sanctity. Christ’s prayer for unity wrung the Pontiff’s soul; so he opened his mind to the Angelic Doctor. The zeal of the one and the learning of the other ought surely to accomplish our Lord’s desire: “Grant, Father, that they may be one, even as Thou and I are one” (St. John, xvii. 22). According to Saint Thomas, schism is a most grievous crime, as destroying the Church’s Unity, and setting up many folds and shepherds. Figuratively speaking, the Lord’s seamless garment is rent: with such a conviction in mind, this loyal son of the Church set himself to repair it with the silver threads of argument and the golden of charity. At the bidding of Urban IV he composed a work entitled “Against the Errors of the Greeks”. The Pope sent the book to Michael Paleologus, the eighth Emperor of Constantinople: soon it was turned into the Greek tongue, and copies multiplied, which found their way into many hands. He followed it up with another work undertaken at the request of the Precentor of Antioch: “Against the Errors of the Greeks, Armenians, and Saracens”. In this treatise he draws out in masterly fashion the Generation of the Eternal Word, the Procession of the Holy Ghost, the motive of the Incarnation, how the faithful receive the Body of Christ, Purgatory for expiation, the Beatific Vision in heaven, and lastly, how Predestination imposes no necessity on man’s free-will. Our saint did not live to see the realization of his hopes, but he sowed the good seed which resulted in the harvest garnered in at the General Council of Florence, when the decree of union was pronounced.
Quite a year went by from Saint Thomas’s coming to Rome before the Pope removed his Court to Viterbo; during this interval he interpreted Aristotle to the students in the Lateran Palace. It was in Viterbo that he completed his second Commentary on the Sacred Scriptures: its method is quite different from the first: in the latter he bases his views upon Tradition, whereas in the former he relied upon the revealed letter itself. When these are employed side by side, they form a component harmony of the written word. The one aim of his life was to pursue and to impart knowledge. Daniel d’Augusta put the question to him one day, as to what he considered to be the greatest gift he had ever received, apart from sanctifying grace: with candour of soul he replied that it was the gift of understanding all that he had ever read. To intimate friends he disclosed the secret of his marvellous wisdom, telling them that he learned more by prayer than from study. This is the prayer which he invariably made before lecturing or writing, or studying:
“Creator, beyond human utterance, Who out of Thy wisdom’s treasures didst establish three hierarchies of Angels, setting them in wonderful order to preside over the empyrean heaven, and Who hast most marvellously assorted the parts of the universe; Thou Who art called the fountain-head of life and of wisdom, and the one over-ruling principle; be pleased to shed the ray of Thy brightness over the gloom of my understanding, so as to dispel the double shadow of sin and ignorance in which I was born. Thou Who makest eloquent the tongues of babes, instruct my tongue, and shed the grace of Thy blessing upon my lips. Bestow on me keenness of wit to understand, the power of a retentive memory, method and ease of learning, subtilty for explaining, and the gift of ready speech. Teach me as I begin, direct me as I advance, complete my finished task for me, Thou Who art truly God and man, Who livest and reignest for ever and ever. Amen.”
The fortieth General Chapter of the Order met in London in the year 1263, at Pentecost. We are told that 300 brethren took part in it, in the priory which stood in Holborn, which, on the testimony of Matthew Paris, was previously “the noble residence” of the Earl of Kent. King Henry III gave them a cordial welcome, assisted at the opening ceremony, and, as the Garde-robe Accounts testify, gave a new habit to every friar present; this was by no means a superfluous gift, considering that all had come on foot, and many from remote quarters of Europe. The Chapter was presided over by the Venerable Humbert de Romans, fifth Master-General, who, after nine years of government, now laid down his office owing to infirmities. The resignation came as a surprise, and was accepted with regret, but since the Chapter was not an elective one, no more could be done than choose a Vicar-General for the ensuing year. Master Albertus Magnus was the one selected, and took up office. It was an eminent Chapter, if only from men of eminence who took part in it. Saint Thomas was there, also Blessed Albertus Magnus, Peter de Tarentaise, better known now as Blessed Innocent V, Peter de Luca, the Roman Definitor, all the Provincials of the order with their companions, the Masters from Paris, David de Ayr, the Vicar-General of Scotland, and the Vicar from Ireland, some forty definitors, and the professors from Oxford. The fact of Saint Thomas’s presence is not attested by contemporary writers, but by later ones, who set forth many authentic details of his life corroborated from other sources. This need occasion no surprise, since the scope and purpose of the first biographers was to establish the sanctity and miracles of the Angelic Doctor, as set forth by the Commissions. He would have sailed from a French port in a schaloupe, and landed at Deal, from whence a short journey would bring him to his brethren in Canterbury. From Canterbury to Rochester would form the second stage: then on the close of the third day he would be crossing Old London Bridge. There was an affinity between King Henry Plantagenet and Thomas of Aquino, although a remote one, since each sprang from the Princes of Normandy. Two main points occupy the attention of every Chapter: these are regular observance and study. During the great intellectual development of the thirteenth century, the question of the Schools was paramount; the nomination of Masters in Theology to the greater centres of teaching, the assigning of scholars who were to read in the various faculties, the enforcing or modifying of the Norma Studiorum, all these had to be discussed, and the results published. The aim of those first Dominicans, whose motto has ever been Veritas, or Truth, was not to keep abreast of the times, but to go beyond them, to lead, and progress beyond the Sentences of Peter Lombard in divinity, and glosses upon Aristotle. Most of all they sought to specialize. Thus at this very time three hundred of them were engaged under Cardinal Hugh de Saint Cher in compiling the first Biblical Concordance, while Saint Raymund of Pennafort was compiling his Five Books of Decretals, and others were establishing centres for the study of Oriental languages. Their halls in Saint Edward’s Schools at Oxford had been open now just forty years, and to these many of the disaffected scholars from Paris flocked. The condition of this General House of Studies, enjoying the privileges of a University, would certainly form a subject for protracted discussion. On the conclusion of the Chapter, Saint Thomas returned to Viterbo by way of Paris and Milan. In this latter city he prayed for some days before the tomb of his holy brother in religion, Saint Peter of Verona, the Martyr, in whose honour a magnificent shrine had just been erected over his remains in the church of the order, San Eustorgio. At the request of the pious donors, he then composed the still extant epitaph
Proeco, lucerna, pugil, Christi, populi, fideique, etc.
Saint Thomas was Poet as well as Theologian: his “Summa Theologica” is one vast epic, while his poems are all of them devout and couched in sweet flowing numbers: and right well he sang of the object dearest to his soul, Christ veiled in the Eucharist. The office composed for the festival of Corpus Christi is the rhapsody of a poet inspired by faith and devotion; that he wrote it is due to a command received by Pope Urban IV, whom he petitioned to establish a special feast to be known as Corpus Christi’s. The thought was by no means his own, for the honour falls to three holy virgins of Belgium, the Blessed Julienne, Prioress of Mont Cornillon, Eve, the recluse by Liége, and Isabel of Huy. Stirred by a vision of the saints petitioning our Lord to establish such a festival in His Church, they consulted a devout Canon of Liége, John de Lausanne, who warmly approved of their design, and wrote the original Office of the Blessed Sacrament. This good priest furthermore laid the scheme before Urban in the days when he was simply Archdeacon of Saint Lambert in Liége, as well as before the Dominican Provincial, Hugh de Saint Cher, besides consulting with Guy de Laon, Bishop of Cambrai, and three Dominican theologians, John, Giles, and Gerard. Now that the Archdeacon was seated on the throne of the Fisherman, he acceded to the prayers of these devout souls, and commissioned “his own Doctor,” as he termed him, to compose a new office for the festival of Corpus Christi. Approaching this work in the spirit of reverent criticism, one is forced to pronounce it a marvel of poetic vein, tenderest thought and sublime doctrine. Dipping his pen as it were into his very heart, he wrote as one inspired; where all is beautiful, one is particularly struck with its doctrinal accuracy. Thus, in the Antiphon for the Second Vespers, he sets forth admirably the fourfold purpose of the Eucharist.
O Sacred Banquet! wherein
(1) The Christ is received,
(2) The memory of His Passion recalled,
(3) The Soul is filled with grace, and
(4) A pledge of future glory given to us.
The language of theology is didactic, but in the sequence, the Lauda Sion Salvatorem, he sings even while he defines, like some bell-mouthed Seraph strayed from heaven. With the year 1264 closes his Noon-tide of life. The morning star’s lustre has given place to the light of the full noon.
From - Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study of the Angelic Doctor By Father Placid Conway, O.P. (1855–1913)