Saint Thomas Aquinas by Diego Velázquez
WHILE the Angelic Doctor was reading his Office for Corpus Christi before Urban IV, the Pontiff’s eyes were suffused with tears: never was guerdon better earned, so, retiring into his oratory, after a little while he came forth bearing the large silver dove containing the sacred species, and gave it as a memento. Then he charged Saint Thomas to write a luminous commentary on the Four Gospels, compiled exclusively from the writings of the Fathers. Under the title of “Catena Aurea,” or “Golden Chain,” he composed the fullest commentary ever drawn from Patristic sources, culled impartially from Eastern and Western Fathers, and for the most part written from memory. Saint Matthew’s Gospel, finished in 2264, was dedicated to the Pope, who died soon after; the other three Gospels followed, but Saint John’s was dedicated to his fellow religious, Cardinal d’Annibaldi. Directly Pope Clement IV assumed the tiara in February, 2265, he summoned Thomas to Rome. If love of truth made our saint always. to seek the quiet of retirement, the call of obedience found him ready for further work. He now put forth another argumentative treatise, begun long before in Paris, in which Arabian pantheism yielded before the power of the syllogism; its title is: “On the Unity of the Intellect, against the Averroists”. Averroes, the cultured Arabian physician, while outwardly professing to be a Christian, was an atheist at heart. Christianity he called an impossible religion, Judaism one for children, Mohammedanism one fit for hogs. The basis of his errors was this, that all men have but the one intellect, and consequently but one soul: consequently, there is no personal morality. “Peter is saved: I am one intellect and soul with Peter; so I shall be saved.” Presumably the deduction from unity of intellect with Judas was forgotten. From the appearance of Saint Thomas’s work, the philosophy of Averroes was consigned to the antiquities of the buried past.
Meanwhile the Father-General, Blessed John de Vercelli, and his brethren, were conscious of the loss to the Order in being so long deprived of the holy doctor’s services: so now, by agreement with Pope Clement, he returned to the cloister-school of Santa Sabina on the Aventine. The General Chapter held at Montpellier in 2265 assigned him to Rome, to resume teaching. “We assign Friar Thomas of Aquino to Rome, for the remission of his sins, there to take over the direction of studies. Should any students be found wanting in application, we empower him to send them back to their own convents.” He now drew up the scheme of his most memorable work, the triumph of his life, the great “Summa Theologica,” which he was not destined to complete even after nine years of labour. The very daring of the scheme, comprising the whole range of dogmatic and moral theology, fills the world with astonishment, while its intricacy of argument can be likened only to some gorgeous tapestry woven by the genius of thought. Let us hear his introductory prologue.
“Since the teacher of Catholic truth ought to instruct not merely the advanced, but it falls to him likewise to teach beginners, according to the saying of the Apostle in 1 Corinthians III. 1: ‘As unto little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, and not meat’; the purpose of our intent in this work is to treat of the matters of the Christian religion in such a way as to adapt them to the instruction of beginners.
“Now we have observed that novices in such learning are very much hindered by the writings of some individuals; partly from the multiplying of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly again because the themes to be learnt are not dealt with in their proper order, but just as the explanation of text-books called for, or as occasion for discussion arose; and, finally, in part because the constant repetition of the same matter begot weariness and confusion in the minds of the listeners.
“Endeavouring then to avoid these and similar drawbacks, and confiding in the Divine assistance, we shall endeavour to traverse briefly and clearly all the matters of sacred doctrine, according as the matter in hand shall permit.”
Drawing exhaustively upon theological founts, he brings in Philosophy simply as a handmaid, to confirm from Reason the teachings of Revelation. This Sum of Theology is the most perfect body of truth, the fullest exposition of theological lore ever given to the Church. When one calls to mind the frequent interruptions from daily lectures, frequent preaching and journeys afoot, the marvel is that it ever neared completion. The First Part treats of God and Creation. In rigid sequel the treatises deal with God’s Existence, Unity, Attributes, and Trinity. Creation comprises God’s creative action, the Hexameron or work of the six days, the Angels, and lastly Man. All this is set forth in 119 Questions, or divisions, subdivided into 584 articles, making one great folio. The Second Part is subdivided into two divisions known as the First of the Second and Second of the Second, yielding two more folios. The former deals with the End of man, which is the Vision of God; with Morality, Passions, Sin, Theological and Moral Virtues, Gifts of the Spirit, Law, and Grace. It comprises 114 Questions, containing 619 articles. Whereas this Part deals with the subject matter under common consideration, the Second of the Second goes over the same ground in detail, under particular consideration, ending with the states of bishops and religious. This occupies 289 Questions, with 916 articles. The Third Part treats of Redemption through Christ: the chief treatises are the Incarnation, the Life of Christ, thus forming a perfect Christology; the Sacraments as sources of grace applying the fruits of Redemption, then in detail— Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, and Penance. When mid-way through the treatise on Penance, the pen was laid down to be resumed no more. With his own hand he wrote ninety Questions, containing 539 articles. The rest of the Part is all his, but compiled by another hand: it is drawn from his Commentary on the Fourth Book of the Sentences: this supplement contains ninety-nine more Questions distributed into 442 articles; making the Third Part complete under 289 Questions, with 981 articles. This vast arsenal of Catholic Doctrine has altogether 497 Questions, subdivided into 2481 articles. The First Part, written in Rome, occupied him during two years; the Second Part was written in Bologna and Paris, the fruit of five years’ toil; the Third Part was compiled in Naples. Small wonder then that the words of a Pope are inserted as an antiphon in his festival office:
As a river of limpid knowledge
He irrigates the entire Holy Church.
Ten years had elapsed since the attack was made on the Mendicant Orders by William de Saint Amour, who was forced to retire apparently a broken man. Once more he returned to the fray with a more plausible work, which the Pope handed over to the Master General for Saint Thomas to confute. In 1268 appeared the Apology for the Religious Orders, entitled “Against those who would withdraw others from entering the Religious State”. He wrote this Apology for a purpose, and he attained it: the purpose was to combat prejudice against youth seeking the state of perfection. Presently he added another treatise, “On the perfection of the Spiritual Life,” to show wherein Christian perfection lies essentially, and by what means it may be attained.
All perfection consists essentially in Divine Love. “God is Charity,” hence, since human perfection comes of progressive likeness to God, it follows that it comes of the infusion and exercise of Charity. It is the one abiding gift which never falls away. The Moral Virtues give fitness for the life of blessedness in heaven: Faith and Hope pass into Vision and Embrace, but Charity alone endures. The charity of creatures comprises four degrees, as the ascending scale to the Holiest Himself. There is the love of the Angels, whose choirs attain their zenith in the blessed Seraphim. The sons of light are the sons of fire. “Thou makest thine Angels spirits, and thy ministers a flame of fire” (Psalm cxxi. 4). Next in order comes the love of the Blessed, ever actually engrossed in the thought of God, who can never turn their faces away: with them their love is their life, and the outcome of their degree of charity when on earth. But, as Saint Thomas teaches, love such as this is beyond man’s earthly powers. “It is not given to man upon earth to think actually of God at all times, ever actually to love Him.” The remaining degrees concern us men in our state of pilgrimage below. The charity of earth is twofold: the higher is that of such as embrace and keep the Gospel counsels of perfection, by professing voluntary Poverty, perpetual Chastity, entire Obedience. All are in the state of perfection who thus follow the Master out of love. The lowest rank is of such as are only called to, and are content with, what is of precept, the simple keeping of the Commandments. Thus the Religious State is one of perfection, but actual perfection is the heroism of fulfilment, the bloodless martyrdom of charity.
In Rome during the whole Lent of 1267 our Saint preached in the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica: taking Christ’s Passion for his theme, he spoke so strongly against public vices that a change of morals was observable on all sides. During the Good Friday sermon he wept aloud, so as to move the whole audience to tears: on the Easter Day and during the Octave he made them all to thrill with joy and hope. As he was passing out through the porch, a woman long afflicted with a flow of blood came behind him, kissed his cloak, and was instantly cured. A remarkable Jewish conversion made in the previous winter stirred the hearts of the Romans. Cardinal d’Annibaldi having secured Thomas for a few days’ visit to his country residence at Molara, invited two Rabbis to meet him, to enjoy his rare gift of conversation. Polite speech soon grew to argument between the well-measured opponents, regarding the Messiah, for it was Christmas Eve. The Rabbis pleaded their cause with learning and earnestness, but all that they could advance was met by clear proofs to the contrary, put before them with all meekness and sincerity. They were so tenacious of their convictions, however, that all he said produced no immediate results: yet at the same time they were so captivated by his manner, that they promised to repeat the visit on the morrow. That night of the Christmas mystery Thomas spent before the new and abiding Bethlehem, “the home of bread,” on the altar: where argument failed, prayer prevailed, and on Christmas Day he received them into the Christian fold.
The holy Doctor acknowledged to friends, that, on every Christmas night, he obtained some special favour from God, some vision, or deeper insight into the glories of Christ. His exquisitely tender devotion towards our Lord stands revealed in this prayer
“Most tender Jesus, may Thy most sacred Body and Blood be my soul’s sweetness and delight, health and holiness in every temptation, joy and peace in every sorrow, light and strength in every word and work, and my last safeguard in death.”
Saint Thomas was now held in universal esteem as an oracle sent of God: halls and churches were taxed to their utmost capacity to contain his eager auditory, and those listeners were no mere youths, but Doctors of the schools, Bishops and even Cardinals. He had such mastery over mind and senses that he dictated to four secretaries at the one time on widely different subjects, and was known to dictate still while fast asleep. Such is the testimony of two such secretaries, Reginald of Piperno and Hervey Brito. So capacious was his memory, that he never forgot what he had once read. One evening while dictating the treatise on the Holy Trinity, he held the candle so as to assist the scribe: soon he became so lost in sublime thought that he let the candle burn out in his fingers, without being conscious of the pain.
At Pentecost of the year 1267 he took part in the General Chapter of Bologna, and witnessed the solemn translation of Saint Dominic’s relics: it was on this occasion that the Pope sent him a Brief requiring him to choose and send two friars to assist the Bishop of Narenta in Dalmatia. The University prayed the Chapter to leave him in Bologna, so he accepted a chair in the public schools. It was a joy for him to live in the home wherein Saint Dominic died: many were the nights he spent in prayer before the Holy Father’s tomb. It is an interesting fact that he composed the questions on Beatitude and the Beatific Vision in this hallowed spot. Out of consideration for his merits, two new foundations were bestowed upon the order. Archbishop Patricio Matteo gave Saint Paul’s church in Salerno, with its houses and gardens, “to his friend and former master, Thomas of Aquino”. Abbot Bernard of Monte Cassino, in a Synod of the clergy within his jurisdiction, made over a similar establishment in the town of San Germano.
In 1268 the house of Aquino was restored in its honours and estates, whereat the man of God adored heaven’s judgments and designs, even while he poured out thanks. At the request of the Master General he composed a short work on “The Form of Absolution”: for the King of Sicily he wrote the first two books of the treatise “On the Government of Princes,” but the third and fourth are by some other pen.
Summoned to attend the General Chapter in Paris in the year 1269, at the voice of authority he remained there as Regent of Studies. The world of letters might come to him, if it so listed, but he would not go out to it, being pre-occupied with the moral section of his “Summa”. He continued on terms of holy intimacy with Saint Louis IX, until that Preux Chevalier sailed for the Holy Land in 1270. During his two years’ residence in Paris he published these works: “On the Soul”; on “Potentia”; “On the Union of the Word”; “On Spiritual Creatures”; “On the Virtues”; “On Evil”.
One day he accompanied the novices to the abbey church of Saint Denys, which was the burial place of the Kings of France; there they sat a while to rest upon a hillock, and surveyed the city stretched before them. Hoping to hear some words of wisdom, one of the party observed: “Master, see what a splendid city Paris is; would you not care to be its lord?” Thomas gazed for a moment, then replied: “I would rather have Saint Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew’s Gospel. What could I possibly do with such a city?” “Well Father,” rejoined the novice, “you might sell it to the King of France, and build convents for the Friars Preachers in many a place.” “In good sooth,” said the saint, “I should prefer the Homilies. If I had the government of this city, it would bring me many cares: I could no longer give myself to Divine contemplation, besides depriving myself of spiritual consolations. Experience truly shows this, that the more a man abandons himself to the care and love of temporal things, the more he exposes himself to lose heavenly blessings.” “O happy Doctor,” exclaims Tocco, “despiser of the world! O lover of heaven! who carried out in conduct what he taught in words, who thus despised earthly things, as if he had already caught a glimpse of the heaven he was looking forward to possess.”
A man’s character can be accurately measured by his friendships. While bearing himself affably towards all, the Angelic Doctor had but few intimacies, and these were with persons of singular holiness. Now since friendship is based on resemblance, and results in equality and expansiveness, one is not surprised to find that his great heart opened to the learned, many of whom are enrolled with him in the catalogue of the Blessed.
He kept perfect control over his emotional and sensitive faculties. When the rude surgery of the time required that he should be bled, and once when it was deemed necessary to cauterize his knee with a hot iron, he put himself into a state of contemplation, and felt nothing whatever of the operation. When preaching, he stood firm and erect, the clasped hands resting on the pulpit, the eyes closed, the head upturned and thrown somewhat backwards. At table he often sat lost in thought, with open eyes gazing upwards; it was the same in the garden, the cloister, the cell. He frequently gave this injunction to Reginald, his chief secretary: “Whatever you see happen in me, do not interrupt me”. It was in 1270 he completed his Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistles, during the composition of which he was favoured with the visible appearance of the Apostle, who came to his assistance in expounding the more abstruse passages.
Recalled to Rome in 1271, he finished the second section of the Second Part of his “Summa” in the peaceful priory on the Aventine hill, and began the Third Part. His time was now devoted to this work, to daily lectures, and to writing a Commentary on Boetius.
Saint Thomas possessed a master mind ranging over the whole domain of Philosophy: after seven centuries he is abreast of our times in science, while not a few of our latter-day “discoveries” may be read in his pages. The twentieth century has gone back to him for its epistemology, or science of doctrine, to his canon of “Nihil in intellectu quin priusfuerit in sensu”. With him, ethics is no dry digest of “agibilia,” it is the most practical of the sciences, for it is the shaping of human conduct. The political and social economist must consult him for sound economics, as Pope Leo XIII did in his Encyclical “Rerum Novarum”; there in many an eloquent passage he will find as the basis of social economy man’s fundamental right of ownership, while the determination falls to the State. In Psychology this sage holds firm for the real distinction between soul and faculties, and between the faculties themselves; feeling is largely identified with will, but he is no patron of Rosminian consciousness as being the soul’s nature. It is to Saint Thomas we go for the sound philosophical principles of rational physics. His exposition of cosmology, given in the treatise on Creation, which is contained in the First Part of the “Summa Theologica,” is out and out more scientific than all theories of atomism, chemical forces of dynamism, or pretended affinities of later days. He is a creationist, and holds to matter and form as the substantialities of things. Primary matter is the subject of all the substantial transformations of the corporeal universe. Substantial form is the likeness of a Divine idea, which, being expressed in matter, constitutes it in a determined substance: as a consequence, the degrees of beings depend on the perfection of forms.
Nature is the first principle of motion and of rest. All primitive substantial forms as well as primary matter must come of creation: his teaching shows the impossibility of our modern biogenesis. The variation of gravity he explains not by addition or subtraction of extraneous particles, but by matter itself becoming rare or dense; hence heaviness is a result of density. He was well acquainted with ether, admitting as he does of an ethereal and most subtle bodily substance everywhere diffused in the interplanetary spaces, as the vehicle and subject of the reciprocal operations of the stars and planets. Such is the explanation of the diffusion of light and heat, in agreement with experience. Ages before Melloni he said: “All light is productive of heat, even the light of the Moon”. Those who talk of sex in plants as a modern discovery had better read his “Commentary on the Third Book of ‘Sentences’”. “In the same plant there is the twofold virtue, active and passive, though sometimes the active is found in one, and the passive in another, so that the one plant is said to be masculine, and the other feminine.” [III, “Sent.,” Dist. III, Quest. II, art. 1.] He was well acquainted with seminal causes, the laws of qualities, attraction, mechanical activity, and inertia of bodies: in the matter of chemistry there is no substantial discrepancy between his teaching and the true principles of modern science as to substantial transformation.
From - Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study of the Angelic Doctor By Father Placid Conway, O.P. (1855–1913)