January 28 – Thomas Aquinas

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Thomas Aquinas, Christian thinker

Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest philosophers and theologians in the history of the Church. Born around the year 1225, he lived at a critical juncture in the flowering of Christian life and theology.

At the age of five, he was admitted into the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino where his studies began. Diligent in study, his teachers quickly noticed his meditative disposition and devotion to prayer. Indeed, even at this tender age, he would frequently ask his teachers “What is God?”

In his adolescence, he was transferred by his family to the University of Naples where he come into contact with the fledgling new religious movement of friars who combined the contemplative life of the monks with the active life of teachers and pastors. In particular, he was drawn to the life of the Order of Preachers, an order of friars recently established by St. Dominic. Over the protests of his family, he decided to commit himself to a life of prayer, study, preaching and teaching in the Order of St. Dominic.

His formation and study in the Order saw him come under the tutelage of St. Albert the Great whose interest in the re-emergence of the philosophy of Aristotle in the Latin West quickly rubbed off on his student. In these classes, Thomas’ humble silence was misinterpreted as dullness so much so that he was called the “dumb ox”. Albert, however, could see the genius of his student and proclaimed that one day the entire world will hear the bellowing of his teaching.

Having achieved his bachelors and raised to the priesthood, Aquinas began his tireless work of prayer, preaching, teaching and writing. Appointed to the Dominican house in Paris, Aquinas would twice occupy the chair of theology at the most prestigious of medieval universities, the University of Paris. Indeed, the university system itself as well as the friars movement were Church responses to the increased urbanisation of medieval Europe where more and more people sought a living in the merchant trade of the cities. During his teaching career, Aquinas became great friends with a shining light of the recently founded Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure. Though they would have their academic differences, the two remained life-long friends.

Thomas’ writings over the course of his life were prodigious. Though he lived less than fifty years, he composed more than sixty works on Sacred Scripture, theology, ethics, politics, catechesis and spirituality. His greatest was the Summa Theologiae or ‘summary of theology’ wherein he treated of salvation history as the great unfolding of God’s truth and love in creation and its return through the grace of redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.

However, following a sublime mystical encounter in prayer, Thomas could see that human words were incapable of grasping the greatness of the truth, beauty and goodness of God. One must ultimately fall silent before the majesty of the divine. He put his pen down, the Summa remained unfinished and God called him to Himself a year later in 1274.

Brother Thomas Azzi