Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Today is the traditional feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, who died on this day in the year 1274 at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, while traveling to attend the Second General Council of Lyons. (Thomas was born at the castle of Roccasecca in 1225; one of my Latin teachers was fond of pointing out that Thomas was born on Dry Rock, and died in New Ditch.) On the General Calendar of the Ordinary Form, his feast was moved to January 28, the day on which his relics were translated to the French city of Toulouse, the cradle of the Order of Friars Preachers. Some places, however, still keep the feast on the older day even in the new rite, one of them being the Dominicans’ Roman University, officially named for St. Thomas, but commonly called the Angelicum, as he is commonly called the Angelic Doctor.
The Vision of Saint Thomas, by Santi di Tito; in the church of San Marco, one of the two Dominican churches in Florence.
We are also in the middle of the 3rd week of Lent, a season in which the Dominican Use brings forth some its best treasures for the singing of the Hour of Compline. (Like many medieval Uses, Dominican Compline is far more variable than that of the traditional Roman Use, often changing the antiphon of the psalms, the hymn, and the antiphon of the Nunc dimittis.) The most famous of these is certainly the Media vita, a piece which will always be associated with the Angelic Doctor, whose biographers note that he would always weep copiously when it was sung. Although written as a responsory, with verses and the repetition of the second part of the beginning, it was sung in many uses as an antiphon for the Nunc dimittis. As Father Thompson has noted previously, the Media vita may now be used by the Dominicans as a responsory, rather than as an antiphon, and it is thus that we can hear it sung by the Dominican students at Blackfriars.

R. In the midst of life, we are in death; whom shall we seek to help us, but Thee, o Lord, who for our sins art justly wroth? Holy God, holy mighty one, holy and merciful Savior, hand us not over to bitter death. V. Cast us not away in the time of our old age, when our strength shall fail, forsake us not, o Lord. Holy God, holy mighty one etc.
The Use of Sarum appointed Media vita to be sung at the same time as the Dominicans, during the third and fourth weeks of Lent, but with more verses, and the division of the refrain as follows:
Ant. In the midst of life, we are in death; whom shall we seek to help us, but Thee, o Lord, who for our sins art justly wroth? Holy God, holy mighty one, holy and merciful Savior, hand us not over to bitter death.
V. Cast us not way in the time of our old age, when our strength shall fail, forsake us not, o Lord. Holy God.
V. Close not Thy ears to our prayers. Holy mighty one.
V. Who knowest the secrets of the heart, show mercy to our sins. Holy and merciful Savior, hand us not over to bitter death.
Many composers have put their hand to this text; one of the finest versions of it is the setting by the Franco-flemish composer Nicolas Gombert. (1495-1560 ca.)

St. Thomas’ great contribution to the liturgy of the Church is of course the Office of the Feast of Corpus Christi, which he composed at the behest of Pope Urban IV in 1264, when the feast was formally promulgated by the Pope for the entire Latin Church. If I may indulge in a personal reminiscence: although I am normally pretty averse to large crowds, on June 2, 2010, the day before Corpus Christi of that year, I decided to attend the Pope’s general audience for the first time in quite a while, for no particular reason that I can recall. I knew that the Pope was in the midst of his series of audiences on great theologians and other important figures in the history of the church, but I did not know when I went to the audience that he had reached the thirteenth-century, and would be talking about St. Thomas. I was joyfully surprised when I realized whom he was talking about, not only for the sake of the topic, but also because my father, who had passed away the previous December, was born on St. Thomas’ day, and given his name in baptism for that reason. Pope Benedict spoke like the kind of professor whose lectures people remember 20 years after they graduate, learned and passionate about his subject, and eager to share that passion with his listeners. The most beautiful moment, though, was at the end, when the Pope told the following story.
The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!”
As he delivered these words, Pope Benedict himself seemed moved to tears. Given recent events, I now wonder whether His Holiness was perhaps also thinking of the end of St. Thomas’ life, which he recounted thus, (in the paragraph preceding the one cited above.)
The last months of Thomas’ earthly life remain surrounded by a particular, I would say, mysterious atmosphere. In December 1273, he summoned his friend and secretary Reginald to inform him of his decision to discontinue all work because he had realized, during the celebration of Mass subsequent to a supernatural revelation, that everything he had written until then “was worthless”. This is a mysterious episode that helps us to understand not only Thomas’ personal humility, but also the fact that, however lofty and pure it may be, all we manage to think and say about the faith is infinitely exceeded by God's greatness and beauty which will be fully revealed to us in Heaven. A few months later, more and more absorbed in thoughtful meditation, Thomas died while on his way to Lyons to take part in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X … after receiving the Viaticum with deeply devout sentiments.
In his book “St. Thomas Aquinas”, Jean-Pierre Torrell O.P. writes that Thomas was particularly moved by the versicle of the Media vita, “Cast us not way in the time of our old age, when our strength shall fail, forsake us not, o Lord.”