Friday, March 06, 2020

A Mystic Who Shed Tears During Mass: Revising Our Image of St. Thomas Aquinas

On March 7th, we observe the dies natalis of St. Thomas Aquinas, the day on which he passed from this mortal life to immortal glory, and, for that reason, the traditional date of his liturgical feast. In a biographical sketch, Fr. Simon Tugwell notes the following:
Thomas’ deep devotion to the Mass emerges clearly from all our sources. Sometimes he evidently became deeply absorbed in it and was profoundly moved by it. Toward the end of his life he sometimes became so absorbed that he just stopped and had to be roused by the brethren to continue with the celebration. [1]
The contemporaries of this often silent Dominican friar testified far more often about his tears at Mass, his vigilant prayer and virginal purity, than of his disputations and publications. As one of his early biographers, William of Tocco, writes:
He was especially devoted to the most holy Sacrament of the Altar; since it had been granted him to write so profoundly of this, he was likewise given grace to celebrate it all the more devoutly. . . . During Mass he often would be seized by such strong feelings of devotion that he dissolved in tears, because he was absorbed in the holy mysteries of the great sacrament and invigorated by its offerings. [2] 
The narrative related by Tugwell gains all the more plausibility when we consider the well-documented lives of more recent saints — Philip Neri, Ignatius of Loyola, Padre Pio — for whom the action of offering the Mass was such an overwhelming experience that a server or assistant had to nudge them back on track, otherwise the Mass would never end.

Throughout his life, which ended before he was 50 years of age, St. Thomas was given to taste by experience the mysteries of God, of Christ and the Church, that he pondered and wrote about with such astonishing energy and penetration. Contrary to the popular picture of Aquinas as an abstract professor, the actual hagiographical accounts left by people who knew him or could report stories from those who knew him tell us about a man who always made time to help others with their questions, who always put himself at the disposal of the Church and of his own Order of Preachers, who dealt swiftly and capably with family difficulties. Even his university teaching constantly involved an extasis caritatis, a going out of himself in charity, as he unstintingly handed over to others the fruits of his own contemplation, and as he composed apologetic and pedagogical works with a vigorous competence seldom seen in the human race. We know for a fact that he would compose multiple works at once, dictating to several secretaries in sequence. His was a soul on fire, never resting so long as the Word was to be pondered, preached, taught.

St. Thomas is temperamentally scientific but his doctrine and life are purely mystical. [3] It is fitting to recall a curious “contradiction” that has drawn the attention of all of his biographers. There is perhaps no theologian as famed for sobriety and dispassionate reasoning as Thomas, whom one finds throughout his life, at Paris, Orvieto, Rome, or Naples, busy lecturing, disputing, preaching, dictating. At the height of his work on the Summa theologiae, in the midst of a swirl of events in the Church and in the world, he is calmly commenting line by line on the Philosopher’s De generatione et corruptione, a treatise on different kinds of natural change, primarily changes in substance. Yet in response to the anxious questioning of Countess Theodora near the end of her brother’s life, his socius Reginald could only say: “The Master is often borne away in spirit when absorbed in contemplation, but never have I seen him estranged from his senses for as long as today.” [4]

In spite of how busy he must have been to have written such mighty works in so short a time, we find him described as miro modo contemplativus, “wondrously contemplative.” Nor did this make him an ivory-tower intellectual, cut off from his neighbors, for he readily helped hierarchs of the Church, brother Dominicans, blood-relatives and other laypeople, and vigorously engaged the pressing issues of his day. [5] The “Dumb Ox” took an interest in the biology of animals, because they are God’s gifts to mankind, to aid his life and enrich his wonder; the Angelic Doctor mounted upwards like the Seraphim, who are “named from the burning of charity” (nominata ab incendio caritatis)  —  such gifts only intensifying his desire for their Giver. [6] In the character of Thomas, the world-embracing wonder of Aristotle and the mystical eros of Dionysius are not opposed, they are contained in each other.

Pondering these well-known facts of the life and work of the Angelic Doctor, Etienne Gilson rightly concludes:
If we want to recapture the true meaning of Thomism we have to go beyond the tightly-woven fabric of its philosophical doctrines into its soul or spirit. What lies back of the ideas is a deep religious life, the interior warmth of a soul in search of God. ... The burning desire of God which in a John of the Cross overflows into lyric poems is here transcribed into the language of pure ideas. Their impersonal formulation must not make us forget that they are nourished on the desire for God and that their end is the satisfaction of this desire. … Only a complete giving of himself can explain his mastery of expression and organization of philosophic ideas. Thus his Summa Theologiae with its abstract clarity, its impersonal transparency, crystallizes before our very eyes and for all eternity his interior life. … Only that will to understand [reality], shared between ourselves and St. Thomas the philosopher, will serve to make us see that this tremendous work is but the outward glow of an invisible fire, and that there is to be found behind the order of its ideas that powerful impulse which gathered them together. [7]
It is as if Gilson would say that there is no “secret life” of Thomas beneath the writings, no esoteric mysticism cordoned off from the public products of reasoning. His total dedication to the truth of creation and of revelation, in which he submerged his ego into nothingness and aspired to maximal lucidity and cogency, shows a soul ravaged out of itself into God.

Thomas’s submission, at the end of his life, of all of his teachings on the sacraments to the authority of the Roman Church is the act of a teacher par excellence: in humble deference to the heavenly Teacher, he places himself at the disposal of a Truth that is neither his handiwork nor his possession. He is and always was its servant, never its master. Thus he provides to worshipers, choirmasters, liturgists, rubricians, masters of ceremonies, clergy — indeed, to all of us — a perfect model of disponibilité: the capacity to give of oneself for the sake of others, and ultimately, for the sake of Him who gave Himself for us. “Christ died for all: that they also who live may not now live to themselves, but unto him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15).

A recent icon of St Thomas Aquinas
(from the Byzantine chapel in Gaming, Austria)

[1] Simon Tugwell, Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1988), 264.

[2] See Thomae Aquinatis vitae fontes praecipue, ed. Angelico Ferrua, O.P. (Alba: Edizioni Domenicane, 1968), n. 30, p. 73.

[3] It is necessary to recover an authentic and profound understanding of “mysticism” and “mystical theology,” in view of their distortion by conventional “spiritual theology” and, more recently, their dismantling by arrogant reductionisms (psychoanalysis, cultural history, feminism, etc.). For two brilliant contributions towards this recovery, see Louis Bouyer’s The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism (1989) and Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God: Negativity in the Christian Tradition (1998).

[4] “Frequenter Magister in spiritu rapitur, cum aliqua contemplatur, sed nunquam tanto tempore sicut nunc uidi ipsum sic a sensibus alienatum” (Ystoria sancti Thome de Aquino de Guillaume de Tocco §47, quoted in Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal [CUA Press, 1996], 289). The legendary abstractio mentis of Thomas is not the mark of an absent-minded academic; it is the mark of one whom his contemporaries referred to as homo magnae contemplationis et orationis (Processus canonizationis S. Thomae, Neapoli §40, in Fontes fasc. 4, p. 317, quoted in Torrell, Thomas Aquinas, 284, n. 81; see 283–95).

[5] See Torrell, Thomas Aquinas, 141; Pieper’s biography is also good on this point, and Gilby (Blackfriars Summa, vol. I, Appendix 4, p. 54, opening paragraph). In “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Profession of Arms” (Mediaeval Studies 50 [1988]: 404–47), Edward Synan discusses Thomas’s views on social and military issues of his day.

[6] On the material creation as a gift of divine amor amicitiae, see ST I.20.2 ad 3; the phrase regarding the Seraphim is from Sent. II.6.1.5, notitiae.

[7] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas (1924), trans. Laurence K. Shook, CSB (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 375–76.

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