Monday, December 05, 2022

Devotion to St. Nicholas among the Dominicans and in the Life of St. Thomas Aquinas

Fra Angelico: detail of St. Thomas among the saints
Last year in my article “St. Nicholas, Beloved Bishop and Wonderworker,” I offered a brief sketch of the life and influence of St. Nicholas of Myra. This year, in honor of his feast, I will collate and comment on the appearances of St. Nicholas in the writings of St. Thomas.

Early Dominican history displays a more than passing connection with the cultus of St. Nicholas. Two illustrations may be given. The Order’s second and permanent priory in Bologna was located at the church of San Nicolò delle Vigne, where the Basilica di San Domenico now stands, enshrining the relics of the Order’s founder. It was in this church that Diana d’Andalo, through whose good offices the property at the vineyards had been donated to the Friars, made her profession, at the high altar of St. Nicholas. [1]

When Dominic decided shortly thereafter to go ahead with the founding of a convent of nuns in Bologna, he entrusted the affair to four brethren, one of whom was Master Paul of Hungary. A lecturer in canon law who later established a missionary province of the Order in Hungary, Paul wrote a manual for confessors, the Summa de penitentia, which he expressly dedicated ad honorem Dei sanctique Nicholai. [2] The evidence suggests that Dominicans, like everyone else, held St. Nicholas in high regard.

One may reasonably assume that St. Thomas would have celebrated his feast and called upon his intercession with that habitual fervor of spirit to which all the early witnesses testify. It would not matter which liturgical books Thomas was accustomed to reading, as there was no missal or breviary that lacked prayers and propers for the feast of St. Nicholas. The Dominican Missal, definitively established by Bd. Humbert of Romans in 1255/56 and papally approved in 1267, mandates, as do Western rites in general, the celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. The Epistle and Gospel appointed for the day are the same in the Dominican Missal as in the Missale Romanum: Hebrews 13,7-17 and Matthew 25,14-23. [3]

The Charity of St Nicholas by G. Macchietti, 1570

Mentions of St. Nicholas in the works of Aquinas

1. Summa theologiae, II-II. A touching remark comes in a discussion of whether a benefactor is permitted to hide his benefaction, even though doing so will make it impossible for the recipient to show his gratitude, and hence leave him no choice, as it seems, but to be ungrateful. Thomas responds to the objection:
He that is unaware of a favor conferred on him is not ungrateful if he fails to repay it, as long as he is ready to repay it should he come to know it. Nevertheless, it is sometimes praiseworthy that the recipient of a favor should remain in ignorance of it, both in order to avoid vainglory, as when blessed Nicholas threw gold into a house secretly, wishing to avoid human applause; and because the favor is all the more ample when the benefactor takes into account the shame of him who receives the favor. [4]
2. Conferences on the Angelic Salutation. Thomas has in mind the same deed of almsgiving when he notes that the Mother of God
exercised the works of all the virtues, whereas the saints were conspicuous in the exercise of specific virtues: one was especially humble, another chaste, another merciful, and so in them is given a model of that specific virtue, as for instance blessed Nicholas as a model of mercy. [5]

3. Commentary on John. Meditating on the mystery of predestination in his comments on John 5:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him,” Thomas underlines that all blessings we receive originate simply in God’s will. To illustrate the point, he mentions three saints and their God-given roles:

The reason why in His Church he made some apostles, some confessors, and others martyrs, is for the beauty and completion of the Church. But why He made Peter an apostle, Stephen a martyr, and Nicholas a confessor, there is no reason other than His will. In this way is laid bare the weakness of our human powers and the assistance granted us by divine help.[6]

4. Commentary on the Sentences. The most astonishing instance of God’s help aiding our weakness is baptism, which transforms a child of wrath into an adopted child of the Father. At one point in the Scriptum super Sententiis, Thomas, using the Greek baptismal formula as an objection against the Latin, has to think up a sample name for his argument. “The Greeks have this form of baptizing: ‘The servant of Christ, Nicholas, is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’” [7]

The hypothetical name is not mentioned again in the context; one may wonder why it occurred to Thomas to choose it in the first place. He might, of course, have read the example in another text and just reproduced it without further thought. But if it was his own choice, the possibilities are more intriguing. Did he associate the name in a special way with the Greeks, the Eastern Church? Did he have a reason for associating this Christian name with the sacrament of baptism? Could it simply be that he had St. Nicholas in the back of his mind, or in his heart, and so the name emerged spontaneously when he reached for an example?

5. Commentary on First Timothy. On the passage where the Apostle is exhorting Timothy to cherish the grace of his calling (1 Tim. 4:14), Thomas comments that “in the primitive Church, where elections [of bishops] took place for God’s sake and without corruption, no one was drawn up to the episcopal rank except by a divine election, as Ambrose and Nicholas were elected.” [8]

The story of the miraculous elevation of Nicholas was widely known, though tellings differ in matters of detail. The elderly bishop of Myra had died, and no one could agree on who the new bishop should be. Several priests had the same dream: they were to select as bishop the first man who walked through the cathedral doors for morning prayer the next day. This man turned out to be Nicholas, already a priest, but still young and a stranger in Myra. He was more than a little surprised when informed of his impending consecration, and though he resisted at first, he recognized in the dreams a divine decision, and submitted.

6. Commentary on Hebrews. Thomas alludes to the same incident in support of his contention that God may be trusted to single out worthy candidates.

It is contrary to nature that something lead itself to a state higher than its own nature, just as air does not make itself fire, but this is done by something higher than it. Hence, he does not have the discipline of God who takes to himself any honor by way of favor, money, or power. “In our strength we have taken up our horns” (Amos 6:14); “They have reigned, but not from me” (Hos. 8:4). He ought rather to be called by God, as was Aaron: “Take unto thee Aaron” (Ex. 28:1). And therefore the Lord confirmed Aaron’s priesthood by the rod which blossomed, as is clear from Numbers 17:5. Such therefore ought to be taken up [into the priesthood or episcopate], who do not thrust themselves forward. Whence in former times such men were pointed out by a visible sign, as occurred with blessed Nicholas and many others.[9]

7. Sermon for the Feast of St. Nicholas. Far outstripping the foregoing examples in length and detail, we find, among those rare echoes transmitted to us of Master Thomas the university preacher, an entire sermon devoted to the praise of St. Nicholas (a translation of this sermon in its entirety may be found here or here).

An offhand reference to the crowded “Little Bridge” over the Seine places the sermon in Paris. Thomas is likely to have preached it there during his second period as Regent Master — that is, on the sixth of December in 1269, 1270, or 1271 [10]—before returning to Naples where he was to suffer a shattering ecstasy on the same date in 1273.

The fact that Nicholas, though beloved to all, was invoked also as a special patron of scholars suggests an added importance his feastday may have enjoyed in Paris. It bears noting, too, that many of Thomas’s students, the “cream of the crop” among clerics, were destined for high office in the Church, often episcopal honors. This would make the example of the holy Bishop of Myra all the more relevant to a Parisian audience — a point not lost on Thomas, who, using the second person singular, forcefully warns his listeners:

If you are doing good in order to get prebends, you are serving yourself, not God. A good bishop ought not to be like these sorts of people, but rather he ought to be upright [innocens] in his own person, devout before God, merciful to his neighbor, faithful in all things in respect to everyone.

St Nicholas consecrated bishop: medieval reredos in Burgos

The Sermon for St. Nicholas: Inueni Dauid

The sermon is structured around two verses applied to sainted bishops and therefore regularly preached upon: “I have discovered David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him” (Ps. 88, 21–22).

Many Parisian preachers took this text for their sermons in honor of Nicholas on December 6. With the aid of Johannes Baptist Schneyer’s Repertorium, [11] a fair number can be identified, with the probable year of delivery stated when known: Guidardus de Laon (Master and canon at Paris, cancellarius in 1236) between 1226 and 1229, [12] Jacobus de Vitry, [13] Nicholaus de Aquaevilla, [14] Odo de Châteauroux (Paris Master) in 1228, [15] Petrus Aureoli (Paris Master) between 1318 and 1320. [16]

The text is particularly well-suited for the feast of St. Nicholas, since his relics were known to exude a sweet-smelling oil possessed of healing power, a fact to which Thomas refers near the end of his sermon. After his introductory remarks (among which we find the statement: “we are not able to scrutinize these wonders that God accomplishes in his saints unless he who searches the mind and heart should instruct us”), the Angelic Doctor divides his sermon into four parts, the “four commendable things about this holy bishop: first, his wondrous election; second, his singular consecration; third, his effective execution of office; and fourth, his unshakable and steadfast stability.”

One cannot do justice to this admirable sermon without going through it line by line, but for our purposes it will be enough to consider a few lines that, while paying homage to the saint of the day, make transparent the hidden, interior life of the preacher who was soon to join him in heaven. The Lord, says Thomas, discovers in Nicholas “something very rare, namely, virtue in the prime of his youth”; “he was not subject to vanity” and had “preserved his holiness from childhood . . . Fish and fruit in season are very much desired; so, too, very desirable to God is the man who carries the Lord’s yoke from his youth.” The preacher asks: “What does the Lord seek?,” and answers:

Surely, he seeks a faithful soul, hence [we read] in John (4:24): God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. And why does God seek out the man with a faithful soul? I say: whoever takes delight in dwelling with another person seeks out that person. So it is with God, because it gives Him delight to dwell with a faithful soul. Hence he says: My delights are to be with the children of men (Prov. 8:31). And God discovered in blessed Nicholas a faithful soul, because he was frequently in church, faithfully at his prayers; so, what is said in Hosea (12:4) is suitably said of him: He wept and made supplication to him . . .

Shortly thereafter Thomas poses another question: “What makes a person stand out? I say that nothing makes a person so outstanding as piety and a ready will to do good for others.” As in the contemporaneous Secunda secundae, the example cited is that of Nicholas’s gift of gold to relieve the poverty of the virgins. “A servant is one who carries out his lord’s work; and the principal work of the Lord is mercy.” Then, concerning Nicholas’s faithfulness, Thomas makes a remark that could be taken as a theologian’s fundamental rule of life no less than a bishop’s: “A faithful man must be a servant, so that he refers all that is his to God” (or “offers everything of his own back to God”): fidelis debet esse seruus ut omnia sua in Deum referat.

We are told how oil in its varied uses can serve as metaphor of spiritual realities: oil heals wounds, as does healing grace; it fuels light, symbol of the desire for wisdom; it flavors food, as spiritual joy seasons good works; it softens, “and this signifies mercy and kindness of heart, both of which blessed Nicholas possessed, since he was utterly filled with mercy and devotion.” (At this point Thomas gives a twist to the familiar Neoplatonic axiom bonum est diffusivum sui: “Oil is diffusive of itself; mercy is the same way.”) A few lines later he asserts that the glorified bodies of the saints will bear the evidence of their due rewards, “and even in this life the signs of their affection appear”: thus the body of blessed Francis showed “the signs of the passion of Christ, so vehemently was he affected” by this Passion. It is at this point that Thomas mentions how the tomb of Nicholas sweats oil, “indicating that he was a man of great mercy.” As with question 21 of the Prima Pars, so here, too, one cannot help noticing the tremendous weight Thomas gives to the theme of misericordia; in this short sermon, the word or one of its variants is used fifteen times, and the notion is hinted at in a dozen other ways. [17]

At the sermon’s close, Friar Thomas lauds Nicholas as “filled with the power to perform miracles” wrought by the hand of the Lord:

Who is there that has ever sought the glory of the world and obtained it as did blessed Nicholas, who was but a poor bishop in Greece? The Lord adorned him with miracles because he showed the greatest mercy. Know that the Lord has made wonderful his holy one (Ps. 4:4). It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord [Jesus Christ] strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives [and reigns] with the Father and the Holy Spirit, [God, for ever and ever, Amen.]

All the virtues, all the good works of Nicholas that Thomas had praised briefly and singly in earlier writings, he here combines and amplifies in a discourse whose plain language, heartfelt appeals to listeners, and evident spirit of devotion give us a vivid glimpse of daily university life in medieval Paris, as well as a window into the personality of Friar Thomas.

St Nicholas, Jacques de Poindre, 1563

[1] See the account from the Chronicle of St. Agnes’ Monastery in S. Tugwell, op, trans., Early Dominicans. Mahwah, Paulist Press, 1982, 395.

[2] I have this detail from Mark Johnson, who is working on a critical edition of Paul’s Summa. On Paul of Hungary, see Tugwell, Early Dominicans, 396, 426.

[3] The Introit (Statuit ei Dominus testamentum pacis), Collect (Deus, qui beatum Nicolaum Pontificem), Secret (Sanctifica, quaesumus Domine Deus, haec munera), and Postcommunion (Sacrificia, quae sumpsimus, Domine) also concur, but the Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory antiphon, and Communion antiphon differ. The Roman Missal has for its Gradual, Inveni David; for the Alleluia, Justus ut palma; for the Offertory, Veritas mea; for the Communion, Semel juravi. The Dominican Missal, on the other hand, has for its Gradual, Ecce sacerdos magnus; for the Alleluia, Justus germinabit; for the Offertory, Justus ut palma; for the Communion, Beatus servus. All eight of these chants are very ancient and appear frequently in the common Masses for martyrs, bishops, confessors, and doctors.

[4] Summa theologiae [ST] II-II, q. 107, a. 3, ad 4. The editors of the one-volume Editiones Paulinae Summa theologiae (Milan, 1988) cite three sources here: Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea; Mombritius, Sanctuarium, Vita B. Nicolai Episcopi; the Dominican Breviary, fourth reading for the Matins of December 6.

[5] In salutationem angelicam expositio, art. 1, n. 1116.

[6] Super Evangelium S. Ioannis lectura, cap. 6, lec. 5, n. 938.

[7] Scriptum super libros Sententiarum [=Sent.] IV, d. 3, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 2, arg. 1.

[8] Super I ad Timotheum 4, lec. 3, n. 173.

[9] Super ad Hebraeos 5, lec. 1, n. 249.

[10] In 1271, the feast of St. Nicholas fell on a Sunday, and hence if Thomas preached the university sermon at Saint Jacques on that day he could reasonably have taken Nicholas as his theme. However, St. Thomas also makes reference to the stigmata of St. Francis, suggesting that it might have been a weekday sermon delivered to the Franciscans.

[11] J. B. Schneyer, Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters für die Zeit von 1150–1350 [RLSM], Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, vol. 43.1–11. Münster, Aschendorff, 1969–1990.

[12] RLSM 2:266–67, nn. 192, 195–197, 199.

[13] RLSM 3:205, n. 287.

[14] RLSM 4:195, n. 63.

[15] RLSM 4:436, n. 525.

[16] RLSM 4:588, n. 74. This same incipit was also used for the feast of Saint Martin of Tours by Bartholomaeus de Tours, op, Paris Master, 1258–59 (cf. RLSM 1:438, n. 26) and Bartholomaeus de Bonnia, om, Paris Master (cf. RLSM 1:388, n. 17).

[17] See J. Saward, “‘Love’s Second Name’: Saint Thomas on Mercy,” in The Canadian Catholic Review 8.3 (1990), 87–97.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: