Wednesday, March 06, 2024

First Vespers of St Thomas Aquinas in the Dominican Rite

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” 1631
Lost in Translation #95

Tomorrow is the 750th anniversary of the passing of the greatest theologian in the history of the Catholic Church. To honor St. Thomas Aquinas, let us examine the way in which his religious brethren keep his memory liturgically.

In the Dominican Rite, the feast of St Thomas Aquinas, Confessor et Doctor, holds the rank of totum duplex, the same as major feast such as Christmas, Circumcision, and Epiphany. Prior to the reforms of Pope St. Pius X, the Dominicans also observed a Solemn Octave of his feast on March 14, a privilege shared with the Ascension, the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Holy Rosary, All Saints, and Saint Augustine.
In this essay, we concentrate on the Dominican Office of I Vespers, said on the evening of March 6. Tomorrow, for the feast itself, we will examine the Mass, and the next day we will present the Offices of Lauds and II Vespers. Finally, on the Octave Day, we will discuss the Votive Mass to St. Thomas.
The Dominican Breviary differs structurally from the Roman in several respects. During I Vespers, for example, there is only one antiphon for all five psalms (which in this case are Psalms 112, 116, 145, 146, and 147):
Felix Thomas, Doctor Ecclesiæ, lumen mundi, splendor Italiæ, candens virgo flore munditiæ, bina gaudet coróna gloriæ.
Which I translate as:
Happy Thomas, Doctor of the Church, a lamp of the world, splendor of Italy, virgin shining in the prime of chastity, rejoices in a twofold crown of glory.
The use of felix for “happy” bespeaks a later development in ecclesiastical Latin. In the Patristic era, the word was avoided because of its association with pagan superstition: the Romans had dedicated a temple to Felicitas, a good luck goddess. Early Christian authors avoided felix and preferred beatus instead. In the Vulgate translation of the Bible, beatus occurs one hundred twelve times, felix five. But once the old gods were dead and buried, so too were fears of negative connotations, and words like felix could be used anew without scruple.
Candens virgo flore munditiae is literally “virgin shining in the blossom/flower of cleanness” but such a rendering sounds awkward in English. Floral imagery, as we will see elsewhere, is pervasive in the propers for St. Thomas.
After the psalms is the chapter reading. The composers of this Office lifted a description of Moses from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 45, 4 and 6 to describe their saint:
He chose him out of all flesh. And he gave him commandments before his face, and a law of life and instruction, that he might teach Jacob his covenant, and Israel his judgments.
Another difference between the Dominican and Roman Breviaries is the singing of a responsory after the chapter reading of I Vespers. The responsory for the Feast of St. Thomas is:
℟. Sertum gestans cum torque dúplici, cappa gemmis ornáta cérnitur: ex moníli fulgóris cǽlici lux emissa mundo diffúnditur: * Augustínus Fratri sic lóquitur: ℣. Thomas mihi par est in gloria, virgináli præstans munditia. Augustínus Fratri sic lóquitur. Glória Patri. Augustínus Fratri sic lóquitur.
Which I translate as:
Bearing a double-ringed wreath, a cappa decorated with gems is seen: from the collar of heavenly glory a light sent out to the world is spread forth: * Augustine says to his brother: “Thomas is my equal in glory, surpassing me in virginal cleanness.” Augustine says to his brother. Glory Patri. Augustine says to his brother.
The responsory is an allusion to a vision that occurred shortly after Aquinas’ death, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas appeared to a Dominican friar named Albert of Brescia. Albert saw Aquinas wearing a golden crown laden with jewels and two charms around his neck, one of gold and one of silver. On his heart was a magnificent precious stone that emitted a bright light. His cappa (the Dominican cloak) was embroidered with lustrous pearls, and his habit was as white as snow. Saint Augustine said the following to Albert:
I have come to reveal to thee the brightness and glory of Brother Thomas who is with me; for he is my son, having in all things followed my teaching and the doctrine of the Apostles. He has illumined the Church of God by his knowledge, which is symbolized by the precious stones with which he is covered, especially by that upon his breast, which represents the uprightness of intention in all the works he has written in defense of the Faith. These diamonds are also the symbols of the books he has written. He is my equal in glory, but he surpasses me by the aureola of chastity [my translation is “surpassing me in virginal cleanness”]. [1]
Augustine and Aquinas
I am very glad that the vision affirms the profound agreement between Augustine and Aquinas (something that scholars sometimes dispute), but it is odd that Augustine, an erstwhile partner of two mistresses and the father of an illegitimate child, felt the need to state that Aquinas surpasses him in virginal cleanness. I should have thought the point to be fairly obvious.
The Vespers hymn follows the responsory:
Exsultet mentis júbilo
Laudans turba fidelium
Errórum pulso núbilo
Per novi solis radium.

Thomas in mundi véspere
Fudit thesauros gratiæ,
Donis plenus ex ǽthere
Morum et sapientiæ.

De cujus fonte lúminis
Verbi coruscant fáculæ,
Scriptúræ sacræ Núminis
Et veritátis régulæ.

Fulgens doctrínæ radiis
Clarus vitæ munditia
Splendens miris prodigiis,
Dat toti mundo gaudia.

Laus Patri sit ac Génito
Simulque sancto Flámini,
Qui sancti Thomæ mérito
Nos cæli jungat ágmini. Amen.
Which I translate as:
With joy of mind may
The praising throngs of the faithful exult;
The clouds of error have been dispelled
By the ray of a new sun.

Thomas, at the world’s eventide,
Poured out treasures of grace,
Filled with gifts from above,
Gifts of morés and wisdom.

From whose font of light
Flicker the Word’s little torches,
The Sacred Scriptures of the Holy One
And the rules of truth.

Shining with the rays of doctrine
Illustrious from cleanness of life,
Splendid from marvelous signs,
He gives joy to the whole world.

Praise be to the Father and to the Begotten
And as well to the Holy Breath,
And through the merit of Saint Thomas
May they join us to the heavenly army on the march. Amen.
An English version of the Hymn
One gets the impression that the Dominicans are rather fond of St. Thomas.
The hymn twice uses solar imagery to describe the impact of St. Thomas’ life and writings. That may sound hyperbolic or even impious (since the sun is also a metaphor for Jesus Christ), but it is used by other admirers such as Pope Leo XIII, who in his encyclical Aeterni Patris writes: “like the sun [Thomas] heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching.” [2]
The hymn states that St. Thomas came to the world when it was growing old, at “eventide.” We think of the century in which St. Thomas lived as part of the Middle Ages; apparently, they thought of it as the Late Ages. The sentiment is also reminiscent of the Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum which compares the Messiah to a Bridegroom coming mundi vespere or at the world’s eventide.
Some of the diction is remarkable. Facula or “little torch” is uncommon, as are Numen (“Holy One” or “God”) and Flamen (“Breath”). The latter is particularly striking. A flamen is a gale or gust of wind. The only other times that I have seen it used for the Holy Spirit is in the hymn Urbs Jerusalem Beata (for the dedication of a church in the monastic Breviary) and in a hymn to Saints Perpetua and Felicity. In Latin, flamen is a homonym, with its second meaning connected to fire. Flamen #2 is derived from flagro (to burn) and became the name for a pagan priest (who burned offerings); our word “flame” is related to it. The homonymity is, of course, a coincidence, but it is interesting that this word used for the Holy Spirit should connote both wind and flames.
Finally, the conclusion asks not simply that we be enlisted in the heavenly army (hostes) but that we be enlisted in the heavenly agmen, an army in column formation, a marching army.
Following the hymn is a versicle and the Magnificat antiphon:
℟. Ora pro nobis, beáte Thomas.
℣. Ut digni efficiámur promissiónibus Christi.
Aña Scandit Doctor civis cælestium, orbis decor, dux, lux fidelium, norma, limes, lex morum omnium, vas virtútum, ad vitæ brávium.
Which I translate as:
℟. Pray for us, O Blessed Thomas.
℣. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Aña To his life’s reward ascends the Doctor, the citizen of the heavenly realms, the beauty of the world, the leader, the light of the faithful, the standard, the limit, the law of [all] good practices, the vessel of virtues.
Again, the praises sounds hyperbolic: Aquinas, for example, is called the norm (norma). And yet such praise is consistent with Leo XIII, who calls the Angelic Doctor “the chief and master of all towers,” “the special glory and bulwark of the Catholic faith,” and “the exemplar and master of the universities.” [3] Pope Pius XI similarly proclaims “just as it was said to the Egyptians of old in time of famine: ‘Go to Joseph,’ so that they should receive a supply of corn from him to nourish their bodies, so We now say to all such as are desirous of the truth: ‘Go to Thomas.’ ” [4]
I am not certain whether to translate limes as “limit” or “path.” Are the friars singing of Aquinas as a path to Heaven, or are they saying that he is the theologian that than which none can go higher? Perhaps both.
The office concludes with a Collect that will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.
[1] Pius Cavanaugh, OP, The Life of the Angelic Doctor Saint Thomas Aquinas (P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1881), 161-62.
[2] Aeterni Patris, 17.
[3] Aeterni Patris, 17, 17, 21, resp.
[4] Studiorum Decem, 28.

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