Thomas Aquinas: Theological Mentor
Today is the saint day for medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas, as he was known after being declared a saint, is arguably the most famous theologian in the Catholic Church and even the greater Christian community. Although I don’t recall hearing about him until I bumped into his writings in college in a class on Christian history, I suspect that is not quite true. I am sure many high school European history classes have some material about Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas lived during the period that often is called the “High Middle Ages.” It was a time in which the Catholic Church played a huge role in medieval European society. Thomas was born in a well-to-do family in 1225 in southern Italy. His early education came at the hands of the Benedictines monks, who had already been around for more than six hundred years. With Thomas’ religious bent, it might have been expected that he would join the Benedictines and move into the monastery. But Thomas chose another route.
Thomas Aquinas decided to join the new friar movement. He became a Dominican friar. The Dominicans and the Franciscans were not monks per se, but their lifestyle was not altogether different from the monks. Unlike the monks, however, the friars chose to live within urban areas rather than the usual more remote monastery. While the monk basically chose to walk away from the world and try to live a Christ-like life in the monastery, which was perceived to be a kind of Paradise on earth, the friar chose to stay in the world and to minister in the mix of secular society. The friar would become a kind of leaven of heaven in a sea of sinners.
Thomas moved on to study in a couple of major educational centers of the time, namely, the universities in Cologne and Paris. He studied with the most famous philosophers and theologians of the time. It was as if he went to Harvard and Yale and was receiving the best education possible. It was at the University of Paris that Thomas settled in to study for the Doctor of Theology degree and began a storied teaching career.
His is a fascinating career. The Dominicans were known as the Order of Preachers and would be known by the abbreviation, OP, found after their name. This is important because it meant that Thomas was not simply some stuffy medieval theologian. He also was one called upon to preach in the churches and in the streets. His astute philosophical and theological writings would be balanced by sermons directed at normal human beings. The range of his abilities was impressive.
Thomas wrote volumes. His most famous work, the Summa Theologica (a comprehensive theological treatise), exists in many English volumes. But perhaps the most interesting thing came toward the end of his life. On a December day in 1273, a year before his death, Thomas had an ecstatic experience during worship where he was preaching. The experience was so profound that it altered the life of the famous theologian.
At some point subsequent to his experience, a priest, Father Reginald, pressed him to continue writing for the Church. Thomas replied with his now-famous words: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.” A more famous translation says that Thomas simply replied, “Everything I have written is straw!”
Thomas Aquinas has been a mentor to me. While it is not accurate to say that I am a Thomist (a follower of Thomas), I have been influenced by him. I have appreciated all that he has taught me and modeled for me. I see him as a spiritual person---a man with a strong mind, a warm heart and a sweet spirit. He has showed me how important clear thinking is needed for twenty-first century spiritual life. We live in an amazing scientific era. I am blown away, for example, by what the neuroscientist teaches. Thomas would have been thrilled and would have figured out how to do spirituality alongside the exciting science of our day. He is my mentor.
But that was not the total Thomas. He was the guy who also joined a spiritual community. He wanted to live the life of faith, not simply study it and write about it. The ecstatic experience at the end of his life doubtlessly culminated what had always been true. Theology is important, but it is secondary to the primary walk in faith with the Spirit. Thomas never forgot that. He is my mentor.
Thomas also was deeply involved in ministry. His life was one of service. He gave in many ways---according to his gifts. He was a preacher and teacher. He was hospitable to those in need. He was a leader and encourager. He is my mentor.
Mentors are a wonderful gift. But mentors are worthless if we do not put into practice what they teach us and show us. I am thankful to Thomas both for what he showed me and how he inspired me.