Monday, January 28, 2008

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas, the eighth of nine children, was born 1225 into a noble family.

The youngest son of a noble family was traditionally given to the Church, so Thomas was brought to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, most likely with the hope that he would eventually become the Abbot there. However, war broke out in 1240 and the Abbey was closed. Thomas went to study and the University of Naples. In Naples, Thomas Aquinas encountered two things which changed the course of his life and Catholicism: the writings of Aristotle, and the Dominicans.
The Order of Preachers had opened a friary in Naples in 1231. Although there were only two friars living there at the time Thomas was there, one had a profound influence on Thomas. John of San Guiliano, introduced Domincan prayer, study and preaching to Thomas.

Although Thomas felt called to the Dominicans, his family had other plans. They thought it a mendicant's life was beneath him and desired for him to enter the Benedictines and eventually become the Abbot of Monte Cassino. After discovering that he had joined the Dominicans, his father kidnapped Thomas and locked him up, hoping the would change his mind. While under house arrest, Thomas studied the Sentences of Peter Lombard (another driving force in Thomas' writings) and helped his sister discern a vocation to the Benedictines. As a sort of final test, his brothers brought a prostitute to Thomas. Thomas did not succumb to temptation, but kept her at bay by brandishing a flaming stick and burning a cross on the wall.

Finally, his family realized that there was nothing they could do to prevent Thomas from following his vocation.

In this case, Thomas family desired for Thomas to choose his vocation based on what would bring honor, wealth, and prestige rather than what would give honor, praise, and glory to God. Yes, to be the Abbot of Monte Cassino could be the fulfilment of one's true vocation, but not if one's sights were on the externals. How often do we decide what God must want from us or others rather than letting Him tell us Himself? Many times, what God asks of us is not what we want or what we think should be, but He has His reasons. In addition, as the story of St. Thomas Aquinas shows, God has ways of making the events which prevent His plans from becoming realized way of furthering and deepening his will.

In the end, few remember the name of the Benedictine who became the Abbot of Monte Cassino, but St. Thomas Aquinas has become a driving force is Catholic theology. All this from a man who summed up his immense contributions to the faith and study of theology as "straw".

When one reads the Summa Theologiae or sings one of the five beautiful hymns which Thomas wrote, the thought enters the mind, "How can he have thought this was straw? This is extraordinary!" Yes, it is and I am sure that Thomas knew what an immense contribution he made, but he had seen something better. He had seen a glimpse of the things yet to come. What a comfort! How spectacular must the presence of God be, if it makes the works of St. Thomas seem like straw.

Below is one of the hymns which St. Thomas wrote, Adoro Te Devote. I have posted the Latin first and the English translation below. Yes, if the prayer in verse seven is granted even partially everything in the world will seem like straw.

Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas;
Tibi se cor meum totum subiicit,
Quia te contemplans, totum deficit.

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur;
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius,
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.

In Cruce latebat sola Deitas.
At hic latet simul et humanitas:
Ambo tamen credens, atgue confitens,
Peto quod petivit latro paenitens.

Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor,
Deum tamen meum te confiteor:
Fac me tibi semper magis credere,
In te spem habere, te diligere.

O memoriale mortis Domini,
Panis vivus vitam praestans homini:
Praesta meae menti de te vivere,
Et te illi semper dulce sapere.

Pie pellicane Iesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine:
Cuius una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro, fiat illud, quod tam sitio,
Ut te revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beatus tuae gloriae. Amen.

and the translation by E. Caswall

O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee,
Who truly art within the forms before me;
To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee,
As failing quite in contemplating Thee.

Sight, touch, and taste in Thee are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed:
I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
Than Truth's own word there is no truer token.

God only on the Cross lay hid from view;
But here lies hid at once the Manhood too:
And I, in both professing my belief,
Make the same prayer as the repentant thief.

Thy wounds, as Thomas saw, I do not see;
Yet Thee confess my Lord and God to be:
Make me believe Thee ever more and more;
In Thee my hope, in Thee my love to store.

O thou Memorial of our Lord's own dying!
O Bread that living art and vivifying!
Make ever Thou my soul on Thee to live;
Ever a taste of Heavenly sweetness give.

O loving Pelican! O Jesu, Lord!
Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood;
Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Is ransom for a world's entire guilt.

Jesu! Whom for the present veil'd I see,
What I so thirst for, O vouchsafe to me:
That I may see Thy countenance unfolding,
And may be blest Thy glory in beholding. Amen.

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