Thursday, January 28, 2016

Doctor Angelicus

The Dominican Sisters who taught me in school called Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose feast the Church celebrates today, the "Angelic Doctor" (Doctor Angelicus). He is also, for fairly obvious reasons, referred to as the "Common Doctor," i.e., "universal teacher" (Doctor Communis). In his youth, however, he was supposedly called by some "the Dumb Ox," which famously became the title of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little 1933 book about Saint Thomas's life and thought. I read that book as a boy, but I was even more taken with Louis de Wohl's 1950 novel, The Quiet Light, which told Thomas's story in the exciting and contentious context of 13th-century medieval European nobility (notably Thomas's own family), and the conflict between the Pope and the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (Stupor mundi). De Wohl's novel fed my great hunger for tales about a medieval world which was simultaneously so very far away but also (because of the Catholic connection) so apparently accessible. (De Wohl followed The Quiet Light with his great historical novel about Saint Augustine, The Restless Flame, and a few years after that with a novel about Cassius Longinius, The Spear - all three of which I read in high school.)

The Church rightly celebrates Saint Thomas's great contribution to the intellectual life of the Church, his contribution to the great medieval "synthesis of faith and reason." which involved the belated appropriation of Aristotle's philosophy in the Latin world. Where would Catholic social and political thought be without Aristotle's vocabulary about citizenship and friendship? But one advantage of coming at Aquinas through a novel like The Quiet Light was that I never fell into thinking him as another "ivory tower intellectual," disconnected from the social conflicts and struggles of his time. Ultimately even more important, of course, is Saint Thomas the priest, the Dominican friar, sharing his life of contemplative prayer with the world. I am reminded of that every time we have Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, when we sing those wonderful Latin hymns which Saint Thomas composed as part of the Office for Corpus Christi.

For centuries, we celebrated Thomas's feast on March 7, the anniversary of his death in 1274. De Wohl's novel created a fictional scene in which he imagines Thomas  celebrating Mass one March 7 and lamenting that it wasn't a saint's day. Actually, of course, in Thomas's time it would have been the feast of the 3rd-century North African martyrs Saints Felicity and Perpetua. When Saint Thomas was added to the calendar, Perpetua and Felicity were reduced to a commemoration, but in 1908 they got their own feast day again, anticipated March 6. As graduate students in 1974, a group of us decided to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Saint Thomas's death by inviting Professor Paul Sigmund (who had recently spoken at a conference commemorating the anniversary) to dinner at the Graduate College. It was, I well recall, a lovely evening!

In the Roman Rite, the 1960 calendar reform gave precedence to the lenten ferial day over all 3rd-class feasts, which effectively reduced Saint Thomas to a mere commemoration in the lenten Mass and Office. But then the 1969 Pauline calendar solved this awkwardness by moving several of the more important saints' days that fell in Lent to other days outside the lenten season, so they could be more properly celebrated. That was how Saint Thomas got moved to today, the anniversary of the transfer of his relics to Toulouse in 1369. My guess is that that is how Catholic Schools Week likewise migrated to the end of January, because, of course, Saint Thomas is also the patron saint of Catholic schools.

Besides eucharistic hymns, Saint Thomas also composed prayers, for example this one of which I am especially fond: 

Grant, O Lord my God, that I may never fall away in success or in failure; that I may not be prideful in prosperity nor dejected in adversity. Let me rejoice only in what unites us and sorrow only in what separates us. May I strive to please no one or fear to displease anyone except Yourself. May I see always the things that are eternal and never those that are only temporal. May I shun any joy that is without You and never seek any that is beside You. O Lord, may I delight in any work I do for You and tire of any rest that is apart from You. My God, let me direct my heart towards You, and in my failings, always repent with a purpose of amendment.

(Photo: Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, "Doctor Communis," between Plato and AristotleBenozzo Gozzoli,1471, Louvre, Paris)

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