Friday, January 28, 2022

The Quiet Light

The Quiet Light is the title of a 1950 novel (photo) by Louis de Wohl, which told the story of the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose feast the Church celebrates today. De Wohl set his story in the complicated and contentious context of the lives and conflicts of 13th-century medieval European nobility (notably Thomas's own family), and the battle between the Pope and the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (Stupor mundi). De Wohl's novel explores that world through the observations and experiences of a fictional English knight, Piers Rudde, and Robin, his squire, who somewhat improbably get involved in the fortunes of the aristocratic Aquino family in Italy - including especially the family's pious and super smart youngest son, the future Saint Thomas. De Wohl's novel fed my great hunger for tales about a world which was simultaneously so different and very far away from my own but also (because of the Catholic connection) so apparently accessible and comprehensible. De Wohl followed The Quiet Light with several other Catholic-themed historical novels, among them one about Saint Augustine (The Restless Flame) and another about Cassius Longinius (The Spear) - all three of which I read in high school - and a novel about Don Juan of Austria and the Battle of Lepanto (The Last Crusader), which I just recently read last year in connection with a local Catholic book club.

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 have been without Aristotle's vocabulary about citizenship and friendship. for example? 

Thus, the political and cultural conflict The Quiet Light portrays between the overlapping worlds of Frederich II and Saint Thomas is more than just an interesting literary dimension of the drama. It illustrates the secular alternative to what Aquinas accomplished. Frederick II is portrayed as what a later age would characterize as a figure of Enlightenment. He is genuinely interested in ideas - new ideas, especially imported ideas, ideas imported from the culturally more advanced (at that time) Islamic world. Aristotle reentered Europe in that era first through Arab philosophers and scientists. So the burning intellectual and cultural question was whether and how to integrate the increasingly attractive Aristotelian-Arab intellectual culture into Western Latin Christian civilization, for which it appeared to pose significant challenges along with opportunities. Frederick and Thomas represented radically alternate approaches to this movement of interpenetration and integration. Thomas's approach did a great service to the Church and for Western Latin Christian society. Frederick's approach represented an early anticipation of post-Christian, syncretistic, secular modernity.

Among the 37 Doctors of the Church, Saint Thomas is celebrated both as the "Angelic Doctor" (Doctor Angelicus) and also, for fairly obvious reasons, as the "Common Doctor," i.e., "universal teacher" (Doctor Communis). In his youth, however, he was supposedly nicknamed "the Dumb Ox," which famously became the title of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little 1933 book about Saint Thomas's life and thought, which we also read when I was in school.

But one advantage of coming at Aquinas through a novel like The Quiet Light was that no one could conceivably imagine him as some sort of "ivory tower intellectual" (whatever that silly expression means), someone disconnected from the social conflicts and struggles of his time. Ultimately even more fundamental to appreciating Thomas the scholar and Thomas the exemplar of high medieval life and culture, of course, was Saint Thomas the priest, the Dominican friar, sharing his religious order's life of contemplative prayer with the world. One is directly reminded of that at every celebration of Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, when all sort of people join together to sing those wonderful Latin hymns which Saint Thomas composed as part of the Office for Corpus Christi.

For centuries, the Church 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, in fact, 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 then in 1908 they got their own feast day again, anticipated on March 6. As graduate students in 1974, we celebrated the 700th anniversary of Saint Thomas's death with the late Professor Paul Sigmund (who had recently spoken at a conference commemorating the anniversary) at dinner at the Princeton Graduate College. 

The 1960 calendar reform in the Roman Rite gave liturgical precedence to the lenten weekdays effectively reducing Saint Thomas to a mere commemoration in the lenten Mass and Office. But then the 1969 calendar reform of Pope Saint Paul VI resolved this awkwardness by moving Thomas' memorial outside the lenten season. 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.

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