I once heard a homily on the feast of Thomas Aquinas in which the Dominican homilist pointed out that St. Thomas was essentially and fundamentally a holy theologian. He lived out his holiness by doing theology, and he got to heaven, was canonized, and was named the Universal Doctor of the Church all on the grounds of his theology.
Other Church doctors include other dimensions to their holiness. St. Augustine was a bishop, which was a factor in his sanctity. St. Jerome was a translator. John Paul II displayed such a diversity of talents and interests as to embody St. Paul’s exhortation to become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). But Thomas Aquinas became a saint uniquely through the study of theology, and this simplicity in itself has much to teach us.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8). Perhaps it should be obvious that no one could have “seen” God so clearly as St. Thomas did without such a single-heartedness. But those of us who are anxious about many things, when one thing alone is necessary (Luke 10:41), have still not figured out this secret.
St. Thomas attained heights of theology unmatched by any other because he never took his eyes off the Lord.
His humility as a teacher came through loud and clear in his inaugural lecture, Rigans montes. His simplicity of heart pervades the story of his final vision, in which Christ’s offer of reward was met with the ingenuous response: “Nothing but you, Lord. Only you.”
In graduate school, my colleagues and I read John Paul II’s description of love as the “total gift of self” and searched the works of the magisterium for evidence that this language was rooted in the tradition. We found our answer in the writings of St. Thomas himself, in the third verse of his Eucharistic hymn, “Pange lingua:”
In suprémæ nocte coenæ
Recúmbens cum frátribus
Observáta lege plene
Cibis in legálibus,
Cibum turbæ duodénæ
Se dat suis mánibus.
On the night of that Last Supper,
Seated with His chosen band,
He, the Paschal Victim eating,
First fulfils the Law’s command;
Then as Food to all his brethren
Gives Himself with His own Hand.
He gives himself with his own hands: Thomas recognized the “total gift of self” in the Divine Lover 700 years before St. John Paul II, and wrote it into his own hymn of love. Through his lifelong, unswerving focus on Christ, Aquinas turned himself into a mirror in which the hidden truths of God could shine for the rest of us. But it wasn’t because of his great intellect. It was because he also reflected the totality of God’s love in his own small human way. His theology was holy because it was not an academic enterprise but his own endeavor to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Matt 12:30).
In the prayer over the offerings on St. Thomas’s feast day, the Church prays:
May the sacrifice which we gladly present on the feast day of blessed Thomas Aquinas, be pleasing to you, O God, for, taught by him, we, too, give ourselves entirely to you in praise.
Saintly Thomas, pray for us.