If we tried to compile a list of the 10 most intelligent people who ever lived, chances are that St. Thomas Aquinas would be on that list. As you know, he was a 12th century Dominican priest (and happy feast day, Sisters!) and remains one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of the Church.
There are lots of ways to be brilliant. Some people have a photographic memory. They never forget what they have read or where they have read it and they never forget a name or a face (I’m not one of those people). Other people such as poets have flashes of insight & others have technical skills.
I have no doubt that St. Thomas Aquinas had a photographic memory and he surely had great flashes of insight for he composed not only prose but also poetry, as we shall see in a minute. What really makes St. Thomas such an outstanding thinker is that he had a way of getting it all together – he had a way of synthesizing Christian thought and explaining it systematically. He helps us see both the forest and the trees that make up the forest.
His most famous work was the Summa Theologiae. Written between 1265 and 1274, it was meant to be a summary, a sort of compendium for beginners. All I can say is that back then “beginners” must have been pretty smart! At any rate, in this work which he did not live to complete, he brought together the teaching of Scripture, ancient Christian authors, and classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Among the most famous parts of this compendium are his five proofs for the existence of God, the five ways of showing by reason that God exists.
It’s important for you to know about St. Thomas Aquinas, not just because you attend a school that is run by Dominican sisters, but also because a lot of people today think that religion is backward and irrational, and even destructive of human happiness because it doesn’t just go along with what’s popular in our culture. St. Thomas shows how faith and reason are related. Faith enlightens and expands reason; it doesn’t cloud or destroy it. Our faith speaks of a mysterious God in a way that really makes sense.
II. Brilliance Is Not Enough
Of course, people don’t become canonized saints just because they’re brilliant. Being a know-it-all doesn’t make one a saint. And it is all too easy for brilliant human beings to fall into error or to use their wonderful intellectual gifts in ways that are evil and destructive.
St. Thomas was not a know-it-all. He never tried to hide his intellectual gifts but instead developed them. But he was also a man of deep reverence and humility before the mystery of God and his love. A little story might bring this home.
At one point in his life, St. Thomas was working in a lovely Italian town, Orvieto. It happened that a German priest was passing through that town and it seems that this priest had nagging doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nonetheless, the priest paused in Orvieto to say Mass – As he pronounced the words of consecration – “This is my Body – This is my Blood”, human blood began to drip from the Host onto the linens of the altar. The priest was completely astonished & his doubts about the real presence vanished.
The pope at the time sent St. Thomas to investigate the whole matter because he knew that St. Thomas was not only smart but also prudent and holy. St. Thomas concluded that this was an authentic miracle that manifested a truth we usually know only by faith. That led him to compose the Tantum Ergo Sacramentum and O Salutaris Hostia which we are still sung in the Church today, usually at Benediction or Corpus Christi. These are beautiful hymns which express, poetry really, not only a profound understanding of the Eucharist but indeed a very deep faith and love for the Lord Jesus truly present in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine.
The point here is that St. Thomas was not only smart but also holy. He not only studied and composed long treatises, he also spent long hours in prayer and self-denial. Like Blessed John Paul II, he was a mystic, deeply in love with the Lord, and that was why he was able to put his intellectual gifts at the service of the truth.
III. The Take Away
There’s a lot for us to learn from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas but I’d like to leave you with just two points. The first is that God has given us intellects and he expects us to use them to discover the truth, both the truth we can know by reason but also the truth we can know by faith. As St. Anselm put it, “I believe so that I might understand and I understand so that I might believe.”
The second “take away” is our need for friendship with Christ. Once we have fallen in love with Christ, our faith makes sense and so does our lives. We may not all have St. Thomas’ gift for synthesizing the whole of Christianity but prayer, friendship with Christ, & study of faith helps us get it together in our lives! Knowing and loving the faith helps you become a well-integrated person. After all, it is Jesus, the Son of God who became one of us, who shows us the Father’s love and in showing us that love reveals us to ourselves and helps us see that we are called to share that love.
And as you strive to become that person God has called you to be, let’s ask St. Thomas to guide us by his example and to help us by his prayers.
May God bless you and keep you in His love.