March 7 is the dies natalis, the heavenly birthday — and therefore the traditional liturgical commemoration — of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, a Dominican friar who combined childlike innocence, guileless humility, and fervent prayer with one of the most towering intellects the human race has ever seen. He has been put forward by the Church not only as a guide to the truth but as a model of discipleship.
The Lord has granted me the privilege of studying the works of St. Thomas for almost thirty years, and of teaching them for almost twenty. As time passes, I find his writings ever more beautiful and fruitful; I find the principles he invokes deeper in their rootedness, broader in their extension. The articles in the Summa theologiae and the Disputed Questions make for incomparable springboards into difficult matters, providing at every step more material for reflection than one could ever reach the end of.
The way these articles hold together — their order, their internal logic, their movement from point to point, conclusion to conclusion, one light giving rise to another light… One can see why the art historian Erwin Panofsky was so enamored of the Summa-cathedral comparison. The medieval mind that gave us both Gothic architecture and scholasticism has a loving luminosity that transcends both the cold mathematical clarity of Descartes and the wild passions of a Schopenhauer, leading one to see that truth, any truth, is not a small, dark, confining thing, but a pinnacle up in the heavens, a rising of incense and waterfall mist, a great field of flowers with a message greater than the sum of leaf and petal, a window that looks into the soul and outward to God. Truth is the antithesis of smallness (rationalism), darkness (irrationalism), confinement (secularism).
Some find it surprising that St. Thomas, who seemed to think, speak, and dream in syllogisms, was able to compose stirring poetry for the Feast of Corpus Christi. I do not find it surprising at all. He had been a poet in his heart, a troubadour of the transcendentals, long before the verses came from his mind. Jacques Maritain was right to say of the saint’s vast body of work: “The achievement which dominates the flux of the ages … overflowed entirely from the fulness of contemplation in a heart united to eternity.”[i] Thomas found his poet’s voice in the Cross he loved, in the beauty of a love that spills itself out in radiant waves of mercy.
“For this have I come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn. 18:37). “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:31–32). St. Thomas heard that voice; he continued in that word; he found the freedom of self-surrender.
We live in an age peculiarly bent on running away from truth, veritas — be it the truth about God and Jesus Christ and the Church He founded; the truth about oneself, friendship, marriage, family, sexuality; the truth about society and the political order. The human heart does not, cannot, cease to long for the truth, but there is no guarantee that our desires will remain uncorrupted. Modern academia exhibits the worst tendencies in this regard. Scholarship exalts the evolutionary paradigm, placing an excessive weight on change and discrepancy rather than continuity and agreement. By rewarding novelty with honors, the university system generates continual motivation for trivia, conflict, and revisionism.
Wahrheit ist Feuer und Wahrheit reden heisst leuchten und brennen.[ii] “Truth is fire, and to speak the truth means to illumine and to burn.” When Jesus spoke, His words were kindling; when He acted, His deeds were light; when He looked into men’s hearts, His gaze was a sword that cut the sincere from the false, the pious friend from the pious fraud. This supreme witness to the truth — Truth incarnate — met with scorn, rejection, torture, and death. He let Himself be buried like a seed in the soil, to burst forth in the glory of an inexhaustible fruitfulness, yielding across the ages a harvest beyond all human reckoning.
Fire, even just embers or sparks, gets around. The good fire of sound doctrine, nourished by a devout life, will not be without offspring. If fragmentation is the problem, fire is the answer, for it belongs to fire to melt what is hardened, to purify the dross and unify the precious. In a youthful work not marred by later cynicism, Yves Congar describes this interplay of thought and thirst, faith and fire:
The source, therefore, of that perfect service of the truth to which St. Thomas devoted his life, was this warm, personal and vital relationship with the truth which we call love … This was due to the fact that, for him, the truth was not merely an object of knowledge, not merely an idea, not even a thing, but a living person to be loved, a living and merciful person who begins by offering himself to our love and by inserting in our frozen souls the warm and vital seed of friendship. This “truth” is, in reality, “the gentle primal truth,” the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the adorable Trinity, the Saviour-God, indeed the incarnate Word, the truth who is Jesus Christ. [iii]
Study is an occasion for the Spirit of truth to reveal the face of Jesus to us and conform our face — our eyes, our ears, our mouths — to His [iv]. The end is the blessed vision of God, “face to face.”
We all need to keep reading good and great books, and keep learning our faith. We “graduate” from the academy of grace only when we die and yield our souls to God. The Doctors of the Church speak the fire of truth, which illumines and burns. Their writings enlighten our minds and burn away our compromises, our excuses, our pettiness. St. Thomas stands as a prince among them.
What is the sign that our studies in school or our private endeavors to learn are leading us into greater intimacy with Jesus Christ, the Truth in person? We will hear His words echoing in our hearts when the book is away. We will notice how, without being able to say when it came or where it came from, suddenly His light is cast on our problems or the problems of others with whom we live and work. We will be caught by His gaze, only for a moment, it seems, yet layer after layer of elaborately crafted thoughts are simplified and unified, or a dense tangle of feelings is loosened into calm. We are carried by our studies into a more profound understanding of the mystery of Jesus Himself — the mysteries of His life, His death, His resurrection, all the mysteries of His humiliation and glory. This is what I call the healing grace of study.
In an essay by a student who was applying to an institute where I taught, I once read these words, which so resonated with me that I copied them down:
All those things that orthodox Catholics desire for themselves and their children, namely, a persevering faith, a willingness to make heroic sacrifice, a sense of belonging within the flow of history, a scriptural mindset and an awareness of judgment all flow from the sense of wonder at the Person of the God-Man. Prior to any great renewal of the Church, the faithful must be taught to stand adoring and incensing in the interior temple.
When the Psalmist says, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek,” he is giving us a motto not only for the Christian life as a whole, but for the particular task of study. Charity’s bright-eyed daughter, Joy, abandons theology when the Lord’s face is not sought. Understanding what is beyond reason, beyond all domination at our hands, comes only to the beggar on bended knee [v].
Our desire for the truth is the good soil in which the Holy Spirit wants to sow the seeds of grace. Light and love can never be separated. The point of studying is to increase and intensify our love for God and our yearning to see His face. “Holy study” unites light and love, so that each can build on the other in an escalating spiral.
It is not odd, though it may at first seem so to us, that this stout intellectual, this “Dumb Ox” whose angelic doctrine has illuminated the globe for seven centuries, was often seen by his brethren tenderly weeping, especially during the celebration of the Holy Mass. Let us, says Maritain, “exert ourselves to love the truth as he himself loved it, that great Doctor whose tranquil eyes were wet with tears, so weary was his heart with waiting for the vision” [vi].
“Three things come together in heavenly fruition — perfect vision, full embracing, and the clinging of consummated love.”[vii] This is what the Angelic Doctor was longing for; this is what we should be aspiring to. If we remember this goal, there is no trial or difficulty we cannot endure.
[i] St. Thomas Aquinas, Angel of the Schools, trans. J. F. Scanlan (London: Sheed & Ward, 1942), 31.
[ii] L. Schefer, quoted in Carl Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage, 1981), 217.
[iii] “St. Thomas: Servant of the Truth,” in Faith and Spiritual Life, trans. A. Manson and L. C. Sheppard (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 82.
[iv] Cf. Jn. 14:16–17; Jn. 16:12–14; etc.
[v] Edward D. O’Connor writes: “The Word of God is not a philosophical discourse addressed simply or even primarily to the intellect and susceptible of being apprehended by the intellect alone. It is a Word of Life, summoning men into a personal relationship with the Lord and nourishing, guiding, and confirming them in that relationship. For this reason, it can only be understood deeply and rightly by those who respond personally to its call. There are, of course, superficial levels on which Scripture can be read and understood by the most detached observer; but its profound meaning becomes accessible only in the measure that one enters into that life to which it summons.” Appendix 2, in vol. 24 [I-II.68–70] of the Blackfriars Summa Theologiae (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 96.
[vi] Maritain, Angel, 122.
[vii] In I Sent., d. 1, a. 1, arg. 10.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.