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Our brother, the Dumb Ox!

Thursday, January 28, 2010
Doctor AngelicusThis statue of the great Dominican friar and Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), surmounts the reredos of the former priory church of St Thomas in Hawkesyard, Staffordshire, which was once a study house of the English Dominicans. On his feast day (28 January) we are invited to look at this image of the saint, and pause to think of him as a person and a friar, and to thank God for enlightening him with the wisdom which he put at the service of the Church.

The first thing that strikes us when we look at someone is their appearance. The rounded face and large stature which the artist has given to St Thomas is one that is almost immediately recognizable, and it is similar to one of the earliest paintings of St Thomas. There is a certain verisimilitude in such depictions of the saint, for according to contemporary accounts, Thomas was noted for his height and bulk. So, his mentor, St Albert the Great, famously called him a 'dumb ox', on account of both his size, we suppose, and also of his quietness in class. Later in his life, a Cistercian priest commented that Thomas was "large and heavy and had a bald forehead", and indeed, Thomas' own student, Remigio of Florence, says that he was "very fat". St Thomas' biographer, Tocco, also mentions that he was "large in body" with a "large head", and adds that he had thin blonde hair. This physical characteristic and his height are both thought to be derived from his noble Norman ancestry.

The second thing we might notice is what the person is wearing. St Thomas, of course, is shown in the habit of the Order of Preachers. It is thought that St Thomas joined the Order perhaps as young as the age of 16, around 1242/3. Certainly, he had been clothed in the habit by April 1244. He was then a student in Naples, and he was soon sent to Rome to evade the grasp of his angry parents who had hoped that Thomas would become a Benedictine at Monte Cassino and rise to become abbot of that great monastery! Perhaps here we see another reason for his being called an 'ox'. For he showed great tenacity and refused to succumb to family pressure. Despite being kidnapped by his brother Rinaldo d'Aquino, and placed under house arrest, and locked in a room with a prostitute who failed to endanger his chastity, St Thomas refused to renounce the Order. A year later, his family gave up and delivered him back to his priory in Naples.

What attracted St Thomas to the Dominicans, which was then a new and untried kind of religious life in the Church? Was it just teenage rebelliousness? Many years later, in his well-known Summa Theologiae, St Thomas would write about the right of adolescents to enter religious life, even against the wishes of their parents because it is "better to obey the Father of spirits through whom we live than to obey our parents" (ST IIa IIae 189, 6). Of course, something of his own experience is reflected in this. Nevertheless, we see that St Thomas prioritized obedience to God, and so he must have felt very keenly a call from God to join the Dominicans.

Torrell thinks that St Thomas was particularly drawn to the Order because of his love and aptitude for study. Moreover, he later wrote that "if it is good to contemplate divine things, it is even better to contemplate and transmit them to others" (IIa IIae 188, 6). So, St Thomas was not just drawn to study but to the preaching and teaching of what he had studied. Hence, his formulation of the goodness of the Dominican's preaching charism became one of the mottos of the Order: to contemplate and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.

In addition, Chenu thinks that St Thomas was drawn to the Order's poverty, expressed in its mendicant lifestyle. This was then in sharp contrast with the landed wealth of the ancient monasteries, and so Chenu says that "the refusal of Monte Cassino is, for Thomas, the same gesture made by Francis of Assisi". Thus, St Thomas later defends mendicant poverty as "the prime example [of Christ] that we must imitate" and he says that "it is that nakedness on the Cross that those who embrace voluntary poverty wish to follow" (Contra Retrahentes 15).

The third thing we notice about a person is the things associated with him. In religious art, symbols placed around the image of a saint help us to identify the person being depicted. Three symbols can be seen around this statue of St Thomas, but they are common attributes in artistic depictions of the Angelic Doctor: a sun on his chest, the Chalice and Host in his hand, and a book at his feet.

Mosaic of St ThomasPope Pius XI said that the sun is St Thomas' symbol because "he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues". More recently, Pope John Paul II noted the special place of St Thomas in the tradition of Christian thought, for St Thomas "had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them". This truth stands at the heart of a Catholic approach to study and to the science of theology, and it is thus that the Dominican Constitutions (echoing the Church's Code of Canon Law) says that "the best teacher and model for the accomplishment of [study in the Order] is St Thomas whose teaching the Church particularly commends". Indeed, it is not only the Church who, in the words of Pope John Paul II, holds St Thomas up as "a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology", but G. K. Chesterton has also said that "Thomas Aquinas was one of the great liberators of the human intellect ... a very great man who reconciled religion with reason". As Pope John XXII said that "he alone enlightened the Church more than all other doctors", so the sun is a symbol of this saint. Yet it is important to recall that the brilliance of St Thomas' teaching comes from Christ, the light of the world, who is the source of all wisdom. As St Thomas himself said in 1256 at his inaugural lecture in Paris: "the minds of teachers… are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students".

The book, often shown as the Summa Theologiae is related to what we have already seen above. It is yet another sign of his learning and of his many writings which have illuminated the minds of so many. Indeed, his influence is so great that Pope Pius XI declared: "We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own". However, something should also be said about the way St Thomas wrote. Noteworthy is the sobriety of Thomas’ writing style and language. As Josef Pieper explains: “He avoids unusual and ostentatious phraseology … the firm rejection and avoidance of everything that might conceal, obscure, or distort reality.” This indicates his concern as a Friar Preacher to communicate the fruit of his contemplation as succinctly and simply but as precisely as possible.

Finally, the Eucharistic emblems which he holds in his hands are a symbol of his also being called the Doctor of the Eucharist. Although many might think of the Summa Theologiae as St Thomas' great masterpiece, his work for Corpus Christi is arguably his greatest legacy. As Simon Tugwell notes: “it is fitting that a theologian whose piety was so dominated by the Eucharist should have been the author of the liturgy for such a feast.” And it is the liturgical texts of this feast that have shaped the Eucharistic piety of generations of Catholics. St Thomas' sequence for Corpus Christi, the Lauda Sion is singled out by James Weisheipl as being “remarkable not only for its poetry, but also for its theological content; the individual stanzas can easily be aligned with the Eucharistic teaching of Thomas found in the third part of his Summa theologiae”. Thus, we see another side of his genius, which his shy demeanour may have kept latent: an affectivity and creativity that led him to compose such fine poetry. But this should not surprise us if, as Tugwell puts it, “the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was somehow the focal point and motivation of all his theology.”

Connected to this love for the Eucharist is a final point. For St Thomas, the 'dumb ox' was indeed struck dumb on 6 December 1273. Although some people think he had a stroke or even a nervous breakdown caused by overwork, Tugwell rightly says: “It looks as if Thomas had at last simply been overwhelmed by the Mass, to which he had so long been devoted and in which he had been so easily and deeply absorbed.” This suggests a mystical experience, and so William Hinnebusch writes: “Before every major occupation, whether debating, teaching, writing, or dictating, [Thomas] had recourse to prayer. His ardent love for God revealed itself in his fervent prayer before the Crucifix, in his intense love for the Sacrament of the Altar. His mystical intuition of divine things and his burning desire for union with God carried him at times into ecstasy. His mystical experiences reached such intensity towards the end of his life that all he had written seemed to him ‘so much straw’.” Therefore, towards the end of his life, having received a vision of God, St Thomas said: "Everything ... seems to me straw - compared to the vision I have had". Given all the praise that the Church has heaped upon St Thomas, this is a striking comment. It reminds us of just how great God is and how much his wisdom and truth and being surpass our human capacity to know and love Him. But even though the ox was struck dumb at the end, this did not jeopardize St Albert the Great's prediction concerning St Thomas Aquinas: "We call him the dumb ox, but one day he will emit such a bellowing in his teaching that it will be heard throughout the world".

Lawrence Lew OP


Thomist commented on 28-Jan-2021 01:24 PM
A wonderful, affectionate, accurate summary of a great life. Thank you. +

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