Thursday, September 15, 2011

St. Thomas isn't "dry" - Just look at his meditation of the sorrow of Christ and his Mother

September 15th, Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows
It has become popular of late to claim that St. Thomas Aquinas (and all the other scholastics with him, excepting [perhaps] St. Bonaventure) was a dry and boring author. “Sure”, some will say, “he was a great thinker and did much to help explain the faith with clarity; but there is no feeling and nothing which grasps the reader’s heart.”
Indeed, quite sadly, this derogatory style of speech is common even to our Holy Father Pope Benedict who scarcely misses an opportunity to point out that St. Augustine is more human than St. Thomas (at least in terms of his theological writings). Now, I am not sure who soured our Holy Father to the writing-style of St. Thomas, but that man did Pope Benedict a great disservice – as we shall see, St. Thomas isn’t dry at all! [Certainly, the Common Doctor is no more “dry” than St. Augustine can be, as anyone who has attempted to read The City of God has discovered.]

The poetry and theology of St. Thomas
Now, there are some who will attempt to defend the Angel of the Schools (i.e. St. Thomas Aquinas) by pointing to his hymns – Adoro te devote, Lauda Sion, Pange Lingua, et cetera. However, although this is a good start – since it is clear that the mind which wrote those hymns was not so dry and emotionally repressed as the modern critics claim – we must go much further. It is not merely the hymns of St. Thomas which are filled with devotion (and even, to a surprising degree, emotion), but even his most “scholastic” and “systematic” works.
In this little article, we turn to the Common Doctor’s reflection on the suffering which our Savior endured while on the Cross. The relevant article from the Summa Theologica is no “dry” and “detached” speculative exercise, but is very clearly the fruit of profound prayer and devotion – any who claim that St. Thomas is not human enough, have clearly failed to read him carefully.
Many of those who claim that St. Thomas is “too philosophical” or “too impersonal” (especially in his systematic writings) make little or no reference to the third part of the Summa Theologica. The tertia pars delves into the person of Christ, specifically considering him as our Savior – it is in the third part that St. Thomas discusses the life of Christ in great detail. While there are many profound passages throughout the Summa, the third part is characterized by the union of reason with piety.
Especially in his discussion of the Passion of our Savior, St. Thomas shows that devotion and speculative theology are not the least bit opposed. In question forty-six, the writing-style of the Angelic Doctor is filled with that human devotion and personal piety which so many (even conservative) Catholics claim St. Thomas lacks.
The sufferings of our Savior
After discussing why it was fitting for our Savior to die on the Cross, St. Thomas turns to a consideration of the sufferings themselves. In Summa Theologica III, q.46, a.5, St. Thomas asks “Whether Christ endured all sufferings?”
The Angel of the Schools points out that the word “all” can be taken in two ways: either to mean that Christ suffered every kind of suffering specifically, or that he suffered every kind of suffering generically. Now, it is clear that our Lord did not (and could not) suffer every suffering specifically, since some are mutually exclusive (as for example, drowning and being burnt to death). Indeed, Jesus suffered only one kind of death: Crucifixion.
However, considered generically, we say that the Lord suffered all things, insofar as he suffered in every way that a man can suffer (without sin). First, the Savior suffered from every class of men – he was rejected and hated by men and women, by Jews and Greeks, by soldiers and civilians, by friends (Judas) and enemies, by rulers (Pilot and Herod) and slaves, by freemen and criminals, etc.
Secondly, St. Thomas points out that our Savior suffered all things insofar as he suffered in every way that a man can suffer: He was dishonored, abandoned, blasphemed, mocked and insulted, robbed (when they took his garments), saddened, wearied, made to fear, beaten, scourged, and killed. Thus, the Lord lost friends, reputation, honor, material goods, and he suffered in both his soul and in his body.
Finally, at the end of the article, St. Thomas turns to a consideration of the suffering which the Lord endured in all his bodily members. It is this final point which shows the devout, and indeed mystical,  core of St. Thomas’ speculative thought.
The union of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary
“Thirdly, [the Passion] may be considered with regard to His bodily members. In His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body.
“Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, which is called Calvary; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved.” (ST III, q.46, a.5)
The Angel of the Schools leaves us looking through Christ’s own eyes upon the sorrow and the tears of his blessed Mother and of St. John. While the original Latin carries more force, even the English translation witnesses to the devotion and affectation of St. Thomas’ writing-style.
This particular example is not the least unique or extraordinary. The whole of the third part of the Summa (not to mention many portions of his other works) is filled with such examples as this. Anyone who would claim that the Common Doctor is “dry” or “inhuman” or “impersonal” has either not read much of St. Thomas or has come to his writings with a pre-conceived bias against our greatest theologian.
We will go a step further: If a man has not yet wept while reading the Summa Theologica, he has thus far missed the genius of St. Thomas.

Our Lady of Sorrows, Pray for us!
St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray for us!


Anonymous said...


I agree with your assesment of St. Thomas not being the dry humorless person some of his critics would have us believe.

I would only add two points to your excellent article: first, considering the Holy Father's erudition, I think that his opinion of St Augustine being more human than St. Thomas is no doubt his own based on his personal reading and study of these two great Doctors of the Church.

Secondly, I have always thought that comparing the two is very unfair to both of them. They are a thousand years apart and their lives and reasons for writing are very different in most cases. In my humble opinion, it is very much the apples and oranges comparison.

Both are great lights of the Church that we desperately need in this dark time that we are living.

As a side note to you Father, I really appreciate this blog and the service you are rendering to us in the Church. I remember you in my prayers and pray that you will continue to preach the Catholic faith to us especially showing us the importance of the Fathers of the Church and especially the power of St Thomas in explaining our Faith.


BM said...

I agree.

Also, there is something about the rigor and clarity of his thinking that gives it more force with which to pierce the heart. When reading more "human" authors, you can easily be moved at the moment, and then afterward feel that what you read wasn't all that solid. Once it becomes doubtful, it loses its force. (We might summarize this by saying that what easily enters the soul easily falls out of it.) With St. Thomas, on the other hand, you come away from studying him thinking there is no way to deny what he said, and that such truths must be rigorously taken to heart, no matter what. Never do you get the sense that you have been hoodwinked by pious fluff or dubious motives. And that is a beautiful thing.

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