Wednesday, January 28, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas - Patron of Nerds?

I think there should be a worldwide celebration today for all the so-called nerds of the world. They have a patron, whether they know it or not: St. Thomas Aquinas, whom the Church commemorates today.

Many of us have, at one time or another in our lives, been assigned to the ranks of the those who are pejoratively tagged as “nerds” by various rude, egotistical, self-centered bullies, super-hormoned jocks, high school “queens and princesses”, and other nastily sharp-tongued, insecure ignoramuses. When you’re a young school-age kid you especially feel the sting and bite of such a stigma, knowing in your heart how deceiving appearances are and what things really do count in life, after all. I can remember being made to feel as though being a “brain” was something you needed to apologize or do penance for, when all I was doing was what I thought was expected of everyone, and for the sheer love of learning. Thomas was no stranger to that, I learned much later.

Thomas was born in a castle at Roccasecca, about 75 miles east southeast of Rome, the sixth son of Count Landolfo d’Aquino, of a high-born southern Italian family and Countess Theodora of Theate, of Norman descent. Thomas was a nephew of Frederick Barbarossa and connected with St. Louis IX of France. A younger sister of Thomas had been killed instantly by a bolt of lightning, causing Thomas to be extremely nervous during thunderstorms all his life.

His father’s brother and his uncle, Sinibald, was the Benedictine abbot of Monte Cassino. His mother was determined that Thomas would study there, become a Benedictine, and eventually become the abbot. He dutifully studied there for five years, after which, at age 14, he enrolled at the University of Naples, spending the next seven years there. He was a “brain”, by the way! And he took a lot of flack over that, really for most of his life. You couldn’t miss Thomas, either. Bearing more Nordic than Italian features, he had a fair complexion, was massively built and of imposing stature. In other words, a big dude! A nerdy version, perhaps, of “The Hulk”. And during this time he’d become fascinated with the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, noted for their teaching and preaching ministry.

By age 18 or 19, in 1243 or 1244, Thomas had decided to enter the Dominicans. He encountered tremendous opposition from his family, especially his mother. She actually had his brothers kidnap him as he travelled to Paris, bring him back, and confine him in the castle at Monte San Giovanni Campano! Only his sisters could visit him and they were unyielding in trying to get Thomas to change his mind. Even the Pope and the Emperor put in their two cents worth and remonstrated him for his bullheadedness. This went on for well over a year. Nevertheless, Thomas used his time in captivity constructively: praying, studying Scripture and the great philosophers, Aristotle and Peter Lombard. His brothers, their little pinhead minds seemingly in overdrive, then got the bright idea of bringing a prostitute to Thomas’ lockup, in hopes that that might lighten him up, although the logic of this escapes me, since the issue supposedly was which Order he was to join! Thomas, nerd or not, drove the unfortunate young lady away with a burning firebrand, perhaps also giving his immature siblings a few whacks in the process!

Momma Aquino, though still hell-bent on having her boy head up a monastery, saw that she was not going to shake Thomas’ resolve. To save face, she secretly engineered his escape through a window, actually with the help of his sisters, whom he apparently won over because of his tutoring them, as well as of some Dominicans in mufti, with whom he’d been in communication. The Pope, to placate Theodora, offered Thomas the abbacy at Monte Cassino. Thomas, though some had called him a “dumb ox”, referring to his size, politely, and wisely, declined the Pope’s offer. The Pope counteroffered to make him Archbishop of Naples, but again Thomas stood his ground and refused the honor.

When his family finally relented, the Dominicans sent Thomas to Cologne to study with the great Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great. In 1245 he travelled with Albert, who had certainly picked up on Thomas‘ intellectual brilliance, to Paris where Thomas continued under his tutelage for the next three years, returning to Cologne with him in 1248. In Cologne Thomas taught and absorbed the scholastic wisdom which Albert had to offer, much of it based in Aristotle’s philosophy. Probably in 1250 Thomas was ordained a priest in Cologne by the Archbishop, Conrad of Hochstaden. He was extremely devout and, to no one’s surprise, proved to be a great preacher. Yet he had his troubles, too, and was no stranger to opposition and jealousy, especially from the secular clergy.

Thomas went to Paris in 1252 for his master’s degree where, at the University, he met and befriended the noted Franciscan, Bonaventure. They graduated together from the University of Paris in 1258, both earning a doctorate in theology. For the next decade Thomas taught in a school for select students attached to the Papal court. Thomas lived such a busy and rich life, moving in circles of many who eventually became famous intellectuals, philosophers, theologians, and movers-and-shakers. The Catholic Encyclopedia well describes this period of his life: “...praying, preaching, teaching, writing, journeying.”

Thomas Aquinas, without knowing it and without really aiming for it, became one of the Western Church’s, and indeed society’s, most astute and wise minds. Yet, a hallmark of his life was his quiet, unassuming manner, his innate humility, and his profound spiritual wisdom. Occasionally his spiritual experiences spilled over into the visible realm, such as the one at Naples in 1273. Thomas had recently completed his treatise on the Eucharist, when during prayer he fell into ecstasy in front of the altar crucifix. Three of his fellow friars attested to hearing a voice from the crucifix: “Thomas, you have written well of me; what reward would you like?” To which he replied: “None other than yourself, Lord.”

Not long after this, in December, 1273, his health going downhill, he stopped writing and dictating altogether. He confided in Fr. Reginald of Piperno, his longtime friend, companion, co-teacher and confidant: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all that I have written so far seems to me to be as so much straw.”

Gregory X convoked a general council of the Church, to open at Lyons on May 1, 1274. He asked both Thomas and Bonaventure to attend and to take part in the deliberations. Thomas obediently set out in January, despite his ill health, getting as far as Terracina before he fell to the ground. He was taken to the Castle of Maenza, home of his niece, Countess Francesca Ceccano. The Cistercians monks at Fossa Nuova, hearing of his plight, insisted that he be transferred to their monastery where they would care for him. Thomas, sensing that the end was near, was overwhelmed with the monks’ attention and their eagerness to learn from him even in these circumstances, and so dictated for them a brief commentary on the Canticle of Canticles.

Having received the Last Rites, Thomas made a moving profession of faith: “...I receive You, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and labored. You have I preached; You have I taught. Never have I said anything against You: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance...” Thomas wasn’t just being a nerd in saying that: he really meant it!

Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274.

I remember March 7 well, mostly because it was two days before my Mom’s birthday; later is was one day before my wedding day; but mostly I remember it because that was always a free day during our years in major seminary! We had a tradition that the St. Thomas Lectures were given on that day, three papers on a common topic given by three students. In 1963, the year I was ordained a deacon, I was one of three chosen to speak on “kerygmatic theology”, in a paper entitled: “Christian Education and Learning-to-be-Free. In comparison with the venerable Thomas Aquinas, I can tell you, I felt much more like a “dumb ass” than a “dumb ox”!

Though one can argue with the propriety of the practice, the Church in former times, desiring, I guess, to “spread around” the sanctity of various holy ones, divvied up their body parts among several churches in various places. That was to be Thomas’ fate also. His remains were first at Toulouse, but after the French Revolution they were taken to the Church of St. Sernin, where most of him is today. The chief bone of his left arm is preserved in the cathedral at Naples. His right arm, orginally given to the University of Paris and kept in St. Thomas’ Chapel of the Dominican church, is currently preserved in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church in Rome. I’m distressed to just now learn that! Had I done my homework prior to my trip to Rome in the fall of 1998, I could have viewed Thomas’ arm. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a beautiful church, particularly the blue ceiling. And I did manage to get a great photo of both St. Catherine of Siena’s and Fra Angelico’s tombs there. But, of course, only part of Catherine is there; the rest, presumably, being in Siena! I’m not sure about the good Fra.

Do I sound like a nerd?!

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