January 28th is the Feast of the “Dumb Ox”, that is St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor”.
As you read on I encourage you to keep the following distinction in mind. There is a difference between the knowledge ABOUT something, and the knowledge OF something. Knowledge ABOUT something is academic and distant. Knowledge OF something is personal and intimate.
St. Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Church. His systematic and logical treatises have helped illuminate and form the Church’s understandings and teachings on many of the mysteries of the faith. Yet, St. Thomas never studied theology simply to know about God, nor did he use his insights as a vehicle to impress others and gain acclaim. Rather, St. Thomas’ studies grew out of his faith and his desire to teach and bring others to the Gospel. Because of his faith St. Thomas wanted to know more about God so that he could know God more.
Thomas joined the Dominicans to pray, study and preach. He had no ambition for worldly acclaim but rather he sought solely to know and to love God. Thomas, perhaps the greatest systematic theologian ever to live, was humble in his ambitions, his studies and his teaching. When he first travelled to Cologne studying under the great teacher Albertus Magnus, he was reserved and quiet and initially “his silence at disputations and his bulky figure won him the name of ‘the dumb Sicilian ox’”(1) from his fellow students.
One fellow student, pitying his apparent dullness offered to help St. Thomas understand the daily lessons. The humble St. Thomas did not stand up to refute the nickname he was given, nor did he reject the help his fellow student offered. In fact St. Thomas graciously accepted the offer and allowed his fellow student to explain to him each of the daily lessons. It was not until “they came to a difficult passage which baffled the would-be teacher [who] was amazed when his pupil [Thomas] explained it clearly.” It was not long after this that Thomas’ would be recognized for his great intellect.
St. Thomas lectured and wrote so profoundly that his own teacher the great Albertus Magnus said, "We have called Thomas 'dumb ox,' but I tell you his bellowing will yet be heard to the uttermost parts of the earth." This praise of St. Thomas proved to be prophetic as the writings of St. Thomas continue to be studied and influence the Church and the world to this day.
St. Thomas’ writings were so profound that they were even praised by Jesus himself. “The university referred to him [Thomas] a question on which the older theologians were themselves divided, namely, whether, in the Sacrament of the altar, the accidents remained in reality in the consecrated Host, or only in appearance. After much fervent prayer, Thomas wrote his answer in the form of a treatise, still preserved, and laid it on the altar before offering it to the public. His decision was accepted by the university and afterwards by the whole Church. On this occasion we first hear of his receiving the Lord's approval of what he had written. Appearing in a vision, the Saviour said to him, ‘Thou hast written well of the Sacrament of My body.’” And, “Again, towards the end of his [Thomas’] life, when at Salerno he was laboring over the third part of his great treatise, Against the Pagans (Summa Contra Gentiles), dealing with Christ's Passion and Resurrection, a sacristan saw him late one night kneeling before the altar and heard a voice, coming, it seemed, from the crucifix, which said, ‘Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?’ To which Thomas replied, ‘Nothing but Thyself, Lord.’”
Despite the worldly renown of his works, and even the affirmation of his writing by Christ the Savior himself, St. Thomas knew that his knowledge about God was nothing in comparison to the knowing that came from his personal encounters and intimate experiences with God. St. Thomas once said that "When consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits." That is not the experience of someone who simply knows the theology of the Eucharist, that is the experience of a man who has deep faith in the mystery of the Eucharist and the profound relationship of the Jesus Christ to his Church.
Towards the end of his life while celebrating Mass in the convent on the feast of St. Nicholas, Thomas “received a revelation which so overwhelmed him that he never again wrote or dictated. He put aside his chief work, the Summary of Theology (Summa Theologica), still incomplete. To Brother Reginald's anxious query, he replied, ‘The end of my labors is come. All that I have written seems to me so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.’”
We do not know exactly what was revealed to St. Thomas during that Mass, but whatever it may have been, it was such a profound encounter with, and spiritual insight of God, that it caused, perhaps the greatest theological mind in history, to liken all his work to “straw.”
To study and learn about God and the mysteries of the Church is a great and noble endeavor, something we should all embark on. But we must always remember that knowledge about God is not the same as knowledge of God. In the Catholic world we sometimes let our studies and knowledge about God increase our ego as “good” and “knowledgeable” Catholics. We may at times dangerously equate our knowledge with our faith. Let us be on guard against this prideful tendency and rather, like St. Thomas, humbly embark on faithful studies about the mysteries of God so that we may come to know, love and serve him better. When we encounter God we will naturally want to know more about him, and likewise the more we know about Him the more profoundly we may be open to encounter him. However, let us never forget that our prayer and encounter of God is more important than our mere knowing about Him, let us not mistake knowledge for faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us, that we may live the same humility you lived, that we may study faithfully as you did, and that we may come to know and love God as profoundly as you knew and loved God, so that our lives may be transformed and that we may become faithful and humble witnesses to the world of the love of the Trinity.
If you would like to learn more here is a video of Fr. Baron speaking about his favorite saint, St. Thomas Aquinas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eyF0PiIY_o
1. Vann, Fr. Joseph. “Lives of Saints.” John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. 1954. The more complete biography of St. Thomas Aquinas can be found here http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/TOMAQUIN.htm