As it was said to the Egyptians of old in the time of famine, Go to Joseph, so that they should receive a supply of corn from him to nourish their bodies, so now we say to all as such who are desirous of the truth, Go to Thomas and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of the substantial doctrine wherewith to nourish your souls unto eternal life. Pope John XXII (1323)
The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), the Patron of the Schools, is today, January 28th. St. Thomas was among the greatest minds in the history of the Church and of all humanity. In the majestic Summa Theologica (ST) and other greatworks he brought together and synthesized faith and reason, philosophy and theology, the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritages, St. Augustine and Aristotle, and more.
At one place in that great Summa, using the human example of Socrates and the supernatural example of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas wrote the highest form of teaching comes not from books written, but from lives lived. So in this brief article honoring this great saint and his feast, Id like to focus not so much on his writings, as in a few of the lessons he taught from the life that he lived, in particular, how he exemplified four of the very lofty virtues that he wrote about. So lets get down to business.
Deriving from the Latin words magnus (great) and anima (soul), magnanimity refers to a greatness of soul. Aristotle wrote that the magnanimous man walks slowly and talks with a deep, calm voice. He focuses on important things and he needs scarcely anything. St. Thomas tells us that magnanimity involves stretching forth the mind to great things. Further, magnanimity is about honor, great honor. Indeed, its subject matter is honor, and its end is great accomplishments. This does not imply seeking out displays of honor from others, but in doing great and honorable acts, whether or not any kind of accolades are forthcoming.
As for the character traits of the magnanimous individual, St. Thomas elaborates that he moves slowly because he is not in a rush to accomplish many trivial things, but he seeks rather to carefully accomplish important things that require great attention. Rapid, flitting speech befits those are easily distracted and quick to quarrel. The magnanimous mans slow, calm speech reflects his purposeful focus on a few things worth talking about with care. The magnanimous man is also beneficent, generous, and grateful. He does good deeds, uses his talents for the benefit of others, and gladly repays with interest the good deeds done to him. He has no time for complaining, and he loves virtue so much that he will never employ dishonorable means even to produce a great accomplishment.
St. Thomas clearly embodied the magnanimity he wrote about in the second part of the ST. He was known for his absent-mindedness, much like the modern day absent- minded professor, because his own thoughts were constantly stretched forth to the highest of things. (Just check out the 3,000+ pages on God, Creation, and Jesus Christ, in the ST for a bit of proof.)
So how does this high-mindedness mesh with the Christian virtue of humility?
Quite nicely, thank you. St. Thomas masterfully dispels the paradox of a conflict between magnanimity and humility by calling to our attention both the divine and the natural elements of our humanity. We are given great and powerful gifts from God. We also have a sinful, fallen human nature. Magnanimity reflects our consideration of that divine spark within us, the recognition that we are greatly blessed by God and should use our powers for the greatest works of good within our capacities. Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, said Jesus Christ Himself. (Matthew 5:48). Magnanimity reflects this striving for perfection.
Humility reflects the recognition of that weaker side of our nature. It recognizes that while we must always strive to do great things and to make ourselves perfect, we never fully achieve that state in this life. Further, when we express the virtue of humility, we recognize as well the greatness of soul that God has also provided in our neighbor. The truly magnanimous man then strives for great and honorable things and also wishes the same for his neighbor.
St. Thomas life story is peppered with incidents of his personal humility. For example, he always declined offices and promotions that would interfere with his teaching and preaching (the hallmarks of the Dominican order). But his humility is also reflected in his massive body of writings. First of all, he always gave credit where credit was due in showing how his ideas were influenced and shaped by the great philosophers and theologians before him. Pope Leo XIII wrote that he so revered the church fathers that he inherited in a way the intellect of all. Further, St. Thomas almost never wrote in the first person or included personal anecdotes. He wrote about God and his creation, and almost never about himself.
Wisdom is the highest intellectual virtue, combining a capacity for understanding principles with a vast knowledge of truly important things. Aristotle once wrote that it is better to know a little about lofty things than a lot about trivial things. St. Thomas was always striving to learn about the loftiest things of all - how to better know God and love Him. One sample of St. Thomass own advice in this regard is his illuminating contrast between the vice of curiousness (that habit so common in todays world of frivolously flitting forever about from one trivial topic to the next, as perhaps in hours of near mindless web-surfing!) and the virtue of studiousness, the capacity to sustain focus and attention on the truly important things.
St. Thomass wisdom is also reflected in the image for this article. One of his emblems was the sun, since as Pope Leo XIII put it he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendor of his teaching. Another symbol associated with St. Thomas is the dove whispering in his ear, representing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2 include understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Some have argued that the Summa Theologica itself is a magnificent example of the Holy Spirits gifts that we can hold in our hands.
When it comes to virtue, weve learned from St. Paul (I Cor. 13:13) that perhaps last, but never least, is charity. St. Thomas wrote about lofty things, and whether justified or not, he has the reputation of being a rather difficult read. Still, the loftiest human capacity of all is that of the love of charity, and it is in his writings on charity in the second part of the second part of the ST that St. Thomas is at his clearest, most practical, and most inspiring. He obviously wrote about that which he knew so well how to live.
Read St. Thomas on charity and see how he shines his sun-like illumination on just exactly how we can act out the Great Commandment to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. Read about charity as friendship with God and learn of the three stages of friendship. Read how charity is like a furnace, and how greater the fire we build within ourselves, the further it will reach and the more greatly it will warm those nearest to us. Learn how the love of charity commands that we love even our own bodies and how charity makes faith, hope, and all other virtues come alive.
St. Thomas wrote that the gift of the Holy Spirit that flows from the theological virtue of charity is wisdom, and we have seen that he was wise like few before him or since. So, whether it is January 28th or not, I pray that we will consider the advice of Pope John XXII and Go to Thomas.