Fond of Asking Questions
Saint Thomas Aquinas was very fond of asking questions. And he laboured mightily at finding answers. The questions of Saint Thomas proceeded not from a vain curiosity, but from thirst for the truth. Thomas asked the great questions, the questions about the meaning of life and death, sin and grace, time and eternity.
Saint Thomas is the friend of all who ask questions. He is the friend of all who thirst for life-giving knowledge. The Invitatory Antiphon of the Common of Doctors is: ‘The Lord is the wellspring of wisdom; come, let us adore’. Behind the text of the Invitatory are the words of the prophet Isaiah (Is 55:1), placed in the mouth of Our Lord Himself: ‘Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, drink with joy’. Must certain conditions be met in order to drink of the waters of wisdom? Must one be naturally gifted with a probing and incisive intellect? Must one have made great strides in moral perfection, acquired virtue, and rooted out vice?
Praying With Saint Thomas
The Lord addresses his invitation to the thirsty and the poor. The great accomplishment of Thomas Aquinas was that he saw himself as one thirsty and poor. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness, for they shall be satisfied’ (Mt 5:3.6). Every official edition of the Roman Missal contains the prayers of Saint Thomas Aquinas to be recited by the priest before and after Mass. These prayers are, I think, a distillation of all that the Angelic Doctor lived and taught. One has only to pray Saint Thomas’ Prayer Before Mass to understand how he saw himself:
I come sick to the physician of life; unclean, to the fountain of mercy; blind, to the light of eternal brightness; poor and needy, to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore I ask for the fullness of your infinite bounty, that you would graciously heal my sickness, wash away my uncleanness, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness; so that I may receive the Bread of Angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with such reverence and humility, such sorrow and love, such purity and faith, such purpose and intent as shall further my soul’s salvation.
I Will Proceed No Further
We are perhaps so accustomed to hearing about the clarity of Thomism, that we forget the end of Thomas’ life — in obscurity, and silence, and childlike piety — is the key to all the rest. After having scrutinized and reasoned, argued and formulated, Thomas found himself in the humility of the apophatic way, in the ‘cloud of unknowing,’ in the company of all the poor in spirit who, like Job, are obliged to say, ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’ (Jb 40:4-5). The friar priest who heard Saint Thomas’ last confession said that it was the confession of a five year old.
Adoring the Hidden God
We sometimes labour under a false notion of great saints like the Angelic Doctor, forgetting that they too had to become as little children, living by faith, humbly adoring a hidden God, waiting in the dark for the revelation of his Face. Saint Thomas wrote:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Adoration and Thirst
Saint Thomas’ theology is not the closed, neatly packaged system of tidy categories that some would present. His method is not to shut up the human intelligence in a system of logical conclusions, but rather to open it to the Mystery already perceived “in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12) by the believing, hoping, loving heart. Human reason does not have the last word in the life and teaching of Saint Thomas, speechless adoration does, and thirst.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blessed forever with thy glory’s sight.