Saint of the Week: St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence
St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Happy Feast of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)! I find myself surprised that I did not write about him when the Weekly Saints category was active, although he does come up a few times elsewhere, most especially ‘Pange, Lingua‘ and ‘Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Bible study‘. St Thomas is worth getting to know, especially these days with a Thomist resurgence in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, epitomised by a Catholic friend whose response to my eagerness over a Victorian exposition of the 39 Articles said, ‘We have St Thomas for that’.

St Thomas Aquinas was born into a wealthy family of lesser nobility in the Lazio region of Italy. As the younger son in the family, he was destined for life the cloisters, like his uncle, abbot of Montecassino (St Benedict’s [saint of the week here and here] monastery in Campania). He was sent to Montecassino at age 5, where he was instructed in theology and philosophy. His family’s dream was that he would ascend to the abbacy in his uncle’s footsteps.

At age 19, however, he rebelled against his family’s wishes and chose instead to join the fairly new Order of Preachers — the Dominicans. Benedictine monasticism was a prestigious affair — long-established and wealthy, the Order had many monasteries that were major landowners throughout Europe. Indeed, so wealthy were Benedictines that they never stopped getting in trouble for it! See, e.g., this excerpt from St Bernard’s (saint of the week here) excoriation of Cluniac Benedictines a century earlier.

Dominicans, on the other hand, were only a few decades old. Honorius III’s approval of St Dominic’s (saint of the week here) order was only fully approved in 1216. Dominicans are a mendicant order of friars like Franciscans. This means that they beg for food to survive. They live in priories, not cloistered monasteries, and consort with rabble and mobs. They do sordid, public pious acts like public preaching or debating heretics. They were also in on the ground floor at the start of the Inquisition, and this didn’t make them especially popular — as St Peter Martyr of Verona (d. 1252) found out the hard way.

Dominicans are not prestigious in the 13th century, anyway.

Thomas, with his background in philosophy and love of God, joined anyway.

Dominicans are, as it turns out, unafraid of philosophy.

In 1245, Thomas went to Paris to study — at the time, Dominican philosopher Albertus Magnus was active there. Three years later, Thomas followed Albertus to Cologne where, an apprentice professor, he taught Old Testament. 1252 saw him back in Paris studying to become a Master in theology. At this time, he continued lecturing on the Bible and also wrote his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, one of the standard theological texts and tasks of the age. Besides this and his biblical commentaries, Thomas wrote his work De ente et essentia for his fellow Parisian Dominicans.

1256 saw Thomas’ appointment as regent master in theology at Paris and promptly launched a defence of the mendicant orders. He held this post until 1259, writing several of his philosophical and theological works, as well as beginning the Summa Contra Gentiles.

In 1260 at Naples he was made general preacher in that province, and 1261 had him teaching poor Dominican friars in Orvieto who could not afford an education such as he had acquired. I like this about him and the Dominicans, in fact. Anyway, at Orvieto is when he put together the Catena Aurea, a patristic catena commentary on the Gospels (listed under ‘Biblical Commentaries’ here). He also produced the liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi at this time.

1265 he was called to Rome by Clement IV to serve as papal theologian. He also served as a teacher at the newly-founded studium provinciale at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, which was a training institute for Dominicans of the Roman province in higher levels of philosophy and theology. Amongst the various theological works he wrote during his time at Santa Sabina, St Thomas began the Summa Theologiae while he was there.

This, of course, is his most well-known writing and his greatest achievement.

The Summa Theologiae is a meticulously constructed text of theology and philosophy that systematically treats almost every subject of Chrisitan theology. Because God made all things, the theology of the Summa ends up producing a philosophy for understanding almost the entire world. Like all of St Thomas’ works, it is deeply steeped in Aristotelian ideas and methods, but also richly informed by Scripture and the Fathers. Not necessarily an easy read, it can be richly rewarding. Sadly, St Thomas was unable to complete his task despite working on it for so many years.

From 1268-1272 he was in Paris again, teaching. This time, in his sights were Averroist philosophers who had taken up an extreme version of Aristotelianism that he felt was incompatible with the Christian faith. His quarrels at this time also brought him into conflict with the Franciscan theologians St Bonaventure (saint of the week here), John Peckham, and William of Baglione — this last one slandering him as, in fact, an Averroist. Many disputations were thus created during this second regency in Paris.

His final phase of activity was from 1272 until his death, when he moved to Naples and established a studium generale — a general training institute for the whole Dominican order.

In 1273, everything changed for this prolific writer and philosopher-theologian. I quote The Catholic Encyclopedia:

On one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord” (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 38). Similar declarations are said to have been made at Orvieto and at Paris.

On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value” (modica, Prümmer, op. cit., p. 43). The “Summa theologica” had been completed only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part (De partibus poenitentiae).

He went to sleep in the Lord on 7 March, 1274.

He is one of the greatest theologians of all time, certainly of the mediaeval world. My first-year undergraduate philosopher teacher was surprised and delighted when he encountered such quality philosophy in the Middle Ages (chronological snob that he was). His influence extends everywhere, and whatever he says is worth being very careful over before you reject it. He was also a tireless Christian, seeking to educate his fellow friars in the ways of God’s truth and help others out of the paths of error.

Would we were all so committed to the paths of Christ’s truth.

His works are available in English here.

Saint of the Week: Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is one of the many colourful characters of Florentine history. My favourite Florentine will always, of course, be Dante Alighieri (saint of the week here), but Savonarola and his younger contemporary Michelangelo Buonarotti are also well worth knowing.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and educated in ‘Renaissance’ ‘humanism’, headed originally towards a career in medicine. Yet, inspired by a sermon, he decided to leave the world and become a knight for Christ, joining the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (whose founder was saint of the week here), at Bologna in 1475. After a few years of study, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher, one of the original roles of the Dominicans (hence the official name ‘Order of Preachers’).

In 1490, under the influence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Lorenzo de Medici ‘il Magnifico’, Savonarola was reassigned to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This friary still stands, although it is one of the conventi soppressi closed by Napoleon in 1808, and I shall visit it tomorrow morning. San Marco was the monastic house of Fra Angelico (d. 1455) and still contains many of his original paintings in situ in the friars’ chambers as well as hosting a museum today.

The last eight years are when it gets exciting.

In Florence, Savonarola proved not only to be a man of keen mind, but also a prophetic, apocalyptic preacher. He drew crowds upon crowds to hear him preach. Indeed, so many people came to hear him preach that the only pulpit large enough was the Duomo (already equipped with Brunelleschi’s [d. 1446] dome).

People liked Savonarola’s very medieval style of apocalyptic. He preached the gospel of repentance to a decadent city in a wealthy peninsula. He preached against tyrants who suppressed the people entrusted to their care. He preached against wealthy clergy who abused their spiritual power for worldly gain. A cult following formed around Savonarola, called the Piagnoni, the weepers/wailers.

I have seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia the two side panels of a triptych painted by one of Savonarola’s disciples (whether a Dominican or a lay artist, the museum label did not tell). They are of John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene on the right. The figures are grey-skinned and ragged, their flesh hanging off their bones. This is the late-medieval spirituality of Savonarola, in stark contrast of the well-fed and well-dressed saints of the contemporary Renaissance. This is the spirituality of poverty — worldly and spiritual, the intersection of the two.

And it was the lack thereof that Savonarola so railed against in Florence.

Not that he was apolitical, mind you.

In 1493, Savonarola preached a series of sermons proclaiming that a new Cyrus was to cross the Alps and invade Italy, then set the Babylonian captives free by reforming the Church. To prove that Savonarola had the gift of prophecy, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy the next year.

Charles VIII marched South and invaded Tuscany, taking the towns along the way. Piero de Medici fled, and soon Charles’ army was encamped outside Florence asking why the Florentines hadn’t supported him. Savonarola went forth and interceded for the Florentines, encouraging Charles to take up his mantle as reformer of the church.

And so Florence was a republic again. And Savonarola was in the thick of it all. 10 December, 1494, he declared:

I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.

This was not to be the case.

Things looked to be looking up. In 1497, Savonarola held the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history. The transitory things of this world — art, money, books of astrology, make up and so forth — were burned in a huge bonfire in front of Piazza della Signoria. My Time Out guide to Florence greatly laments this bonfire, wondering what wonders were lost; however, it also fallaciously claims Michelangelo was there, fallen under Savonarola’s spell, and threw some of his own artworks in. Given that Michelangelo was in Rome at the time, I don’t think so.

No doubt, however, some beautiful objects were lost alongside the make up and money and astrology books. And this is too bad. The world is full of too much ugliness to lose the beauty. But for a Renaissance Florentine banker, is this art he has burned? Or is it another attachment to a world of vanities, to a world where the rich oppress the poor, to a world more concerned with gilt haloes around the saints than with emulating the virtues of the saints?

I don’t recommend having a Bonfire of the Vanities yourself, but note that Savonarola was not the only one. Note also that, despite his best efforts, Florence still has the highest concentration of art anywhere in the world. There are masterpieces everywhere here, from the famous (like Michelangelo’s David) to the not-so-famous (like the aforementioned Savonarolan triptych).

The execution of Savonarola

In 1498, the pope was finally fed up with Savonarola. And so were the people of Florence. The new golden age hadn’t really come for them, and Charles VIII was threatening papal lands. And so Savonarola was tried for heresy and burned in the selfsame spot as the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I first heard of Savonarola in connection with this quote:

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good.

I don’t recall where I found it, sorry. I next heard of Savonarola in connection with the Bonfire of the Vanities (little knowing that there were many) and then as yet another voice calling for reform in the wilderness who was silenced by a tyrannical church hierarchy out to preserve its own wealth and decadence.

The real Savonarola is both more colourful and less heroic. At least, he is less heroic for the Protestants who hold him up as yet another Dominican proto-Reformer/martyr. He helped establish political reform in Florence and believed the King of France to be God’s agent for church reform everywhere. This is not quite the same as Jan Hus (d. 1415), is it?

I look forward to visitng Fra Girolamo’s monastery tomorrow and seeing what trace he has left on Florence as I now enter tourist mode.

Saint of the Week: Saint Dominic

St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, that is Black Friars or Dominicans (natch). He was born in Caleruega, Spain, near the Benedictine abbey of St. Dominic of Silos. His parents wished to dedicate his life to the Church, and he studied theology at Palencia University around age 14.

A hard-working student, he actually owned his own books as a demonstration of his commitment to his studies, given the vast expense of books in a world of manuscripts and copyists. However, he demonstrated an even greater commitment in his life, a commitment to the ‘book of charity’, when he sold these books amongst other possessions in order to help the needy during a famine in Palencia.

In part due to this charitable activity, he was made canon of Osma Cathedral while still a student and took on his duties enthusiastically, living a communal life under the Rule of St. Augustine, which was later to form the backbone of the Order of Preachers he was to found. In 1201, Dominic became prior of the chapter when his friend Diego de Azevedo become bishop of Osma.

On embassies for Alfonso VIII of Castile, Dominic became aware of the spiritual danger of the Cathars, or Albigensians, as well as the need for evangelising the pagan Cuman peoples. As part of his desire to evangelise the lost and reform the heretics, he visited Citeaux, home of St. Bernard, which had been a centre of anti-Albigensian activity.

Dominic and his friend Diego were in contact with various Albigensians and, while noting the spiritual danger of their teachings, were also aware of the sincerity of the followers of this syncretistic religious group with roots in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean lands. Since the Albigensians lived lives of strict poverty, Diego and Dominic arranged the missions of those they sent to live a similar lifestyle and to seek to convert the Albigensians to the Catholic faith through reasoned discussion, not coercion.

Diego and Dominic spent several years in southern France preaching amongst the Albigensians, and won a number of converts to orthodox Christianity, including several who chose to enter the religious life. Yet the Albigensians were numerous, and the workers were few. Soon, after an Albigensian assassinated a papal legate, an all-out ‘crusade’ was launched against the French Albigensians, and Dominic’s approach of reasoned evangelism came into peril as the Catholic forces sought to exterminate Albigensianism by exterminating Albigensians.

In 1215, Dominic went to the Fourth Lateran Council, which sought to organise the Church in a manner conducive to the propagation of the Gospel through the preaching of the Word and the reasoned battle against heresy. The fruit of Dominic and his companions’ activities in the midst of the energetic Pope Innocent III was the establishment in 1216 of the Order of Preachers which took the Rule of St. Augustine as its own along with Constitutions appended by Dominic.

The Order of Preachers is technically not a monastic order but an order of mendicant friars. Mendicant is a fancy word for beggar. Like the Franciscans, Dominicans were meant to be dependent not on their own or worldly resources but on the charity of those around them and of the Church. They were to move from place to place on foot (sometimes they would acquire horses and nowadays have been seen in all sorts of newfangled technologies) and to preach in the towns of Europe and dispute with the heretics, especially the Albigensians. They followed the call to ‘evangelical poverty’, taking seriously Jesus’ commands to sell everything and give to the poor.

This wandering, begging lifestyle of shabby clothing and sleeping on the floor is the one Dominic had as his own from before the establishment of the Order. Combined with his charismatic personality, his mode of life as well as personal virtues made him the sort of person the Albigensians, who sought purity and perfection, would listen to. His ascetic lifestyle made inroads for the Gospel.

The Order spread rapidly during Dominic’s lifetime and now stretches around the world, seeking to bring the light of the Gospel of Jesus with it through preaching as well as through theological education to save people from the pitfalls of heresy.

His feast is August 8.

Most of this information came from Butler’s Lives of the Saints: August.

More on Dominicans

Flirting with Monasticism. This highly readable book (recommended here) gives an introduction to the spiritual life of the Dominican order and how you, too can benefit from monastic spiritual practices.

Famous Dominicans

St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Fra Angelico (there are others, but I’m not really familiar with them at all)

Tomorrow Night: Fasting with John Wesley

For the next four Tuesdays of Lent, the Classic Christian small group will be looking at four spiritual disciplines: Fasting, Simplicity, Worship, and Service.  Tomorrow night, we begin with Fasting.

Fasting is a venerable practice engaged in by many of the luminaries of Scripture, from Moses to Elijah to St. Paul to our Lord Jesus Christ himself.  The Didache relates that the early Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Desert Fathers ate one meal a day around three o’clock in the afternoon.  They taught that fasting was essential to the life of prayer — and undivided prayer was their purpose in retreating to the desert.  One cannot pray on a full stomach — and John Cassian recommends never eating so much that you be satisfied.  Fasting and prayer coupled together are the best defense against the demons and the evil thoughts that infiltrate our minds and tempt us to sin.

Fasting continues to be emphasised throughout the monastic tradition, from St. Augustine and St. Benedict through to the Franciscans and the Dominicans.  In course of time, requirements for fasting on particular days and at particular seasons mellowed to abstinence, thus, not eating (red) meat on Fridays or going vegan for Lent.

In most Protestant circles, the emphasis salvation on absolutely nothing but faith in Jesus led to the falling away of fasting over time, even though Martin Luther, the loud proponent of justification by faith, fasted.  In the 1700’s, John Wesley found himself inspired by the ancient Christian witness and practice.  He fasted twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays and required that those wishing to become Methodist preachers themselves fast twice a week.

Fasting has an eminent pedigree.  We who live in a culture obsessed with food, obsessed with consumption, in the thrall of instant gratification, should seriously consider fasting.  We must not allow ourselves to become slaves to anything* — our bellies, our taste buds, food, grocery stores, advertisers, food production companies, restaurants, fast food joints.  Ruling our bodies is a step towards freedom, and fasting is a step towards ruling the body.

If you find yourself stoked about fasting & John Wesley, read his sermon on fasting, the text for tomorrow.

*This would, in fact, include being enslaved to a rule of fasting.

Flirting with Monasticism

Every once in a while, Wycliffe College has a bunch of discount books for sale on some tables outside their bookstore.  On Thursday nights, I walk past these tables since they’re right outside the room where Graduate Christian Fellowship meets.  This past Thursday (March 26), I noticed Flirting With Monasticism: Finding God On Ancient Paths for sale there.  Since the U of T library system didn’t have it, I bought it on Friday.  And I read it on Friday, with the exception of the appendices which I read on Saturday.

Flirting with Monasticism is Karen E Sloan’s journey with Dominican friars through a year of novitiate.  The Dominican part of her pilgrimage began when she found she had a crush on a young man who was entering the novitiate.  Thus began a year of questions and searching for her as well as worshipping with a different group of Dominicans in the priory in her neighbourhood.  Over the year, Sloan journeyed into the monastic world as far as a Protestant woman really can, learning much about the Dominicans and Dominic, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and encountering God in rich, deep, powerful ways.

Christianity is about a life with God, about relationship, and the monks know it.

As a taste of what you find within, here are the chapter titles: “Finding God on Ancient and Not-So-Ancient Paths”, “Vestition: Receiving the Habit,” “The Liturgy of the Hours: Praying the Divine Office,” “In the Presence of Christ: Participating in Adoration & the Eucharist,” “Encountering Mary: Saying the Rosary,” “Community: Living Together Constantly,” “The Communion of Saints: Living in a Visual History,” “First Profession of Vows: Making Commitments,” “Epilogue: It’s Not a Program.”

Those chapter titles, now that I look at them, sound very Catholic.  However, Sloan is very up-front about her evangelical character as a Presbyterian pastor.  Thus, for those of us not in agreement with Rome’s doctrines about Eucharist, Mary, and the Saints, and for those of us not comfortable joining in on practices such as Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, don’t worry!  She finds lessons from these aspects of Catholic spirituality for the evangelical Protestant, many of them found in the meaning behind these actions and the contemplative nature of monastic life.

The biggest thing that runs through this book is the Liturgy of the Hours, which she prayed with the monks at the local priory twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer.  Regular prayer has potency and the cycle of scriptures and Psalms is good for our souls.  We are bound together as we worship the one, holy Triune God.

So What?

So, I’ve been flirting with monasticism for a while.  You may recall posts on my old blog at St. Francis of Assisi.  My fondness for Francis led me to consider becoming an associate of The Society of Saint Francis (SSF) or to join the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, John Michael Talbot’s group, inspired by Talbot himself — including his book Lessons From Saint Francis, as well as Rich Mullins, GK Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. I also own Celebrating Common Prayer, a version of the Daily Office of the SSF.  And I’ve seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon. St. Francis is always an inspiration to me, and a painting of him sits on the shelves on my desk as I do my work.

My monastic flirtation goes beyond St. Francis, but is mostly bookish, cerebral, intellectual.  Not as spiritual as I’d like.  My current research is into the fifth-century monastic writer John Cassian.  I wrote a paper on the Desert Fathers for a course in my undergrad (the inspiration for my current work) — I have read many of their sayings as well as the Life of St. Antony.  I’ve also read selections from the Rule of St. Benedict and Gregory’s Life of Benedict.  I love the film Into Great Silence which led me to read a book (lent by my uncle) entitled Carthusians.  Add to all these Lady Julian of Norwich’s Revelations Of Divine Love, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, selections from the Philokalia, most of St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience, and selections from other monks/nuns/anchorites, and you could say that I’ve encountered a lot more monastic reading than the average person who thinks himself “evangelical.”

Flirting With Monasticism has challenged me to do more than just read about monks.  I should be seeking ways that monastic wisdom can be incorporated into my life as a married layperson.  And so I’m going to do just that.  I’ll keep you posted.