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.

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Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.

Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.