On Being a Thomist

The following article was written by Emily Sullivan. 

“O God, who made St. Thomas Aquinas outstanding in his zeal for holiness and his study of sacred doctrine, grant us, we pray, that we may understand what he taught and imitate what he accomplished.”  – Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Whole books have been written on how to be a disciple of St. Thomas – how to study him, how to translate his Latin, how to understand him aright, how to approach the deep meaningful questions in theology and philosophy as the Angelic Doctor did, with precision and patience, with courage and clarity, relying on an expansive command of both sacred and secular texts.  But all of this, in my estimation, would fail to capture “the one thing necessary” that separates the true Thomist, from almost every other kind of student disciple – the possibility of not only “understanding what he taught” but of, assisted by grace, ordering one’s life so as to imitate what he accomplished – heroic sanctity and the reward of eternal life.

When people identify themselves as a student of a certain thinker – “I am an Platonist” or “I am a Cartesian” they mean to signify, not merely that they are familiar with the thoughts of some genius, but that in some real way, they have made a kind of intellectual assent; a commitment to that person’s account of reality, often after some arduous study and consideration. If I am a Platonist, I may have some quibbles, but for the most part I am on board with Plato’s doctrine of the forms and the far reaching conclusions that follow from the principle.  I’ve familiarized myself with his dialogues, I too have made myself a student of Socrates, and Plato’s thoughts on nature and man and God have become my own. I have declared myself.

To be a Thomist, at least a great Thomist, has always demanded something more, much more than the account above. Why? Because as a saint, St. Thomas is a member of the Body of Christ (he a member of the Church Triumphant and I of the Church Militant) so there exists this potential for a real friendship in Christ, as my older brother in the faith. My friends who are Platonist know something of the mind of Plato from encountering his work, but for the Christian follower of St. Thomas there exists the possibility of not only knowing his mind, but of knowing his heart, and of encountering his heart. Cor ad Cor loquitur – heart speaks to heart. We should not be content to merely think as St. Thomas did, assenting to his vision of reality, but should strive through prayer to enjoy a kind of union, an intimacy that is characteristic of friends, made deeper because we both love the Truth, the 2nd person of the Blessed Trinity. I can sit with the Summa on my lap and ask St. Thomas to help me and from his place before the throne of the Godhead he can intercede for me, providing efficacious help in a way that Plato can’t when I’m struggling with “The Republic.” I can say “St. Thomas, help me understand the Divine Attributes as you did.”  And he does.

To be the best Thomist you can be, it is not enough to think as Thomas thought, the way a Platonist or Cartesian does; It is not enough to know the content of his works, his Summas and Commentaries. No. To take on the habitus of St. Thomas you must strive to have you life ordered as Thomas ordered his life, which is nothing short of a life of heroic virtue, a life of cooperation with grace, a life that was led so as to glorify the Blessed Trinity, a life marked by contemplation and the sharing of that fruit with others. If you want to be a follower of St. Thomas, then you not only familiarize yourself with his Questions on the Eucharist in the Tertia Pars, you pray his prayers before and after Communion and you sing his Corpus Christi hymns with devotion. For St. Thomas, there was no distinction between the life of the mind and the life of holiness – this was all one integrated one of being and loving and encountering. To be a Thomist, you must not be content to merely imitate his thought patterns, but must strive to imitate his way of holiness insofar as God’s will directs.

So if you wish to be a mediocre Thomist study what Thomas said. If you wish to be a great Thomist, a true follower of Thomas, then go further and study as Thomas studied. This means:

1. You love the truth! You don’t let our culture’s many diversions distract you from it. You don’t let laziness or pride deter you from it and you are always mindful that the truth is never just for you, as if it were a private possession. Christ came for all and the truth is for all, and most people are starving for it. It is a common good and those who have it, have an obligation to share it. Thomas is a Dominican through and through and in the Order of Preachers, you study to save souls. Thomas loved books so he could love God and love souls. He didn’t want to shine, but to illuminate.

2. You do theology on your knees. You must love the Lord your God with all your mind, and consecrate the work of your mind to Him in service and fidelity to His Bride, the Church. You remember that anything you say or write is to glorify God. You avail yourself of the sacraments, especially frequent confession and holy communion and strive to grow in the virtues.

3. You’re not intimidated by the claims of reason or science and welcome the opportunity to find the truth in other disciplines or even when it comes from pagans or heretics.

4. You keep a lively sense of wonder and awe, especially about the highest things and the ultimate questions. You don’t despair that you aren’t smart enough or will never become a Doctor of the Church. You are faithful to the intellectual work that God has called you to and approach it with gratitude and joy, making your best efforts with the time and skills He has given you.

5. You cultivate relationships with the kind of friends who will refine your ideas and who inspire you to keep studying and thinking and pursuing wisdom. You are always ready to learn from them and accept correction with humility.

A Prayer to St. Thomas

St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of students and schools, I thank God for the gifts of light and knowledge he bestowed on you, which you used to build up the Church in love. I thank God, too, for the wealth and richness of teaching you left in your writings. Not only were you a great teacher, you lived a life of virtue and you made holiness the desire of your heart. If I cannot imitate you in the brilliance of your studies, I can follow you in the humility and charity which marked your life. As St. Paul said, charity is the greatest gift, and it is open to all.  Novena Prayer to St. Thomas Aquinas          

Visit Emily Sullivan’s blog, Stay at Home Thomist.


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