Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: the Mystery of God and the Mystery of the Eucharist

Jan 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Today, January 28th, is the feast day of one of the Church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274). For his penetrating syntheses of faith and reason, nature and grace, and speculative, practical and spiritual theology, he is known as the doctor communis, the Common Doctor among the bright and God-consumed minds of the Catholic tradition.

St. Thomas in Ecstasy
“Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?”

“None other than Thyself, Lord.”

-St. Thomas Aquinas to the Lord Jesus after composing the treatise on the Eucharist, AD 1273.

Joining the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, at a young age, Thomas devoted himself to the mystery of God throughout his life. Most know that his chief work is the Summa theologica. Few also know that he commented on the Sacred Scriptures, on the philosophical works of Aristotle, and, earlier, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (the production of the latter being a standard requirement for attaining the bachelor of theology in the thirteenth century). Thomas composed various disputations drawn from his university teaching on topics such as truth, creation, the nature of evil, and the various types of virtues. Today the Church uses many of his hymns and prayers, particularly in her celebration of the Holy Eucharist. For example, Thomas wrote the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi. His method and works have been commended by popes to form priests and laity in the sapiential–that is, wisdom-seeking–quest for the knowledge of God, the universe, and the mysteries of salvation.


Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP

Yesterday the Catholic University of America and the Dominican House of Studies celebrated the feast of St. Thomas early with Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP, Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.1 In his homily, the archbishop correlated two themes one finds in the life of the great saint: an indefatigable thirst for greater understanding of the mystery of God and an intense dedication to Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. One may listen to the homily by watching this video of the Mass, beginning around minute twenty-one. I highly recommend the homily and have prepared a few thoughts in honor of St. Thomas as inspired by Archbishop Di Noia’s preaching.

The first theme is St. Thomas’s understanding that faith is not only compatible with human reason, but that human reason can continually grow in its understanding of the mysteries of faith. The mysteries of faith, according to Archbishop Di Noia, are “by definition without end […] endlessly comprehensible and explicable […] Not darkness but too much light […] An unending and inexhaustible power to attract and transform the minds and hearts of the individual and communal lives in which they are pondered, digested, and ultimately loved and adored.” The light of faith purifies reason and prepares reason to serve the human journey to the blessed communion of the Three Persons. Thomas appropriated elements of Greek philosophy, whether Aristotelian, Platonic, or otherwise, often doing so in conversation with accomplished Jewish and Muslim philosophers of his day. He sat at the feet of the Church Fathers, read and re-read Sacred Scripture, and adverted to the symbols of faith in the Church’s creeds and pronouncements when necessary. St. Thomas thus synthesized various philosophical and theological sources for the mission of understanding more deeply the things of God, the movement of the rational creature to God, and the way in which this is possible in the Lord Jesus Christ. In his writings we can find an astounding coherence to the faith, not only in the correspondence of its various parts but also of the breadth and height of its contents.

A surprising point made by Archbishop Di Noia in this regard is that we often think of a “mystery” as something impenetrable or inscrutable to human reason. “It’s a mystery,” we say as we dismiss further reflection on a topic or event. Yet St. Thomas understood God to be the author of reason and that human reason participates in God’s rationality (cf. I-II q. 94 a. 2 on the eternal law of God and the rational participation therein of the human creature). In fact, God is reason:

Now, the end of each thing is that which is intended by the its first author or mover. But the first author and mover of the universe is an intellect, as will be later shown. The ultimate end of the universe must, therefore, be the good of an intellect. This good is truth. Truth must consequently be the ultimate end of the whole universe, and the consideration of the wise man aims principally at truth. (Summa contra Gentiles, ch. 1)

And because God is infinite, the conclusion is that the mystery of God is infinitely sought by the rational creature. Ultimately man’s journey into the mystery of God is possible only with the ontological, moral, and epistemological elevation of the rational creature to God through grace, but such elevation does not destroy, nullify, or circumvent the human mind. In fact, we pursue with theology now what we behold in substance in the life to come: the unending and limitless expansion of our awe and amazement at the beauty of the Triune God’s very being and love. Although God is simple, we behold the one mystery of God through various means. Included in these means are the seven “mysteries” or sacraments of Christ.

This touches on the the second theme of the homily, which was St. Thomas’s love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and how in that Sacrament Thomas entered into the deep truth of the God who is love. Archbishop Di Noia related how Thomas had the habit of celebrating daily Mass and then attending a second Mass immediately following. At this second Mass, Thomas would serve at the altar. Often the great theologian would be found weeping at the beauty of God’s love shown forth in Christ Jesus. Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, quotes St. Thomas on the same theme, saying that “the concrete manner in which everything that the Savior did and suffered in the flesh reaches us even today [is…] ‘spiritually through faith and bodily through the sacraments, for Christ’s humanity is simultaneously spirit and body in order that we might be able to receive into ourselves [we who are spirit and body] the effect of the sanctification that comes to us through Christ.'”2 Thomas understood that the sacraments are the means of grace, the ways of participating in the divine life. The encounter with the Lord through the consumption of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist vivifies the spirit through the divine nature of Jesus Christ, bringing us to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the sacraments, believers enter into the mystery of the Triune God, where the inexhaustible mystery may be forever contemplated, searched, and enjoyed. Thomas wept because of the beauty of the mystery.

We who think ourselves theologically attuned can learn many things from St. Thomas. With the collapse of Enlightenment foundationalism under the pressure of the post- or late-modern critique comes also a collapse of confidence in human reason’s ability to wonder at the deep truth’s of existence and, above all, the God who upholds it every moment. Reason has been reduced to innocent delusion at best or hungry quest for power at worst. Sadly, this attitude of suspicion toward reason–even redeemed reason–has had deleterious influence on much modern theology. Despite the origin of man from God, who is pure spirit, many doubt that that which is most spiritual in man–his intellect–is incapable of attaining true sapientia from and in God. St. Thomas Aquinas, the “simple” friar who lived eight-hundred years ago, knew better and his writings stand to show us the way. Let us ask him to help us as we seek the face of the living God in the Body and Blood of the living Savior.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, you always had Jesus, the Wisdom of God and the Bread of God, before your eyes. Pray for us, that we might weep with great joy in His presence!

  1. The University news report can be found here. []
  2. Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 2: Spiritual Master (CUA Press: 2003), 139, quoting De veritate q. 27 a. 4. []
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7 comments
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  1. I love St. Thomas and had the opportunity to read “Summa Theologica.” The Bible, the catechism, and St.Thomas’ book are my three favorites. By the way, Mr Turner, your writing style is similar to his.
    Bill

  2. Thank you, Barrett. I wish I could have been at the homily. I’m a big fan of Archbishop DiNoia, who accepted my first scholarly paper for publication.

    Best,
    Mike

  3. […] Called to Communion has an excellent post up on St. Thomas and the Mystery of God. […]

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful post. I have a question: why is the intellect “that which is most spiritual in man”? Is the will, for example, less spiritual?

  5. Jake,

    this may help a bit…

    The will can be pulled by either the divine/spiritual part of man (i.e. intellect) or the animal part of man (i.e. body). The animal part is the lowest part, whereas the divine part is the highest, most spiritual part. Hence, the intellect is more spiritual than the will, so to speek. If we could place the will in order with respect to the parts that make up the form of human nature (i.e. divine and animal), then it would be right there in the middle and core of man, being produced by the convergence of both parts. This we may call the heart of man, or his will.

    This is how I understand it, but it is open to critique as well.

  6. one more thing…
    Im not exactly sure where Aquinas places the will, but I think he would place it in, or in close relationship with, the intellect.

  7. Hello Jake,

    For St. Thomas, it is not that the intellect is more spiritual than the will, but that among our apprehensive faculties, the intellect is the most spiritual. (The will is likewise the most spiritual of our appetitive faculties.) The intellect is the most spiritual (i.e. most immaterial) of our apprehensive faculties because it has an operation apart from the body, but our other apprehensive faculties do not. Drawing from Aristotle’s work On the Soul, St. Thomas argues that whatever forms the intellect is capable of receiving and knowing, it cannot already have as its nature, just as the eye would not see the color yellow if the lens of the eye were yellow. Just as the lens of the eye has to be colorless (i.e. transparent) in order for the eye to receive and see colors, so the intellect has to have no corporeal form (i.e. be immaterial) in order to receive and know the forms of all bodies. That’s a sketch of the argument he gives in ST I Q.75 a.2.

    In addition, our capacity to comprehend universals as such shows the intellect to be immaterial. Universals as such are not corporeal, because what is corporeal is particular, and therefore cannot be said of many, and yet universals as such are said of many. But a material thing receives forms only as particulars (i.e. as individuals), either by becoming that kind of thing through receiving this particular form (i.e. substantial change), or by receiving this particular form as an accident (e.g. the way information is placed on a hard drive, or letters are printed in a book). So to know a form, i.e. to know it as a universal (and receive it as absolute) that form must be received as immaterial, not as particular. But only something immaterial can receive a form as immaterial. Hence the intellect must be immaterial. That’s a sketch of his argument in ST I Q.75 a.5.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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