Potential is hard to spot. Who would have thought, for example, that a quiet, overweight, lumbering boy nicknamed “the Dumb Ox” would become the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and establish the theology of Catholicism for centuries to come?

Thomas Aquinas, born a noble about 1225, enrolled in the University of Naples at age 14. His family encouraged him to pursue church office, but they were horrified when he renounced the prestige of ecclesiastical rank for a Dominican vow of poverty. His siblings kidnapped him, and he was imprisoned 15 months by his family. His brothers tempted him with money and even hired a prostitute to corrupt him. Thomas escaped through a window and fled to Paris where he sat under the great teacher Albertus Magnus.

Two intellectual forces were colliding in the classrooms of the day. The first was traditional theology; the other, Aristotle and other non-Christian writers like Averroes and Avicenna, the Muslims. The philosophers’ emphasis on reason seemed to undercut the theologians’ emphasis on faith. Thomas determined to bridge the two. All truth is coherent, he believed. The author of creation is the author of Scripture, thus true fact and true faith never conflict. Yet reason alone is insufficient. Revelation, theology, and the doctrines of faith show us the Triune God in greater detail.

Thomas’s towering intellect was accompanied by pulpit prowess. He would sometimes have to pause in mid-sermon, giving congregations time to recover from their weeping. Even more intense was his prayer life. “Every time he wanted to study, discuss, teach, write, or dictate,” said a friend, “he first had recourse to the privacy of prayer, weeping before God to discover the divine secrets.”

On December 6, 1273, while conducting Mass in the Chapel of St. Nicholas, a tremendous mystical experience broke over him. Thomas never again wrote theology. “I can do no more,” he told his servant. “Such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw. Now I await the end of my life.”

But God has given us his Spirit. That’s why we don’t think the same way that the people of this world think. That’s also why we can recognize the blessings that God has given us. (1 Corinthians 2:12)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Dec 6.

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