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California <br>St. Thomas Day Homily: <br>Rev. Dominic Legge, O.P.

California
St. Thomas Day Homily:
Rev. Dominic Legge, O.P.

Posted: January 31, 2020

Audio

Rev. Dominic Legge, O.P.
Assistant Professor,
Systematic Theology
Dominican House of Studies
Homily from the St. Thomas Day Mass
Thomas Aquinas College, California
January 28, 2020

 

Among the many stories about the life of St. Thomas Aquinas, there’s one that I have always found to be both very beautiful and very inspiring — and, as it turns, out, it’s also historically reasonably well-attested. It’s not just a pious legend.

It dates from when St. Thomas was living at the Dominican Priory in Naples, San Domenico Maggiore, if you’ve been to Naples. At that time he was writing the questions on the Passion and the Resurrection of Our Lord. As was his habit, he prayed quite early in the morning in the Chapel of St. Nicholas. And one morning the sacristan — a Dominican, Domenico of Caserta — was passing by and overheard a voice coming from the Crucifix: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What shall be your reward?”

And you know Aquinas’ reply: “Non nisi Te, Domine” — nothing but you, Lord, nothing but you.

What I love about this episode is that it helps us see the Aquinas who is not only a towering figure in the Western intellectual tradition, not only a genius in interpreting Aristotle and Augustine and Neoplatonism and the Church Fathers. He is not only a towering figure in philosophy and theology; he’s not just a sure guide for our studies. He’s above all a great saint. He’s a man whose entire life was consecrated to Christ and who devoted all of his powers — and they were considerable powers — to knowing Christ better, to loving Christ more.

And so it is quite right for us to celebrate, to honor, this great Doctor of the Church in this way. He is a man, a saint, who teaches us contemplative wisdom. He teaches us that we should not only seek to know something of the highest things about the First Cause of all that is; and that the goal of our study should not be to grasp a hold of this knowledge and put it at the service of our own projects, as if it were something that we could control. Rather it is to know God and, above all, to know Christ and Him crucified. This is the highest form of wisdom, and it requires a kind of humility before the Truth to recognize the height of God, the knowledge of God, and the smallness of our minds — and yet the marvelous truth that God wants to share His wisdom with us. And even more than that, He wants to share His very life with us.

To know God, to know Christ crucified, this is the highest form of wisdom. There’s no other goal beyond that. We don’t put this knowledge in the service of anything else. We desire it simply for its own sake, and as we acquire it, we begin to attain and even to enjoy our final end, Who is God Himself.

Aquinas is a great teacher of this tradition of wisdom. He’s not the only teacher, of course, but he’s an outstanding one. And as we come to know him, as we come to have him as a friend and a guide, as a tutor, then we begin to learn how to walk the path that he walked.

If I can speak for a moment about my own encounter with Aquinas, the beginnings of my way of following him as a kind of spiritual master and intellectual guide: I had been working in Washington, D.C., and had discerned that perhaps God was calling me, to the priesthood. I left my job and began to study philosophy at The Catholic University of America, and I was in over my head. I had not really studied philosophy much before, and here I was as a graduate student, trying to make sense of Aristotle’s Categories and things like that. Perhaps the freshmen here will recognize something of themselves in this story.

Our teacher was presenting Aquinas; we were reading the treatise on the passions. I thought it was beautiful the way Aquinas had developed this system of categorizing the passions, the passions of the soul. And I thought, “Well, this is a very clever guy. He’s developed a really interesting system, but this can’t possibly do justice to the real depths of the human soul, to the depths that I experience in my emotions. It’s a very nice package, but does it really get at the heart of things?” Well, that was my first reaction, and over the course of the semester, the more I read, the more I began to realize, “Oh, actually there’s something very deep here. I think this actually might be describing the reality within me.”

As I moved on in the study of Aquinas, into metaphysics, for example, I began to marvel at the way Aquinas was able to help me penetrate more deeply into reality. Being a student of Aquinas, then, is not simply about being a fan of a particular historical figure or being a partisan of a particular school of thought. It’s about trying to come to know what is — and not only what is in the created world around us, but He Who is, Who is the source of it all.

I began to learn that Aquinas was a teacher like the one described by Plato, who carves reality at the joints. If you’ve ever tried to carve a Thanksgiving turkey, if you didn’t know where the joins were, you probably made a mess. There are joints to reality, and Aquinas begins help us to discover them.

I then entered the Dominican Order. I didn’t enter the order to become a Thomist. I entered because I was drawn by the figure of that greater vir evangelicus, St. Dominic. But soon in St. Dominic’s order I discovered that careful training at the feet of St. Thomas Aquinas is a powerful way to open the mind — to open the mind to the world around us, yes, but also to the God Who is its source, to the God Who became man in order to save us. And the best way for the mind to encounter this reality is for the person to become consecrated to it.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ own life bears witness to this. At a young age he turned away from the plans that his parents had made for us, and he joined this very unreputable upstart of an order, the poor Friars Preachers As you perhaps know, his parents went quite a long way to try and prevent him from joining this group. They even sent his brothers to kidnap him as he was on his way to the novitiate. And what’s fascinating is that St. Thomas, even when held under a sort of house arrest, refused to remove his Dominican habit because he felt a very strong sense that, having taken that habit, he was now consecrated to this way of life. He was not a man with a weak will, obviously.

But Aquinas follows Christ not just with his will, but with his mind. He is single-minded in focusing his intellect on the highest things. And what wonderful fruits that effort bears for all of us! Aquinas recommends that we push our minds, that we push them to probe more deeply into the highest mysteries. Even though we may only be gaining some small glimpse in this life of the realities that are above us, he says, in a very beautiful line from the Summa Contra Gentiles, “The ability to perceive something of the highest realities, even if only with our feeble, limited understanding, gives the greatest joy.”

There’s another great teaching of Aquinas that I love: He says that grace is seeded in the mind; God’s grace comes to us first in the mind. Grace can purify our minds, and they need to be purified. They need to be purified of all the things that lead us away from God, even things that may be very good in themselves but that can be distractions from God, so that our minds can rise up to that high and beautiful and very pure knowledge of God. It is Jesus Christ Who brings us this grace, the grace that heals our minds, and He does it as he reveals His identity. He reveals His father to us.

In a beautiful passage of Aquinas’ commentary on the Gospel of John, he talks about Jesus revealing His secrets to His friends. When we have friends, we want to share what is inmost in us with them. And God, wanting to make us His friends, sent His own secret word, the Word which in eternity is with the Father and from the Father, Who expresses everything that the Faith is. This word comes to us makes us His friends and reveals His secrets to us.

That’s why Aquinas wanted nothing but Christ, nothing but Our Lord, Who is, of course, the highest thing. And so we discover, as we study Aquinas, that he’s not only our master in the classroom, he’s a master of the spiritual life. He, too, can be a friend, a companion on the way, the way of the Lord Jesus.

Surely he must be pleased at what is happening at this college that bears his name and is under his patronage. Surely he is pleased to see so many of you gathered here to honor him and to learn from him. Surely he would be pleased, also, if some of you would follow him in the Dominican Order (small advertisement). And surely he is pleased to intercede for us today; for this college; for all its students, faculty, staff, friends, benefactors. May St. Thomas be our guide in the way of contemplative wisdom.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us. Amen.

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Thomas Esser (’18)

“It’s wonderful how, in the integrated curriculum, everything matches up. You’ll be reading one thing in language class, and then it will come up again in philosophy, and goes on to affect everything you read from then on. You get a deeper understanding of each discipline by seeing how they connect with the others.”

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Chino Hills, California

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