Yesterday was the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose name I took on the day I was received into the Catholic Church almost 26 years ago.
It’s hard for me to speak of the Angelic Doctor without gushing — I feel as if I know him personally, I have spent so many hours and years in the presence of his mind and heart as expressed through the mountain of his writing.
Those of you who have struggled with the seeming complexity of his thought may chuckle at the suggestion of my being choked with emotion on his feast day, but from the very beginning of my encounter with St. Thomas I experienced, not just mentally but physically, the grace he shared with the Church as the Universal Doctor.
As I wrote in my memoir, An American Conversion, it was my first reading of the Summa Theologica as a first-year philosophy professor at a Southern Baptist college in Atlanta that set me on the road to conversion. It wasn’t the proofs for the existence of God — a horrible place to start teaching St. Thomas, by the way — but his explanation of why everything that exists is good.
Anything that exists is either God or created by God. Now every creature of God is good, says St. Paul. And God himself is supremely good. So everything that exists is good (Ia, 5, 3, sed contra).
What may seem so obvious, and so abstract to most readers, hit a 30-year old who had been reading existentialism since high school right in the solar plexus and lifted his eyes to a redbird singing over his head. As I wrote in my memoir:
As I turned that phrase over in my mind, “everything that exists is good,” the redbird began to sing, and somehow that phrase was taken up into the bird’s song, and for a moment (I don’t know how long) the bird was singing the saint’s words, the words and the song were one and the same thing (p. 79).
This was not the only time St. Thomas changed my life — in fact, he saved it once.
In the fall of 1989, I was driving down the Bronx River Parkway, just north of New York City, to attend a new faculty reception at Fordham University.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon, and the parkway, uncharacteristically, was empty, or at least I thought so. I was driving a beat-up Ford Pinto, and not wearing my seat belt, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a car come flying down the road in the lane to my left.
I was driving the speed limit, 45 mph, but the car was going at least double that as it whizzed by me. For some reason, the driver decided to cut in front of me clipping the left front of my car. In an instant my car turned 45 degrees to the right, heading directly toward the guard rail. I looked at the speedometer (45 mph), quickly calculating I could not survive, and said goodbye to my wife and my daughter then only 11 months old.
When I hit the guard rail, my car bounced back into the middle of the parkway. The top of my head hit hard against the window, my chest against the steering wheel, but I remained conscious. Stunned, I looked around and saw cars coming towards me, but I was unable to move.
Then I saw the blood. The door suddenly opened and a soothing voice said, ‘You have a bad cut on your head — we need to put something on it.” (The mirror had virtually scalped me, as it turned out.) The man explained he was an off-duty fireman and grabbed my brand new navy blue cashmere blazer from the back seat and put it on my head.
I cringed at the thought of that jacket being bloodied, so I asked him if he could find something else. He laughed and found some old towels on the floor of the back seat.
He left me there after wrapping my head, saying an ambulance was on the way. Suddenly I started to feel very cold and sleepy — I was losing consciousness when I heard the siren. But I was slipping into the darkness.
The door opened and I was lifted out of the car and placed on a stretcher. I felt myself hoisted into the back of the EMS vehicle. Then a voice, female and Irish, yelled at me, “You have to get yourself together, NOW!” It felt like a slap in the face.
I heard myself saying, “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas,” I don’t know why, the name just came to my lips. Slowly my mind my began to clear, and I opened my eyes — I saw the smiling face belonging to the Irish voice that brought me out of the darkness.
At the North Central Bronx Hospital my scalp was sewed back on my head. After a few hours, my wife Theresa and a friend, Dr. Dominic Balestra, picked me up and took me home, my head covered with bandages.
When Hannah was put in my arms, I’ve never felt sweeter tears of gratitude. I thought, I was certain, I would never see her again.
The next day Theresa went to the wrecking yard to retrieve my belongings from the car. The man at the counter asked if it was her husband who was driving the car. When she said, “Yes,” he offered his condolences. She told him I was alive, but banged up, and he was was surprised, but relieved, explaining that usually when cars are that crumpled and there is so much blood…
She brought home a box of books from the car’s back seat. The only book ruined was the one on top, Jean Paul Sartre’s Essays in Existentialism. The irony of Sartre being so soaked in blood it was unreadable did not occur to me until years later.
St. Thomas brought me back to life, to the existence he had taught me was shot through with the inexhaustible goodness of God.