There are a great many saints who will never be known on this side of God’s grace, whose lives merited heavenly bliss but not the history books. This host of secret saints represents the central secret of what it means to be a saint: who a person is is more important than what a person does. In other words, the prestige of sainthood is not necessarily determined by what is done but how it is done.
Thomas Aquinas is a saint; and his sanctity, by this reasoning, is prior to anything of note that he may have done—such as writing the Summa Theologica. Bearing out the distinction between character and career, the Summa suddenly becomes a sign of the holiness of St. Thomas and not the reason why he was holy. Most people know and recall Thomas for being a master theologian, philosopher, teacher, preacher, and a Doctor of the Universal Church—for thus is his overwhelming legacy. Few are aware of his position concerning the role of “playful deeds and jokes” to maintain a healthy mind. There are only a handful of legendary anecdotes and historical scraps which offer insight into the soul, into the person, who achieved such wonders and earned such titles. Those that do exist are strangely suggestive of one whose profundity is both foreign and familiar—the profundity of angels and infants.
Though Thomas Aquinas was a man of formidable stature with a fair head like the sun at the crest of a hill, he possessed a delicate genius. He looked upon the world with the wide-eyed wonder and perceptive power of a youth, and engaged it with a youth’s zeal, honesty, and solemnity. There are few things more serious than a child engrossed in his play, and Thomas resembled one of these in his work. The brilliance of his writings shines with a virtuosity like play. Though the tendency exists, and with good reason, to depict or classify Thomas as an austere academic of furrowed brow and no nonsense, there is a straightforward delight and precision about this saint and his compositions that can evoke the schoolboy as much as the scholastic.
The heart of this mystery surrounding Thomas Aquinas is a terrible innocence. By a miraculous grace, Thomas was permitted to retain a moral integrity throughout his fifty years of life, and a disposition that was not drawn toward regions of depravity. His sins were reputedly the simple sins of small children, and this virtue freed his intellect from the temptations and distractions that drive away wisdom. Thomas had the liberty to examine the intricacies of the worlds around him unencumbered with the disturbances that human nature often introduces.
The traditional origin of this purity and clarity of both mind and heart occurred when Thomas was nineteen and his brothers, in an attempt to dissuade him from joining the Dominicans, locked him in a tower with a seductress. As any furious and frightened boy might have done, Thomas chased the harlot about the room with a flaming brand. Once she escaped, Thomas fell into a deep sleep as two angels descended to his prison and, like a child, dressed and trussed him up in a celestial girdle—a garment of perpetual chastity. From that time forth, he was not given to lust nor to the unruly motions of the flesh and able to apply himself entirely to the beauties and truths of the mind with uncanny poise and precision. This particular power of the innocent remained intact in Thomas Aquinas, allowing him to wield the gravitas and eloquence that comes out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.
The innocence of this thirteenth century sage is perhaps the quintessence of his character, and the most seemingly incongruous element of his renown. When Thomas was a small child, a tremendous storm burst over the ancestral castle and a lightning bolt shot through the casement killing both his sister and his nurse. This tragedy left the lad with a terror for thunderstorms that persisted throughout his life. When the skies rumbled and flashed, he was known to creep into the priory chapel and thrust his head into the tabernacle—as any toddler might creep into his parents’ room on such a night. Is this the behavior of a man possessed with mystic reason and iron logic? On the contrary, is there any man wiser than a man who is like a child?
“Thomas! Thomas!” two snickering friars called, rousing their brother who was bent over his books. “Look out the window—there are pigs flying in the sky!” Incredulous Thomas rose at once and bounced to the window. The friars laughed. Putting the finishing touch on the jest, the saint responded, “I would rather believe that pigs can fly than believe that my brethren could lie.” Could such waggish wit reside in a grave philosopher? On the contrary, does not a childish sense of humor lend gravitas to the philosopher?
“The proof from authority,” reads the Summa, “is the weakest type of proof according to Boethius.” Is it possible that the all-serious Summa could entertain a joke amid its judiciousness? On the contrary, is it possible that anyone who is serious enough to be a saint would not be as lighthearted as a youth?
Unless you become as little children…
The paradox that is presented by these ingenuous characteristics of the ingenious Angelic Doctor is one that should comfort rather than confuse. Paradoxes and Paradise go hand in hand. It is wonderful to think that even the most heavenly enlightened and intelligent of men was seemingly one of childlike simplicity, honesty, and solemnity. At the height of his history as a scholar, he was discovered in his cell scrawling away, as was his wont, but paying rapt attention to invisible teachers—St. Peter and St. Paul, as he once confided to one of his brothers. The great teacher was also a great student, learning the secrets of the Sacred Scriptures from the blessed Apostles themselves. And an apt pupil was Thomas, as St. Albert the Great, his visible teacher, knew well.
Like a new Thomas who could believe without seeing, Thomas Aquinas was finally given what he longed for. No one quite knows what happened as he knelt in the dark church before that crucifix. All that is known for certain is that he was not alone. “Thomas, thou hast written well of Me,” Christ said to his child. “What reward wouldst thou have?” “Nothing but Thyself, Lord,” was Thomas’ reply. It was then that St. Thomas saw something that brought a joyful end to his labors, something that made him famously call the prodigious and ponderous library that he had written “so much straw.” He shrugged at it all with a smiling indifference, as a child does over an old toy. His mind and pen turned to the Song of Songs, to poetry, and music.
When Thomas took to his deathbed in 1274, a star hovered over his monastery as it did for the Holy Infant’s manger. A priest was called in to hear the last confession of a giant—one who had understood and undertaken the truths of heaven and earth. G. K. Chesterton describes what followed in his glorious biography: “…the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.”
The “hidden Deity” was hidden from Thomas no longer.
St. Thomas Aquinas adored his God and gave glory to Him through his works; but it was his love that won him eternal glory and the sun for a crown. If he had remained—as his schoolfellows called him for his quiet manner—the Dumb Ox for his entire life, heaven would yet have been his by virtue of that love. But the Dumb Ox filled the world with his bellowing, and Thomas trod his path to Paradise by the high road instead of the low road—but his direction, whatever the road, was determined by the soul he housed in his great body. The miracle of his labors was a mere result of a much deeper miracle. And though many souls besides his were saved through the miracle of his mind, the greatest miracle of all is that one as a child could be so wise.
Editor’s note: The image above is a depiction of St. Thomas Aquinas painted by Carlo Crivelli in the fifteenth century. A version of this column appeared at Catholic Exchange on January 28, 2014.