Jacques Maritain Center : St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny

CHAPTER 6: Envoi

It is a short distance, geographically, from Rocca Secca, where Thomas Aquinas was born, to Fossanova, where he died, but it took Thomas a lifetime to get from one point to the other. Today the traveler can climb a higher hill above the present town of Rocca Secca and, standing among the ruins of the castle, look out over the valley Thomas would have seen as a child when, allegedly, he first asked, "What is God?" The same traveler can be shown, at Fossanova, in the former Cistercian monastery, a room on the second floor where Thomas died, convinced that all he had written of God was as straw. That conviction was the product of a mystical experience, and the traveler, unblessed by that, can only muse at the vast distance -- philosophically, theologically, spiritually -- Thomas travelled from childhood to the age of forty-nine when he died. What he had written then started on a journey which has not ended yet.

This book has been a journey too. Its author, looking back over it, dismayed at how little he has managed to say, is Thomist enough to think that it is straw. How can his reader discover here the Thomas who wrote the magnificent office of the feast of Corpus Christi whose hymns are still heard in our churches? How can his reader derive from these poor pages any sense of the loving meditation that went into Thomas's commentaries on Scripture? And why did the author not insist on the scholarly achievement of the Catena aurea, a golden chain indeed of Patristic and later expositions of the Gospels? It is easy to be impressed by the logical elegance of selected arguments of Thomas. Few can fail to be impressed by the lucidity of his analysis of particular points. But if some of the parts are here, where is the whole? Thomas is that exceedingly rare person who combines holiness, a spiritual life that rivals those of the greatest mystics, with the care and precision and boundless patience of the intellectual. There are many holy people who look with disdain on arguments; there are many proficient in argument for whom holiness is a closed book. It is important, in reading Thomas, to remember that he often paused to pray when he wrote, that the writing itself was a prayer. He regarded mind as the distinctive mark of the creature man is, and it was his creaturely duty to use his mind as well as he could. But as a believer, he knew the limitations of mind. He knew that love can go a long way on the basis of a minimum of understanding. Our destiny is the perfection of knowledge, a beatifying vision of God, but that is a knowledge that will be animated by love.

It is safe to predict that Thomas's role as intellectual mentor will only increase. His status among Roman Catholics is, or at least should be, secure. Thomas has been canonized by the Church; he has been names Doctor Communis whose teaching the Church has made her own. He was on his way to a Church council when he died. In a way, he has attended all those that have been held since. For a Catholic not to know Thomas is to be cut off from an essential portion of his patrimony. For others, Thomas's importance for such a large segment of humanity lends him a prima facie wider cultural interest. From the Divina Commedia onward Thomas speaks indirectly through vast numbers of artistic achievements, and it would be a cultural impoverishment not to know directly the thought of a man who has seemed paradigmatic to so many believers. And if Thomas is right in his thoughts on the distinction between faith and knowledge, if his philosophical efforts were successful, and perhaps even if they were not, he has a claim on the attention of philosophers in general. Indeed, unbelieving philosophers seem intent on trying the steel of their refutations on Thomas's arguments in preference to all others, as if, should they be successful against him, they must surely be said to have carried the day.

It is not necessary, then, to share Thomas's religious faith in order to read him with profit, any more than one must share Dante's or Shakespeare's or Milton's or Donne's. There will doubtless always be many of those whom 'Time' has called Peeping Thomists, thinkers, who derive much of what they hold from the study of Thomas but who are either not believers or, if believers, not Catholics. Nonetheless, it is the believer and particularly the Catholic who will feel most drawn to Thomas. For them, the traditional precept will seem less a command than an invitation or opportunity. Ite ad Thomas. Go to Thomas. That is the message of this book.

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