"Big with Wonder": The Feast Day of "The Dumb Ox"

G. K. Chesterton once wrote a biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. Originally published in 1933, it was simply called St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox.” How’s that for a catchy book title? Years ago, when school was my primary occupation, I came across this appellation of the saint and was intrigued by it. Yes, St. Thomas Aquinas is the great philosopher and theologian; he is a Doctor of the Church. However, it was the human Thomas that interested me—and what I found was even more intriguing. The youth who would eventually become a saint was just a quiet, reflexive sort who, though born into a noble Italian family, preferred a life of study to that of a life of worldly pursuits, power and glory.  Because he was not the outgoing type, he was considered something of a “dolt”; though solidly built in stature, he was gentle and kind in countenance and his slow, deliberate ways gave rise to the nickname that he was given by the other schoolboys and even his teacher, St. Albert the Great, who also called him by that moniker for which he would be famously known: “The Dumb Ox.” But even St. Albert acknowledged Thomas’ genius and learning by admitting that “we call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will one day be heard throughout the world.” And it is today, January 28th, while actually his birthday, is also his Feast Day.

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Though he was quiet, St. Thomas was a determined sort. He would not let anyone—even his family—interfere with what he saw as his purpose in life. The best illustration of that was when he made preparations to enter religious life and the one of his choice, at that. When his family learned of his desire to enter religious life, they expressed a preference that he choose the Benedictines, not the Dominicans, which is what Thomas wanted. The Benedictines were well thought of as a religious order; the Dominicans were rather “looked down” upon at the time by the mighty and well-to-do as far as religious orders went. His family’s displeasure was made known when they went so far as to have Thomas imprisoned in the family castles in order to prevent him from fulfilling his wish; his brothers went even farther in their efforts to dissuade Thomas from his chosen path—they hired a prostitute to seduce him away from his holy desires! Now, how “noble” can one’s family get!?! (Thomas’ case shows us that even saints are not immune from family dissensions!) It did not work, of course—the story has it that he chased her away with a fire iron! And after that incident (like Jesus in the desert), he was ministered to by the angels, who comforted, consoled and encouraged him. After his brothers’ attempt failed, even Thomas’ mother relented and arranged to have him escape through the castle window, reasoning that an escape like that wasn’t as “scandalous” as entering a religious order!

St. Thomas was born on January 28, 1225 and died on March 7, 1274; thus, when he died, he was only 49 years old—but it was an eventful life and he left behind thoughts and reflections which have enriched the Church ever since. And it was for that work and life of sanctity that he was canonized by Pope John XXII on July 18, 1323. Eventually, he would become the patron of academics, against storms and lightning, apologists, book sellers, Catholic academies, schools and universities, chastity, learning, pencil makers, philosophers, publishers, scholars and students. He is the patrons of places as well: not only is the patron of his native Aquino, Italy, but of other Italian cities too, namely Belcastro and Falena. He is known of course, for what is considered his great work: the Summa Theologica.

But St. Thomas Aquinas can also be rightfully remembered by the simple thoughts and reflections he made on learning and on life, which says so much and which can offer us plenty to ponder in our modern technological day and age. Here are some examples:

The things that we love tell us what we are.

Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.

There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.

I liked St. Thomas Aquinas for another, more prosaic reason: he loved books and learning. In a sense, he was almost like the very secular Thomas Jefferson, our third President, who once said, “I cannot live without books.” Indeed, St. Thomas remarked: “Beware of the person with one book.” (Truly, St. Thomas Aquinas had the heart of a bibliophile! And, in a surprising—and contrasting—way, he was very much unlike St. Francis of Assisi, who was supposedly notorious for distrusting books and learned people.) After all, St. Thomas is often illustrated with book and quill in hand. It is no wonder that he is considered the patron of booksellers and publishers, schools and even pencil makers! (I guess the pencil makers are the stand-ins for the quills of St. Thomas’ time.) Another reason I liked him was the fact he had a sense of humor and an understanding of the human condition. It is said that he liked jokes and was humorous; what saint do you know of who said that “sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine”? (The only other saint who could say anything like that would possibly be St. Brigid of Ireland, who likened Heaven to a “lake of ale” of which she wished everyone to partake of. Before anyone comments that I’m limiting the lighter side of the saints in listing only two examples, be advised that I know that heavenly humor is never limited, even for those saints above us and for the ones right beside us…)

Speaking of books and learning, St. Thomas Aquinas was once asked what the most grateful to God for.  In an answer I’ve always loved, he was supposed to have said that he was “grateful for understanding every word I’ve ever read.”  Now, while I can’t go so far as to say that (I suppose that’s what dictionaries and thesauruses are for), I can say that if I was ever asked that question, I vary my response by saying that while I’m grateful for reading every word, I might not have understood many of them! (But just the same, I’m glad that I’m able to do so!)  

Toward the end of his life, he was given the privilege of a vision of God’s glory. It was one which left him in ecstasy, but not without some trepidation and a feeling of incompleteness, especially when it came to his writing, the work of his life. He was so overwhelmed, that all he could say was: “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.” Perhaps the Angelic Doctor taught us a great lesson when he compared poets with philosophers by saying that both were “big with wonder.” As “big in body” St. Thomas Aquinas might have been, his mind—and more importantly—his soul was “big with wonder.” On this, his Feast Day, that might be something we can thank this special person and saint for, who was once derided as the “Dumb Ox.” May we all be like this great Dominican friar, and may he help us to always be “big with wonder,” in every day of our lives.

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