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Late have I loved him—or later, at least, than a lot of people. I was 27 years old when I first sat down to read the work of St. Thomas Aquinas seriously. At that point, having grown up in the Bible-soaked world of evangelicalism, and having gone off to earn degrees in philosophy and literature, I felt that I understood the Bible and the Western intellectual tradition, at least in broadest outline, as undergrads learn them. And I already had spent some time struggling to understand how these things could work together, as I tried to organize what the philosophers called “a good life.” All this, as it turns out, was the perfect set-up for my introduction to Aquinas. I recall racing through pages of the Summa Theologiae, feeling a kind of electric hum. Once or twice, I found myself whispering out loud, “He’s a genius.” And so, 700 years or so after Aquinas wrote the words I was reading, I had the remarkable sense that I had discovered him for the first time.

As I became a regular reader of Aquinas, I began to see the kind of overall coherence that is present in his work and in the work of only a few of the greatest synthesizing minds. Particularly in the Summa, a work composed at the end of his life (he died in 1274), the connections seem endless: so many sections of the text easily could be inserted as an extended footnote at any number of other points.

I marveled as he made specific connections I felt I should have seen, but had not. Since I was a child, I had known well the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “I no longer call you servants. I have called you friends.” A signal text, it laid the ground for real and intimate connection to God. As I made my way through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, though, it simply never occurred to me, as it had to Aquinas, that the detailed account of friendship outlined there made possible an even richer interpretation of the Evangelist’s account. To me, this sort of interrelatedness did not look like cold, mathematical logic. It looked like profound intellectual care and commitment to connection. It looked to me like someone else who was trying, as I was, to pull things together and aim for the good.

At the same time, I could see how lightly Aquinas carried his genius—a feeling sometimes at odds with my own experience in academia. As much as I loved ideas, self-importance and bickering among academics already had begun to push me away. Perhaps I was oversensitive, as so many in my generation seemed to be. Growing up just behind the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, and watching them become the excesses of the 1980s, I was suspicious of both systems and agendas and of those whose egos seemed closely connected to either one.

In Aquinas, though, I could see that even as he constructed a certain “system,” he was not focused on the system itself. He encourages us to aim higher while at the same time recognizing what we cannot do. The way he makes use of a principle of analogy to describe speech about God sets a parameter early on in his Summa: all of his complex intellectual claims may be true, more or less, but they can never be truth itself. This is more than just general modesty about intellectual pursuit. This is, for Aquinas, intimately connected to the notion of admiratio, an underappreciated theme in his work.

A friend well-versed in Aquinas and in medieval Latin recently suggested to me that the best translation of admiratio may be “gobsmacked wonder.” In a sense, this is the response that Aquinas wants most of all to make room for. Desire for God permeates the whole endeavor. Yet this focus does not leave earthly things behind. It leads one to deal not with God in isolation, but with “all things in light of God.”

Seen in this light, it is not just God, but all those we encounter and, in the end, all of creation that demand our admiratio. They exceed us even as we are a part of them. Although many of us have the inclination and the leisure to do a lot of thinking about this, our intellectual efforts, when done rightly, are done not in a sterile way but in wonder and delight. Appropriately enough, reading Aquinas is itself a type of formation in this process. His deployment of his powerful intellectual gifts, his simultaneous recognition of their limitations, his pointing toward the mystery beyond his own gifts—all this delivers his message and at the same time constitutes his own embodiment of it.

A Community of Beginners

It is perhaps important to note that I am not alone in this experience of reading Aquinas. My generation never memorized Thomism as a set of propositions; nor did any of us learn to breathe in a Thomistic atmosphere. We found him along the way. A new moment in the long story of Thomism is emerging, as more and more younger scholars are reading his works, seeing both old and new possibilities. Aquinas is drawing us in, in a way both like and unlike the way he has drawn people in since he was teaching in Paris.  

In some cases, Aquinas also draws us toward one another. Perhaps this is not surprising. As noted above, Aquinas gives us some of the most rarefied concepts in the everyday language of friendship. The Summa is not written in simple, declarative paragraphs. It relies on, and actually incorporates, the form of debate and discussion with others. At the same time, it relativizes agreement in an interesting way. “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject,” Aquinas says in a commentary on Aristotle. “For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”

Perhaps it is no accident, then, that one of my most fruitful experiences reading Aquinas developed from a small annual gathering of scholar-friends. Looking for another way to come at our practice of study, we began with certain aspects of a medieval studium generale, but above all, we have centered ourselves on close study of Aquinas in the context of our friendships with one another and of prayer. Our days together involve slow, careful reading of Thomistic texts, with generous doses of exploration, disagreement and questions about their relation to contemporary theological conversation, as well as regular prayer. Our evenings are set aside for unhurried meals, with a little more disagreement and a good bit more laughter. We frequently are joined by students as well, and looking for ways to befriend and mentor them has become a natural extension of our work together.

We may not be what you think of when someone speaks of “Thomists.” We ourselves are unsure whether that is what we are, and we differ among ourselves on that question. We do know that we are great fans of Aquinas and consider ourselves to be his students. At this point, 20 years after my first reading of the Summa, I feel as if I am still a beginner. Happily, I am in good company.

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Craig McKee
8 years 4 months ago
A few helpful guidelines from a master of the Summa 1.0 may be found here: http://opcentral.org/blog/boyle-st-thomas-aquinas-and-the-third-millennium/
Holly Taylor Coolman
8 years 4 months ago
I never met Fr. Boyle, but, visiting his tomb in Rome, I also had the sense of meeting a friend.
Andrew Russell
8 years 4 months ago
Thanks for the reminder to go back to the foundations of our contemporary Theology. Also - I will forever have the translation "admiratio = gobsmacking wonder" stuck in my head.
Andy Edwards
8 years 4 months ago
Without intending to diminish respect for Thomas, how much of this growing fascination with his work is truly particular to him . . . and how much of it is attributable to the difference of the world of medieval scholastic theology in general? Once one crosses that initial threshold where the difficulty of such unfamiliar reading becomes easier, one may be just as easily surprised and enticed by the work of Bonaventure, Scotus, Occam, et al.
Holly Taylor Coolman
8 years 4 months ago
You raise a very worthwhile question here. Reading Aquinas was my first serious engagement with any medieval scholastic, and much of what drew me (including some of the primary elements mentioned in this essay) would be found in other others, also. (And some of these others are unfortunately underappreciated. St. Bonaventure was an important influence on the pope emeritus; maybe the Franciscan spirit of the current pontificate could inspire a full-fledged renewal of interest in his thought!) I'd argue, however, that there are some unique strengths in Aquinas: above all, perhaps, the coincidence of such remarkable breadth and coherence.
Ian T
7 years 10 months ago
Thanks for this article. Could you direct a newcomer to some accessible books or articles to begin with? I did, 25 years ago, delight my philosophy professor by checking out from the library a huge, leather bound edition of the Summa, but I doubt I made very much sense of it at the time. I remember this professor, with a bright, solicitous smile saying, 'Ah, he has gone to the Master...'
Peter LaPorte
7 years 10 months ago
Look to writings by Peter Kreeft, PhD - a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He has several books on Thomas and the Summa - most of which are available at Amazon. Solid introductions as well as more expansive works.
Peter LaPorte
7 years 10 months ago
I was graduated from PC in 1966. At that time, I was happy to leave having had enough of Thomas and scholasticism. In fact, from the moment I grasped my BA, I redefined myself an atheist. And so I stayed for nearly 20 years. Yet...yet. Thomas kept whispering in my ear - especially when I found myself >defending< faith and the Church against other atheists. Their protestations were tenuous, often narcisistic and always shallow. They refused or, more likely, were unable to address Thomas (or Aristotle) head on. I found my way back to the Church slowly, my path guided by the Holy Spirit with or through Thomas. Of late, I despair at suggestions emanating from within the US clergy and, alas, from Rome, that apologetics and scholasticism are of the past. I pray that the wisdom of Thomas may prevail.
john wells
7 years 10 months ago
Coming to faith after high school as an evangelical Protestant, I went on to graduate from my denomination's liberal arts college in the Midwest. After retiring from a military career, I began to read a lot of church history. Through this study I had the epiphany that the Church is of Eastern and not Western origins. Looking further, I came to realize that it was Thomas who cracked open the jar of mischief which led to later humanistic developments resulting in the Reformation. (To be sure, in 1517 other compelling forces were at play too.) All this study has led me to the belief that Orthodoxy can be the only entity that has a valid claim on being the clearest reflection of how the church worshiped in her earliest centuries. May God forgive us all for the needless splinters we cause to His holy church. May He grant us all His mercy as we each seek to obey His revelation and anticipate His coming return. Soli Deo Gloria!
William Rydberg
6 years 10 months ago
Sadly, the Dominican Order lost touch with the highly dynamic intellectual/prayerful process handed on by Friar St Thomas O.P. As evidenced by the fact he in his Introduction to the Summa referred to it as a kind of "beginners guide" hoping ( I suppose) that his Dominican Successors would build on his foundation, however they instead become largely Librarians of his work. Occasionally, a few Popes over the centuries experienced a recrudenscence, but basically short term. I think of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman's account of when he was searching for a religious order that would "fit", he mentioned that the Dominicans he met tended to be purveyors of "scented waters" which apparently were popular in Europe at the time. I regularly pray for the Dominican Order and have been impressed by some of the work coming out of certain North American Provinces. Just don't know where they are at in Northern Europe or the rest of the world though. Just my opinion. in Christ, The Memorial of Friar St Thomas Aquinas O.P.. Pray for us...

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