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St Thomas Aquinas
(entered heaven on March 7th, 1274)
Your desire to make lasting contributions to theology is commendable, and endearing. It is also noble and encouraging – at least one of my nephews is thinking in terms of what he can do for the Church, and not in terms of what he can get out of the world. I will flatter myself by thinking that your healthy desire has been fed partly by some of these notes I keep writing.
But be careful, my prodigious young nephew. Remember that subtle and deadly pitfall: intellectual pride. It sneaks up on you. I have personally seen it tear some very promising Catholics to shreds, leaving them separated from the Church, far from Christ, and gnawing angrily at their own misery. History has seen even more such cases. To avoid following their evil example, keep always in mind the good example of today’s saint.
He was from a leading family of Naples, Italy, and as a youth decided to join the newly formed Order of Preachers (also known as the Dominicans). His family was hoping he would join a more ‘respectable’ order, and actually had plans of him rising to the influential position of abbot of Monte Cassino, the heart of the Benedictine Order. Following his true vocation was his first real trial – he sneaked away with the Dominicans, only to be pursued and taken captive by his brothers, who imprisoned him and did all they could to change his mind (they even sent a famous lady of ill repute into his quarters late at night, whom St Thomas promptly chased out at the tip of a burning branch that he pulled from the fire). Eventually his parents consented, and the portly young man became a portly young friar, studying first under the genius of St Albert the Great at Cologne, in Germany, and then finishing off his degrees at the side of St Bonaventure at the famed University of Paris, where he became a professor. His teaching and writings soon became the talk of Christendom – to this day they are the primary reference point (besides Scripture and Tradition, of course) for Catholic theology – and he was beset with a steady stream of petitions for advice from kings, nobles, popes, and prelates. He was the wonder of his age, an intellectual force that has never been equaled since, and perhaps had never been equaled before.
But this is not the only reason he was made patron of colleges and universities, in fact, it is probably not the primary reason. St Thomas was first and foremost a man of prayer and apostolic zeal. His dying words, spoken after saying his last confession and receiving the Blessed Eucharist as viaticum, are a perfect summary of his absolute humility, his completely selfless dedication to the mission God had entrusted to him: ‘I am receiving you, price of my soul’s redemption: all my studies, my vigils and my labors have been for love of you. I have taught much and written much of the most sacred body of Jesus Christ; I have taught and written in the faith of Jesus Christ and of the holy Roman Church, to whose judgment I offer and submit everything.’ It is no wonder that such a soul was gifted with a superhuman energy – he used to dictate five books at a time to five separate secretaries, since only one secretary at a time couldn’t keep up with his thoughts – and numerous mystical experiences.
One of them is of particular import for you. It occurred while he was praying in front of a crucifix. The Lord spoke to him from the sculpture, ‘You have written well of me Thomas; what reward would you have?’ And he replied, ‘Nothing but yourself, Lord.’ The scene was witnessed by the sacristan. Later in life, he was gifted with other visions of the Lord that moved him to want to burn everything he had written – compared with the reality his words seemed to little better than straw. (His brothers had to physically defend his omnibus from the torch.)
And that’s my point, that intellectual achievement is not the point. The point is advancing Christ’s Kingdom, winning souls to him, helping the Church, defending the truth, making the truth attractive, understanding the truth… The point is not to become a famous theologian (plenty of heretics have done that), or a famous physicist, or a famous anything, the point is to become a faithful solider of Jesus Christ, a soldier who uses all his God-given gifts for the good of the Eternal Kingdom.
If you keep that in mind, you should be able to dodge the ugly advances of intellectual pride, but keep dropping me notes, just in case.
Your devoted uncle,