Saint Thomas has sometimes been portrayed, especially in the theological anarchy of the postconciliar period, as a hidebound medieval scholastic trapped in a rationalistic methodology, whose works lack a palpable spirituality that resonates in the hearts of modern people. As a lifelong student and teacher of Aquinas’s works, I have two reactions: first, this stance betrays a poor understanding of the enterprise of theology itself; and second, it is simply not true on the ground, if I may judge from countless experiences I have had over the past twenty-five years with students from many countries, whom I have the privilege to see coming alive in the joy of intellectual discovery and in a growing love for the Catholic faith, as they go more and more deeply into the wisdom found in Aquinas’s works.
With St. Thomas, we learn that the essential purpose of investigating a divinely revealed truth that is inaccessible to natural reason is to raise our minds to a more intense appreciation of the very mysteriousness of the mystery. In other words, we are helped to see it in all its “dark luminosity,” a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, opaque to our intellects but full of wonder and fascination. We see the mystery as mystery only when we apply our reason to the fullest extent to see the marvelousness of the miracle; more broadly, to see the supernatural, the super-rational, in its very beyondness.
This is true of the Blessed Trinity above all, and of the Incarnation, and therefore of the Eucharist, which is a kind of replication or representation of the Incarnation and the primary means by which the life of the Trinity, the life of grace in the soul of Christ, is poured into the Christian soul.
A secondary purpose is to defend the faith against the objections of unbelievers, and to defend our own faith against the kind of doubts that our fallen, sense-bound, rationalistic nature will suggest to us, if we are thoughtful people. God wants us to be thoughtful people, otherwise He would not have created us as intellectual beings; but He wants us to be thoughtfully faithful, rather than superficially skeptical, which is generally the alternative. The most thoughtful people are either already believers or on their way to becoming believers.
There is a danger in intellectual study of the highest truths, and that is that we will forget that their opacity is due to our feebleness of intellect, our lack of profound meditation, and our distractedness, and we might begin to attribute the lack of light to a lack of intelligibility in the object, the thing known, rather than in the subject, the one knowing. We may also find a stumbling block in the relative dryness of the intellectual approach itself, which is like dry seed that must be watered by the dew of devotion—that is, personal prayer and a sacramental life—in order to grow into healthy vegetation. The fault, again, is not in the scholastic style, which has a kind of intense purity to it, but in the carnal weakness of our mind, which is usually not equipped to sustain such exercises. It’s like being in poor physical shape. A race that would exhilarate another person may leave us feeling half-dead.
Study must be surrounded by prayer the way the earth is surrounded by a life-giving moist and oxygen-rich atmosphere. Without this atmosphere, the earth could not sustain life, but would be a frigid desert like Mars or a furnace like Venus.
There have been thousands of documented miracles in the history of the Church. Every beatification or canonization requires such a miracle, with testimony taken by preference from non-Catholic witnesses. We are inclined to think of the more dramatic miracles as deserving our admiration: the miracle of the dancing sun at Fatima, for example. But more wondrous than any miracle that has been or could be performed is the quiet daily miracle of transubstantiation, by which the Creator effects in a hidden way a suspension of the most fundamental metaphysical relationships in order to feed our bodies and souls. He stops at nothing to ensure that we may come into direct contact with the only Reality that can save us from our unreality.
This is why Pope John Paul II exhorted us in his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, to rekindle a “Eucharistic amazement” at this Most Blessed Sacrament of Divine Love. We so easily and frequently underestimate It, as we tend to do with everything. I am reminded of a passage from G. K. Chesterton:
A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough . . . It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
God is the most childlike of all, because every day, like an infant, He rejoices anew at the rising of the sun, whose being and action He causes. We should ask for the grace to rejoice anew every day at the raising of the sacred Host, which is the sun of the spiritual life, the cause of our Christian being and action—and rejoice even more at the thought that we can consume this sun, making its light and heat our own, making ourselves belong to Him, the Son of Righteousness.
This Eucharistic theology is what I have learned from St. Thomas and from the traditional Latin liturgy that he himself would have known. I pray that he continue to intercede for all of us who embark on the fearful and wonderful adventure of fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding; I pray that we will imitate him in his unwavering devotion to the prayer and sacraments of the Church.