Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Light from Aquinas

by Fr. Joseph M. Occhio, S.D.B.


In the confusion of present day ideologies, in the whirlpool of corruption and paganism that engulfs us on every side St. Thomas' teaching will remain forever a guide to all who draw near to him and receive his life-giving light.

Larger Work

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., March 1962

Accustomed as we are to studying St. Thomas Aquinas in the classroom, to view him as the scholar who joins East and West, Hellenism and Christianity, philosophy and theology, to admire him as the architect of the greatest synthesis of human thought we should readily see the merit of qualifying him also as a full realization of the divine intimation: "You are the light of the world." The present article is intended to trace the broad outlines of the Saint's life and doctrine under this latter aspect.


The natural sources of St. Thomas' inner light were the very best available at the time.

When he was but five years old, he was entrusted to the abbey of Monte Cassino where he received his early education from the successors of those very monks who had salvaged civilization from the scrap-heaps of barbaric invasions and who had been a veritable beacon of light for many centuries all over Europe.

At the age of fourteen the young undergraduate entered the University of Naples for his liberal arts training. At this meeting-place of Greek, Latin, Saracen, and Norman cultures he studied scientific method under Martin of Dacia and natural sciences under Peter of Ireland. The wicked attack on his virtue by a suborned harlot and the consequent affair of the firebrand belong to this period. Pope Pius YI stated that the future destiny of this great luminary of the Church was probably decided there, in the castle tower, during those short moments of effectual resistance against the historic temptation.

Thomas was hardly twenty years old when John the Teutonic took him to Paris and then to Cologne to pursue his professional studies under Albert the Great—by far the most learned natural philosopher of the Middle Ages and in many ways the father of modern scientific research. Holy Scripture and the Fathers; Aristotle, Plato, Boethius, and most of the Neoplatonists; the philosophers of his own age and earlier schoolmen; Roman and ecclesiastical jurists; Church Councils and Latin writers—no spark of natural or supernatural wisdom was overlooked by the searching mind of the young friar whom God was preparing for a most exalted mission.

But the student days of the "Dumb Ox of Sicily" were numbered. He was soon to begin his lifelong apostolate of teaching, preaching and writing.


His teaching career began in 1252 and, after some time, he was admitted as a Doctor of Theology by the University of Paris. The impression made by his teaching was extraordinary, and the words of William of Tocco on this point are worth transcribing: "He introduced new articles into his lectures, founded a new and clear method of scientific investigation, and developed new proofs in his argumentation." That his novel treatment of philosophic questions did not injure his popularity is attested by Peter Calo: "When Thomas had entered upon his duties as a professor and organized his disputations and lecture material, so great was the multitude of students who flocked to hear him that the hall where he taught could scarcely accommodate the large numbers who were attracted and spurred on to progress in the pursuit of knowledge by the learning of such an eminent master."

In 1259 he was called to the general chapter of the Dominicans and then to the papal court as theological lecturer and adviser. The ten years that followed were the period of his most massive work, challenging alike some basic Platonic tenets of the schools and the current flood of Latin Averroism. Moreover, he frequently preached the word of God. His sermons were forceful, redolent of piety, full of solid instruction, abounding in apt citations from the Scriptures. He lived on earth with one passion: an ardent zeal for the explanation and defense of Christian truth. Dignities and honors were offered him, but he succeeded in avoiding them. He felt that his vocation was to study and teach. "Men ever saw him of joyful mien, gentle and sweet, not occupying himself with worldly affairs, but ever given to study, to reading, to writing, and to prayer for the enlightening of the faithful."

His third teaching period began with his return to Paris in 1269. He was now at the height of his reputation. Even his severest opponents, like Roger Bacon and Siger of Brabant, ranked him as the equal of Albert the Great—a remarkable tribute if we consider the difference in age between the master and the pupil and the fact that Albert's encyclopedic knowledge was naturally more impressive than the synthetic work of Aquinas.

The year 1272 saw him back in Italy as regent of studies for the Dominican house at Naples. The sudden change came as a surprise and a shock to the authorities of the University of Paris, and the most earnest efforts were made to have their greatest light restored to the professor's chair. Aquinas himself seems to have taken these appeals rather indifferently—one instance only of the light that he shed by the good example of his personal sanctity.


"O ineffable creator, ... true fountain of light, infuse into my mind a ray of your brightness removing from me the double darkness in which I was born, sc., ignorance and sin," wrote Thomas in a prayer. That God granted his request we know from the testimony of Reginald of Priverno, his faithful and "well-beloved" companion (socius continuus) : "Brothers," he announced shortly after St. Thomas' death, "I was forbidden by my master to reveal during his life the marvels that I witnessed. One of those marvels is that his knowledge ... was due not so much to human skill as to the merits of his prayers." And we are told by other biographers that in difficult questions "cum lacrimis veritatem quaerebat..., cum lacrimis orabat."

The following story is very much apropos. When he was stationed in the French capital, Christendom's great center of studies, a special honor was conferred on him by his colleagues in the Faculty of Theology. They formally asked him to make an authoritative pronouncement on the problem of the dimensions of the Body of Our Lord and the accidents subsisting without a subject in the sacrament of the same Body and Blood of the Savior. Needless to say, he realized the heavy responsibility of the task. In his customary manner, he proceeded to write a very careful and elaborately lucid statement of his own solution. But as he would not dare expound his own opinion before consulting Him of whom he was treating, he sought for guidance in more than usually prolonged prayer. Finally, he spread out his written thesis on the altar at the foot of the crucifix and left it lying there as if awaiting judgment. Then he buried himself once more in prayer. Other friars were watching and they afterwards declared that the figure of Christ came down from the cross and stood upon the scroll, saying: "Well and truly hast thou answered the question put thee, as far, that is, as can be understood in your present life, or expressed in human words."

On another occasion, when the Saint was occupied with his commentary on Isaias and could not arrive at a satisfactory explanation of a certain passage, he gave himself to fasting and prayer. Then one night Father Reginald heard voices in the Saint's cell, and, while he was wondering what this might be, St. Thomas came to him and said: "Reginald, get up, light a candle and take the parchment on which you have been writing upon Isaias and make ready to write once more." Then Reginald wrote while the Saint dictated as though he had been reading from a book. Afterwards, at Reginald's insistent petition, the Saint said to him: "My son, you have seen the affliction under which I have been of late owing to this passage of Isaias, and you know how I besought God that I might understand it. God had pity on me and he has just sent His Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul whom I had prayed to intercede for me, and they have most fully explained it all."

Similar revelations from God, the Blessed Mother and the saints were not infrequent in the Saint's life. Day after day he ascended the steps of the altar, his mind absorbed in deep contemplation. Day after day he returned to his work more and more illumined regarding the Mysterium Fidei, and with his soul still more closely knit to its Maker.

Toward the end of 1273 the Saint was engaged upon the third part of the Summa Theologica when something happened (it is said while he was celebrating Mass), after which he wrote but little more. His friend Reginald asked him why he was not returning to his regular habits of writing. The Saint answered with a singular emphasis: "I can write no more." There seems to have been a silence, after which Reginald ventured to approach the subject again. And Thomas answered him with even greater vigor: "I can write no more. I have seen such things in comparison with which all that I have written seems to me like so much straw." A new degree of mystic contemplation or a new flash of supernatural light must have been infused into his great soul, but no mortal will ever fathom the nature of that experience that changed the Saint's life for the remaining months of his earthly existence.

Early in the following year, Pope Gregory X summoned him to the Ecumenical Council to be held at Lyons. He set out in humble obedience, but the Council was never to see him, for he fell ill while traversing the Campagna and was eventually taken to the Cistercian abbey at Fossa Nova. As he lay dying he expounded to the monks the Canticle of Canticles: "Mv Beloved to me and I to him ... till the day break and the shadows retire!"


"There appeared to me as I watched in prayer," attested Brother Albert of Brescia for the process of the Saint's canonization, "two revered personages clothed in wondrous splendor. One of them wore a miter on his head, the other was clad in the habit of the Friars Preachers. And this latter wore on his head a golden crown; round his neck he had two rings, one of silver, the other of gold; and on his breast he had an immense precious stone, which filled the church with light. His cloak, too, was sewn with precious stones, and his tunic and his hood were of snowy white. And the one who wore the miter said to me: 'Brother Albert, I am Augustine, the Doctor of the Church, and I am sent to you to tell you of the doctrine and the glory of Brother Thomas of Aquin who is here with me. For . . . by his teaching he has illumined the Church of God. This is signified by the precious stones which you see, and especially by the one he carries on his breast .... These precious stones, then, and especially that great one, signify the many books that he wrote.' "

St. Thomas' writings can be grouped under five headings:

1) Commentaries on Scripture.

2) Commentaries on the works of Aristotle, Boethius and the Pseudo-Dionysius

3) The three great systematic treatises:

a) Summa Theologica (which represents St. Thomas at his distinctive best): by reason of its majestic simplicity, Lacordaire likened it to the ancient pyramids.

b) Summa contra Gentiles (his most important apologetic work).

c) Commentary on the Four Books of Sentences of Peter Lombard.

4) Disputed Questions and Quodlibeta.

5) Numerous Short Treatises.

They are nearly a hundred works that total up to twenty-eight volumes in folio—a veritable cathedral of knowledge that will continue shedding its quiet light over all generations to come.

But the chief and special glory of St. Thomas is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme pontiffs, the Summa Theologica, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration. Greater influence than this no man could have.

Truly, "doctrina eius . . . tamquam lux splendens procedit et crescit usque ad perfectam diem donec lucifer oriatur indeque hauriant universi."


If a timely message were asked of Thomism for the problems of international society today, we would take our clue from the celebrated scene witnessed by Brother Dominic of Caserta in the church of St. Dominic in Naples; when, in the stillness of the night, he saw St. Thomas praying before a crucifix, and then lifted up into the air "about the height of two cubits from the ground"; and then a voice from the crucified Christ offering St. Thomas the choice of a reward among all the things of the world. Wrote G. K. Chesterton:

Not all, I think, have appreciated the point of this particular story as applied to this particular saint. It is an old story, in so far as it is simply the offer made to a devotee of solitude or simplicity, of the pick of all the prizes of life . . . . But even the stories of real saints, of this sort, do not quite cover the case of St. Thomas. He was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything. His answer is not so inevitable or simple as some may suppose . . . . Nobody supposes that Thomas Aquinas, when offered by God his choice among all the gifts of God, would ask for a thousand pounds, or the Crown of Sicily, or a present of rare Greek wine. But he might have asked for things that he really wanted; and he was a man who could want things; as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom. He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science; . . . or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe. The point is that for him, when the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west, to the end of the earth and the very extremes of existence. They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures. That is the blazing background of multitudinous being that gives the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer of St. Thomas, when he lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion: "I will have Thyself, only Thyself."


Whether we be psychologists or not, and whether we be acquainted or not with the finest shades of St. Thomas' thought, it is not difficult for anyone to see in these simple words the very core of St. Thomas' entire outlook on reality. And this is the message that the world needs most of all today.

To a Communistic bloc based on a dialectical, historical materialism, St. Thomas' message rings out clearly with the ever-repeated refrain of this philosophical and theological synthesis: "In Him we live and move and have our being."

To the Western nations that all too often seem to promise but a snug personalism of purely naturalistic values, St. Thomas opposes his clear Weltanschauung of a mind completely steeped in God and things divine. And we would be inclined to believe that St. Thomas' battle cry against the medieval theory of the twofold truth is just what we need against the fuzzy thinking of many educators and leaders today.

No, the West cannot survive by a disgraceful tampering with those very principles that are the bedrock foundation of Western civilization in general and of American greatness in particular. Unless the Western ideal of individual liberties be grounded explicitly on the cogent arguments of theistic philosophy, it definitely stands no chance vis-à-vis the messianic appeal of universal brotherhood and justice so cunningly misrepresented by the children of darkness. And the history of the past decade is but a tragic foreboding of what the future may hold in store unless we really "go to Thomas," in the words of Pius XI.

"The strength and serenity of the life of Thomas Aquinas," wrote Angelus Walz, "and the clarity and sureness of his teaching, will remain forever an example and a guide to all who draw near to him and receive of his life-giving light." But his study of God, man and the world is most necessary, especially for our times, because, forgetting God, our times have not recognized man and have yet to see the world.

Thus, as in the days of old, St. Thomas is again a powerful inspiration to a spiritual maturing of both East and West. Like a giant aloft in the skies, he gazes undazzled upon the sun of unchanging light and channels the rays of this same light into his writings so that all may fully acknowledge that God is the center of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega of all things, the first cause and the final end of man's existence—"the God of the philosophers," "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," the God of Aquinas.

This is the light from Aquin, and it is a kindly light that can lead us on. May we conclude with St. Thomas' own words set against the background of our contemporary and personal milieu.

In the welter and confusion of present day ideologies, in the whirlpool of corruption and paganism that engulfs us on every side, in our fears of wars and world catastrophe, ...

Per tuas semitas
Duc nos quo tendimus,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas

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