Dumb Ox

“The pursuit of wisdom is more perfect than all human pursuits, more noble, more useful, more full of joy.”

Today the church remembers a seminal intellectual in the Christian movement: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Teacher and Bane of all Theo 101 Students.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a firm believer that a Christian must first and foremost be a student of knowledge. We have, unfortunately, forgotten this tenet in these later years of Christianity, often replacing literalisim with learning, but there is yet hope for us still, right?

As a young13th Century scholar, Saint Thomas lived in a world where Aristotle was gaining ground in the schola, and the big tug of war between Aristotle and Plato once again surfaced in the world. The reaction was polarizing: some thought Aristotelian philosophy trumped Christian teaching, while others shunned Aristotle as a heretic, digging more firmly into an anti-intellectual existence.

St. Thomas thought this was a false dichotomy. The academy and the steeple could not only co-exist, but could meaningfully mingle (and marry!) with intention.

St. Thomas was a Dominican, the “Order of Preachers.” Words were his medium, and he used them well (at least in writing). His family was not keen on him going into this itinerant, poor, preaching order, and they forced him to come back and live with them in Italy…which backfired.

Thomas eventually sloughed off the shackles of his family, and went to Cologne, where he studied under Albert the Great. He was shy by nature (he even got the name “Dumb Ox,” a play on his reluctance for public speaking, as he was far from intellectually impaired!), and though the politics of his day plagued both his order and their societal acceptance, he was eventually embraced in both the academy and by the jealous bishops, both who were envious of his intellect.

He initially taught theology in Paris and became close friends with St. Louis IX and St. Bonaventure, a triumvirate of the faith. Eventually, after Bonaventure’s death, St. Thomas returned to Italy and began writing in earnest. Hymns, theological treatises, and his wonderful tome took shape though, it is worth noting, every historian believes his handwriting to be severely lacking.

When Thomas returned to Paris in 1269 the ugly old head of controversy once again emerged, this time between Augustinian theology and Aristotelian philosophy. The church dug in its heels, which gave St. Thomas quite a headache. He decided to leave the turmoil of Paris and go to Naples, where he taught the remainder of his life.

After the St. Nicholas Day Mass in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas never picked up his quill again. For some unknown reason, he believed that he would be unable to move the needle on such entrenched, polarized viewpoints, and he fell into ill health. He died in 1274.

In life he was known as “The Dumb Ox,” but in death we remember him as “The Angelic Doctor.”

St. Thomas sought to integrate lived existence with theological teaching, marrying experience with the life of the mind. He sought to embrace knowledge while retaining the mystery of existence, and is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that knowledge is not evil, but willful ignorance is.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-massive historical props to Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations as well as to my Theology and Philosophy professors at Valparaiso University

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