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Opportunities to learn about St Thomas Aquinas

For all those who have an interest in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas but feel somewhat reticent (perhaps even daunted) about approaching this great thinker, there is some good news. Two initiatives are taking place this year which aim to make the thought of this thinker better known to an interested but perhaps non-specialist public.

Firstly, the Aquinas Institute of Ireland will be having its annual summer school in Emmaus retreat centre Dublin, August 5 – 11. This is the seventh year of the summer school wherein people of all abilities come along to read the writings of Aquinas. The school caters to all levels from beginner to intermediate to advanced, and the reading groups are guided by experienced tutors who specialise in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Not only does this present a great opportunity for those who want to take some time to read Aquinas, but it is also an opportunity to get away from the world and spend a week with like minded people. The day is structured around prayer and reading and finishes at 2pm, at which time students have the opportunity to read, visit the chapel for adoration, socialise etc. Previous summer schools have been a great success and participants always leave feeling refreshed and with some confidence in their grasp of the thought of Aquinas. Participants this year will be reading Aquinas’s commentary on the Prologue to the Gospel of St John. For more information see the website: http://www.aquinasinstitute.ie/#home

Secondly, the Priory Institute Tallaght is launching its MA programme in Aquinas studies. This will be a certified course which will result in a masters degree for the student. In this course students will have the opportunity to learn about the life of Aquinas, his metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of religion, theology, not to mention the chance to learn enough Latin to read his original writings. The degrees from the Priory Institute are taught via distance learning, with some residential weekends through the semester. They thus provide an excellent opportunity for people who wish to pursue a programme of study but who are constrained for various reasons. For more details on the MA in Aquinas studies see the Priory Institute website here: https://prioryinstitute.com/news/2018/march/ma-in-aquinas-studies

Now, for anybody who has heard of St Thomas Aquinas but does not know who he is, herein is a very brief biography. St Thomas was born in 1224 in Italy in Roccasecca near Monte Casino. He was initially sent to study with the Benedictine’s at Monte Casino, but because of conflict between the Emperor Frederick II and the pope Gregory IX when Thomas was about 14/15 he was sent to study at the University of Naples. It was here that he was introduced to two major influences in his life: the philosophy of Aristotle and the Dominican Order. An Irishman, Peter of Ireland, who was a member of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), taught him philosophy, wherein he learnt not only of Aristotle, but also of the Islamic (Averroes and Avicenna) and Jewish (Maimonides) philosophical traditions.

A few years later at the age of 19 Thomas decided to join the Dominican order to the horror of his family. This was seen as something of a disgrace by his family, who wanted him to join a more prestigious order such as the Benedictines. So they undertook to kidnap him as he was travelling to Rome (and further to Paris for his studies). St Thomas was set upon by his brothers, and when they tried to remove his Dominican habit the gentle St Thomas fought them off but went willingly with them. He was duly locked within his family castle for one year. During that year his family tried to break his resolve by introducing a prostitute into his room. Seeing the woman, Thomas prayed inwardly, took a burning log from the fire, and chased her from his room locking the door from the inside and burning a cross on the door. After this he prayed that he would never be tempted in the flesh and that night he dreamt that he was girded by two angels in answer to his prayer (it is this event which is the inspiration for the angelic warfare confraternity whose members pray daily for purity in the world).

Realising they could not break his resolve, Thomas’s family permitted his return to the Dominicans and on to Paris where he would study with another great thinker of the time, St Albert the Great (also a Dominican). Thomas was initially very quiet as a student and earned the nickname of the Dumb Ox. St Albert one day set the students a difficult problem in logic and the students could not resolve it. Wanting to tease the Dumb Ox, Thomas’s fellow students asked him to solve it, which he did. This impressed St Albert who then took the young Thomas under his wing.

Thomas quickly progressed through his studies and academic career, teaching in various places and institutions throughout Europe. By all accounts St Thomas never felt worthy of the trust others had placed in him to work in theology. He worked tirelessly and wrote voluminously. In a writing career of about 20 years he produced 10 million Latin words which equates to about 30 million English words. That is  1.5 million words per year, or about 4,100 words per day.

St Thomas is not only known for his theology but also for his great sanctity. One particular story stands out that when composing a treatise on the Trinity he was having great difficulty, and in tears he went to the altar and placed the treatise on the ground and wept in prayer. The crucifix above him spoke the following words: ‘You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labour?’, Thomas’s response was: Non nisi te, Domine – Nothing but thyself Lord.

In December 1273 , whilst saying mass, Thomas was struck during the elevation of the host, so much so that his socius Reginald had to get his attention. After this Thomas put away all his writing materials, and when encouraged to write and to finish his Summa Theologiae  all he could say was: ‘I can’t’ [the Summa Theologiae remained unfinished]. Evidently Thomas had a complete nervous and mental breakdown after this event at mass. Thomas later revealed to Reginald that the reason he could not go back to work was that everything he had done seemed like so much straw compared to what he had seen. Thomas was later summoned to the Council of Lyons in 1274, but along the way he had an accident; while he was travelling he hit his head on an overhanging branch and was quite stunned. His brethern helped to get him to the nearby Cistercian abbey of Fossanova wherein he died on 7th March 1274.

St Thomas Aquinas was not just a typical university professor who locked himself away and wrote on matters that only a handful of people could engage with at his level. He was certainly that, but he was only that because of his deep love for God and his yearning to know Him more Who was his friend. This is the man that you have the opportunity to get to know through the Aquinas summer school and the Priory Institute MA in Aquinas studies.