Last semester I took a course entitled The Ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Though I had read several parts of the Summa Theologiae before, I had never had the opportunity to systematically work through what is arguably the greatest work of theology ever written. I started off the semester as I would any other course – slowly adjusting myself to the content and contours of this text, attempting to examine the ethical import of his theology. And for some reason, it wasn’t sticking. I would read and reread the text without retaining what this brilliant mind was trying to teach me. I thought to myself, what am I missing? Why do I not understand? I would get frustrated with the Thomas, with my inability to comprehend his writing. It is an interesting prayer indeed to have your forehead pressed to the Summa hoping that osmosis will spark understanding.
This frustration continued for weeks. Then about midway through the semester, I came across a prayer that Thomas wrote, the Adoro Te Devote:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed:
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
On the cross thy Godhead made no sign to me;
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he:
This faith each day deeper be my holding of,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living bread the life for us whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.
Upon reading this, I began to understand Thomas in a way that I had not been able to prior. Here was the connection that somehow ceased all my frustrations: the Summa is ultimately a prayer, it is a love letter to God. This prayer allowed me to see that all of Thomas’s academic efforts were ultimately a response to his friendship with God. To understand this, I think, is to understand the very core of who Thomas is and what his theology is about.
As I understand it, the Adoro Te is not only Thomas’s most famous Eucharistic prayer, but it is also a prayer of yearning for friendship with God. Perhaps these two are never fully separable. As Dom Eugene Vandeur sees in the seven stanzas of the “Adoro Te,” the seven stages of the soul on its way to union with its Eucharistic God are: adoration of God, adherence to God, confession of God, abandonment to God, hunger for God, purification by God, and happiness in God.[i] To a certain degree, I thought, this prayer mimics the very thrust of a spiritual life, and the outline of the Summa itself. It made sense to me then that charity, or friendship with God, is the virtue that is at the heart of the Summa. For me, the rest of the Summa does not make sense without this piece. Each of Thomas’s Questions, whether distinctly ethical or distinctly theological in its content, has this form of spiritual import. Charity after all, is the only virtue that we retain at the end of our life, Thomas writes “Knowledge of God, through being mediate, is said to be enigmatic, and falls away in heaven, as stated in 1 Cor. 13:12. But charity does not fall away…”[ii]
It is interesting to note then where Thomas’s discussion of charity, friendship with God, is placed in the Summa – wedged between the precepts relating to hope and fear and joy. Fear of God can be good, especially when fear provokes a certain dimension of wonder and awe – but not when it inhibits us from wanting to enter into the mystery that will lead us to great joy. In the Adoro Te, Thomas compares himself to the Thomas of Scripture inscribing the biblical event where despair and fear meet faith, hope, and charity. In this story, the wounds on Jesus’ glorified body can be seen not only as evidence of the bodily resurrection but as the instruments of reconciliation; Jesus’ invitation to “put your finger here” makes possible Thomas’s response: “My Lord and my God!” Indeed, there is no indication that Thomas ever touched the wound. Jesus’ invitation itself provokes conversion. Jesus’ invitation to touch and see his wounds is put forth not as a sign of condemnation for Thomas’s betrayal and unbelief but as an overture of forgiveness and an invitation to reconciliation: “Peace be with you.”[iii]
As theologian Denys Turner points out in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, Thomas thought that etymologically the Latin sacramentum derived from the conflation of sanctum and secretum: a sacrament, he says, is a hidden holiness.[iv] Thomas begins his famous Eucharistic hymn with the words “Adoro te devote, latens deitas,” “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore.” As Turner contends, “You wouldn’t have known that mere bread and wine could bear such weight of meaning, for basic human food is the last place you would guess to be the point of entry into the mystery of the world’s creation out of nothing and its trajectory through history to its final end in the meaning of eating and drinking. And it should not surprise us that all the meaning of all the world is contained and hidden in that holy hiddenness.”[v] If it is a cause of surprise that theology should culminate there, in Christ’s followers eating and drinking together, Turner attests, then there is still something to learn from Thomas.[vi] Christ sat and ate with the lowly, the despised, the easily dismissed, and in so doing was transformed by them – this for me is the foundation of solidarity in the Christian tradition. It is also the foundation of Thomas’s understanding of charity, of friendship with God, in the Summa. It is here, in breaking bread, that we begin to enter into the mystery of Christ, of the Eucharist through friendship. It is here that we participate in “divine charity.”[vii] And here again, wedged between fear and joy we have Thomas’s prayer for friendship with God : “Just like Thomas, I do not look upon the wounds; Nevertheless I confess that you are my God. Make me believe in you (more than) always (make me) have hope in you (more than always), (make me) cherish you (more than always)” (translated slightly different from the Latin than in the English translation above). [viii]
So today, on the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas let us remember this Saint who embodied the heart of faith and intellect – teaching us that the two are never separate but wholly intertwined. Let us strive, as Thomas did, for friendship with God in all that we do.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and Christian virtue ethics. In her spare time, Meg enjoys playing with her family dogs Ruby and Ty, visiting craft breweries, and reading poetry by Mary Oliver, Rumi, or Rilke. It is clear that Meg is a true believer because she is also an avid New York Mets fan.
[i] See Dom Eugene Vandeus, Adoro Te: Contemplation of the Most Holy Eucharist (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1939)
[ii] ST Q. 27 A. 4
[iii] Roberto Goizueta, Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 28
[iv] Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 267
[v] Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 268
[vi] Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 268
[vii] ST Q. 23 A. 2
[viii] I attribute this translation to my friend and fellow classmate at Yale Divinity School, Virginia Buckles.