Celebrating the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

In order to celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, saint and doctor from whom this blog draws its inspiration, I wanted to dedicate this post to the words Aquinas spoke in his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris in 1256 when he took his post as regent master. You can find the whole speech in the collection of selected writings edited by Simon Tugwell, O.P. Reflecting on Psalm 103:13

Watering the earth from his things above,
the earth will be filled from the fruit of your works.

St. Thomas writes:

The king of the heavens, the Lord, established this law from all eternity, that the gifts of his providence should reach what is lowest by way of things that are in between . . . This is why the Lord uses a metaphor taken from bodily things to express the law, stated in the psalm, which is observed in the communicating of spiritual wisdom: “Watering the mountains . . . ” We see with our bodily senses that rain pours down from the things that are above in the clouds, and watered by the rain the mountains produce rivers, and by having its fill of these the earth becomes fertile. Similarly the minds of teachers, symbolized by the mountains, are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students. . .

Three aspects of the manner in which this teaching is acquired are alluded to in our text:
(1) The manner in which it is communicated, with reference both to the magnitude and to the quality of the gift received. The teachers’ minds do not have the capacity to hold all that is contained in God’s wisdom, and so it does not say, “Pouring things above onto the mountains” but “Watering them from things above. In the same way the teachers do not pour out before their hearers all that they understand. “He heard secret words which it is not lawful to speak to anyone” (2 Cor. 12:4). So it does not say, “Passing on the fruit of the mountains to the earth, but “giving the earth its fill from the fruit.” . . .

(2)The text alludes secondly to the manner in which this teaching is possessed. God possesses wisdom by nature, and this is why the “things above” are said to be his, because they are natural to him. “With him is wisdom” (Job 12:13). But teachers share abundantly in knowledge and so they are said to be “watered from things above.” “I will water the garden of plants” (Ecclus. 24:42). But students have an adequate share in knowledge, and this is symbolized by the earth being filled. “I shall have my fill when your glory appears” (Ps. 16:15).

(3) Thirdly, with reference to the power to communicate, God communicates wisdom by his own power, and so he is said to water the mountains by himself. But teachers can only communicate wisdom in a ministerial role, and so the fruit of the mountains is not ascribed to them, but the the works of God: “From the fruit of your works,” it says. “So what is Paul? . . . The ministers of him whom you have believed” (I Cor. 3:4-5).

But “who is capable of this?” (2 Cor. 2:16). What God requires is ministers who are innocent (“The one who walks a spotless path is the one who has been my minister,” Psalm 100:6), intelligent (“An intelligent minister is pleasing to his king,” Prov. 14:35), fervent (“You make spirits your messengers and your ministers a burning fire,” Psalm 103:4) and obedient (“His ministers who do his will,” Psalm 102:21).

However, although no one is adequate for this ministry by himself and from his own resources, he can hope that God will make him adequate. “Not that we are capable of a single though on our own resources, as if it came from us, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). So the teacher should ask God for it. “If people lack wisdom, they should beg for it from God and it will be given them” (James 1:5). May Christ grant this to us.

St. Thomas reminds us that the vocation of a teacher is a gift, for it is God who is the source of all wisdom, and it is God who makes the minister of His word able to communicate this wisdom to little ones. But he also reminds us how integral teaching and learning are to God’s providence, for it is by teaching and learning that we receive God’s wisdom, which is the source of all our happiness.

Aquinas gave this lecture when he was only 31. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us as we teach and learn.

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