These are the times that try men’s souls. Some days it can seem as though, if it weren’t for bad news, we wouldn’t have any news at all. Brutal acts of terrorism, political correctness run rampant, and a horrible election between perhaps the two worst candidates in America. It’s times such as these when we have to return to the important things – the things that will last and provide a solid foundation on rock, rather than sand. Which is precisely why I’m taking this occasion not to comment on any of our current troubles and write instead about Thomas Aquinas.
I’m sometimes asked, “What should I read by Aquinas?” This question usually comes from a person who has almost no acquaintance with his thought or writing, except perhaps a cursory experience years ago with the so-called “Five Ways,” the five “proofs” for the existence of God. They know that Aquinas is important; some even know that he has been called “the Common Doctor of the Church.” Interested in nourishing their faith, they think: “I should read some Aquinas. But what?”
Like people who decide they should “read the Bible,” and then get a short way into Exodus or Numbers only to regret their decision – “Isn’t there some easier way of doing this?” (There is: go to daily Mass) – so too there are those who decide they should “read some Aquinas,” pick up his great Summa of Theology, and get about three questions in before giving up in despair. “Wow, this stuff is hard.”
Yes, you probably wouldn’t know it from most of your high school religion classes, but theology can in fact be hard. It can make your head hurt like the hardest bit of chemistry or advanced physics. Thomas’s Summa was meant as a “beginner’s” text. Why so many teachers feel it’s necessary to “dumb down” theology when they would never consider “dumbing down” chemistry, biology, or physics, I’ll never know. But they do, and that’s where many people find themselves.
So let’s say you want some of the wisdom of St. Thomas, but you’re a little intimidated by the Summa. You’re not alone in this. What do you do?
Well, you could start with a good introduction, like G. K. Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox or Ralph McInerny’s delightful First Glance at Thomas Aquinas (A Handbook for Peeping Thomists). Or, if you like listening, you could go to the website of the International Catholic University and get Prof. McInerny’s lively “Introduction to Thomas Aquinas.”
But let’s say you want to get right to reading some Aquinas. This shows a good spirit on your part. Where do you begin? I have a suggestion. A good place to begin for someone who isn’t used to reading medieval disputed questions is to begin with any of Thomas’s “sermon-conferences” on the Apostle’s Creed, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, or the Ten Commandments. All of these were meant for an educated audience of non-specialists. They are not “dumbed down.” Thomas still challenges his listeners to think and think deeply. But they’re less technical than the Summa or Thomas’s commentaries on Aristotle.
Most of these texts have been published separately at one time or another. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little “trade secret.” If you want to find anything by Aquinas in English translation, go to the superb web site kept up by my former classmate, Dr. Thérèse Bonin: Thomas Aquinas in English: A Bibliography. It’s an invaluable resource.
But you can also buy all these treatises together in a volume entitled The Aquinas Catechism: A Simple Explanation of the Catholic Faith by the Church’s Greatest Theologian. Thomas didn’t actually set out to write a single “catechism,” so the title is a bit misleading. But it’s fair enough because the editors have brought together in this one volume Thomas’s commentaries on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Hail Mary, and the Our Father – to which they have added at the end some material on the sacraments.
Regarding this material on the sacraments, the reader should exercise some caution. Thomas wasn’t able to finish the Summa before he died at the relatively young age of 49. What was left unfinished at the time of his death, though, was the final section of the Summa on the sacraments. So what his students did – out of their love for their teacher – was “finish it off” with material they found in some of Thomas’s earliest writings: his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. A noble gesture, but this would be like “filling in” your teacher’s final book, his magnum opus, the fruit of a lifetime’s learning, with material from his doctoral dissertation. So it’s worth exercising some care.
When the news is bad, or just plain silly, as it is pretty much all the time these days, why not skip it? Listen to McInerny talk about Aquinas instead of listening to the evening news. Read Aquinas on the Apostle’s Creed rather than reading The New York Times. Less fretting over the news, and more reflecting on the Good News.
C.S. Lewis used to say he rarely read the news. If there was anything important that he could do something about, he trusted his friends would tell him. As for the rest, he thought the best response to those things he couldn’t do much about — horrible wars, people dying, government scandals — was to fast and pray. If you truly believe that God is the Lord of History, then often the most practical thing you can do is pray. And now while you’re praying the Hail Mary or the Our Father, you can say to yourself: “Didn’t I read somewhere that Thomas Aquinas wrote commentaries on these prayers?”
Yes you did.