Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas
1 Peter 1:3-9; Mark 10:17-27
In the reading from 1 Peter, the author speaks of faith more precious than gold, perishable even though tested by fire, while in the gospel Jesus teaches precisely what faith will cost. Twelve centuries later, a young Italian nobleman named Thomas d’Aquino would take these verses to heart and in so doing show the world the true value of union with Christ.
Born as the youngest child in an era when the last child of the family was reserved for Church service, Thomas’s family had big plans for him. From his youth he was schooled by the Benedictines at the monastery of Monte Cassino, and his family intended not only that he eventually become a Benedictine, but become the abbot of Monte Cassino, where he could live and rule like religious royalty.
But God had other plans. While in college, Thomas was attracted to the preaching and radical poverty of a new order called the Dominicans. His mother saw this as beneath his dignity and forbade him to go. When he defied her and went anyway, she had him forcibly returned and confined to his room. For over a year he was sequestered there, but remained as determined as ever. Finally, after he withstood all the family pressure and even physical temptation, the family relented; his mother looked the other way as Thomas stole out of his room, left home, and joined the Dominicans.
The gospel reading speaks of a man rich in material possessions. What this young Dominican lacked in the material, he more than made up for in the intellect. In fact, Thomas was brilliant; he soon became one of the premier theologians of his time, teaching in France and Germany, and writing many great works of theology which are read to this day.
After teaching abroad for several years, he returned to Italy. His plan was to teach and finish the greatest literary work of his life. Again, God had other plans. One day while saying Mass, he went into ecstasy. Hearing the voice of Christ ask him what he desired, he replied, “Only you, Lord. Only you.” He never mentioned the vision again, but it profoundly affected him. When urged by his assistant to finish his masterwork, he refused. “I cannot,” he said, “because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” The Dominican priest who we know as Thomas Aquinas would never write again, leaving unfinished what many consider his crowning achievement, the Summa Theologica.
In the reading from St. Mark, we see that our Lord knew the rich man better than he knew himself. Jesus knew that in that man’s mind there was a line drawn that separated the safe yet hollow certainty of material possessions from the fearful yet indescribable joy of giving all that up to become a disciple. As we heard, the man just could not cross that line. The question for us is, where have we drawn the line, and what will it cost us to cross it? What do we hold onto that keeps us from committing ourselves to full faith in Jesus Christ?
Aquinas had riches in abundance and certainly could have held onto all of them. As a nobleman, he could have used his wealth for good; as abbot of Monte Cassino, he could have used the monastery for good. As if that weren’t enough, his superior intellect gave him the ability to do great good for himself and others. In fact, his writing has done the world a tremendous amount of good. Even in that moment of ecstasy when Christ asked him what he wanted, Thomas could have asked simply for the grace to finish his masterpiece. Some might have thought that the greatest good he could ever hope to accomplish.
Yet, Thomas didn’t ask for that. He said, “Only you, Lord. Only you.” He knew that as Jesus said, God alone is good. By the grace of God, he felt in faith that indescribable joy and thus was able to cross the line that the rich man in the gospel simply could not. Thomas Aquinas, who understood so many intricate and sophisticated truths, perhaps best understood the simplest truth of all: Without faith, we have nothing; with faith, we need nothing.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.