PLANTING THE SEED
(Catholic Calendar January 2015)
Once in the parish a cadet in one of our national military academies returned for vacation. I asked him about his studies. He replied that his class was studying the “just war theory” of St. Thomas Aquinas. We were all reminded how important the thinking of this great 13th century genius was.
The Saints should be our friends. We should develop not only an acquaintanceship with the saints but also a relationship with those who knew and followed Jesus Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas is one such saint, and his feast occurs next Wednesday, January 28.
St. Thomas Aquinas may just be another medieval philosopher to some, but anyone who has read and studied his writings knows that his contribution is substantial. He indeed lived in the 13th century, when there was an extraordinary birth taking place in the intellectual world. The university system was born in legendary places like Bologna, Oxford, and Paris. And St. Thomas Aquinas was part of this explosion of knowledge, research and learning that set the stage for so much that we take for granted today. One can understand very well why cadets at a military academy would be studying his theory of just war.
My friendship with St. Thomas Aquinas goes way back. Recently I rediscovered a holy card in my prayer book. The holy card was dedicated to the saint and contained a letter written by him to a student (cf. Opusculum 61). I thought this was doubly important since we are entering Catholic Schools Week and St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron of all Catholic students, wherever they find themselves. I thought the advice he gives students would be worth reviewing.
First, St. Thomas tells the student, “Be slow to speak; and don’t frequent those places where people do a lot of talking. Rather, stay in your own room and try to make it a place of covenant with your Lord. Remember that by devoting yourself to regular prayer, you will be able to preserve that precious thing we call purity of conscience.” St. Thomas saw study and learning as coming forth from prayer, an active correspondence with God. The advice of St. Thomas reminded me of that famous adage from St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Ephesians: “Better to be silent and to be, than speaking not to be.”
Second, the Angelic Doctor, as he is called, writes, “Be a gentleman at all times. Don’t be too inquisitive about the affairs of others; and don’t be too familiar.” He saw being a good student as equal to being a decent human being with concern for others. Good advice in this insanely curious world.
St. Thomas’ third piece of advice concerned the company the student keeps. “Take the saints,” he wrote, “and the good people around you as your models.” Practical and worthwhile advice it is. If you are looking for a model, then why not look in the right place?
Next St. Thomas advises, “It’s not the teacher so much as the truth he expounds that counts. Don’t be prejudiced by the sources of your information.” In being open-minded, the student avoids rash-judging the teacher. How often do students miss the information because they don’t “like the teacher”? Don’t let the cult of personality get in the way of learning.
Finally, St. Thomas encourages thoroughness. “Be sure you clear up all doubts about the subjects you are studying. Like a man who wants to fill a vessel, be eager to store your mind with every possible item of useful knowledge.” The operative word here is “useful.” We can so easily clutter our minds with useless information, but knowing what is useful requires first that we know what is good and worthwhile to achieve our goal. This is perhaps the real challenge not only for students but for all of us.
Wisdom is found by those who know where to find it. And a primary source for good insight into life and faith has always been St. Thomas Aquinas. I will conclude with one of his more famous quotes: “Three things are necessary for a human being’s salvation: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” I say, “Amen.”
PLANTING THE SEED