This book makes no pretence to be anything but a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular. Its aim will be achieved, if it leads those who have hardly even heard of St. Thomas Aquinas to read about him in better books. But from this necessary limitation certain consequences follow, which should perhaps be allowed for from the start.
A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.” With all respect to that excellent Thomistic commentary. I have no desire to have this book laid down, at the very first glance, with a similar sigh. I have taken the view that the biography is an introduction to the philosophy, and that the philosophy is an introduction to the theology; and that I can only carry the reader just beyond the first stage of the story. – G. K. Chesterton, Introduction (Excerpts), St. Thomas Aquinas, 1933
Chesterton in undertaking his book on Aquinas, decided early on based on the above introduction to treat his subject as an artist might paint a portrait – to reveal such aspects of the person as the artist wanted to highlight to the viewer. It was certainly not Chesterton’s intent, as he tries to make clear to his more educated critics, to write an extensive and comprehensive biography of Aquinas. What he wanted was to get his reader, like the simple lady above, on fire about his figure! To that end, he begins with a comparison and contrast with someone most of all of his readers would be familiar with – and admire – St. Francis. For people have always been fascinated by the saintly among us.
It is this fascination with saintliness that concerns us through Lent in regards to our own conduct and faith. Chesterton realizes that about his reader as he makes his case in this book on the life of Aquinas. And what a great book to finally begin reading during the Lenten time! Aquinas, himself, wrote during his years at University as Regent Master of Theology, Questiones disputatae de veritate (Disputed Questions on Truth), which was a collection of theological questions regarding faith and the human condition. These were then considered during the public university debates through both Lent and Advent.
What are the qualities of a saint? What separates him or her from ordinary persons? How does he or she affect society and finally, view him or herself? Because, in fact, this is how we are all addressed in scripture, though some among us, are exemplary.
“We might even say that the one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men. In this sense the word ordinary must be understood in its native and noble meaning; which is connected with the word order.”
“The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.”
“A saint is long past any desire for distinction; he is the only sort of superior man who has never been a superior person.”
Each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.”
– G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 1933
Read the book: St. Thomas Aquinas
Image source: Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Doctor Angelicus”, with saints and angels, Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1366. Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, fresco, wikimedia commons