Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book 1
Why do Catholics honor and venerate the Saints? They are the heroes of our Faith that strived to become holy and many of them devoted their entire lives, even to the point of death, to God and His Church. We do not worship them as we do God nor as the pagans of the past worshipped their gods and demigods, but they are important to us as the Church as a whole and for us as individuals who have adopted various Saints as our patrons. But why? First, because they intercede for us in prayer in Heaven (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4; Tobit 12:12; 2 Maccabees 15:11-14). Second, because they are models for us and imitating them we are striving to better imitate Christ. As Saint Paul tells us, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16).
I have two such Saints that I look up to as my primary patrons and big brothers in the Faith: Saint Thomas Aquinas (the primary of the two) and Saint Augustine. I have been studying their works and about their lives for a long time and yet I have only scratched the surface and will continue to study their works for the rest of my life. In doing so, I have learned so much about the Faith and am growing deeper in love with God thanks to their guidance. I would not be the Christian that I am today and the one that I am striving to become without their wisdom and examples to follow and emulate.
Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine are arguably the two most important theologians in all of Christian history and are two of the most important Doctors of the Catholic Church. Their wisdom and reflections on Scripture and doctrine have influenced the thought of millions of Christians. However, it was not just their wisdom and deep intellectualism of the Faith that has made them so important and special as models for Catholics. What made them truly special was their deep love and devotion to the Incarnate Word of God, not just the written Word of God, and their personal relationship to Him. For them, it was much more important to deeply love God on a personal level and to teach of Him to the highest and the lowest of human beings in a manner for them to understand and come to know God and have a personal relationship with Him as well. Despite prolific amounts of writings left behind by these men, ranging from sermons to deep theology, their desire was to teach and to love and to teach how to love.
Saint Augustine of Hippo was born in Thagaste, North Africa in 354 and died in 430 during the Vandal barbarians’ seize of his home city of Hippo. He was educated from a young age and was raised a Catholic Christian by his mother Saint Monica. However, he later rejected the Faith, fell into a life of sin, and became a believer in the Manichean heresy, which was a form of Gnosticism and moral relativism. During this period of his life, Monica grieved over what her son was doing and like the woman in the Parable of the Persistent Widow of Luke 18, she successfully prayed for Augustine’s conversion for many years.
Augustine taught rhetoric and grammar in Thagaste and Carthage for a time and then left Africa to go to Rome and Milan, where he obtained a job in the imperial court of Emperor Valentinian II in 384. He left his mother in Africa, but once Augustine was settled in Milan she came to join him. By this point in time, he began to see the fallacies of Manichaeism and came in contact with Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Due in large part to Saint Ambrose’s teachings, his attraction to the philosophy of Neoplatonism, and reading Romans 13:13-14, Augustine converted to Catholicism and was baptized during the Easter Vigil in 387, which his mother joyfully bore witnessed to and died shortly afterwards and Augustine returned to North Africa. In 391, he was ordained a priest and in 395 was consecrated as the coadjutor Bishop of Hippo along with Bishop Valerius, and became full Bishop not long after that until his death in 430.
After his conversion to Catholicism, Augustine became a great defender (or apologist) of the Faith. And while he was the Bishop of Hippo, he wrote a plethora of writings, including among his most famous works the Confessions, City of God, The Trinity, and The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Shortly after his death, Augustine was canonized as a Saint and was later declared a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII, which means that his teachings and writings are valued to be of high importance to the Church for Catholics to study. The Catholic Church honors Saint Augustine with a feast day in his memory every year on August 28.
Saint Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy sometime around 1225 to 1227 and died in 1274. He was born into a noble family and was educated from a very young age. As a boy, Aquinas fell in love with God and at the age of 19 he joined the new religious order founded by Saint Dominic, though he faced some opposition from certain members of his family for doing so. Undeterred by this opposition, he continued on in the Dominican Order and became a priest.
Aquinas fell in love with God on an intellectual level as well as on a personal level and went deep into the study of Scripture, theology, and philosophy. He studied under Saint Albert the Great, studied the works of Aristotle, and taught in Paris and Cologne. He left behind a plethora of writings which included the Summa Theologiae, the Shorter Summa, and the Summa Contra Gentiles. After having a mystical encounter with God during the later years of his life, Aquinas stopped writing and some of his works remained unfinished. He was respected by dignitaries of his time and was a friend of Saint Louis, the king of France; was offered to be a leading scholar in Rome by Urban IV, which he politely refused; and was offered to become the Archbishop of Naples by Pope Clement IV, which he also politely refused.
Aquinas had the nickname “the Dumb Ox”, which was due to three reasons: (1) his size (for he was a fat man), (2) he was often quite and deep in thought, and (3) because many of his classmates had thought he was stupid at first due to the previous reasons. However, Aquinas was far from a stupid man and his mentor Saint Albert once prophetically told the other students, “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
Aquinas was canonized as a Saint in 1323 by Pope John XXII and later declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius V during the 16th century. The Catholic Church honors Saint Thomas Aquinas as the Patron Saint of teachers and students with a feast day in his memory every year on January 28.
HOW I CAME TO KNOW THEM
Aquinas and Augustine are very important men to me. Raised and trained as a Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant Christian, I was not raised with a deep intellectual cultivation of the Faith at first. Some of my spiritual cultivation began with my biological mother but she ingrained in me a deep sense of anti-Catholicism which made me biased towards anything Catholic for many years. In addition, what she exposed me to was a form of Christianity based more on “feel good” spirituality that relied more on blind faith rather than earnestly seeking God through both faith and reason.
However, after I was put into foster care, I later trained under my foster father Jerry Young (who was a senior pastor of a non-denominational church) that I grew to fall in love with Scripture and theology on an intellectual level. He taught me how to really study the Bible, how to study theology, and how to pray so that I could understand my studies. Yet despite how much my dad had taught me and cultivated in me, which I am eternally indebted to him for, even he could not provide the deeper meat of study I began to crave as a result of his teachings. Of course, had I not learned so much from him I would never have developed this great spiritual hunger to begin with. The Holy Spirit had used my dad to begin the means of cultivating a great harmony of deep love, faith, intellectualism, and prayerful devotion that would change the course of my life and how I would immerse myself deeper into Christianity and as a way of being.
When I was in college, I began to study philosophy and history. Although I was familiar with who Plato and Aristotle were, I was finally exposed to their writings and was fascinated by them and wondered greatly as to why Christians had not used their works before in modern teaching because they were so close to reaching the ideas of Christian monotheism through the use of human reason hundreds of years before the advent of Christianity. I then studied history and saw that many of the early Christians and the Christians of the Middle Ages (the so called “Dark Ages”) did just that. Because of my exposure to Plato and Aristotle, my heart and mind had become fertile when exposed to Saint Thomas Aquinas because of the manner in which he used logic and reason to attempt to understand God more with his mind and not just with his heart.
I had a previously heard of Saint Augustine by this point in my life but had no interest in him due to my Fundamentalist anti-Catholic view. But I had never heard of Thomas Aquinas before. My first exposure to him was in one of my Medieval history classes under Dr. Cheryl Riggs at California State University San Bernardino and I was immediately amazed about this man. To add to this curiosity, Bart Alvara, one of my recently acquired friends and classmates whom has since become one of my closest of brothers, had already known of him and later lent me the Shorter Summa, Aquinas’ own abbreviated version of his Summa Theologiae, which I attempted to read with very little training. I now found the beginning of the means to feed the hunger that began with the training under my dad.
Reading Aquinas’ work was a challenge that I failed at first because he seemed so difficult to understand and I had to learn about the terms that he used in his work and not just the concepts he was teaching. Nevertheless, this man and his work fascinated me. He taught me that I could finally question my faith and the Faith as a whole, which for many Fundamentalist Christians is a scary thought. As I once had been told, “To question God is a lack of faith. All you need is the Bible and all of the answers are there.” And yet I began to question the faith and the doctoral traditions that I had been brought up in when I studied history and saw all of these Catholic things that I once hated as being historical and true. Aquinas then continued to guide me in my further studies even when I was not reading his works but went on to others, such as Saint Anselm of Canterbury. Ultimately, Aquinas was the one who guided me into the Catholic Church and even though I have not ever seen his face I came to see him as a brother both in emotion and in spiritual fact. Although I have yet to read ALL of his works and do not claim to understand them all, I have now begun to understand him so much and the challenge has become much easier and even more fascinating because his work has become easier to understand and my understanding of the Faith has deepened as a result
In reading the work of Aquinas, especially the great centerpiece the Summa Theologiae, you will not only be exposed to Scripture and its meaning in great depth, but you will also be exposed to other great Christian writers that preceded Aquinas; Augustine in particular. Aquinas was greatly influenced by Augustine in a manner that I believe was how I was influenced by Aquinas and that flows through Aquinas’ writings so much. From what I have read of the Summa thus far, I speculate thus far that the amount of times Aquinas referenced or quoted Augustine in that work may be second only to the amount of times he referenced and quoted Sacred Scripture. Thus, a new interest in Augustine arose due to my love for Aquinas.
In my history courses under Dr. Riggs, I had learned about Augustine prior to learning about Aquinas and grew to respect him a lot, especially contrasted to how I felt about him before, which had all been based on misconceptions about who he was due to what others had said and wrote about him and his writings. Dr. Riggs helped me to appreciate who Augustine was and his positive influence on Christianity and Western society as a whole. Then with Aquinas’ help, I began to read Augustine’s works and began to study about his life. Over the course of my studies, Ignatius Press produced the film Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine, which helped me to visualize the man and have an idea of who he was and how he became the important Saint that he now is. Like with Aquinas, Augustine’s work brought me into an even deeper understanding of the Faith.
However, unlike Aquinas, due to Augustine’s own shortcomings I saw a deep personal connection with him due to my own failings. Aquinas strived for purity and love for God early on in life and fought hard against anything that could lead him to fall into sin so that he could become a Saint. As he had once told his sister, if you want to become a Saint, will it. Until relatively recently, I cannot say that I have done that, rather I fell into sin often even as a believer in Christ and could be the worst of sinners, especially when it came to lust and pride. Augustine did as well and his years of depravity, which he talks about in his Confessions, put his mother Saint Monica through years of anguish and longsuffering prayer for the conversion of her son. Augustine had been a man of great sins, especially of lust and of pride, but when he finally had the conversion of heart that his mother had prayed for, he immediately strove to overcome his attachments to sin so that he could become a Saint. In addition, even while in the midst of living in sin, his heart still kept searching for Truth, which despite following into heresy for a time, paved the way for him to have his conversion in mind as well as in heart. I saw my potential in Augustine’s model because I empathized with him. And as a result, I grew to truly love him as a brother just as I did Aquinas.
Aquinas and Augustine both now serve as models for me in terms of sincere devotion to God, a personal relationship with Christ, loyalty to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and in the growth of deep intellectual inquiry of the Faith so that you can come to know God all the more intimately and personally. They became my spiritual lungs through which the Holy Spirit could breathe new life into my soul and my understanding of Christianity has grown so much since I began to study their works. That great hunger for knowledge of God that began under the guidance of my dad now has the means to be fed often with a banquet of study that has no end in sight. I do not rely on Aquinas and Augustine alone for my studies, for there are many other great minds that I have also become drawn to, but in addition to relying predominately upon Sacred Scripture and official documents of the Catholic Church, I tend to Aquinas and Augustine first to consult what they may have said about a particular subject before going to other sources.
WHY THESE MEN ARE IMPORTANT
God has already given us His all and all we have to do is be receptive. But how do you do that? You do so through loving him, through loyalty to him, through serving him without question, and through sacrifice by taking up your cross daily to follow him. If you draw near to Him, God will draw near to you (James 4:3).
Aquinas and Augustine confirmed that there is a harmony between faith and reason and the two go hand in hand in striving for truth and in trying to come closer to God.
There are two extremes that people tend to take in their view of religion. The first is that the supernatural is the only importance and the material world has no value at all. Among those who have taken this view were the Gnostics and they had gone as far as believing that matter is evil and that a god who created it was therefore evil. Thus, in their view, the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament and was therefore Satan. Although Fundamentalist Christians do not go to this false extreme that the Gnostics did, from personal experience I have seen that some (though not all) of them tend to take this supernaturalism view.
The other extreme view is that the material world is what is important and the supernatural is either of little importance or nonexistent since it cannot be observed and tested. This view falls into Materialism and Rationalism and tends to be advocated by atheists; agnostics; and progressive theology Christians (whether Catholic or Protestant), who belittle the supernatural and teach that the Bible is simply a book on morality and that the miracles within it are either myths or metaphors.
Aquinas and Augustine argued that both extremes are false. God created both the natural and the supernatural (or metaphysical) worlds and neither can be discounted as being unimportant, especially since God created man to be of both worlds. Thus, in our search for God we should study about both the natural and metaphysical. The study of Natural Philosophy came about as a result of this harmony of reason during the late Roman Empire period and was refined during the Middle Ages. Over the course of time, Natural Philosophy would evolve into Western Science.
Aquinas and Augustine advocated and applied the use of Natural Philosophy, although it may be argued that Aquinas did so much more than Augustine had. They believed that because God created everything, to better understand the Creator you should study His Creation, both the abstract metaphysical and what can be observed in the natural world. Thus, guided by the Holy Spirit, human reason can be used to better understand God on a deeper and more intimate level in light of what He has revealed to us through Divine Revelation (Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium [teaching authority] of the Church). However, the use of human reason must always be subject to what is revealed to us through Divine Revelation and must be used to come to better understand it and must never be used to contradict or supplant it so that we do not deviate of what has been revealed to us.
Of course, Divine Revelation and Natural Philosophy can never truly conflict with each other since their ultimate source comes from God. If there appears to be a contradiction then it is due to us not fully knowing or understanding that data that we are observing and the data cannot supplant either of the two when properly understood. Therefore, what God continues to reveal to us through science (which came forth in part due to Natural Philosophy) will always be in harmony with what He has revealed to us through Divine Revelation, even though it may take us a long time to meditate what is revealed to see the harmony. As my dear friend Eric Massie wrote to me in helping edit this essay, “The two thus rest in a symbiosis. Divine Revelation helps us to understand the significance of natural philosophy, and natural philosophy helps us to better interpret and derive significance and meaning from Revelation.”
However, for Aquinas and Augustine, the purpose of intellectualism in the Faith is not just to come to better know about God, but to come to know Him more personally and love Him. The purpose of intellectualism is this to grow in Love, Faith, Works, and Devotion. If your purpose in studying theology is not to grow in these then your intellectualism is worthless and your will be held more accountable on Judgment Day because you know these things and yet you willingly rejected to implement and practice what you have learned so that you could love and serve God. Thus, intellectualism of the Faith can become a danger to the theologian or scholar IF its purpose is not to fall in love with Christ as a person and not just as an idea.
WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT IS LOVE
It is important to emphasize that you can have enough faith to love God without the use of human reason and still be close to Him and you can intellectually believe in the existence of God and in the tenants of Catholicism but still damn yourself to Hell if you do not come to have faith in God and love Him. Thus, faith is more important than reason for without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). And yet, even though He said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9), God also said, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) and that you shall “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all of your mind” (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). Therefore, God does not discount the use of reason to grow in faith, but rather he encourages it. As He also said also said, “My people are destroyed from their lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). For this reason, the Church teaches that all questions in search of truth will always lead you to God.
And yet, faith without works is dead and useless (James 2). You can believe in God, but if you do not obey Him and DO what He says, your faith will not grow and it will not be put into practice in your life. As Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will OBEY My commandments” (John 14:15,23).
And even more important than faith, works, and reason is Love. Saint Paul made it very clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that if you have great faith it is absolutely MEANINGLESS if you do not have love. When you love God, you will have faith and it will grow and you will be obedient to Him. And if you love Him and are obedient to Him, then you will have deep devotion to God and what He has revealed to us through the Church by means of Divine Revelation. You will thus love and be obedient to Him and the teachings of the Faith without compromise, even as you struggle to keep being obedient and overcome your attachment to sin.
Both Aquinas and Augustine came to embody this principle in their lives to the best that they were able to. Despite all of their great wisdom, all of their great writings, and all of their great sermons and lectures, it all boiled down to love for God and Christ on a deep and intimate personal level. As I said at the beginning, I now emphasize more: what made Aquinas and Augustine truly special as Saints was their deep love and devotion to the Incarnate Word of God and not just the written Word of God. I will now demonstrate this with an example from the life of Aquinas, summarized from the various accounts that I have read and heard.
At one point of his life (the traditions vary in the details) Aquinas had a personal encounter with Christ. Some accounts I have heard and read say that it was when he had written an explanation about Transubstantiation of the Eucharist (the Blessed Sacrament), in which during the Mass the bread and wine become the true Body and Blood of Christ made present to us from Calvary, and he was in deep prayer wanting to be sure that what he would teach was accurate. Other accounts say that it was much later in his life after writing most of the Summa Theologiae. Whatever the case may be, the account that followed is relatively the same. Aquinas was in a chapel in deep prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the altar, and the crucifix that hung over them. The only other person present kept a distance to allow him to pray alone, although he was still within earshot of Aquinas praying. Then the image of Christ on the crucifix came alive and Jesus spoke to him and said, “Thomas, you have written well of Me. What would you desire as a reward?” With love and great tears he replied, “Lord, just You!” The love of Christ and the Holy Spirit then enraptured him and he began to levitate off of the ground. All of this was apparently witnessed by the other person in the chapel.
When I reflect on this story, I am reminded of 1 Kings 3 when God appeared to King Solomon and made a similar offer. Solomon asked for wisdom and God was very pleased with his answer. Aquinas could have asked for the same thing and he did not do so; all he wanted was Jesus and that pleased God even more than Solomon’s request pleased Him.
After another possible encounter with God that occurred later in Aquinas’ life when he received a foresight of the Beatific Vision, or as a result of this same encounter if this indeed occurred later on in his life, Aquinas ceased to write anything more. His reasoning as described to his closest friend Brother Reginald was, “All that I have written is but straw compared to what I have seen.” At first you might think that this simply means worthless and that it will pass away. But the meaning goes deeper than that. In Aquinas’ time, straw was used to wrap dung and what he said was acquainted to that.
In others words, using our modern vernacular (and I apologize for what may appear to be the use of profanity, but it has a purpose here to convey the deeper meaning here) Aquinas had really said, “Everything that I have written is crap!” or “Everything that I have written is complete shit compared to what I have seen!”
Both of these accounts encapsulates what Aquinas’ love for God was and emphasizes the real motivation behind the man and what he wrote. Augustine has similar examples as well but I cannot refer to them right now since this piece was meant to be an explanation of what I intend to do with the work that I have in mind to write.
Sincere and deep love, faith, wisdom, works, and devotion. These defined what Aquinas and Augustine strove to become. They did not write and preach to be famous and draw people to love them as celebrities; they did these things because they loved God so much that they wanted to share this love with others to help them grow in their love for God. Their love became a consuming fire in their souls until the words of Saint Paul became their own, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) as well as the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). As a result, many people have since grown to love them personally because of this; obviously I have.
In the future, I intend to expand what I have written here and write a work of devotion dedicated to these two men. That work will provide more in-depth biographies about them, an explanation of some of their works and teachings, and a personal reflection upon why they now matter to me in much greater detail in the hope of perpetuating this core legacy of theirs all the more. This will be written after I go through even more deep study, prayer, and reflection.
I wrote this to share with you what I have reflected upon thus far based upon my studies in the hope of inspiring any of you who read this to also study these men and also becoming inspired by their examples as well. And that is why we reflect upon the lives of the Saints that are within and outside of Sacred Scripture so that we model ourselves after their positive examples and learn from their faults so that we can overcome our own. You may already have a personal relationship with Christ that may have passion and depth, but I can assure you through personal experience and through studying the lives and writings of the Saints along with those of Sacred Scripture that your relationship with Christ can be even more passionate and deep.
I now love Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine as my true brothers and best friends as much as I love my best friends and brothers Bart Alvara, Allistare Lute, and Heath Blomker. They are not just historical figures of the past or abstract Saints that seem untouchable to us. They are true men who loved and served God in their lives and inspired others to do the same. Even now in Heaven, they continue to intercede for others so that they can continue to help them to come to know and love Christ on an intimate level. I want to get to that point in my life where I too can do this and become a Saint in their company.
I am nowhere close to where I want to be but my restless heart longs to get there.
Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, pray for us!
Special thanks to Jerry Young, Bart Alvara, Eric Massie, Jesus Perez and Octavio Acero who helped me review and edit this essay. I am extremely grateful for their time and effort in helping me better the quality of what I wanted to convey in this work.