"Thomas Aquinas: Friar, Theologian, and Mystic."
by Karl Rahner

Cross and Crown 20 (1968): 5-9.

Father Rahner is professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Munich. A peritus at Vatican II, he is one of the most influential theologians in the Church today and has written over a thousand books and articles

EDITOR'S NOTE.: This article, which originally appeared in the Korrespondazblatt (LXXXVI, 89-93) of the International College Canisianum, Innsbruck, Austria, was included in Father Rahner's book Everyday Faith published by Herder and Herder, of New York, in early fall 1968. The translation was made by Thomas Franklin O'Meara, O.P., at that time of the Aquinas Institute School of Theology in Dubuque, Iowa.

To reflect upon Thomas Aquinas as patron of theological studies does not mean merely to think back on some man in History or on his influence in Western thought. Because we are Christians, we are linked to him; we can actually see him as a fellow Christian in the community of saints. Those Christians who have gone before us into the assembly of saints are not dead; they live. They live in perfection, that is, in the true Reality which is also powerful and present among us today. Some of them we can call by name. These Christian men and women can be more real and more important I or its than theoretical principles or abstract ideas. In many ways they are even more real than we are, for they are with God. They love us; we love theta. They are present at the eternal liturgy of heaven, and intercede there for its their brothers.

In comparison to the saints' present existence, their past. history on earth is comparatively of little significance. They now live the quintessence of our life on earth in an eternal form, and the Reality in which they exist is in the last analysis the ground of all reality on earth. They do not belong to the past at all, except insofar as they have lived on earth in past history. Actually they have run ahead, hastened forward into the future, a future waiting for us. To look at a saint., then, is not. to look at something abstract or impersonal, something dead, but rather to sec a concrete person, a unique individual, once alive on earth and now eternally alive, someone who loves and praises, someone who is blessed and redeemed.

Three things strike me about one of history's Christians, Thomas Aquinas. (1) He was a friar, a monk; (2) he was a theologian; (3) he was a mystic.


To say that St. Thomas was a friar, a monk, means that he was someone who was detached, someone who gave up something for something else. Detachment can be a hard, scandalous word. But we can express our thought in another way. Thomas was a man who set aside what was small in order to find what was bigger. He let the world run its course in order that he might have God. Yet, this still does not do away with the scandal that Christianity essentially is, the scandal that in this earthly life we cannot have everything. A man must decide, and in so doing he puts himself on one side. He cannot stand on both sides. In this life, we have to let some things go by in order to run ahead and find the important things. We have to die in order to live. We have to be poor in order to possess. We can believe in God who is one, only if we are prepared to set: aside the many.

Because Thomas, as a saint, knew these truths and wanted to realize them in his life, he became a Friar Preacher. He became a monk, an ordinary, poor man, a celibate, someone unimportant, an individual dropped into a community in which he could be lost. Thomas did not need to do this. Entering a monastery could have meant for him only a severe retardation in social status. Thomas nourished no resentment toward life. He was a strong, sensitive man, with some of the family traits, no doubt, of his ready, brawling brothers, who were eager to add him to their circle. he was no religious fanatic, lacking understanding of, or sensitivity for, the captivating glory of this world. just the opposite, for his theology was going to bring this world into greater

prominence for Christians and to evaluate it more extensively than theology had done in the past. Still, he became a monk, because he saw himself called by God to this way of life, because he had that combination of' faith and realism which is unique to the Christian, because he knew that this world's order is the disorder of sin. Thomas wanted to join in the hunt of God and world, of heaven and earth, of the happiness of man and the happiness of God. He reached his decision but he did not choose the side of the world. Without any contempt for what he left behind, he went, knowing that some day he would find it all again. He entered the Dominicans realistically, soberly, and honestly, without any fanaticism and without any unrealistic idealism. Thomas did not enter the Order because he was one of those inhuman, unbalanced persons who want to feed on disappointments, tragedies, and failures in the world. He knew that for every Christian the way which leads through the world runs over that point where the cross is standing. Because he wanted to be a Christian, he took his vocation seriously and became a monk.


St. Thomas was a member of an order for which the priesthood was not merely an accidental accouterment. Rather, the religious life of the Dominicans was geared to the priesthood from the very beginning. Although Thomas was it friar and a monk, he was also in a very real sense, a "secular" priest, a priest for the secular city, for the world. Because he knew that he was sent to announce the good news of the gospel, he knew that he must be a theologian. He knew that man can really preach only by calling others through the witness of his life to believe with him. Thomas made the very center of his existence "to give to others those things that you have contemplated." For one's own contemplation, which preaching and teaching will communicate further, theology for most of us is an indispensable presupposition. That is why Thomas became a theologian, a theologian for whom the heart of the matter was what really counted, not quick emotional satisfaction.

Thomas studied and taught in that cool and clear objectivity which is the sign of a great man, the sign of a man who loves reality more than he loves his own subjective, selective curiosity. Thomas had the courage to strive for clarity wherever clarity is possible. He had the courage to bow before mystery where mystery remains. He could distinguish between the two in order to bring them closer. He lead the courage to contradict opinions which were widespread or dominant in his time, and yet he never sought the sensational nor made novelty a criterion of truth. He also lead the courage to act when he knew he was right. When he had no better solution, he could remain with the traditional point of view, although he must have been aware that this point of view was often insufficient.

In his theology Thomas spoke about God, not about himself. He wrote prose theology, although he knew how to write poems. He was a man who loved to reflect, to speculate, and once remarked he would have given Paris for John Chrysostom's commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Aquinas had the honesty to change his views he had expressed in his earlier works whenever fuller knowledge required him to do so. He always thought from the viewpoint of the whole, and still he had (inasmuch as an individual can) an understanding and appreciation for individual questions. He expressed his own opinion without arguing and without looking upon his opponents as stupid. In his voluminous works very rarely do we find a sharp word. He is big in his theology, not because he was the only and all-encompassing theologian (there can be no such an individual), nor because he himself thought he was such a man, but because he thought "in the center of the Church" (in medio Ecclesiae) , and because he remained open for everything which the past and which his own time could bring to him.


When we speak of Thomas as a mystic we do not mean that he had frequent ecstasies or visions or that he was a little introverted or overly concerned about his own experiences. There seems to he nothing of this in his writings. Yet Thomas was a mystic. He knew about "the hidden Godhead," Adoro te devote, latens deitas (Devoutly I adore thee, hidden Deity). He knew the hidden God. He spoke of the God who pervades and determines everything in silence. He spoke of a God beyond everything holy theology could say about him. He spoke of the God he loved as inconceivable. And he knew about these things not only from theology but from the experience of his heart. He knew and experienced so much that in the end he substituted silence for theological words. He no longer wrote, and considered all that he had written to be "straw." As he lay dying, he spoke a little about the Canticle of Canticles, that great song of love, and then was silent. He became silent because he wanted to let God alone be heard in lieu of those human words he had spoken for us.

Thomas lives. He may seem far away but he is not in reality, for the community of saints is close. The saints come to us overshadowed by the brilliance of the eternal God into whom they have plummeted through the centuries. But God is not a god of the dead but of the living, and whoever has gone home to him, lives. And so Thomas lives. The question for us is: Does our faith live? For it is through our faith that Thomas can become part of our own life.