Although most of us can’t match the intellect of this great saint and scholar, there are at least three things about his life that we can imitate.
1) Openness to other views
Thomas was particularly skilled at the scholastic method of theology for his time. Before arguing a position, a question would be raised, followed immediately by an array of objections to the answer Thomas favored – a “devil’s advocate” approach, if you will. Thomas would pose these objections with great clarity and even apparent sympathy. It was said that he often summarized the arguments of his opponents better than they did.
Thomas honored his intellectual “enemies” by hearing and studying their arguments carefully, then responding intelligently. He respected positions of the “other” by taking them seriously and engaging them in a constructive way. It would be nice if today’s critics of the church would follow a similar approach and first study what the church actually says before proffering opinions. It would also be nice if Christians did the same toward their own critics. In today’s world of haters and mean-spirited, volatile ideological entrenchments, we could all benefit from taking such an approach – including those of us within the church.
As already mentioned, the method favored by Thomas was to seek truth by asking questions. As brilliant and learned as he was, Thomas never lost his questioning sense of wonder and curiosity concerning the mysteries of faith. He was secure enough in his own convictions that he was unafraid to engage other views. He maintained a learner’s posture throughout his life and never succumbed to the hubris so tempting to intellectuals, including theologians. As a result, he kept growing and advancing in wisdom and understanding.
Christians often fail in this area. How many times have we gone to church on Sunday, heard the opening lines of a familiar gospel, and immediately disengaged, satisfied that we know message? I have often encountered Catholics who resist instruction, insisting with a certain finality, “Father, I know all about ____. I went through twelve years of Catholic school.” In fact, I know many priests who often display this attitude. This is a shame. Without teachability, we are in danger of missing out on new insights and the joy of new learning! Through a lifetime of inquisitive question-asking, Thomas discovered the intellectual fountain of youth.
As a side note, I recently heard author Ken Coleman say that the average five-year-old asks over 100 questions a day, while the average eighth-grader asks three (thanks, education system). This is a serious problem calling for creative thought and solutions.
3) Love of Jesus
Thomas loved his theological studies. However, he loved Jesus more. Valuable as his work was, he understood its relative value. A famous story illustrates this well. It is narrated by Brother Reginald, a contemporary of Thomas who witnessed it. Thomas was praying before the crucifix, as was his custom, when a voice was heard, presumably that of Jesus, saying: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What would you have as your reward?” Thomas answered, “non aliam nisi te, Domine." None other than you, Lord.
This is remarkable. Thomas could have asked for privileged access to heaven’s library, or a house next to Paul, Augustine and Aristotle, or lasting influence for his writings. Instead, he asked only for Jesus. Thomas loved the gifts, but he especially loved the giver. He wrote with exceptional skill and insight about God, but his heart was with God himself. I believe this is what the sixth beatitude refers to as “purity (singleness) of heart.” There is always a temptation for us to develop a Martha-like attachment to the good work we do, to the point that we lose sight of the “one thing necessary” that Mary – and Thomas – so revered.
We can’t all be doctors of the church. But all of us can learn from, and imitate, the openness, teachability, and love of God that Thomas so beautifully exhibited, and thus significantly raise our level of “PQ” for our own happiness and the advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth.