The American novelist Truman Capote famously remarked, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” If that’s the case, I am far more familiar with ketchup and relish than hamburger. Failure, of course, is not an entirely bad thing, and certainly not the catastrophe to be fled that our world makes it out to be. The experience of failure, or at least the perception of it, can have the salutary effect of keeping us humble, giving us perspective, and helping us form a realistic view of the world. To be sure,
thinking that one is nothing more than a failure can also skew our outlook, but genuine humility has its benefits. We human beings do well to take God and the call of the Gospel very seriously, but ourselves…not so much. Consider that Socrates, one of the world’s greatest minds, started most of his
conversations by admitting—sincerely—that he was the most ignorant person in the room. This week the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the “Angelic Doctor.” The 13th century was a time of extensive intellectual and cultural development in Europe, as the
philosophical and “scientific” knowledge of antiquity was being rediscovered. Thomas, born to an aristocratic family, had been educated by the Benedictines at Monte Cassino with an eye to a career in
law and politics. His decision to become, not simply a priest—the horror!—but a “mendicant” (begging) priest of the Dominican order, was shocking. After imprisoning him (and other drastic/comical
measures) to dissuade him from this terrible fate, they finally relented, and this large, slow-moving young man, dubbed the “dumb ox,” pursued his vocation. His intellectual career is legendary; adopting
the philosophical terminology of Aristotle, he explained the Catholic faith with an encyclopedic worldview that set the standard for brilliance, precision, and depth. His mystical insight is distilled in the
Church’s liturgy for the Body and Blood of Christ. His open-mindedness was never intimidated by differing opinions, and he was as willing to glean the truth from pagan (Plato and Aristotle), Muslim
(Avicenna) and Jewish (Moses Maimonides) sources as he was from St. Paul or St. Augustine. Scholars are of two opinions as to why he was called the “Angelic Doctor.” His purity of heart was so profound
as to typify more an angel than a man. Moreover, his writings betrayed a fascination with the spiritual beings who could know essences without the use of the bodily senses as human beings do. One might think that an individual of such extraordinary intellectual, spiritual, and ethical power might, over time, have an “overly developed” self confidence. On the contrary, as today’s artwork, Santi di Tito’s 1593 work, The Vision of St. Thomas illustrates, when compared with the experience of Christ in
the sacrifice of the Mass, St. Thomas concluded that his life’s work—which set the course of western theology for the next 800 years—seemed to him “so much straw.” Not exactly an admission of failure, of course, but perhaps an expression of the futility in seeking happiness from anything beyond the grace of our Crucified Lord Jesus.
An individual with the gifts of Thomas Aquinas is quite rare; but he himself would tell us that the capacity to love God—which is within the reach of everyone—is much more important in the long run.