In a time that prizes worldly experience (whether good or bad) over all else, individuals who triumph over personal “demons” are routinely praised for making a comeback: and so they should. Still, it begs the question: must we indulge our demons as a matter of course, or might we do better to shun them from the get-go? Is there something to be said for the value of…innocence? The lives of the saints give us outstanding examples of both types of holiness.
On Saturday (January 25), the Church celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, by whose indefatigable sacrifice and suffering the Church “preached the Good News to every creature.” Still, the very fact of his conversion indicates that such zeal for Christ was not always the case. The first words of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles (9:1) tell of “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord.” Paul is the very embodiment of God’s transforming grace, and hope even for those who resist the divine will.
On Tuesday (January 28), we honor St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic” Doctor and patron of students and schools, especially those of philosophy and theology. Why do we call him “angelic”? Various stories attest (often in hilarious detail) to the miraculous innocence he showed while rebuffing attempts to entice him to a life of vice and frivolity. Thomas was also a prolific writer who paid great attention to…angels. He points out that, except for the Annunciation, nowhere in Scripture does an angel salute a human being, i.e., speak as a subordinate to a superior. Angels, by their nature, are incorruptible, stand before the presence of God, and far surpass us in holiness. Yet Gabriel “hails” (ave) the Virgin who, from the first moment of her existence, lived in complete submission to the will of God.
This week’s cover art is a triptych by the Florentine painter Bernardo Daddi (c. 1330): the Virgin Mary with St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Paul. The Blessed Mother’s blue cloak is made from costly lapis lazuli, and the tooled (pounded) gold leaf suggests that the entire piece is solid gold, all the better to honor the Saints. Mary holds a book inscribed with the first words of the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Even the downward reach of her hand indicates the power of her intercession on behalf of sinners. St. Thomas, in turn, holds a book with an Old Testament passage (Eccles. 12:9-10) testifying to his vocation as a priest and teacher: “Searching, he posed many parables. He sought useful words, and wrote the most accurate sermons.” St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, paradoxically stands by in silence while holding a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom.
So by all means, let us strive by the grace of God to live in angelic purity, for sake of the unique benefits that flow from it. Yet let us never despair, as though youthful transgression or a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10) were enough to separate us from God. Catholic students: hit the books!