Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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5 thoughts on “Fat and Holy”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fat and Holy « iBenedictines -- Topsy.com
  2. The thing about the bellowing of the dumb ox was said by his teacher, St Albert the Great, not by Thomas himself (and it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d have said, given what we know of his character). And the thing about the cut-out in the refectory table is, I am told, a slander, though I can’t trace the source. The Dominican rule had the friars walk, not ride, and Thomas walked between Paris, Rome, Naples, … he could hardly have been the size of a sumo wrestler, or his knees would have given in, would they not?

  3. Obviously the English sense of humour does not travel north of the border! Thank you for correcting me about St Albert, sloppy wring on my part. It’s no “slander” to say that St Thomas was fat. I’m fat myself and walk miles. I don’t see anywhere in the post where I liken St Thomas to a sumo wrestler and I think Fra Angelico’s portrait justifies my use of the affectionate “tubby” and podgy”. Readers of Colophon know how much I love and admire St Thomas (how many Dominicans, I wonder, can claim as I can, to have read the whole of the Summa Theologica and several other treatises right through in Latin?). I’d be sorry, though, if my way of writing were to obscure the point of what I was saying: that St Thomas did not conform to some of the popular notions about sanctity. God makes saints as he wills, and we do well to get to know them better.

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