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Seeing Holy Mass with Dominican Eyes

Part I: “Seeing Holy Mass with Benedictine Eyes
Part II: “Seeing Holy Mass with Carmelite Eyes

The Dominicans are the towering “lights” of the Church. Think about it: Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Catherine of Siena, among others, were all Dominicans. The intellectual wattage and spiritual luminosity hardly gets brighter than that among us mortal men. It always amazes me to hear what Jesus said to Catherine, as reported in her Dialogue:

With this light that is given to the eye of the intellect, Thomas Aquinas saw Me, wherefore he acquired the light of much science; also Augustine, Jerome, and the doctors, and my saints. They were illuminated by My Truth to know and understand My Truth in darkness. By My Truth I mean the Holy Scripture, which seemed dark because it was not understood; not through any defect of the Scriptures, but of them who heard them, and did not understand them.

If you turn to Augustine, and to the glorious Thomas and Jerome, and the others, you will see how much light they have thrown over this spouse, [the Holy Catholic Church,] extirpating error, like lamps placed upon the candelabra, with true and perfect humility….

Look at My glorious Thomas, who gazed with the gentle eye of his intellect at My Truth, whereby he acquired supernatural light and science infused by grace, for he obtained it rather by means of prayer than by human study. He was a brilliant light, illuminating his order and the mystical body of the Holy Church, dissipating the clouds of heresy.

Apart from the fact that scores of popes have recommended St. Thomas Aquinas as the prince of theologians for over 700 years, it seems to me that Saint Catherine’s encomium goes a long way towards explaining why the Church grants him such a privileged place in the teaching of sacred theology.

Saint Thomas belonged to the Order of Preachers, styled “Dominicans” after their founder. This was the first religious order in the history of the Church to treat study—that is, intellectual labor—as a holy and sanctifying activity in and of itself, something worth pursuing not as a mere instrument for something else, but as a way of perfecting the image of God within us, as a genuine path to God. As a corollary, Saint Dominic saw that without a sustained and serious use of the human intellect, guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the world’s rulers and rustics alike would fall prey again and again to charlatans, hooligans, heretics, bad poets, and an assortment of demonic forces. In fact, you never can quite get rid of these parasites, but Saint Dominic fashioned an order that was dedicated with steely resolve to exposing and refuting their stratagems through holy preaching and sound teaching. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Dominic and the Dominicans are the saints who sanctified the study of the Great Books as well as the eloquence that proceeds from such study.

We heard Saint Catherine say that God gave Saint Thomas special light to understand Sacred Scripture. When one thinks about the Dominican zeal for study, one thinks about the Mass of the Catechumens; one thinks about hearing Scripture proclaimed from the sanctuary and expounded in the homily; one thinks about the illuminative way touched on in my last article. As Saint Augustine says in De Doctrina Christiana, all human study is ordered to understanding the Word of God or to communicating it. The dedication to study found so plentifully in the Catholic tradition is ultimately in service of hearing God’s Word with a mind thoroughly prepared to receive it, so that His wisdom becomes ours, and our joy becomes complete. Let’s put it provocatively: the entire academic curriculum at any institution of higher learning stands or falls depending on whether it opens the ears of students to the full message of Divine Revelation, as delivered by the mouth of the Church’s liturgy.

Saint Thomas, says Saint Catherine, obtained supernatural light more by prayer than by human study. His earliest biographers relate that he would often take a break from his studies to go and rest his head beside the tabernacle. He participated in the Mass twice each morning: once as the celebrant with his secretary Brother Reginald serving him, and immediately after, as the acolyte at Brother Reginald’s Mass. The mystical experience that brought his life’s enormous literary labors to an abrupt end took place while he was offering Mass on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, 1273. After this Mass, during which he shed copious tears, he could barely speak, and, apart from a short letter he dictated to the monks of Montecassino, he wrote or dictated no more, until he died a few months later.

We are therefore not surprised to find among his writings many beloved prayers and hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Most of these belong to the deservedly praised Office and Mass of Corpus Christi, one of the great liturgical achievements of the Middle Ages, with its poetry standing at a consistently high level of eloquence and fervor. Fr. Paul Murray has written a most engaging book that should be required reading for every Thomist and every Catholic theologian: Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism, and Poetry (Bloomsbury, 2013). Aquinas also paid close attention to the structure of Mass, offering a thorough “divisio textus” or outline of it.

When you read about the life of Saint Thomas, you discover that he was a man totally consumed with love for divine Truth—the Dominican motto is Veritas—longing for the blessed sight of God’s Face, and he both quenched his thirst and increased it by his daily partaking of the Sacred Banquet of the Mass, the sacrum convivium, as he calls it. He is truly, in every way, a model for Catholics who pursue the lifelong task of “faith seeking understanding.” Like the Benedictines with whom he spent part of his youth, Saint Thomas knew the secret of ora et labora.

He holds up the Dominican torch of truth for all successive generations, fully aware that, as robust as our confidence can be in the goodness of human nature and indeed of all creation, nevertheless without the grace of God this fallen order will end in dust and ashes, incapable of the adhering to God in love and, even more, incapable of blissful union with God Himself in the beatific vision. That is what we are striving for, with sighs and tears, with groanings too deep for words, fed on the words of the Word, fed on the Word Himself.


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