A Wordy Kind of Saint
Imagine teaching a lesson on Thomas Aquinas to 3rd and 4th Graders. That’s the sacredly foolish task I gave my Sunday School teachers one year at my first parish in preparation for All Saints’ Sunday. Why Aquinas, one might reasonably ask? Why not St. Francis or St. Nicholas or one of the more accessible saints, whose greatest feats were outside of the library? Well, we learned about them too. But since today (January 28) is the feast day for St. Thomas, I thought I’d share a little about what we learned from looking at Thomas’ life – and the different forms that sainthood can take.
We learned about someone who loved books – especially the Bible and anything by Aristotle. We encountered someone whose gentle quietness and size led people to call him “the Silent Ox.” (He seems to have saved most of his words for the page.) We met someone who used his thoughts for God, who asked endless questions about God because he loved God so much, and who then used every word he could think of to ask even better questions.
And then we learned, as our Godly Play story on St. Thomas puts it: “The answers to his biggest questions about God were beyond words.” The man who loved words more than anyone came to know God in a new way one night. Something happened while he was celebrating Communion. He was in a daze for days afterwards. Finally he told his friend what he discovered: “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.”
I suspected then – as I do now – that there are kids who need to know that their questions about God matter, that questions are not the opposite of faith but can be an expression of it. Some need to know that they can serve God with their minds as well as their souls and bodies, and that if they struggle to find the right words for their relationship with God – it may be because God was never meant to be contained by words in the first place. Perhaps that’s a lesson for children of all ages.
P.S. The image is G.K. Chesterton’s favorite depiction of Aquinas – a detail from “Madonna and Child Enthroned by Angels and Saints” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486.