The inspired poetry of Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas is usually thought of in terms of the Summa Theologica, even if the long shelves of that compendium are rarely consulted by many of the faithful today. However, in this most interesting book, Paul Murray an Irish Dominican and poet, deals with very different aspect of Aquinas; not with the philosopher and theologian, but with the mystical poet. And yet, it could be said, there is no real boundary between these different aspects of his mind and spirit.

The focus is on the prayer life of St Thomas, and this is certainly something that can be approached by everyone.

The book’s approach to this topic in three sections: the first part is on Aquinas as a man of prayer, that is, prayer as a regular part of life and an expression of an interior reality. The second part deals with prayer in a Biblical context, how prayer relates to the spirit of revelation through the Scriptures.

The third part is a discussion of Aquinas as the poet of the Eucharist, and I suspect that this is the part which many readers will find of the most interest. In 1284 when the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted, the Pope commissioned the Divine Doctor to write the required hymns and sequences.

In contrast to the contemporary Franciscan poems with their emotional appeal, these typically Dominican products, which one critic characterised as “dogmatic, severe and objective”, were nevertheless beautiful Latin poems.

The theology expressed in the poems is essential to their purpose. These are not decorative hymns, such as we have today, but statements of the poet’s faith, and that of the Church as a whole.  

There is a sense though that nothing like them seems to find expression these days in hymn writing. Perhaps is it that nowadays we have hymn writers rather than true poets doing the required work. But then a priest who is both a poet and a theologian like Aquinas is a rare creature at any time.