At some point during my time as a college student, I encountered the great saint and medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and began to realize just how truly important and vast was his intellectual impact in history. As a witness to the profound and enduring quality of Thomas’ theological insight and teaching, the Catholic Church honors him with the title “Doctor of the Church.” Thomas certainly spent much of his life in a classroom teaching and debating on the most relevant questions of his day. But when it came to his primary vocation as a Christian, the soft-spoken saint would be quick to point out that he was first and foremost a student.
The word disciple literally means “learner” or “student.” In the Bible, a disciple is,
“A student or follower who emulates the example set by a master and seeks to identify with the master’s teachings.” (Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn)
For Thomas, discipleship meant being an entirely devoted student of Jesus Christ. One of Thomas’ theological principles was that everything Jesus said and did was meant for our imitation and instruction. In the time of Jesus, a disciple did not just learn from, but learned to be like their teacher. We see this, for example, at the Sermon on the Mount, which is an extended lesson about a radically new vision for life received at the feet of their teacher (“Rabbi”), Jesus. Today, the Church’s emphasis on the New Evangelization to make and grow as disciples also means we are to become in every way students of Jesus. Here are three important ways Aquinas modeled being a student of Jesus, a disciple, worthy of our imitation.
A Student of Scripture
For Thomas, Sacred Scripture makes known “that heart of Christ” (see CCC 112), and we acquire that heart gradually by reading and studying the Bible. In addition to composing many commentaries on individual books of the Bible, all of Thomas’ writings demonstrate a life soaked in a love and knowledge of Holy Scripture. Thomas realized the impossibility of growing as disciples of Jesus apart from familiarity with the living Word of God.
A Student of Prayer
Even with a multitude of followers and demands, Jesus was frequently found in personal prayer with the Father. Similarly, as prolific a writer as Thomas was, Thomas never sacrificed his time of prayer and contemplation for the sake of work or greater productivity. As a result, aside from his dense technical writings in theology, Thomas composed captivating prayers that the Church uses in liturgy and devotions even today. Thomas loved to pray through song, and among his most well known prayers include the famous Eucharistic hymns “O Salutaris,” “Tantum Ergo,” and “Adoro Te Devote.”
A Student of Truth
Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). In a culture saturated with opinion and often biased news, we can learn from Thomas’ unceasing search for truth. A love of the truth compelled Thomas to devote himself to understanding the world around him (even where he disagreed), to be slow to judge, quick to learn, but steadfast in his convictions and trust in Jesus.
Whether you are in school or beyond, Thomas models what it means for a disciple to seek the truth. That could mean doing more research about our opinions, being more willing to have our perspective challenged, or just trying to learn something new every day. Thomas even has a great Prayer for Students that we can all apply to whatever situation Jesus is calling us to keep learning about.
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