"... the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20.28
Chinese theologian, Yonghua Ge, uses the pithy phrase “evangelical poverty” to describe the lifestyle of Thomas Aquinas. Despite his relatively brief existence (he died before his 50th birthday), Aquinas’ star is still in the ascendant as among the greatest Christian thinkers. But this is only half the story. The way he lived his life is as significant to Aquinas’ legacy as his theological works. To grasp this it is necessary to recall the nature of the times he inhabited, for Aquinas is very much a “child of his time”.
The 13th century was tumultuous (which era isn’t?). Throughout Europe technology was transforming economic activity, with the effect of rapid urbanisation. Feudalism was being challenged, or at least complemented by, the emergence of a mercantile class organised and represented by guilds, while universities were extending access to education beyond monastery walls. Collective identity was giving way to individualism, entrepreneurialism and ambition. Christian religion caught the spirit of the age, the assumption being that the whole world would be gathered under the umbrella of a universal church governed by the Pope. (The crusades were an ugly and shameful expression of this attitude.)
Out of the maelstrom emerged the mendicant order of Dominicans, born of the conviction that Jesus himself points in a totally different direction: that the only way to win the world is to reject its blandishments. Unlike the Desert Fathers, however, the Dominican impulse did not lead into the wilderness and then into the cloisters. Rather it beckoned toward the universities and onto the street corners, where the friars’ radical way of life empowered their uncompromising preaching of the Gospel: confession of sin and new life in Christ.
Aquinas himself was born into the privilege of a wealthy family of feudal aristocrats. On hearing of his vocation into the mendicant Order of Dominicans, his brothers were so horrified that they placed him under house arrest for a whole year, even employing the services of a prostitute to lure him back to his senses. Aquinas remained firm and was eventually released, whereupon he lost no time in putting his faith into practice – as a teacher, preacher and ultimately a mystic.