A message from Father Nick 49

St Gerbert

“Greatest of centuries”

            The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries is an unlikely title today. Yet a book of that name, written more than a century ago, tells of a remarkable phase in our history – the age of Gothic cathedrals, of the founding of universities, of the signing of Magna Carta, of the origin of representative government with something like constitutional guarantees… of dynamic characters like Richard the Lion-heart and Saladin, Giotto and Dante, Pope Innocent III, Sts Francis, Clare and Dominic… It was by any reckoning a time of enormous creative energy. It was also a time when people fell in love with learning.

Learning is one of the most fascinating aspects of our faith. St Illtud, in his llan on the South Wales coast, maintained a “sixth century university” to connect Christian Britons with the classical past. St Bede in his eighth century abbey in Northumbria wrote the history of the English church and people. Monks from Iona seem to have produced Dublin’s beautiful Book of Kells. And Irish monks made their own special contribution (A little volume by Thomas Cahill, arrestingly titled How the Irish Saved Civilization, argues that because Ireland lay outside the Roman Empire, it also lay outside the area of Rome’s decline. As the empire broke apart, Irish monks in distant monasteries continued to copy its manuscripts, passing on its knowledge to the future).

The beauty of learning is that it can be universally shared, and two leading sharers come to mind. The first is Gerbert of Aurillac, a French shepherd boy who became a monk and eventually pope (Sylvester II) just before the year 1000. As he grew up Gerbert was hungry for knowledge, but the teachers he needed were not yet there for him. He persuaded his abbot to let him study in Spain where he learned much from Arabic scholarship, especially in mathematics and astronomy. It was Gerbert who realised that the Hindu-Arabic figures we use today are much better suited to mathematics than Roman numerals, and it was Gerbert who brought us the abacus.

Pythagoras at Chartres Cathedral

People shared their learning eagerly, travelling more and more widely in search of teachers, and in the new university world of the thirteenth century one name stands out above all others: Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican friar. Thomas was physically huge (it is famously said of him that he needed a semi-circle cut in the refectory table where he ate to accommodate his vast stomach). Thomas was so often silent with his thoughts that he was at first taken to be stupid, prompting some to call him “the Dumb Ox”.

But Thomas had perhaps the best mind of the Middle Ages. He studied at Monte Cassino abbey and then at Naples University before becoming a Dominican. Next, he studied at Paris and Cologne before teaching in Italy and Paris. His great philosophical and theological works are a masterly synthesis, showing the relationship between faith and reason. They earned Thomas a very different kind of name – not “Dumb Ox” but “Universal Doctor”.

Thomas was a humble man and he would have been the first to acknowledge two important truths: his debt to Greek philosophy (especially the works of Aristotle) which survived in the learning centres of Muslim Spain; and the centrality of his spiritual life. It was said of him that “his wonderful learning owes far less to his genius than to the effectiveness of his prayer”.

St Thomas Aquinas