Every January 28th I think of my birthday and early Church martyr-women. Wait, what?
I did not start out loving St. Thomas, but after years of teaching him I have come to terms with the fact that I love him and he is mine (despite still thinking of myself as a Franciscan and now a Benedictine). My friends and students think I am the biggest Aquinas fanboy and cast in his mold, which is flattering and hilariously untrue. But it is true that over time I have come to maybe, just a little bit, think of the world like he does. And because of that, every January 28th I get a little irritated. Because he died on March 7, and his feast should be on my birthday.
I take liturgical time very seriously and so the fact that I have been robbed of a patron like Aquinas is of great pain to me. But the reason he’s not celebrated on my birthday points to a much deeper point about the faith and, ironically, about St. Thomas himself. Because as awesome as Aquinas is, he gets his lunch money taken all day every day by two women who died a thousand years before he was born.
My birthday has an incomparably greater feast than some “smartest guy who ever lived” from Italy. Sts. Felicity and Perpetua grace the day of his birth into heaven and my birth into this world. Nothing that St. Thomas could have done in 13th century Europe could possibly supplant the blood shed by two of our early martyrs–two mothers, one pregnant and the other nursing, two women who put to shame world and family to die for the faith. As much as I love Aquinas, and pace my Dominican friends, I’m better off with those two as patrons, because martyrs beat doctors like the Ace of Trump.
St. Thomas, I dare to speculate, would agree. He and I share a birthday graced by two martyrs that he would, certainly while he lived and I think even now, insist are greater saints than he. The fact that he did, for a time, displace those martyrs on the calendar would have horrified him while on earth. St. Thomas got his cognomen Dumb Ox in part through his quiet humility; his work is immortal because it has nothing to do with him or how smart he is (and few have ever lived who could lay greater claim to being allowed such a conceit).
The deeper point about St. Thomas is that he is one of them. His mark of sanctity is not his intellect but his purity. He’s one of the early virgin martyrs pulled out of time and plopped down in Christian Europe. His absolute, mystical, life-defining dedication to Christ is why he gets on our calendar. He just happened to live in a time when it wouldn’t get him killed very easily.
The popular Thomas is a super-computer churning out theology and philosophy, like a Borg Catholic or Bernard Lonergan. The real St. Thomas is a mystic and a poet and master of prayer who really was graced by those two incredible women and fittingly died on their day, fellow disciples of the way of Christ.
So the reality is that for me, January 28th and March 7th collapse into one time; Thomas and Felicity and Perpetua into one family of patrons; that when I teach the Summa I am never far in mind from dying under the reign of Septimius Severus; that those two are the perfect counterpoint to all the heavy intellectual work that I do with him; that I celebrate my birthday twice even if no one brings me presents today.
I’m pretty upset that this stupid blizzard has me trapped inside still, and I didn’t get to talk about this feast with my students today.
Sts. Thomas, Felicity, and Perpetua, ora pro nobis.