Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, commemorated on this day, was born in 1224 or 1225, and at the age of five was sent by his parents to live in a Benedictine monastery, where they hoped he would follow in the footsteps of his uncle, the monastery's abbot. This didn't work out for his family, as he eventually became a Dominican friar instead. They had him abducted and imprisoned for two years, trying to convince him to renounce the Dominican order, but without success.

In adulthood, Aquinas became a prominent theologian and philosopher, his reputation continuing into the present day. Fifty years after his death on March 7, 1274, he was proclaimed a saint by Pope John XXII. Subsequent popes have declared that the theology of Aquinas is considered definitive for the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to his many theological works, he wrote many Latin hymns that have been translated by different poets over the years. Some of the most well known have become part of the Catholic liturgy, such as this one, the Latin O salutaris Hostia.

O saving Victim, open wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press on from every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.

All praise and thanks to thee ascend
Forevermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end
In our true native land with thee.

Thomas Aquinas, 13th c.;
tr. Edward Caswall,1849, and others
Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1872

This short hymn is the final section of a longer text, Verbum supernum prodiens, and is sung during the rite of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, celebrated in the Roman Catholic church, the Western Rite Orthodox Church, and in some Anglo-Catholic Episcopal/Anglican churches.

Another Aquinas hymn, the Tantum ergo, is also sung during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. At my own church, Benediction is celebrated a few times a year during Evensong services. The congregation sings O salutaris Hostia (as the hymn above), followed by a choral setting of the Tantum ergo. I sometimes wonder about reversing them; having a choral setting of the O Salutaris (of which there are many) and a metrical hymn version of the Tantum ergo, but we never do it that way. There may well be some arcane liturgical rule about why not.

At YouTube you can hear one of the Tantum ergo settings
we have sung, by Gabriel Faure, performed by a choir of men and boys (we do a standard four-part arrangement, with tenor solo instead of boy soprano).

No comments: