One of my goals when teaching the lives and writings of the saints to an undergraduate audience is to take these figures “out of stained glass.” That is to say, I endeavor to teach this material in such a way that brings these authors to life. An image of a saint piously kneeling before the Virgin and Child can leave a somewhat one-dimensional impression upon the viewer. This impression is then reinforced as one becomes accustomed to it and does not probe its theological meaning.
Yesterday the Church celebrated the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. (1195-1231). St. Anthony’s feast day is particularly special to me as it is my onomastico or “name day,” and the imagery of St. Anthony with which we are most familiar has him holding the Child Jesus. This artistic motif is derived from an apparition that St. Anthony received of the Child Jesus, and it became part of his standard artistic depiction during the 17th century. Prior to that time, he was often portrayed with a lily (a symbol of purity) and a book (a symbol of the preaching for which he was renowned even in his own lifetime).
Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.
While theology is the diligent study of sacred realities, we can often stress the activity (diligent study) over the object (sacred realities). As a mentor of mine is fond of saying: theology is about transformation, not information. Few religious orders have incorporated this belief into their spiritual legacy as profoundly as the Franciscans and, in particular, St. Anthony was acutely aware that the goal of theology is eternal beatitude – not the accumulation of facts and certainly not an academic degree.
St. Anthony joined the Franciscans, after first becoming an Augustinian, while they were still in their infancy. He was the Order’s first reader of theology, or “official theology teacher,” and yet no manuals or scholastic disputations have survived from his work. What we possess from St. Anthony’s writings are a collection of sermons. Like many Patristic Fathers before him, St. Anthony was most concerned with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his homilies are rich examples of a probative explication of Scripture at the service of the conversion of souls.
Rather than provide a quotation from one of his homilies which demonstrates this point, I would instead like to share a letter which was written to St. Anthony by St. Francis. The occasion for this correspondence was the instillation of St. Anthony as the Order’s first reader of theology. The entire letter is the following:
“Brother Francis [sends his] wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my overseer. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the [Franciscan] Rule – you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”
St. Anthony reminds us that theology is an activity which serves the Church, seeks the conversion of souls, and aims at our eternal communion with God. Without these goals, theology is just another collection of facts and figures like any other academic discipline. And if theology remains the latter, it can more easily “‘extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’” than inspire it.
A painting of St. Anthony which communicates this well is by the artist known as El Greco (a.k.a., Domenikos Theotokopoulos). El Greco combines the more traditional imagery of St. Anthony with that which will soon become standard. In doing so the artist reminds us that, for St. Anthony, theology is a lived activity; an activity of mind (book), heart (Child Jesus), and body (lily). The integration of these elements can be seen in St. Anthony’s posture, as he looks serenely upon a book which upholds the Child Jesus and holds a lily as if it were a pen. The senses gaze upon the sacred mysteries, which are then communicated through intellectual and physical acts. St. Anthony reminds us that the goal of theology is a living relationship with Christ which embraces every dimension of the human person, not simply an intellectual activity.
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.