St. Thomas Aquinas!

The family of the counts of Aquino was of noble lineage, tracing its descent back for several centuries to the Lombards. St Thomas's father was a knight, Landulf, and his mother Theodora was of Norman descent. There seems something more northern than southern about Thomas's physique, his imposing stature, massive build and fresh complexion. The precise year of his birth is uncertain, but it was about 1225 and took place in the castle of Rocca Secca, the ruins of which are still to be seen on a mountain crag dominating the fertile plain of Campagna Felice and the little town of Aquino. Thomas was the youngest of four sons, and there were also several daughters, but the youngest little girl was killed by lightning one night, whilst Thomas, who was sleeping in the same room, escaped unscathed. Throughout life he is said to have been very nervous of storms, often retiring into a church when lightning was about. Hence the popular devotion to St Thomas as patron against thunderstorms and sudden death.
A few miles to the south of Rocca Secca, on a high plateau, stands the abbey of Monte Cassino, the cradle of Western monasticism and one of the holiest spots in Europe, whose abbot at this time was a kinsman of the Aquino family, Landulf Sinibaldo. As a child of five Thomas was taken here as an oblate (cf. cap. lix of St Benedict's Rule), and he remained till he was about thirteen, living in the monastery and getting his schooling there. He was taken away probably because of the disturbed state of the times, and about 1239 was sent to the University of Naples, where for five years he studied the arts and sciences, and even began to " coach " others. It was in Naples that he became attracted by the Order of Preachers, whose church he loved to frequent and with some of whose members he soon became intimate. The friars, who saw him often absorbed in prayer in their midst, noticed on several occasions rays of light shining about his head, and one of them, Father John of San Giuliano, exclaimed, " Our Lord has given you to our order ". St Thomas confided to the prior that he ardently desired to become a Dominican, but in view of the probable opposition of his family, he was advised to foster his vocation and to wait for three years. Time only confirmed his determination, and, at the age of about nineteen, he was received and clothed in the habit of the order. News of this was soon carried to Rocca Secca, where it aroused great indignation — not because he had joined a religious community, for his mother was quite content that he should become a Benedictine, and indeed probably saw in him the destined abbot of Monte Cassino, but because he had entered a mendicant order. Theodora herself set out for Naples to persuade her son to return home. The friars, however, hurried him off to their convent of Santa Sabina in Rome, and when the angry lady followed in pursuit, the young man was no longer to be found there. The master general of the Dominicans, who was on his way to Bologna, had decided to take Thomas with him, and the little party of friars had already set out on foot together. Theodora, not to be baulked, sent word to the saint's elder brothers, who were serving with the emperor's army in Tuscany, desiring them to waylay and capture the fugitive. As Thomas was resting by the roadside at Aquapendente near Siena, he was overtaken by his brothers at the head of a troop of soldiers, and after a vain attempt to take his habit from him by force, was brought back, first to Rocca Secca and then to the castle of Monte San Giovanni, two miles distant, where he was kept in close confinement, only his worldly-minded sister Marotta being allowed to visit him. They sought to undermine his determination in every way, but after a time began to mitigate the severity of his imprisonment. During his captivity Thomas studied the Sentences of Peter Lombard, learned by heart a great part of the Bible, and is said to have written a treatise on the fallacies of Aristotle.
Other devices for subduing him having failed, his brothers conceived the infamous plan of seducing him by introducing into his room a woman of bad character. St Thomas immediately seized a burning brand from the hearth and chased her out of the place. We are told that he immediately fell into a deep sleep in which he was visited by two angels, who seemed to gird him round the waist with a cord emblematic of chastity.*
This captivity lasted two years before Thomas's family gave up and in 1245 permitted him to return to his order. It was now determined to send him to complete his studies under St Albert the Great, and he set out in company with the master general, John the Teutonic, who was on his way to Paris ; from thence Thomas went on to Cologne. The schools there were full of young clerics from various parts of Europe eager to learn and equally eager to discuss, and the humble, reserved new-comer was not immediately appreciated either by his fellow students or by his professors. His silence at disputations as well as his bulky figure led to his receiving the nickname of " the dumb Sicilian ox ". A good-natured com- panion, pitying his apparent dullness, offered to explain the daily lessons, and St Thomas humbly and gratefully accepted the offer ; but when they came to a difficult passage which baffled the would-be teacher, his pupil explained it to him so clearly and correctly that his fellow student was amazed. Shortly afterwards a student picked up a sheet of Thomas's notes, and passed it on to the master, who marvelled at the scholarly elucidation. The next day St Albert gave him a public test, at the close of which he exclaimed, " We call Brother Thomas ' the dumb ox ' ; but I tell you that he will yet make his lowing heard to the uttermost parts of the earth ". But Thomas's learning was exceeded by his piety, and after he had been ordained priest his union with God seemed closer than ever. His disciple and biographer William da Tocco writes that from that time he used to spend hours in prayer, both during the day and at night, and, he adds, " when consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits ".
There are chronological difficulties about these years of St Thomas's life, but certainly in 1252, at the instance of St Albert and Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher, he was ordered to Paris to teach as a bachelor in the university. Academical degrees were then very different from what they are now, and were conferred only in view of the actual work of teaching. In Paris Thomas expounded the Holy Scriptures and the Liber sententiarum of Peter Lombard ; he also wrote a commentary on these same Sentences, and others on Isaias and St Matthew's Gospel. Four years later he delivered his inaugural lecture as master and received his doctor's chair, his duties being to lecture, to discuss and to preach ; and towards the end of the time he began the Summa contra Gentiles. From 1259 to 1268 Paris saw nothing of her most popular professor, for he was in Italy. Here he was made a preacher general, and was called upon to teach in the school of selected scholars attached to the papal court, and, as it followed the pope in his movements, St Thomas lectured and preached in many of the Italian towns. About 1266 he began the most famous of all his written works, the Summa theologiae.
In 1269 he was back again in Paris. St Louis IX held him in such esteem that he constantly consulted him on important matters of state, but perhaps a greater testimony to his reputation was the resolution of the university to refer to his decision a question upon which they were divided, viz. whether in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar the accidents remained really or only in appearance. St Thomas, after fervent prayer, wrote his answer in the form of a treatise which is still extant, and laid it on the altar before making it public. His decision was accepted by the university first and afterwards by the whole Church. It was on this occasion that we first hear of the saint receiving from our Lord's own lips a formal approval of what he had set down. Appearing in a vision, the Saviour said to him, " Thou hast written well of the sacrament of my Body " ; and almost immediately after- wards Thomas passed into an ecstasy and remained so long raised from the ground that there was time to summon many of the brethren to behold the spectacle. Later on, towards the end of his life, when the Angelic Doctor was at Salerno and was busied with the third part of his Summa which deals with Christ's passion and resurrection, a sacristan saw him at night kneeling before the altar in ecstasy. Then a voice, which seemed to come from the crucifix, said aloud, " Thou hast written well of me, Thomas ; what reward wouldst thou have ? " To which he answered, " Nothing but thyself, Lord ". A story of a different kind is told of an occasion when Thomas had been invited to lunch with King St Louis. During the meal he suddenly had an idea about a matter on which he had been writing, and banging his fist on the table he exclaimed, " That's finished the Manichean (?) heresy ! " The prior tugged at Thomas's cappa and reminded him that he was at table with the king, and Thomas pulled himself together and apologized for his absent- mindedness.
During his second, as during his first, period in Paris the university was torn by dissensions of different kinds, and in 1272 there was a sort of " general strike " among the faculties, in the midst of which St Thomas was recalled to Italy and appointed regent of the study-house at Naples. It was to prove the last scene of his labours. On the feast of St Nicholas the following year he was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation which so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work, the Summa theologiae, unfinished. To Brother Reginald's expostulations he replied, " The end of my labours is come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."
He was ill when he was bidden by Pope Gregory X to attend the general council at Lyons for the reunion of the Greek and Latin churches and to bring with him his treatise " Against the Errors of the Greeks ". He became so much worse on the journey that he was taken to the Cistercian abbey of Fossa Nuova near Terracina, where he was lodged in the abbot's room and waited on by the monks. In com- pliance with their entreaties he began to expound to them the Canticle of Canticles, but he did not live to finish his exposition. It soon became evident to all that he was dying. After he had made his last confession to Father Reginald of Priverno and received viaticum from the abbot he gave utterance to the famous words, "lam receiving thee, Price of my soul's redemption : all my studies, my vigils and my labours have been for love of thee. I have taught much and written much of the most sacred body of Jesus Christ ; I have taught and written in the faith of Jesus Christ and of the holy Roman Church, to whose judgement I offer and submit everything." Two days later his soul passed to God, in the early hours of March 7, 1274, being only about fifty years of age. That same day St Albert, who was then in Cologne, burst into tears in the presence of the community, and exclaimed, " Brother Thomas Aquinas, my son in Christ, the light of the Church, is dead. God has revealed it to me."
St Thomas was canonized in 1323, but it was not until 1368 that the Dominicans succeeded in obtaining possession of his body, which was translated with great pomp to Toulouse, where it still lies in the cathedral of Saint-Sernin. St Pius V conferred upon him the title of doctor of the Church, and in 1880 Leo XIII declared him the patron of all universities, colleges and schools. Of the holy man's writings, which fill twenty thick volumes, this is not the place to give any detailed account : they were mainly philosophical and theological. He commented much on Aristotle, whose teaching he was in some sense the first to utilize in order to build up a com- plete system of Christian philosophy. With regard to his method it has been said that he applied geometry to theology, first stating his problem or theorem, and then propounding difficulties. This he follows up with a train of relevant passages drawn from the Bible, the Church's tradition and various theological works, and concludes with a categorical answer to all the objections made at the beginning.
St Thomas also wrote dissertations on the Lord's Prayer, the Angelical Saluta- tion and the Apostles' Creed, besides composing commentaries on many parts of the Holy Scriptures and treatises in answer to questions propounded to him. Of all his works the most important was the Summa theologiae, which is the fullest exposition of theological teaching ever given to the world. He worked at it for five years, but, as already stated, he never finished it. It was the greatest monument of the age, and was one of the three works of reference laid on the table of the assembly at the Council of Trent, the other two being the Bible and the Pontifical Decrees. It is almost impossible for us, at this distance of time, to realize the enormous influence St Thomas exerted over the minds and theology of his con- temporaries and their immediate successors. Neither were his achievements confined to matters of dogma, Christian apologetic and philosophy. When Pope Urban IV, influenced by the visions of Bd Juliana of Liege, decided to institute the feast of Corpus Christi, he appealed to St Thomas to compose the liturgical office and the Mass for the day. These give proof of an extraordinary mastery of apt expression, and are as remarkable for their doctrinal accuracy as for their tender- ness of thought. Two of the hymns, the " Verbum supernum " and " Pange lingua ", are familiar to all Catholics, because their final verses, " O salutaris " and " Tantum ergo ", are regularly sung at Benediction ; but others of the saint's hymns, notably the " Lauda Sion " and the " Adoro te devote ", are hardly less popular.
Of the many noble characteristics of St Thomas Aquinas perhaps the two which may be considered with the greatest profit are his prayerfulness and his humility. He was ever wont to declare that he learnt more at the foot of the crucifix than from books. " His marvellous science ", says Brother Reginald, " was far less due to his genius than to the efficacy of his prayers. He prayed with tears to obtain from God the understanding of His mysteries, and abundant enlightenment was vouch- safed to his mind." St Thomas was singularly modest about his great gifts.
Asked if he were never tempted to pride or vainglory, he replied, " No ", adding that if any such thoughts occurred to him, his common sense immediately dispelled them by showing him their utter unreasonableness. Moreover he was always apt to think others better than himself, and he was extremely modest in stating his opinion : he was never known to lose his temper in argument, however great the provocation might be, nor was he ever heard to make a cutting remark or to say things which would wound other people.