The name of Saint Thomas Aquinas is a touchstone for all those who seek the truth. However, in the details of his life and in his extraordinary personality we discover more than a theologian: a great saint.
Newsdesk (31/01/2023 13:28, Gaudium Press) The search for truth is as old as man himself, and there is not one among rational beings who does not wish to possess it. On the other hand, the deprivation of this excellent good ends up giving humanity a disfigured face, which is explained by adherence to false doctrines or half-truths. Our Western society is an example of this profound lack that does not find a satisfactory answer in the advances of technology nor in the vanities of vice.
A boy in search of the Absolute
But, after all, what is truth? This was one of the questions that little Thomas asked at the tender age of five. According to a custom of the time, his education was entrusted to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino, where he came to live. Seeing a monk crossing the cloisters and corridors with gravity and recollection, he would without hesitation tug at the sleeve of his habit and ask him, “Who is God?” Displeased with the answer which, although true, did not entirely satisfy his desire to know, he waited for another son of Saint Benedict to pass by and asked him also: “Brother Mauro, can you explain to me who God is?” But… what a disappointment! He could not get the desired explanation from anyone. How inferior were the monks’ words to the idea of God that that boy had in the depths of his soul!
It was in this atmosphere of prayer and serenity that the childhood of St. Thomas Aquinas happily took place. Born around 1225, he was the youngest son of the Count and Countess of Aquinas, Landolfo and Teodora. With a bright future in mind, his parents provided him with a sound education. Little did they imagine that he would become one of the greatest theologians of the Holy Catholic Church and the cornerstone of the edifice of Christian philosophy, the point of convergence at which all the treasures of theology accumulated up to that time would be gathered together and from which the light for future explications would emerge.
A vocation put to the test
While still very young, Saint Thomas left for Naples to study grammar, dialectics, rhetoric and philosophy. The most arduous subjects, which are hard work even for strong minds, were nothing more than a mere plaything for him. Nevertheless, at this period of his life he advanced no less in sanctity than in science. His entertainment was praying in the various churches and doing good to the poor.
While still in Naples, God manifested his vocation to him. His parents wished to see him as a Benedictine, Abbot at Monte Cassino or Archbishop of Naples, but the Lord had marked out a very different path for him. It was in the Order of Preachers, newly founded by Saint Dominic, that grace would touch his soul. Saint Thomas discovered in the Dominicans the charism with which he identified completely. After long conversations with Brother John of San Giuliano, he did not hesitate to join the Order and became a Dominican at the age of fourteen.
It is Divine Providence’s habit to place in the crucible of suffering those souls to whom it confers an exceptional calling, and Saint Thomas did not escape the rule. When his mother learned of his entry into the Dominicans, she became furious and wanted to take him away by force. Fleeing to Paris to escape his mother’s tyranny, the saintly doctor was overpowered by his brothers who sought him out with all their might. After having brutally beaten him, they sought to strip him of his religious habit. It is an abominable thing,” St. Thomas would later say, “to want to reproach Heaven for a gift we have received from there.”
Thus captured, they took him to his mother, who tried to make him abandon his purpose. Unable to convince him, she commissioned her two daughters to dissuade the “rebel” brother at any cost. With seductive words, they showed him the thousand advantages that the world offered him, even that of a promising ecclesiastical career, provided he renounced the Dominican Order. The result of this interview is astonishing: one of them decided to become a nun and left for the convent of Santa Maria in Capua, where she lived a holy life and was abbess. Here is the strength of conviction and the power of persuasion of this man of God!
Tired of vain efforts, the family took a drastic measure: they imprisoned him in the tower of the castle of Roccasecca, in order to keep him imprisoned until he gave up his vocation. In complete solitude, the saint spent almost two years there, which were used for a deepening in the ways of contemplation and study. The Dominican friars accompanied him spiritually with their prayers and sent him books and new habits that came into his hands through his sisters.
As time passed and the young prisoner was not discouraged, so his brothers – instigated by Satan – set up an execrable plan: they sent a girl of loose habits to the tower to make him fall into sin. But Saint Thomas had long since solidified himself in the practice of all the virtues, and would not allow himself to be dragged down. Seeing that corrupt woman approaching, he took a burning firebrand from the fireplace and with it defended himself against the infamous temptress who fled in terror to save her own skin.
What an outstanding victory against the enemy of salvation! Recognizing in this episode divine intervention, Saint Thomas drew a cross on the wall with the same burning firebrand, knelt down and renewed his promise of chastity. Pleased by this act of fidelity, the Lord and his Mother sent him into a sleep, during which two angels bound him with a heavenly cord, saying: “We have come from God to confer on you the gift of perpetual virginity, which from now on shall be irrevocable.
Never again did St Thomas suffer any temptation of concupiscence or pride. The title of Angelic Doctor was given to him not only for having transmitted the highest doctrine, but also for having resembled in everything the most pure spirits who contemplate the face of God.
The pupil surpasses the master
Now with the assent of his own, Saint Thomas set out to consolidate his intellectual formation in Paris and Cologne. There was much talk of the preaching in the latter city by Bishop Saint Albert the Great, the most highly-regarded teacher of the Order of Preachers. Saint Thomas prayed, asking to meet him and receive from him the wonders of the faith, and to his joy he was heard. What St. Albert could not have imagined was that this unassuming friar, of few words and discreet presence, had such spiritual breadth.
One day a passage written by his pupil fell into the master’s hands. Astonished by the depth of its content, he asked Saint Thomas to present the topic to the whole class. The result was a quite astonishing explanation, in which the other students were able to see how inaccurate was the poor judgment they had made of their fellow student: he managed to explain it with more richness, expressiveness and clarity than St. Albert himself.
From then on, the life of the Angelic Doctor was a sequence of sublime services rendered to sacred theology and philosophy. At the age of 22 he brilliantly interpreted the work of Aristotle; at 25, together with St. Bonaventure, he obtained a doctorate at the University of Paris. These two doctrinal archetypes had a great admiration for each other, to the point of affectionately disputing, on the day of receiving the highest title, who would be named first, each wishing the other primacy.
So vast is the Thomist oeuvre that a mere enumeration of his writings would take several pages. It is a total of almost sixty great works, including commentaries, summaries, questions, and booklets, from which none of the principal concerns of the human spirit is excluded.
His prodigious faculty of memory enabled him to retain everything he had read, all of the Bible, the works of the ancient philosophers and the Fathers of the Church. All the eighty thousand quotations contained in his writings sprang spontaneously from his capacity to retain them. He never had to read the same passage twice. When asked what was the greatest supernatural favour he had received, after sanctifying grace, he replied: “I think that I have understood everything I have read.
In his works we see an incredible acuity of spirit, a rare gift of formulation and a superior capacity for expression. He used to solve four or five problems at the same time, dictating to various writers definitive answers to the most obscure questions. He did not succumb to the weight of his knowledge but, on the contrary, harmonized it in an incomparable whole that has in the Summa Theologica its most brilliant manifestation.
Wisdom and prayer
To speak of the natural qualities of the Angelic Doctor without considering the supremacy of grace that shone in his soul would be a misrepresentation. Reginaldo, his faithful secretary, said he had seen him spend more time at the foot of the crucifix than amidst his books.
In order to obtain light to solve intricate problems, the saintly doctor made frequent fasts and penances, and not infrequently the Lord answered him with heavenly revelations. On one occasion, while he was praying fervently for light to explain a passage from Isaiah, St Peter and St Paul appeared to him and cleared up all his doubts.
He also had recourse to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes he would place his head in the tabernacle and pray at length. Afterwards, he affirmed that he had learned more in this way than in all his studies. Out of his deep love for the Eucharist, he composed the hymns Pange Lingua and Lauda Sion for the feast of Corpus Christi: masterpieces that have never been bettered.
One day, while he was immersed in adoration of Jesus Crucified, the Lord addressed him with these words
– You have written well about Me, Thomas. What reward do you want?
Nothing but You, Lord,” he replied.
A reward too great
In 1274, Saint Thomas set out for Lyons to take part in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X, but on the way he fell seriously ill. As there was no Dominican house nearby, he was taken to the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, where he died on March 7th, before his fiftieth birthday. His relics were transported to Toulouse on January 28th, 1369, the date on which the Universal Church celebrates his memory.
On receiving the Holy Eucharist for the last time, he said:
“I receive You, the ransom price of my soul and Viaticum of my pilgrimage, for Whose love I have studied, watched, worked, preached and taught. I have written so much, and so often have I argued about the mysteries of Your Law, O my God; you know that I have wished to teach nothing that I had not learned from You. If what I have written is true, accept it as a tribute to Your infinite majesty; if false, forgive my ignorance. I consecrate all that I have done and submit it to the infallible judgment of Your Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I am about to depart this life.
A beautiful testament of high sanctity! The Church was not slow to glorify him, raising him to the honour of the altars in 1323. At the canonization ceremony, Pope John XXII said: “Thomas alone has enlightened the Church more than all the other doctors. As many are the miracles he has worked as the questions he has resolved”. At the Council of Trent, the three works of reference placed on the table of the assembly were: the Bible, the Pontifical Acts and the Summa Theologica. It is difficult to express what the Church owes to this unique son of hers.
From the extraordinarily vigorous faith of the Angelic Doctor sprang the deep conviction that Truth in essence is none other than God Himself, and from the moment it was proclaimed in its integrity, it would be irrefutable and triumphant. This is the great merit of his immortal doctrine: it continues to echo down the centuries, for nothing can shake the supremacy of Christ.
In St. Thomas the Church contemplates the full realization of the prayer made by the Divine Master in the last moments he spent on this earth: “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. For their sake I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified in the truth” (Jn 17:17-19).
(in “Heralds of the Gospel Magazine“, n. 73, pp. 32-35)
Compiled by Roberta MacEwan