January 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 6

The Story Of St. Thomas Aquinas

By Robert G. Kennedy

Painting of Saint Thomas Aquinas

It is an early winter day in Naples, over seven hundred years ago. Two men in the distinctive black and white robes of the Dominican order make their way to a small chapel. One is a large man with I sharp, intelligent eyes. His clothing is frayed and poorly fitted. The other man is younger, an obviously attentive friend.

As they have done for many years, the two will celebrate Mass and then proceed through their routine of lecturing, writing, and further prayer. But on this day, December 6, 1273, the feast of St. Nicholas, their lives will change. They will not follow their routine ever again.

The large man celebrates Mass, but as he recites the Eucharistic prayer, he begins to mumble the words and enter a sort of trance. The younger man is not alarmed, for this is a common occurrence with his saintly master. This time, though, the trance seems much deeper and longer than usual.

After finally resuming speaking and finishing the Mass., the master is weary and weakened. For the first time in all their years together, he does not return to his writing. "I cannot," he tells his stunned assistant.

And indeed he will never write another word. Barely three months later, Thomas Aquinas, no more than fifty years old and in otherwise excellent health, will be dead.

A Noble Beginning.

Thomas was born around 1225, the fourth son of Landolfo D.' Aquino, a nobleman from the west coast of Italy, between Rome and Naples. Since Thomas would not inherit the family estate, his parents placed him at an early age with the Benedictines, at the wealthy and famous monastery of Monte Cassino.

Thomas lived and studied there for the next decade, until he was about fifteen. Then he was sent to study at the newly established University of Naples. There he encountered a vibrant new religious community, the Order of Friars Preachers, founded only twenty-five years earlier by St. Dominic.

The Dominicans were very different from the Benedictines. They did not live in isolated monasteries where men and women could leave ordinary life to seek God in solitude. Like Francis of Assisi, another religious giant of the thirteenth century, Dominic formed his order not to separate from ordinary life but to transform it. Since both these new orders lacked land or other property that could generate an income, they appealed to the laity for support. Often, their simple life and dependence on alms made a poor impression on the wealthy and powerful.

Passionate and dynamic, the Dominicans made it their mission to teach and preach. In order to do this well, Dominic sent members of the community to the universities to gain expertise in theology. For the young Thomas, who throughout his life was tremendously energetic, this combination of passion and commitment to learning was irresistible. At the age of about twenty, without consulting his parents, he entered the Dominican order.

Not surprisingly, they were appalled at their son's decision to join a ragtag group of begging zealots. Determined that Thomas return to the Benedictinies, his mother arranged to have his brother, a soldier, forcibly return him to the family castle; there he would live until he came to his senses. But Thomas's determination won out. For about a year, he remained under a sort of house arrest, refusing to wear anything but his Dominican habit. In the end, his mother became reconciled to his choice and permitted him to rejoin the Dominicans.

Student and Master.

Thomas spent the next years studying both in Paris, the most prominent center of theological study in Europe, and in Cologne, with St. Albert the Great. At first, it seems, not everyone recognized the intellectual abilities of this very quiet and physically imposing student. Classmates called Thomas a "dumb Italian ox" and thought he was not very bright. Then one day, Albert, who knew something of Thomas's abilities, invited him to explain a difficult philosophical text. Thomas's penetrating explanation stunned everyone and prompted Albert to predict that soon the entire world would hear the "bellowing of this dumb ox…"

At the age of about thirty-two, Thomas completed what we today would call his doctoral work. Immediately he was appointed to become one of the twelve "masters" who oversaw theological study at the University of Paris. It was one of the most prominent academic positions of his day. But the assignment was especially challenging: The presence of Dominicans on the faculty was bitterly opposed by the other masters, who regarded the order as untrustworthy and unfit to teach.

The conflict was so intense that Thomas literally required an armed guard for his first lecture. Yet despite his youth and relative inexperience, he succeeded brilliantly during his three-year term. As he engaged in the usual tasks of a theology master - commenting on Scripture, exploring theological questions in public debates, and preaching - Thomas gave a powerful defense of the religious life and the Dominican order.

Over time, stories about Thomas's powers of concentration began to circulate. In one episode, he is said to have been invited to a dinner hosted by St. Louis, king of France. Despite the regal company, Thomas paid no attention to the conversation; his mind was occupied with an issue he was writing about just then. Suddenly, he startled everyone by pounding the table and declaring, "That settles the Manichaeans!" Reportedly, Louis took it in stride merely calling for a secretary to take down the theologian's thoughts while they were fresh. On another occasion, Thomas dictated to a secretary who watched in growing alarm as a candle burned the saint's hand - without causing him to miss a word.

Man of Prayer.

The greatest theologians are also great saints. What marks a Doctor of the Church, an Augustine or an Aquinas, a Jerome or a Gregory, or even a Newman or a John Paul II is first of all their fierce love of God. They are not scholars who become saints; they are saints who become scholars and thinkers. In Paris, Thomas settled into the daily routine that would mark him as a scholarly saint. It was a routine devoted to writing, teaching, and - to a degree that most of us would find remarkable - prayer. He would often make his way to the chapel in the middle of the night to pray alone, always returning to his cell before morning prayers so as not to embarrass his brothers.

In his theological writings, Thomas emerges as intensely rational and unemotional; he is the model of the cool, detached, cerebral scientist. Unlike his writings, however, his preaching and liturgical compositions reveal Thomas the saint. As his few surviving sermons indicate, Thomas had tremendous affection for people of simple faith and great love. He made his preaching plain and easy to understand, often drawing on examples from ordinary life.

As Thomas grew older, the Eucharist grew more and more to the center of his spiritual life. It was quite appropriate, then, that the pope would ask him to compose the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi, which was just then being celebrated throughout the church. The body of prayers, readings, and hymns that Thomas produced is one of the finest examples of medieval liturgical composition. It is crowned by the magnificent, well-known hymn, Pange lingua - "Sing, my tongue, the Savior's glory" - these are not the words of a dispassionate thinker, but of a flesh-and-blood lover of Christ whose feelings run deep.

Mystic and Saint.

Despite his formidable intellect, Thomas remained humble and even childlike. (His confessor said that his deathbed confession was like that of a child of five.") An advisor to popes, he was always available even to young members of his order, sometimes putting aside his work for days to respond to their questions.

His brother Dominicans marveled at Thomas's energy and insisted that he hardly ever wasted a moment. Indeed, he was a prolific writer. Most of his theological work survives - a total of about six million words. (By comparison, a large novel might exceed 150,000 words.) It includes commentaries on Scripture, studies of Aristotle, discussions of theological controversies, and, of course, his great lifework, the Summa Theologiae.

On December 6, 1273, Thomas was still hard at work on the Summa. But after that day's morning Mass, despite repeated urgings, he never took up his pen again. Only to Reginald, his secretary and closest friend, did Thomas eventually reveal what had happened. The story came out thirty years later, on Reginald's deathbed.

While celebrating that Mass, Thomas told Reginald, he had a vision of the crucified Christ, who spoke to him: "You have written well of me, Thomas. What would you ask of me?" To which Thomas could only reply, "Nothing else but you, Lord."

Compared to what he had seen and understood in this experience, Thomas explained, everything he had written seemed of no more value than straw. He could write about theology no more.

In the weeks that followed, Thomas seemed to decline physically. He was not depressed, but he lacked energy for anything but prayer. For the first time ever, he took to his bed as if he were ill.

Nonetheless, in late winter of 1274, he answered the pope's summons to attend a great church council in southern France. Every one expected that Thomas and his Franciscan colleague, Bonaventure, would be named cardinals at the gathering. But as Thomas made his way to Lyons, riding a donkey because of his weakness, he struck his head against a tree branch. One recent biographer has speculated that Thomas may have suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as a result.

Too exhausted to travel further, he was taken to the nearby home of a niece, then to a Cistercian abbey in the area. There Thomas died, on March 7,1274.

The Best Response.

With the possible exception of St. Augustine, no theologian in the history of Christianity has been more influential than Thomas Aquinas. He shaped and systematized the discipline of theology as no one before or since has done. Even today, nearly eight hundred years after his birth, no serious theologian can ignore his work.

In his passion for learning, Thomas never lost focus. Even as he searched for understanding, he was first and foremost a follower of Christ; his love of God was at the foundation of his theological work. Indeed, as Thomas might say, it is love that makes understanding possible. In the end, he teaches us that the best response to the mystery of God is love.

The Story of St. Thomas Aquinas by Robert G. Kennedy first appeared in September 2005 issue of The Word Among Us (www.wau.org) and is reprinted with permission from the author and The Word Among Us..