"Friar Giacomo di Viterbo, Archbishop of Naples, often said to
Early in the year 1225 (the most probable date),1 Thomas, the seventh and last son of Count Landulf of Aquino and Theodora of Theate, was born in a castle at Roccasecca, near Naples. His father belonged to the Lombard nobility; his paternal grandmother, Francesca di Suabia, was a sister of Frederick Barbarossa; his mother was descended from Norman nobility. The complementary gifts of the North and the South, transmitted through a double lineage of nobility, met in this infant to compose a marvelously tempered body, chosen to become the instrument of a preeminent intelligence and of wisdom the maker of unity. He came into the world at the beginning of a century in which Christian civilization -- already threatened and on the verge of collapse -- was in the process of recovering itself in order to bring forth its best fruits. The thirteenth century was marked by immense agitations, dominated in spite of everything by the flame of the spirit -- war, politics, poetry, religion, the struggle between Pope and Emperor, the power of feudalism and the power of the Church, the arrogance of the strong, the virtues of the saints. He was born at the most vigorously and most violently human moment of medieval humanity. His mother, who was to do everything to prevent him from following the will of God, was a woman of great virtue and self-denial. And while his brothers, rather than see him a mendicant religious, would not hesitate to provoke him to mortal sin, his sister Theodora, Countess of San Severino, was to spend her life in works of mercy and penance, and leave behind her a memory of sanctity.
One day, as his nurse was going to bathe him, the little Tommaso grasped a piece of parchment which no amount of pleading would convince him to give up. He wept so copiously that it was necessary to bathe him with his hand closed. His mother came and, despite his crying and screaming, opened the hand by force: on the piece of parchment the Hail Mary was written.
At the age of five he was placed as an oblate in the abbey of Monte Cassino. There he had but one question on his lips: WHAT IS GOD?
This silent child thought only of study and piety; he desired only to give himself to God. What could be simpler? He would be a Benedictine. Providence itself intervened to confirm the wise decision of his parents. By offering him in 1230 to the abbey which he had besieged and ravaged the year before with the armies of Frederick II, the Count of Aquino sealed his peace with the monks and contrived for the future an alliance with them advantageous to all concerned -- even to the material interests of the Count, for the powerful monastery had rich benefices; and Thomas would be Abbot. He was bound to be, for this Benedictine vocation was a sort of state affair, wherein God, the Emperor, and the family were all benefited.
"No," said Thomas. "I will be a Preacher."
He was fifteen or sixteen years old. At fourteen, political events had obliged his father to withdraw him from Monte Cassino, which had once again been ruined by Frederick II. The child therefore put aside his oblate's habit and was sent to Naples to complete his studies at its Faculty of Arts, where he quickly won the admiration of all. The Dominicans, founded some twenty years before, had in 1231 established in the town a public school of theology, incorporated into the University. Thomas became acquainted with them there. Although he was to retain throughout his life great love for the observance of Saint Benedict and the stamp of Benedictine spirituality was not to be obliterated from his heart, it became a matter of obeying the secret voice which calls each one by name -- and this silent one was listening to God. An indomitable strength of soul is at the root of his sanctity.
Vocation is a supernatural mystery. All the human explanations that one can bring forth deal only with its accessory aspects, which are insignificant in their bearing on its essential motive. Was it in order to have a teaching position, or in order to devote himself to a more active life, that Thomas wanted to become a Dominican? or to escape the worldly cares and ambitions of grandeur which his family would have tried still to heap upon him, had he taken the habit of Saint Benedict? Was it even out of love for the poverty of the mendicant Friars, or out of pity for the Souls to whom the word of the Lord had not been preached, or in reaction against the abuses which earthly possessions had spread amongst the black monks, or from an attraction to a new Order whose conquering youth and extremely bold ideal (religious life informing intellectual activity itself, so as to make of each an apostolic person, transmitting to others what he himself had contemplated) responded exactly to the needs of the time? All this remains secondary. He had asked: What is God? He had to find the answer, to gather together the principles of wisdom in the unity of a doctrine destined ever to grow.
A privileged moment of history rendered possible such a synthesis. Yesterday Christian thought was not yet ripe, tomorrow it will begin to decay. Before the grace of Christ and the Cross, and the burden of nature and the world, were to share divided man for centuries, there was yet time for the baptized intelligence to assume and reconcile all in the light of Him who is. This work of strength, which from a fleeting point of duration -- a measure of man, a work of twenty-three years -- will govern all time to come, this was to be accomplished by Thomas Aquinas. He is sent for the salvation of the intellect; it is for this that be must embrace the apostolic life. There is his mission; woe to him if he fails it. The vast future hidden in the will of God pressed upon his soul, reached him under the form of a very simple, irresistibly effective command.
Later his family, severely tried after their split with the Emperor, whom Innocent IV had deposed,2 would in vain call him to their aid, and the Pope offer him (with permission to keep the habit of his Order) the abbacy of Monte Cassino -- later the see of Naples. He would not yield. It was at the time a question of ignoring the will of his father and mother, of braving the wrath of his own people, who were not persons of slight vigor or easily placated. As he was to write later, 'When parents are not in such want that they have a great need of the services of their children, the children can enter into religious life without the consent of their parents and even against their expressed will, because, after having passed the age of puberty, any free man has the right to dispose of himself in the choice of a state of life, above all if it is a matter of the service of God; it is better to obey the Father of spirits, in order that we may live, than the parents of our flesh."3
Guided and confirmed in his vocation by the old Friar Giovanni di San Giuliano, Thomas received the habit in the spring of the year 1244, in all likelihood from the hands of the Master General, John the Teuton, who was then visiting Naples. He was almost twenty years old. His father had died some months before. But the Countess Theodora had to show that the store of family authority, transmitted to her charge, would be maintained without fail.
As soon as she had been informed of the event, she dispatched a special messenger to those of her sons who were with the Emperor at the camp at Acquapendente, in Tuscany; and enjoined them, in the name of her maternal blessing, to take in hand and send back to her under secure guard their young brother, whom the Preachers were having flee the realm. Indeed, in order to remove him from the resentment of his people, as well as to assure the theological development of this arts student who now knew as much as his masters, John the Teuton had decided to take him away at once to the studium generale at Paris, where he himself was going. The Master General, the novice and three other Friars were making their way on foot; they had passed through Rome, and had reached Tuscany. As they sat there near a fountain, armed men assailed them; Thomas' brothers grabbed hold of him and pulled him away from those other brothers whom he had chosen for himself. And be wrapped himself so tightly in his habit that it was impossible to strip him of it; they forced him onto a horse4 and brought him to Roccasecca, where the Countess Theodora awaited her son.
One of Thomas' brothers, Raynaldo, the poet -- a favorite of the Emperor up to the time the Emperor was to have him put to death -- was in command of the little troop. After some days of travel they stopped at the fortress of Monte San Giovanni; this fief of the Aquinas family was two or three hours from Roccasecca. Is it there, or at Roccasecca itself, that the famous incident of the temptation ought to be placed, from which Thomas came forth girded with a cincture by the angels? Raynaldo, an upright and honorable man in the eyes of the world, but one who lived according to the world, had concocted this supreme attack on what he considered the misguided enthusiasm of his younger brother. One knows the story: the "pretty young girl, with all the charms of the temptress," introduced into the room where he was sleeping; and how he leapt up, grabbed hold of a flaming firebrand, chased her out, and traced the sign of the cross on the door with the brand. And from that time on, by an angelic grace, he was never to experience any impulse of the flesh.
For a little more than a year he was held captive at Roccaseeca, where despite scenes and remonstrances he kept the habit and the observances of his Order, read the Bible and the Master of the Sentences,5 instructed his sisters in sacred letters, and converted his eldest sister, Marotta, to Saint Benedict, when she tried to turn him away from Saint Dominic. Tommaso did so well that in the end his mother herself aided him, it is said, to get around the surveillance of his brothers and escape. The chroniclers relate that he fled through a window, like Saint Paul of old. Actually, it seems likely that his liberation had been decided upon by his family, whose political fortune was in danger, and against whom the Master General John the Teuton had filed a complaint before Innocent IV.
From Naples he was again sent to Paris, to the convent of Saint-Jacques, where he made his novitiate and remained nearly three years. Albert the Great was teaching there at the time; when the time came for him to be sent to Cologne, Friar Thomas accompanied him there; it was at Cologne, under the direction of that tremendous genius, that the "big dumb ox of Sicily" completed his studies and became a theologian.
At the end of four years, he left Cologne, assigned, on the recommendation of Master Albert, to the convent of Saint-Jacques, to teach there as biblical bachelor (1252-1254) and sententiary bachelor (1254-1256). The commentary on the four books of the Sentences was composed in this period, as also the De ente et essentia, and probably the commentary on the Divine Names of the pseudo-Dionysius.6 At the age of thirty-one -- four years earlier than the limit fixed by university legislation, and thanks to a dispensation granted by the Pope -- he was promoted to the mastership in theology, at the same time as his friend Friar Bonaventure.
The modern world is blasé; in it all values are made equal, jaded by use. The term master in theology evokes in us only a degree of some sort, and the usual image of the persons who have worn the doctor's cap with more or less success. Through the fault of the doctors, a civilization that has known them to excess holds the doctorate, if not doctrine, as a paltry thing. The very wise simplicity of the thirteenth century saw in the mastership all that such a charge signified de jure, and according to its essential form; the gaze of a Saint Thomas penetrated to the depths the spiritual reality of the mastership. Master in theology, he has in the name of the Church the mission of engendering sacred wisdom in the intellects of those who hear him; from then on he is entirely at their service to cooperate with the living work which is going on in them; he has power over the truth in souls, terrible power for which he will be held accountable, for "to raise a doubt and not resolve it is the same as to concede it; it is to open a cistern and not cover it again."7 Were it not for the grace of God, there would have been cause to faint for fear. Friar Thomas beseeched God, with tears, to grant him the gifts required to bear the responsibility of Master. "Lord," be prayed, "save me, for truths are disappearing from amongst the children of men." He prayed and wept for a long time; finally he fell asleep. -- Friar Thomas, why these prayers and these tears? -- Because I am being compelled to assume the task of Master, and I am lacking the necessary knowledge. I do not even know what theme to develop for my reception. -- Accept in peace the charge of Master; God is with you. And for your inaugural lecture, develop only these words: "He watereth the hills from his lofty dwelling: the earth shall be filled with the fruit of thy works."8 The text of that lecture of Saint Thomas has been found. In it he describes the grandeur of the teaching office, and the economy of the communication of wisdom. "God communicates it by his own power; it is with his own wisdom that He watereth the hills. Doctors, on the contrary, communicate it only by a ministerial power, so that the fruit of the hills is to be attributed not to the hills but to the works of God."
Friar Thomas taught every day on the mountain Sainte-Genevieve, at the convent of Saint-Jacques, in one of the two chairs of theology reserved for the Preachers, and which were incorporated into the University of Paris. Seated before him on the straw listening to his lectures were all the religious present in the convent -- for no one was excused from the theology course -- and a great number of students from outside: men trained in dialectic, a number of whom had already taught in the Faculty of Arts. On the days on which solemn disputations were held, the dignitaries of the University and the bishop himself attended the debate.
Immediately he became famous. Everyone rushed to his lectures. Moreover, he arrived in full battle array, for error was multiplying. He had to confront it on all sides, and first in the attack of Guillaume de Saint-Amour and the seculars, who denied the mendicant Friars the right to teach and presented these " false apostles" ever on the move, these "uncommissioned adventurers," as the precursors of Antichrist. There was a first debate on academic freedom, one of extreme importance, one in which the very existence of the two new Orders, Preachers and Minors, was at stake, and in which was already noticeable the vanity of that University of Paris which was soon to pass itself off as the light of the world, before dishonoring itself by condemning Joan of Arc. For a moment Rome seemed won over to the cause of the seculars; she abolished the privileges of the religious, then thought the better of it. Guillaume de Saint-Amour and the secular Masters, furious at this reversal, wrote their collective pamphlet, On the Dangers of the Present Time. Friar Thomas refuted them with his treatise Contra impugnantes (1257). Guillaume's book was condemned and burnt in the court of Rome, and he himself was banished from France by Saint Louis.
After three years of theological teaching at Paris as Master (at this time he wrote the Commentaries on the De Trinitate and on the De Hebdomadibus of Boethius, on Isaias and on St. Matthew, the disputed questions De Veritate, the first Quaestiones Quodlibetales, and the greater part of the Summa Contra Gentiles), Friar Thomas returned to Italy in 1259, for the summer vacation (June 29). He was to remain there nine years, first at the papal court in Anagni and in Orvieto, then at Rome in the convent of Santa Sabina, then again at the Curia in Viterbo. The popes never ceased to encourage him. Immediately Alexander IV sensed his genius. Urban IV and Clement IV were likewise to show their predilection for him. With the splendor, the clarity of an extraordinary privilege of predestination, the mission received from the visible head thus sanctioned immediately the spirit invisibly received -- and the spirit was equal to the mission. Thomas Aquinas conducted his work as commissioned by the Church, and from the very beginning of this work the Church made it her own.
The Master worked incessantly, manifesting a tremendous power of understanding, and a tenacious and calm activity (witnesses report that he not only dictated to three or even four secretaries at a time on different subjects,9 but also managed when he lay down to rest in the midst of the dictation to continue to dictate while sleeping). He spent himself without counting the cost; he knew well that while contemplation is beyond time, action, which takes place in time, ought to move with speed and do violence to the malice of the moment; this work, which dominates the flow of the ages like some huge peaceful pyramid, was produced in haste, but without a trace of haste in it, because it overflowed purely from the contemplative fullness of a heart joined to eternity.
The commentaries on Aristotle -- the fundamental work undertaken at the instigation of the popes which were to cleanse the Philosopher of pagan and Averroistic errors, and render him assimilable by Catholic thought -- were for the most part composed during that sojourn in Italy10 (commentaries on the Physics, the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics, the De sensu et sensato, the De memoria et reminiscentia, the Posterior Analytics, and the first four books of the Politics). The completion of the Summa Contra Gentiles, the first commentary on the epistles of Saint Paul, the commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles, on the Lamentations, on Jeremias, the Catena aurea, the treatise De Regno, and part of the Disputed Questions (the De Potentia and De Malo notably) also belong to these years. And the Summa Theologiae was begun.
In November of 1268, Friar Thomas was suddenly sent to Paris, where the situation was becoming serious, and where Siger of Brabant, a rash and seductive intellect, threatened to bring about in the Faculty of Arts the triumph of Averroes under the colors of Aristotle, and thus jeopardize the whole Peripatetic movement. Four more years of battle at its pitch and unheard-of activity, during which time the treatises On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life against the adversaries of the religious state, On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists, On the Eternity of the World against Aristotle's detractors, the commentaries on the De Causis, on the Meteorology, on the Perihermeneias and on the treatise On the Soul, on Job and on Saint John, the last Disputed Questions, and the second part of the Summa Theologiae were composed; and, finally, the greater part of the Quaestiones Quodlibetales, which are related to a method of teaching largely developed, it seems, and perhaps created, by Saint Thomas himself during his two stays in Paris, and occasioned by his conflict with the secular doctors. Perpetual vagabonds, the religious, according to the seculars, could not make serious, truly competent professors. And so, in the great discussions held twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter, of which the Quaestiones Quodlibetales are the written rendition, Friar Thomas showed that a religious knows how to reply to any question at all that anyone at all happens to pose. . . .
After Easter of 1272, he was called back by his superiors to Italy to establish a studium generale of theology there. The choice of the site was left to him; he decided on Naples. it was there that he worked on the third part of the Summa Theologiae, composed the valuable Compendium Theologiae,11 commented on the Psalms, the Epistle to the Romans, and the treatises of Aristotle On Heaven and Earth and On Generation and Corruption.
When he went for a walk in the fields with his companions, the peasants turned to gaze in astonishment at his lofty stature. He was big, dark, quite portly, and erect. He was tanned the color of wheat, his head large and a bit bald. The Viterbo portrait, more or less well copied and restored, shows a countenance stamped with an admirable power, peaceful and pure; under the raised and open arches of the brows, the tranquil eyes of a child; the features regular, a bit heavy with fat, but strengthened by intelligence; the witty mouth with fine precise curves, one that never told a lie. He had, William of Tocco tells us, that delicate and tender flesh which is, according to Aristotle, characteristic of great intellectuals. His very keen sensibility made the least scratch on his body quite painful to him. But if he had to undergo a bleeding (bleedings were frequent in those hardy days, and even imposed by the constitutions of the Order) or a cauterization, he had but to begin to meditate, and straightway he entered into such abstraction of spirit that one could do as one pleased with him; he felt nothing more. In the refectory, he always had his eyes on things from above, and one could take his bowl from him and return it to him many times without his noticing it. His socius (companion), Reginald of Piperno, was obliged to assume the role of foster-brother, placing before him the dishes he ought to eat, and setting aside what could harm him.
This faculty of being elsewhere, extraordinarily developed in him, sometimes played tricks on him. At the table of Saint Louis (to whose invitation he had to yield by order of the Prior, tearing himself away from the Summa Theologiae, which he was then dictating), he suddenly pounded on the table and cried: "There is the clinching argument against the heresy of the Manichaeans!"--"Master," said the Prior to him, "pay attention, you are now at the table of the King of France," and he tugged him vigorously by the cape to bring him out of his state of abstraction. The King had a secretary quickly summoned, and writing materials brought. Another day, in Italy, a Cardinal asked to see him. Friar Thomas came down from his work, saw no one, and continued to meditate; then cried with great joy: "Now I have what I was looking for!" It was again necessary to tug him by the cape to get him to notice the Lord Cardinal, who, receiving no sign of reverence, was beginning to grow indignant.
He lived secluded in his spirit and advanced in a density of silence along a path which never deviated, surrounded solely by the murmur of his prayer and of his thought. Throughout the course of his studies and his years of preparation, he applied all his energy to an extraordinary effort of concentration, heaping into his prodigious memory all the knowledge of his masters and of his books, leaving nothing that was not penetrated and brought to life by the intellect. (And he was always to maintain this intellectual discipline, never leaving a doubt without clearing it up, nor a true observation, coming from whomever it might, without putting it in reserve, in short, exercising the greatest vigilance, and keeping himself free from all else.) When at last the time came for him to speak -in medio Ecclesiae aperuit os ejus12 -- he concentrated all his energy on remaining invincibly attached to his sole object: First Truth, to be seen and pointed out.
All exterior goods were certainly flimsy in comparison with the universe in which he was living. (The dialogue between the Master and his students, returning together from a visit to Saint-Denis, is well known: "Master, how beautiful is that city of Paris! -- Yes, indeed, it is beautiful. -- Please God that it would be yours! -- And what should I do with it? -- You would sell it to the King of France, and with the money you would build all the convents for the Friar Preachers. -- In truth, I would prefer to have at this moment the homilies of Chrysostom on St. Matthew.") But consider the interior use he made of his gifts, and of a genius capable of unbalancing the most vigorous soul; a heroic will was there, which, stabilized in a charity without measure, kept everything within bounds, and assured the perfect rightness of moral life amid the violence and the diversity of intellectual attractions. All his knowledge was employed for the service of others. His immense work was conducted not according to his choice, but according to the commands of Providence. He was at the mercy of one after another, and they did not hesitate to overburden him with questions and consultations; at Paris the King of France came to take counsel with him; he told him in the evening what difficulties were bothering him and received the answer the following day. In this Friar Thomas once more performed his duty as theologian, for sacred doctrine is at once speculative and practical. And he would never perform any duty but this. He had but one thing to do and he did it well. All the more or less parasitical curiosities in which his reason could have excelled, and which were promising him so many discoveries, he curtailed. That temptation to leave the intellectual life in order to settle down to practical activity, which all intellectuals well know, even masters in theology, he was not touched by, because he drank at a certain secret source much superior to the intellectual life itself, which rendered him detached from everything, both from himself and from his own knowledge. Thus, superabound as he might in spiritual riches, he was truly poor in spirit. Look for him, Thomas, the son of Landulf and Theodora, where is he? Effaced, lost in the light. A sign so pure that it disappears before that which it makes known -- in looking at him, you see only the object that he points out, and the splendor of the visage of God.
To be sure, he had received too many graces of illumination, and knew too well what a creature is, to be able to consider himself as anything before God. But also what would he have received had he not possessed this very humility? He confessed to his students that he had never consciously experienced a feeling of vainglory. One day, at Bologna, a Friar of another convent, who did not know him, and whom the Prior had permitted to go into town accompanied by the first Friar whom he met, found him meditating in the cloister: "My good Friar, the Prior said that you are to come with me." Master Thomas Aquinas followed this Friar at once, and accompanied him on his way, not without being reprimanded for not going fast enough, being less inclined to walking than to obedience, "in which," he said, "the whole religious life is summed up, because therein man submits himself to man for God, as God has for man obeyed man."
Inflexible as he was in the defense of truth, his students were often astonished that he would bear personal attacks so placidly. A considerable magnanimity enabled him to regard many things as trifles. Of keen sensibilities, his nature would have inclined him to irony; he conquered this by meekness. He never meddled in the affairs of others, hated rash judgment, and preferred to appear naive rather than readily believe evil -- the perfection of the speculative intellect, we know, being unharmed by an error in a contingent matter. One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: "Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!" Friar Thomas goes over to the window. The other laughs. "It is better," the Saint says to him, "to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie."
Tocco and the witnesses at the process of canonization portrayed him as "soft-spoken, affable, cheerful and agreeable of countenance, good in soul, generous in his acts; very patient, very prudent; all radiant with charity and tender piety; marvelously compassionate towards the poor"; filled with love for the Sacrament of the Altar, devoted to the saints, to the Virgin Mary, to the apostle Paul, and to blessed Dominic. He carried on his person some relics of St. Agnes, which one day cured Reginald of a fever; after which he promised to treat the brethren and students of the Naples convent to a good meal each year on the feast of the Saint. Close to death himself, be was able to fulfill his promise but once.
It was commonly thought, the same witnesses tell us, that he remained as pure as he was when he left his mother's womb. His life was spent entirely in praying, studying, writing or dictating, teaching or preaching, so that there was not a wasted moment. (He preached, either in Latin before the Roman Curia or the University or at Paris, or in Neapolitan in his native land-he never had the time to learn another vernacular language. In a Lenten series preached at Naples, he touched hearts so deeply that he had to break off in order to let the congregation weep.) He was always the first to rise at night for prayer, and as soon as he knew at a given signal that the other brethren were coming he would withdraw to his room. After his Mass, which he celebrated early in the morning, he attended a second Mass out of devotion, then mounted the rostrum for his lecture. After this he wrote and dictated. Then he took his meal and went back to his room, where he devoted himself to divine things until the time came to rest. As soon as he awoke he began again to write. When the brethren would fetch him into the garden for recreation, he would soon withdraw and return to his room. When he wanted exercise he walked alone in the cloister, head erect.
He was full of simplicity, of ingenuousness; he had great love for his brethren. He wept for the faults of another as though they were his own. The purity of his heart was such that, on the testimony of his confessor, Reginald, his general confession, before dying, was like that of a child of five.
From the first day of his teaching, from the time when be commented in Paris on the Master of the Sentences, he was seen to rise like a sign in the heavens. Some were indignant, the majority marveled at such freshness and youth. "A new method, new reasons, new points of doctrine, a new order of questions, a new light," he was a great innovator, because he was not looking for the new but simply and solely for the true; he took the rust off scholasticism.
The novelty par excellence, prepared by some of his elders, above all by Albert the Great, but whose accomplishment was reserved for him, was the integration of Aristotle into Catholic thought. Aristotle, having arrived successively and by pieces, was after a half century exerting a terrible pressure on Christendom. Not only did he make his appearance escorted by Jews and Arabs with their dangerous commentaries; but also, though he himself brought the most noble treasure of natural wisdom, pagan poisons nonetheless circulated there; and the mere dazzle of the promises of pure reason was enough to unbalance an ingenuous and inquiring world. Prudent, the Church at first treated the Philosopher as suspect, allowing only Masters to study him in private. He gained ground nonetheless each day. Were the gods of antiquity going to triumph over the Christian heart? What the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries failed to achieve in the order of art and the allurements of the senses, the thirteenth, thanks to Thomas Aquinas, achieved in the order of metaphysics and theology. It did not excommunicate Aristotle and the whole effort of reason; it did not yield nor apostatize before them; it converted them. Saint Thomas transfigured Aristotle without deforming him, not contenting himself with restoring his true meaning against the alterations of commentators, with completing and correcting him wherever he makes a mistake or hesitates, but working the miracle of disengaging from the historic Aristotle -- such as into himself at last Theology changes him13 -- a pure Aristotelian form much more purely Aristotelian than Aristotle himself had known. Aristotle, moreover, is above all for Thomas the treasurer of natural reason; with Aristotle it is the whole of antiquity that he assumes, not without also retaining all the good that the Jews and Arabs were able to discern. He likewise gathered all the testimonies of Scripture and the Fathers, the whole of Christian thought, in such a way that "for having profoundly venerated" the Fathers and holy Doctors who preceded him, "he in a way inherited the intellect of all."14 His newness is thus a newness not of destruction but of accomplishment. His originality consists of having himself taught by all. He is not only the disciple of uncreated Wisdom, of the wisdom of the saints and of the wisdom of the philosophers. Formerly, at Cologne, did he not let himself be instructed by an ignorant comrade? He is also the disciple of the human race.
The universal heritage grasped completely, and completely redone, born anew in the intellect: this is quite the contrary of eclecticism or a mosaic of opinions. An immaterial word, endlessly complex in its structure and perfectly one in its being, is vitally engendered in the womb of the spirit. Nothing loftier than such a synthesis, nothing that demands a greater independence and a purer personal strength of thought. But neither is there any work more impersonal in itself. The doctrine of Saint Thomas is not the property of Saint Thomas. It is the common property of the Church and of men. Alone among all other doctrines, its proper character is to be no one's property, strictly impersonal, absolutely universal. Giacomo di Viterbo, even in his day, spoke of it to Bartolommeo di Capua as: "Common truth, common clarity, common illumination, common order, and doctrine that leads quickly to perfect understanding." That is why "it is not Catholicism which is Thomist, it is Thomism which is Catholic; and it is Catholic because it is universalist."15 For the real in its entirety finds itself at home there. If Friar Thomas was living secluded in the depths of his thought, the eyes of his thought were open wide on things. But with what simplicityl He never does violence to things, never covers them over, never with him do you have those arrangements of lighting, those exaggerations of relief, in which all the philosophers, save Aristotle, secretly indulge. His great artistic gifts he employs only for exactness of judgment and of expression. He knows no compromise with the truth; he proposes it in all its grandeur. That men say "A hard doctrine!" matters little. This pacific wisdom brings the investigations of reason -- entirely human in philosophy, superelevated by faith in theology -- to bear on the whole expanse of the created and of the uncreated; but everywhere it measures the mind by that which is, making it respect both the twilight from below due to the obscurity of matter, and the night from above due to the too pure transparency of divine things. Fundamentally opposed to agnosticism and to rationalism, contrasting devices both of which separate intelligence and mystery, Thomist realism weds intelligence and mystery at the heart of being.
Theology makes use of philosophy, illuminates it as it judges it in its own light. It is by this means that Saint Thomas transplanted Aristotelian concepts to a new climate -- the supernatural -- where faith impels them to yield in our mind some understanding of the mysteries of God. There is -- based upon the evidences of reason alone -- a Thomist philosophy; Saint Thomas produced great philosophical works, he had an extraordinary metaphysical genius. But he is not only, nor principally, a philosopher; essentially he is a theologian. It is as theologian, from the peak of architectonic knowledge par excellence, that he definitively secures the order of the Christian economy.
Against the old scholasticism which was not able to recognize in him the true heir of Augustine, he defends the rights of the truth of the natural order, and the value of reason; against the Averroists, who were unable to recognize in him the true interpreter of Aristotle, he defends the rights of revealed truth, and the value of faith. Affirming at once the essential naturality of metaphysics and the essential supernaturality of infused virtues, and the essential subordination of the natural to the supernatural, proclaiming at once that grace perfects and does not destroy nature, and that the properly divine life it implants in us can alone heal nature and ought to take hold of it thoroughly, his proper work was to lead all the energies of the intellect into the service of Jesus Christ. It was the whole problem of culture and of humanism that was posed in him. His solution is: sanctity. Man has his perfection only if it is supernatural, he develops only on the cross. A humanism is possible, but on condition that it have for its end union with God through the humanity of the Redeemer, and that it proportion its means to the essentially supernatural end;-- a humanism of the Incarnation: on condition that it order itself completely to love and contemplation, that it perfectly subordinate, as did the saintly soul of Thomas Aquinas itself, science to wisdom, and metaphysical wisdom to theological wisdom, and theological wisdom to the wisdom of the saints; and that it understand that the form of reason can conquer the world only if it itself submits to the supra-rational and supra-human order of the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Otherwise humanism, even Christian humanism, inevitably slips toward the destruction of man and universal ruin.
Friar Thomas, Tocco tells us, was a man marvelously contemplative, vir miro modo contemplativus. If his sanctity was the sanctity of the intelligence, this is because in him the life of the intelligence was fortified and completely transilluminated by the fire of infused contemplation and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He lived in a kind of rapture and perpetual ecstasy. He prayed without ceasing, wept, fasted, yearned. Each of his syllogisms is as a concretion of his prayer and his tears; the kind of grace of lucid calm which his words bring to us springs doubtless from the fact that the least of his texts retains invisibly the impregnation of his longing and of the pure strength of the most vehement love. While he was living, did not the mere bodily sight of him procure, according to his contemporaries, a grace of spiritual consolation? The masterpiece of strict and rigorous intellectuality, of intrepid logic, is thus brimming over from a heart possessed by charity. On his return to Naples after the death of Thomas, Reginald was to exclaim: "As long as he was living my Master prevented me from revealing the marvels that I witnessed. He owed his knowledge less to the effort of his mind than to the power of his prayer. Every time he wanted to study, discuss, teach, write or dictate, he first had recourse to the privacy of prayer, weeping before God in order to discover in the truth the divine secrets, and, though he had been in uncertainty before praying, as a result of his prayer he came back instructed." When doubtful points would arise, Bartolommeo di Capua likewise reports, he would go to the altar and would stay there weeping many tears and uttering great sobs, then return to his room and continue his writings.
"His gift of prayer," writes Tocco, "exceeded every measure; he elevated himself to God as freely as though no burden of flesh held him down. Hardly a day passed that he was not rapt out of his senses." There were plenty of tears in his prayers. Never entangling himself in the affairs of the world, having from his youth the custom of quitting at once every conversation which ceased to concern the things of God, "no occupation changed the movement of his heart," or diverted him from prayer, into which, once what he was doing among men was finished, he would quietly re-enter. Very often, during Mass, he burst into tears. Sometimes the congregation witnessed it. Once, on Passion Sunday, at the convent of Naples, as he was saying Mass before a large congregation of soldiers, they saw him so rapt in spirit and shedding such tears that he seemed to be present on Calvary and to be bowing beneath the weight of the sufferings of Christ. The Friars kept coming up, urging him to continue the Mass. Often also he wept at Compline when, during Lent, one chanted the verse: "Do not reject me in my old age when my strength shall fail." At night, after a short sleep, he remained prostrate in prayer in his room or at the church.
The extraordinary graces which he often received take their place in the uninterrupted stream of a very lofty mystical life. One day the Virgin Mary appeared to him and gave him full assurance concerning his life and his doctrine, and revealed to him that his station, as he had so often requested it, would never be changed (i.e., that he would never be elevated to any prelacy) Another time it was the saints who came to help him with his commentary on Isaias. An obscure passage stopped him; for a long time he fasted and prayed to obtain an understanding of it. And behold one night Reginald heard him speaking with someone in his room. When the sound of conversation had ceased, Friar Thomas called him, telling him to light the candle and take the manuscript On Isaias. Then he dictated for an hour, after which he sent Reginald back to bed. But Reginald fell upon his knees: "I will not rise from here until you have told me the name of him or of them with whom you have spoken for such a long time tonight." Finally Friar Thomas began to weep and, forbidding him in the name of God to reveal the thing during Thomas' life, confessed that the apostles Peter and Paul had come to instruct him. Several times he was elevated from the ground during his prayer. He had a revelation of a temptation which obsessed a brother, he had twice the vision of the soul of his sister Marotta, a Benedictine abbess, who first asked him for Masses to deliver her from Purgatory, then announced to him her deliverance, and informed him that Raynaldo, unjustly put to death by Frederick II, was in Heaven; an angel then showed him a book written in letters of azure and gold, in which the name of his brother appeared in the gold-lettered columns devoted to the martyrs, for he was killed for his fidelity to the Pope. Another day a friend of his, a master in theology, Friar Romano, who had just died, appeared before him and spoke with him about questions that they had discussed while he was living. At Paris, consulted by the Masters on the manner of teaching the mystery of the Eucharist, he went first to place his answer on the altar, imploring the crucifix; the brethren who were watching him suddenly saw Christ standing before him on the manuscript he had written, and they heard these words: "You have written well of the Sacrament of My Body and you have well and truthfully resolved the question which was proposed to You, to the extent that it is possible to have an understanding of it on earth and to ascertain it humanly." And, by the intensity of the rapture, the saint was raised a cubit into the air. A similar occurrence took place another time at Naples. Friar Thomas was writing the third part of the Summa, and was treating of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. One day, before Matins, the sacristan saw him raised nearly two cubits from the ground. He stood gazing at him for a long while. Suddenly he heard a voice come forth from the image of the Crucified, towards whom the Doctor was turned, praying tearfully: "You have written well of Me, Thomas. What recompense for your work do you want from Me? -- None other than You, Lord."
Concerning the mystical life of Saint Thomas we are thus informed by the testimonies of his brethren and by exterior signs. In his writings, many unmistakable expressions, and his very teaching on infused wisdom, betray also, in spite of himself, his experience of divine things; finally, his work is the proof par excellence of the superhuman illuminations in the midst of which it was produced. But he himself tells us nothing of it, having put into practice only too well that saying of Saint Anthony, the hermit, which he could have read in Cassian (he had some pages of Cassian read to him every day), that "there is no perfect prayer if the religious himself perceives that he is praying." All the more so, as he did not have the mission, as a Saint John of the Cross or a Saint Teresa, to expound the things of contemplation in a practical way, from the point of view of introspection and experience. The secret of this mystical life, of which we know only by extrinsic indications that it was one of the highest conceivable, thus remains well guarded. All that we can presume is that the task of teaching accepted for the benefit of the Church and of the world must have drawn into a particularly luminous zone the secret universe of the contemplative gifts, and must have there substituted, perhaps, for the ordinary passive purifications, the type of uninterrupted suffering sustained by the intellect nailed to its mission; it must have blended with the obscurity of negative theology and of the wisdom of love, in which the heart of the Master was dissolved for sweetness, the clarity of the charismata of prophecy (the penetration of things divine) and of the manifestation of wisdom (sermo sapientiae).
The prayers composed by Saint Thomas are not admissions, but are works still, of his profound life, works which, beautiful as they may be, do not confide to us the measure of that life: works limpid as the sky and ever pointing, with a sublime simplicity, to the object. There is no poem purer, in which so much love is concealed in so much light, than the office of the Blessed Sacrament. It is surely in obedience to a design of providential harmony that in 1264, nine years after the death of the Blessed Julienne du Mont-Cornillon,16 Pope Urban was to ask the saint to compose the office of this new feast, requested by the Lord more than thirty years before. In the doctrine and in the Sacrament it is the same truth which incorporates the unity of the Church. Thomas Aquinas, who had the mission of teaching the doctrine, was commissioned to hymn the Sacrament.
What harder trial could there be for such a Master than to see his teaching held in suspicion in the Church? During the four years of heroic battles of his last stay in Paris, the shadow of this ordeal passed over him.
The Averroist philosophers, idolaters of Aristotle, and the self-styled Augustinian theologians who feared the intellect -- a short-sighted crowd was pitched against him, and strained to rend the seamless garment of his too pure doctrine. It was necessary to defend the true Aristotle against the second of these, and to attack against the first the Aristotle "corrupted" by Averroes. Doubtless, even at Paris he had numerous and fervent disciples, especially in the Faculty of Arts, which was not entirely won over to Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, and was in raptures over his explanations of Aristotle, and which after his death would petition the Dominicans to give it his body and his writings. Doubtless he had behind him the authority of the Pope and the Curia, whose theologian he was; he could always, if need be, appeal to the Roman Church. But almost all the masters in theology of the University opposed him, the seculars and the Franciscans (for these quarrels of self-love were in full play as early as then) wanted to have no more of him, and the bishop of Paris supported them. And it was in the name of the interests of the faith that they claimed to overthrow him.
In 1270 his great controversy with Siger took place; Siger published the treatise De anima intellectiva, and Thomas answered17 him with the De unitate intellectus. That same year it was necessary for him to reply also to the murmurings of his other adversaries, the pseudo-Augustinians of the Faculty of Theology, against whom he wrote the De aeternitate mundi. Just before Easter, in a solemn dispute on the point of his doctrine for which they reproached him most ardently (the theory of the intellective soul as the only substantial form in man), Friar John Peckham, regent of the Friars Minor, harassed him with violent and bombastic remarks; his own brethren abandoned him, some even argued against him, the Bishop and the Doctors awaited his downfall and did all that they could to procure it. But his words passed among them, peaceably; all was futile against his sweetness. The Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, who wanted to include the thesis in question (and still another of Thomas Aquinas, on the simplicity of spiritual substances) in the condemnation he was preparing of certain propositions of Siger, was forced to give up his project, and to limit his condemnation to the Averroist propositions (December 12, 1270). But when on March 7, 1277 -- three years, to the day, after the death of the Doctor -- he was to renew his condemnation of Averroism, he would add to the theses of Siger of Brabant and of Boetbius of Dacia censured by him a score of Thomist propositions. Some days later, the Dominican Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England, would likewise reprove the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, in particular the famous thesis of the oneness of the substantial form, which raised at that time in the schools of England "an almost infinite scandal." In 1284 his successor, John Peckham, was to make the censure worse. Gates open for the subtleties of Scotus and for the Nominalist disputers who would darken the fourteenth century!
The Middle Ages in their decline were unable to listen to Rome and make use of the gift of God.
Having returned to Italy after Easter of 1272, Friar Thomas took part in the General Chapter of the Order, at Florence, and then he went to Naples again to continue his teaching there. One day, December 6, 1273, while he was celebrating Mass in the of Saint Nicholas, a great change came over him. From that moment he ceased writing and dictating.18 Was the Summa then, with its thirty-eight treatises, its three thousand articles and ten thousand objections, to remain unfinished? As Reginald was complaining about it, his master said to him, "I can do no more." But the other was insistent. "Reginald, I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw. Now, I await the end of my life after that of my works."
At the touch of God the soul was taking leave of the body. A few days afterward, he desired to see his sister, the Countess of San Severino, whom he loved tenderly, and he journeyed, at the cost of great fatigue, to pay her a visit. But as he arrived, and she came forth to meet him, he scarcely spoke to her. Alarmed, she asked Reginald: "What ails my brother? He seems stupefied and does not answer me at all." -- "Since the feast of St. Nicholas he has been in that state," said Reginald, "and has written nothing since."
In January Gregory X summoned him to the Council he had convoked at Lyons. Thomas started on the way with Reginald; they traveled mounted on mules. Reginald risked some words, trying to distract him: "You and Friar Bonaventure will be made Cardinals, and it will redound to the glory of your Orders. "I will never be anything in the Order or in the Church," replied Friar Thomas. "In no other station can I serve our Order better than in the station I'm in."
He stopped at the Maenza castle of his niece, the Countess Francesca, in Campania. But hardly had he arrived when he collapsed from weariness, and illness seized him. It is then that Providence made him a present of a bit of fish. He had lost his appetite and did not have a taste for anything but fresh herrings such as he had eaten in France. Reginald was disconsolate, for this product of the North was not to be found in Italy. But behold, on opening one of the baskets of a merchant who was passing with a load of sardines, he found it filled, miraculously, with fresh herrings, which everyone in the castle ate.
Thomas stayed only four days at Maenza. Feeling seriously ill, he asked with great devotion that someone bring him to the monastery of Santa Maria at Fossanova, which was nearby. On entering he leaned on the wall with his hand and said: "This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell for I have chosen it."19 It was a Cistercian monastery; he had come back to Saint Benedict to die. He was ill for a month, enduring it all with great patience and humility. The monks carried wood with their own hands from the forest to make a fire for him, judging it unfitting that beasts of burden should carry the wood for the use of so great a man. And he, each time he saw them come into the room where he was lying, raised himself humbly and with great veneration, saying: "How does it happen that holy men are bringing me wood?" At the request of some monks, he explained briefly the Canticle of Canticles; then he asked for Viaticum. The Abbot, attended by his monks, brought him the Body of the Lord. When he saw the Host, he threw himself on the floor, burst into tears, and greeted Him with words of admirable and prolonged adoration: "I receive Thee, Price of my redemption, Viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of Whom I have studied and watched, toiled, preached, and taught. Never have I said anything against Thee; but if I have done so, it is through ignorance, and I do not persist in my opinions, and if I have done anything wrong, I leave all to the correction of the Roman Church. It is in this obedience to Her that I depart from this life." He died three days later on March 7, 1274. He was forty-nine.
The sub-prior of the monastery, who had nearly gone blind, recovered his sight by putting his face against Thomas'. Many other miracles took place after this; and many, too, according to the testimony of Bartolommeo di Capua, were hidden by the monks, who were afraid that someone would take the holy body from them. Having exhumed it at the end of the seventh month, they found it intact, and exhaling such fragrances that one would have thought himself to be in a dispensary full of sweet-smelling herbs; the whole monastery was perfumed with them. A second exhumation took place fourteen years later and the same facts were verified.
It is reported that at Ratisbon, where he was bishop, Master Albert knew of the death of his great disciple through a revelation. He wept bitterly at the time. And each time afterwards that he heard the name of Thomas mentioned he would weep again, saying: "He was the flower and glory of the world." When the rumor spread that at Paris the writings of Friar Thomas were being attacked, the old Master journeyed to defend them. On his return he convoked a solemn assembly at which he declared that after the work accomplished by Thomas others would thenceforth labor in vain.
Nevertheless, the opposition of the Paris and Oxford theologians did not subside; nor that of the Franciscan doctors: in 1282 a General Chapter of the Friars Minor prohibited the reading of the Summa in Franciscan schools. To each his grace, says Saint Paul. Not all the orders have a theological mission. The Dominicans, however, quickly realized that in giving them Saint Thomas, God had manifested to them the reason for their existence. As early as 1278, at the General Chapter in Milan, they decided to defend his doctrine energetically, which was soon to become the doctrine of the Order, and from which Pope Clement VI would enjoin them never to deviate. But it is for the common good of the Church and of the world that they are commissioned to maintain the integrity of this doctrine. It is the common patrimony of us all. From the beginning it was the universal Church, in the person of the Pope, which recognized in Thomas its Doctor. It was the papacy which, discerning in him the common spirit of the whole human and divine tradition, and the greatest and most assiduous force for the conservation of all that transcends time in the past, but also the movement of life and the most active power of assimilation and salvation of all that is worth more than the moment in the future -- it was the papacy which, seeing the dividing night approaching, and deciding to oppose it with the great rallying in the spirit of all created beings under the accorded lights of reason and faith, sided with Thomas Aquinas against the routine narrowness of the schools and against a dull conservatism which was destined immediately to fall into dissolution. But the resistance of these particularisms was strong. It took fifty years of violent polemics to put an end to the calumnies leveled against the orthodoxy of Thomism. The canonization of Thomas, proclaimed Saint by John XXII on July 18, 1323, at Avignon, was the last act of this battle. "Thomas, alone, has illuminated the Church more than all the other doctors," the Pope declared. "His doctrine could proceed only from a miraculous action of God." This doctrine could henceforth shed its radiance in full liberty. And on the 14th of February, 1324, at the insistence of Rome, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne de Boretto, revoked the condemnation pronounced in 1277 against the Thomist theses by his predecessor Etienne Tempier. Yet, though the glory of Thomas Aquinas was great, the Christian world, which was already failing, had not the courage to ask him for its cure and scholasticism was to exhaust itself in vain rivalries, and decadent systems.
But a new story begins for Saint Thomas. It is to him from now on that the Church has recourse in her battle against all the errors and all the heresies; his doctrine grows in heaven, it is this doctrine that the Church of Christ uses in her own intellectual life, one and universal; the Popes render it innumerable testimonies, whose agreement and reiteration over the course of time have a singular force. And behold, Leo XIII in the encyclical Aeterni Patris (August 4, 1879) and, in incessantly renewed acts, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII,20 clearly without imposing this doctrine as an article of faith (which could not be the case for any theological or philosophical system), urge Catholic masters to teach it, and beseech the world with tragic insistence to turn to it as to the salvation of the intelligence and of civilization.
He who was called with good reason the Angelic Doctor and the Doctor of the Eucharist is also and above all the Common Doctor of the Church, because he alone perfectly answers to the universal breadth of Catholic thought. It is highly remarkable that even in Byzantine theology, at the decline of the Middle Ages, he enjoyed high esteem.
Summaries and translations into Greek of his principal works, the two Summae, the Commentaries on the De Anima and on the Physics of Aristotle, and several opuscula, were written at that time, in particular by Demetrios Kidones, minister of the emperor John VI Cantacuzene, the translator of the Summa Contra Gentiles and refuter of Kabasilas, and by George Scholarios Gennadios, Patriarch of Constantinople. Now it is in Arabic, in Chinese and in Sanskrit, as in Latin, in Greek and in Russian, that he would teach the grandeurs of God. He is the veritable apostle of modern times; his principles are sufficiently elevated and integrated to embrace in a superior and true, not eclectic, unity -- a unity of discrimination, of order, and of redemption, not of confusion and of death -- the immense diversities of race, of culture and of spirituality which divide the world of East and West. Beneath the Latin disposition of his form, the substance which he brings to men transcends every particularity of time and place; he alone can give them back the divine good of unity of spirit, where alone it is possible to attain it, in the light of the Incarnate Word.
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