St. Thomas Aquinas, Confessor
St. Thomas, one of the most learned and holy doctors of the Church, was born, in 1225, at the castle of Rocca Sicca, in the kingdom of Naples. His father was Landulph, Count of Aquino, and his mother Theodora, a daughter of the Count of Chieti. At the age of five he was entrusted to the Benedictines at Monte Cassino to be educated. When he was ten years old, he was sent to Naples to perfect himself in the liberal arts. While sojourning here, he formed acquaintance with a priest belonging to the order of St. Dominic, in consequence of which he sought and obtained admission into that order at the age of fourteen.
His mother, Theodora, was very much displeased, and hastened to Naples with the intention of forcibly taking Thomas from the monastery. St. Thomas had, however, already left Naples for Rome before his mother arrived; and from Rome he had been sent to Paris. His two brothers, who were in the service of the Emperor, at the instance of Theodora, intercepted him on his way to Paris and sent him back a prisoner. The mother exerted all her influence to make him forsake the ecclesiastical state; his sisters likewise opposed his project. All was in vain, for the Saint remained firm, and answered: “In this matter I am bound to obey God before man.” His brothers had, in the meanwhile, returned from the wars, and, finding him unshaken in his resolution, were exasperated against him, and heaped injury and abuse on him, even going so far as to tear the clerical dress from his person. They shut him up in a room of the castle and deprived him of the necessary food; in their wickedness they even introduced a dissolute woman to him, who, by her caresses and allurements, should rob him of his purity. The holy youth, as soon as he saw the courtezan entering, understood her purpose, and endeavored to escape from the danger by flight; but, the door being barred on the outside, he was unable to flee. In this extremity he called to heaven for aid. “Do not, O Jesus, and you, purest of Virgins, suffer me to fall into this detestable sin.” He shouted for assistance, but all access to him had been shut off. Seeing no other means, the chaste youth seized a burning brand, attacked the abandoned woman, and drove her away. After accomplishing this, he fell on his knees and humbly thanked God for his escape from this peril, renewed his vow of chastity, and implored the Almighty to extend further assistance to him. During the sleep which overtook him during his prayer, he beheld two angels, who congratulated him on his victory, and, as a sign that his petition had been heard, girded his loins with a band, and tightened it so much that the pain awoke him and forced him to I cry out. From this moment he was unmolested by temptations or stings of impurity. Still he never neglected the means necessary to preserve his purity, and, according to the testimony of his I confessor, he carried his baptismal innocence unsullied to the grave.
After an imprisonment of two years, his sisters, whom he had persuaded to enter religion, lowered him by a rope from the castle. He hastened to the monastery at Naples, where, after having completed the year of noviceship, he was admitted to the solemn profession. He then continued his studies at Rome, Paris and lastly at Cologne, under the directions of the renowned Albert the Great. At the last-mentioned city his classmates, for a while, called him the “dumb ox,” because he always listened in silence to his professor and never entered into any dispute. Albert, however, once said to them: “You call him a dumb ox, but this dumb ox will one day open his mouth and the whole world will hear his voice.” This prophecy was fulfilled; for St. Thomas made such progress in his studies that his fame soon spread over the whole world. Scarcely twenty-five years old, he received the degree of Doctor of Holy Scripture at Paris, where he taught the higher sciences with great success. In this city sprung up that holy friendship between him and St. Bonaventure, of the Order of St. Francis who resembled St. Thomas in virtue and holiness. The many works written by St. Thomas, even on the most difficult subjects, are not only admired by all Christendom, but also much studied and highly prized. They contain a depth of wisdom unsurpassed, which he acquired not by his own application but rather from Divine inspiration, as he himself avowed. Hence, also, is he called the Angelic Doctor. Before beginning to study, to explain the Holy Scriptures, or to preach, or if he met with any difficulty, he always had recourse to prayer, as also fasting and other mortifications.
Though his learning was great, still it was surpassed by his sanctity, and his zeal for the salvation of souls. He was most assiduous in his devotion to the Sacrament of the Altar, and, whenever his health permitted, he offered up the Holy Sacrifice with an awe and piety which resembled an angel’s more than that of a man. After his own Mass he served another. Whenever he himself could not celebrate, he assisted at the adorable Sacrifice with so great a fervor as to cause him to shed abundant tears. The office recited by the Priest on the feast of Corpus Christi is the work of his piety. The Saint laid this, as well as his other writings, at the foot of the cross, begging a sign from God that his works were acceptable to the Divine Majesty. He heard these consoling words from the Crucifix: “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what recompense dost thou desire?” The Angelical replied: ” None other but thyself, Lord.” His burning zeal for the salvation of souls led the Saint, even while filling a professor’s chair, to devote himself to preaching for the good of many a sinner. It was a wonderful thing to see a man whose body had been weakened by penance and reduced by sickness, especially a weakness of the stomach, able to compose so many works, teach in the schools, and, besides this, announce the Word of God in His holy temple. His humility, likewise, was most edifying; for though the most learned man, still he always esteemed himself below everybody. He never spoke of himself nor could he bear to hear any one praising him. Repeatedly did the Popes desire to bestow ecclesiastical dignities on him, but the humility of the Saint always knew how to avoid them.
Being called by Gregory X. to attend the General Council at Lyons, he was taken sick on the road, in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossa Nova. The good monks received and treated him with motherly tenderness, and begged him, in imitation of St. Bernard, to dictate an exposition of the Canticle of Canticles. St. Thomas replied: “Give me the spirit of Bernard and I will comply with your request.” Being urged, he began the exposition, but he was obliged to interrupt his work, on account of the severity of his illness, on the sixth of March. He then received the last Sacraments, and prepared for death by fervent acts of virtue. When the holy Viaticum was brought to him, he adored his Saviour on bended knee, and after making his profession of faith he added: “I wish to die in the Roman Church, to whose judgment I submit all my writings.” Extreme Unction! was then administered to him, after which, raising his eyes to heaven, he departed this life at the age of fifty. “How is it possible to live in a world full of dangers and perils without committing sin,” some one asked St. Thomas, shortly before his I death; and this was the answer: “Often recall to mind the account which God requires on the Judgment Day, and live in a manner to have no dread of that day.” He was asked, on some other occasion, how a person could be saved: “By earnestly wishing it,” said he. Often did he express his surprise that a man, knowing himself to be in a state of mortal sin, could I yet sleep quietly or even laugh, considering that he was exposed to eternal perdition. The Most High, who had rendered St. Thomas so famous during his lifetime for his extraordinary wisdom, glorified him also after death by many great miracles. Many visions which he enjoyed during life are recorded; also his ecstasies, some of them lasting several days, and usually beginning while the Saint was engaged in prayer. To prayer he joined a mortification which extended over all his senses. In his last illness, his stomach craved after a certain kind of fish rare in the neighborhood. It happened that the physician met with one and brought it to St. Thomas; but the holy man, remembering the example of David, who, in his burning thirst, emptied the proffered cup, sacrificing the draught to the Almighty, also refused to accept the fish out of love for God. This mortification, though it appears small to worldly people, still shows the ardent desire in the Saint to embrace every occasion of self-abnegation. It deserves no less praise than David’s act, which is so highly spoken of by the holy fathers. Thus, in the very practice of penance, did St. Thomas end his life.
I. How nobly did not Saint Thomas battle when tempted to impurity! Oh, that every man and woman would imitate his example whenever they are enticed or, as it were, forced into it! Shout for assistance, resist in every way possible, if flight be impossible. Alas! many do neither. And why? Because they do not wish to create a disturbance at night; they are unwilling to dishonor or disgrace the monster who tempts them. Would they act in this way if the miscreant were a murderer or a thief? I am positive they would shout for help, were the murderer or the thief even the noblest and greatest man in the country. Now, why is their conduct so different when there is a question of sin? Is he not a murderer who takes away the life of the soul and eternal salvation? Is he no robber who steals the precious treasure of the grace of God? Does such an individual deserve polite treatment? Thieves and murderers are not to be treated according to the rules of politeness. We must fearlessly resist these tempters and imitate St. Thomas in this respect.
II. Wonderful indeed are the answers of St. Thomas to two questions. “How can a person assure himself of his salvation?” was the first question, and the answer: “By earnestly willing it.” Hence it depends altogether on the will whether we are saved or lost. St. Chrysostom already, centuries before, had said: “In order to be saved it is only necessary to will it, not carelessly, but earnestly.” It is true all men, even the greatest sinners, desire to be saved, but, alas! they have no earnest and determined will. He who desires to learn any science, applies the means adapted to its acquisition. If he takes the necessary steps, then, we see that his intention is earnest. Again, if one intends learning a trade, he must apply the necessary means. It is the same with the work of salvation; without employing the requisite means we shall never be able to reach the end. He is a liar, therefore, who, whilst declaring that he wishes to be saved, still neglects to make use of means for that purpose. Be serious in your endeavors, and recall what was said in the month of January on this head.
The second question put to St. Thomas was this: “How can a person, surrounded by the goods of this world, escape from sin? ” and the reply: “Remember the account to be rendered to the just Judge on the Day of Judgment.” There is a salutary truth contained in this answer. If you are anxious to avoid sin, as it is absolutely necessary to obtain salvation, often think of the Day of Judgment. Faith teaches that we will be tried at the tribunal of God’s justice for all our thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions. “Know that for all these God will bring thee to judgment” (Eccl. xi.). “Every one of us shall render account to God for himself” (Rom. xiv.). Mark it well,every one; there is no exception. Kings and emperors must stand before the same Judgment-seat. You cannot appear by proxy before God, the All-wise, the All-powerful, the just and inexorable Judge. “From Him,” says St. Bernard, “you can conceal nothing; He will accept no excuses; neither can you flee from Him, nor appeal to a higher judge.” The account will be severe and exact, even of an idle word, as our Saviour tells us. If you cannot stand this scrutiny, the sentence of eternal damnation will be passed on you. Often recall this saving truth, especially in time of temptation. “For what shall I do when God shall rise to judge ? And when He shall examine, what shall I answer Him?” (Job xxxi.) Often say to yourself: “Shall I dare to answer to God for what I am about to do or omit?” “We ought,” says Thomas-a-Kem-pis, “to regulate our lives as if we were to be immediately judged.” Put this lesson into practice, and you will avoid sin amidst all the perils to which you may be exposed.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.