Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study - Chapter I. Birth and Early Education

     THE noble Aquino family could boast of a descent through four centuries from the Lombard Princes, besides being allied with the Sovereign houses of Europe in the thirteenth century. The family name was a territorial one, which in Latin and French idioms of speech appears as Aquinas and d’Aquin. Saint Thomas was born in the Castle of Rocca Secca, perched high in the mountains, some even miles from Aquino which lies in the plain below, in the Campagna Felice of the Kingdom of Naples. He first saw the light in the opening days the year 1225, less than four years from the death of Saint Dominic. Landulg his father, was nephew to the Emperor Frederick I; he belonged to the noble house of Sommacoli, and was Count of Aquino, Lord of Loreto, Acerra, and Belcastro. His mother, Theodora Carraciola, Countess of Teano in her own right, was sprung from the Norman Princes. Saint Thomas, their third son, was cousin to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II and closely allied to the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and France; while on his grandmother’s side he could trace descent from England’s Saxon Kings. For godfather he had Pope Honorius III, the Pontiff who confirmed the Order of Preachers, of which the child was destined to be the brightest luminary. The Aquinos were a military race, so Landulf gave to his third son a name already famous in arms, Thomas, in memory of his own father, who had been Captain-General of the Imperial forces; little did he dream then that the boy would be a soldier of Christ, wielding the sword of Truth, and an undying leader of intellectual hosts.
    The future holiness of the unborn babe was disclosed to his mother by a holy hermit of the neighbourhood, known simply as Buono, or God’s good man. Clad in a rough garment, and with hair unkempt, he presented himself at Rocca Secca, and pointing to a picture of the holy patriarch Saint Dominic, who was not yet canonized, he thus addressed the Countess: “Lady, be glad, for thou art about to have a son whom thou shalt call Thomas. Thou and thy husband will think if making him a monk in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict’s body reposes, in the hopes that your son will attain to its honours and wealth. But God has disposed otherwise, because he will become a friar of the Order of Preachers and so great will be his learning and sanctity that his equal will not be found through the whole world.” Theodora listened with awe to the presage, then, falling upon her knees, exclaimed “I am all unworthy of bearing such a son, but, God’s will be done according to His good pleasure”.
    In due time the child was baptized under the name of Thomas, which signifies Abyss, while the Bishop of Aquino stood as proxy for the Sovereign Pontiff. In God’s deep counsels a name imposed often stands prophetic of destiny so was it in this instance, for in after days “the abyss put forth its voice (Habacuc iii. 10). From the hour of the prophetic telling, Thomas was the fruit of her soul by prayer as of a mother’s womb by nature. A special providence watched over him during infancy. One night in June, 1228, a lightning stroke smote the tower in which the child of grace lay sleeping beside his nurse: in agony of mind the alarmed mother ran to the spot, to find him unharmed, while her little daughter lay dead and charred, and the horses in the stables beneath were killed. This occurrence left in him a life-long nervousness and dread of storms, which he could never allay. In consequence of this, in later years in a subterranean cave at Anagni, he traced upon the walls in capital letters this distich in fashion of a cross

    Crux. Mihi. Certa. Salus.
    Crux. Est. Quam. Semper. Adoro.
    Crux. Domini. Mecum.
    Crux. Mihi. Refugium.

    The Cross is my sure safety.
    It is the Cross that I ever adore.
    The Lord’s Cross is with me.
    The Cross is my refuge.

    [An Indulgence of 300 days is attached to its recital.]
    Thomas was a gentle child, with deep lustrous eyes and thoughtful expression of countenance, in whom piety appeared as a Divine gift of nature, an inborn sense of soul. His earliest turnings of mind and heart were to God, so that even in the dawn of his day he was spoken of as a child of grace. Free from the wonted petulance of childhood, he showed little of its giddiness, still he was always cheerful and of modest demeanour. He loved to gaze with eyes of wonder on the illuminated pages of missals or scripts which he was incapable of understanding, while the stillness of the chapel with its solitary light exercised a fascination on his tender mind. Gentle and fleeting as a Spring shower are the tears of childhood. If at any time they fell from his sunny face, the sight of a book or manuscript would always comfort him: it was his toy, his plaything, and to turn the pages ever and again was his little world of joy; clearly the child was father of the man. There is something startling, even eerie, in a child’s piety, in its innocence, unconscious of guile, in its human faith of trust, its first turnings upwards: like the turning of the flower to the sun is a child’s soul stirred and drawn heavenwards. When the Psalmist broke out in rhapsody: “Thy magnificence, O Lord, is elevated above the heavens,” he instantly turns to the thought of the child: “Out of the mouths of infants and of sucklings Thou hast perfected praise”: (Ps. viii. 2, 3). All this we have to realize in the child hood of Saint Thomas, whose young virgin soul, like some clear pool, reflected the Creator’s image: As the first years drew on, he, like another Holy Child in Nazareth, grew in spiritual beauty before God and men. His angelic comeliness and sweetness of disposition increased, so that he charmed irresistibly all with whom he came in contact.
    The first parting with home came in the autumn of 1231, when he was but six and a half years old. Six miles away to the south stands the venerable Abbey of Monte Cassino on a high plateau, and visible from Aquino and Rocca Secca. This ancient home of learning and piety was the school in which Count Landulf placed his boy, not in the cloister, but in the school for youths of gentle birth, since the old time custom of placing children in the cloister was extinct by papal mandate quite a century before. The monks of Saint Benedict were deeply beholden to the Aquinos, who had defended their sanctuary against Roger, King of Sicily: at this very time the Lord Abbot, the fiftieth in line, was the young scholar’s uncle, Landulf Sennebald. There the boy spent five years under the tutelage of those God-fearing men, but attended by his family tutor or governor, while the rare gifts of mind and soul expanded. It was not an unbroken stay in the abbey, for when the holidays came round, he rode to Loreto or Belcastro to regain his family circle. During his stay in the school he learnt the common elements of a child’s education, how to speak and write correctly his native Italian tongue, also the rudiments of Latin and French: to this would naturally be added the religious catechism suited to his tender years, and the school discipline of obedience. The memory of his residence there was long treasured up, and rehearsed in after days by the monks, who loved to speak of the precocious mind which would muse on Divine problems, and put such questions as these: “What is God? How can we know God? What is Truth?” Anything savouring of levity or carelessness was never seen in him: however amiable he was towards his young companions or ready to pay them a service, he was slow to join in their boyish chatter, slower still at joining in their games. His refining influence made itself felt among them, but the companionship he prized most was a book, and his favourite retreat the church. The atmosphere of the quiet cloistered precincts was a congenial one: it nurtured his observant powers, and formed the silent thinker, the prayerful spirit, who spoke so deeply in maturer years.
    Mid-way between his eleventh and twelfth years came the violent transition which so often mars characters of promise. The shy boy, with those round ox-like eyes set deep and clear, must pass from peace to tumult, from private to public schools, and to streets often mad with revelry. What the school begins, the University completes, with its fuller range of sciences, its vaster auditory, its skilled professors: so, acting on the advice of Abbot Senebald, the boy passes the threshold of a Catholic University. The choice lay between two such seats of learning, far-away Bologna of long-standing eminence, and its younger rival, Naples, which was close to hand. A law of the Emperor Frederick II, its founder, forbade his subjects to study elsewhere than in Naples, so Count Landulf’s choice was reduced to one of compliance. During this summer’s holiday time, which was spent at Loreto, Thomas busied himself in visiting the needy and relieving their wants, especially since famine was pressing severely on the country. Not content with carrying constantly the common necessaries of life, he often brought to them the delicacies meant for his own use. Such generosity being reported in an unfavourable light to his father, the Count resolved on curbing his actions, if not his compassion. One morning as the boy was speeding forth on his errand of mercy, with a supply of white bread under his cloak, Landulf stayed his steps, and demanded to be shown what he was carrying away. Crimsoned with confusion, Thomas was about to explain, when the father roughly plucked the cloak aside, and an armful of fragrant roses fell at his feet. The father saw the hand of God in the act, for he had been stealthily watching the tender culprit, then he strode hastily away in tears; long he pondered over the reports which had reached his willing ears, of the glowing halo seen at times round the mysterious boy’s head.
    It was in the autumn of 1236 that Thomas Aquinas entered Naples University. He had his own residence and retinue, but continued under the vigilant eye of the same governor as when at Monte Cassino, who now acted as his good angel in the city so aptly described as—“a very paradise of God, but inhabited by demons”. Knowledge of evil is not of itself evil, else the angels would not be clean: so the boy’s clear perception of worldliness and flaunted vice served only to foster his spirit of reserve, of communing with God, while, like Daniel in Babylon, he prayed to be kept clean. Making the Psalmist’s speech his own, be made daily use of these brief prayers:— “Prove me, Lord, and try me. Lord, let Thy face shine upon Thy servant, teach me Thy ways of holiness. Guide my steps according to Thy behest, that no iniquity may take hold of me.” Lodged according to his rank, he often rode round the fair bay of Naples, past the glowing splendour or frequent fury of Vesuvius, images to him of heaven and of hell, to gaze on the sites of cities long buried, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, or else crossing the waters, to behold the wonders of the blue grottoes of Capri. Nowhere else is Nature garbed in richer array, but it cried to him only of God, while his soul found response in the exclamation of Augustine of Hippo: “If the works of His hands be so lovely, O how much more beautiful must He be Who made them!” The words of the Creator’s approval kept recurring in memory: “And He saw that they were good”. What holds the natural man to earth, uplifts the spiritual man heavenwards; so in his ripening youth he was fired with the poetry of Nature, but as a Divine song.
    During the seven years of his stay, as the boy grew into the man of uncommon stature in body and intellect, he studied to good purpose under men of eminence. He pursued the course of studies which was common to all Universities of the time. During four years he passed through the Trivium, under the distinguished Pietro Martini: this comprised grammar [The study of the poets, the historians, and the art of speaking and writing properly], logic and rhetoric, which he completed when fourteen and a half years old. The higher studies of the Quadrivium, a three years’ course, embracing music, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy, he pursued under a professor of note, Peter from Ireland. There can be no doubt of the fact that our saintly scholar graduated in both courses, which covered the whole range of the classics, logic, and physics. Both masters held him in high esteem, and constantly pointed him out as a pattern of industry. A singularly retentive memory and sense of logic enabled him to repeat the lesson more deeply and lucidly than the professors had given it, so that the scholars came to regard him as a miracle of holiness and learning, an angel in the schools, though not yet “The Angel of the Schools”. Such talent left him much leisure time, yet without idleness, for it was all given to assimilating knowledge by method and discipline.
    Man’s soul is simple in its nature, but very complex in its workings, especially when acting through the senses. The Pars Superior is the soul untrammelled in its purely spiritual workings of understanding or volition, regarding things which are beyond Nature’s horizon. At its greatest altitude it rises up to the Divine. The Pars Inferior is the same spirit working through the senses. As Aristotle observes, and the Schoolmen agree, “there is nothing in the understanding except it first come under the senses”: from this common rule one must exclude first principles, which all mankind instantly accepts because of their self-evidence. Education is nothing else than the drawing out of these parts with their latent powers, even as Nature’s secret forces can be drawn forth by attraction: thus while the powers are sharpened, their store of accretions is termed knowledge. Now all this economy of the mind was grasped by the youthful Aquinas, and brought to bear on his threefold plan of self-education. Endowed with genius of intellect, as the eagle soaring above the commoner birds of the air, he first carefully scanned, then boldly swept across the intellectual horizon. his first field of education was Divine. God was his centre of gravity, to which he ever inclined, his highest zone of speculative thought, his fountainhead of spirituality in mind and heart. Such education is productive of sanctity, because it is seeking and finding, feeding upon and assimilating Divine Truth, not as from afar, but by union of intimacy with Him Who is Truth. If the child queried— What is Truth? and What is God? the youth answered his own query: “God is Truth, and all truth is of God”. Such pursuit of highest truth produces wisdom, of which, as of compassion, he could say: “It grew with me from infancy” (Job xxxi. 18). “Wisdom led the just man along righteous ways, showed him God’s kingdom, and imparted to him the knowledge of holy things” (Wis. x. 10). Thomas was a theologian in potency as one wedded to Divine Wisdom.
    His second domain of industry in learning was among men. In the writings left of the ancients, he found thought distributed among the poets, the orators, the philosophers: these he read studiously now, and stored them up in the cells of memory. Most of them he read but once in a lifetime, and that was at this very period: of course all Thomist students are quite aware of the great exception with regard to Aristotle’s works, for these were constantly at his elbow. All is true subjectively in the writings of those men of old-time fame, that is, if judged from their standpoint, and according the schools they represented: much therein is true also objectively, and elevating even from our Christian coign of vantage. But the question with the solid thinker is—where precisely to fix his standpoint. In first principles all men are agreed, with few dissentients, such as sceptics, and even these postulate some one first principle: the parting of the ways comes where Revelation steps in, uplifting and guiding Reason. From Aristotle to Saint Thomas, philosophy made no sensible progress, but rather the reverse: but when the saint Christianized the Stagyrite, and brought his writings into line with Revelation, then the thoughts of men reverted to the past, and grew vigorous in consequence. Such was the scholastic revival of the thirteenth century, devised by this vigorous young thinker in Naples.
    His third field of self-culture was Nature, whose open page all men read, and so few understand. He was a careful observer of Nature’s laws, of matter, and force, and forms, and causalities: but while turning to Nature he was no slavish empiricist, as will be seen later on. With him, mentality ever held the first place. Above all things he was consistent, because consistency comes of an evenly balanced mind: the Eclecticism of past and present teachers he would certainly have ascribed to the inconsistency of illogical minds, resulting in a perversion of order, and stultifying of principles. In Naples this youth had assimilated from his reading all that Cicero has comprised in his definition of Philosophy: “The knowledge of things Divine and human and of their disposing causes”.

From - Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study of the Angelic Doctor By Father Placid Conway, O.P. (1855–1913)