Thursday, 3 July 2014

Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study - Chapter II. Vocation and Trials

     HAVING seen the scholar in his morn of toil, let us now turn to the youth aspiring to the Religious state: bent on rising to spiritual perfection according to grace, he naturally sought out and embraced the state which is conducive to such perfection.
    The germ of a vocation to the Religious life, and to the Dominican form of such life in particular, fell early upon his eager soul, where it germinated through nine years before blossoming into reality of fulfilment. When but nine and a half years old he witnessed a spectacle at Monte Cassino which entered deeply into his soul: it was the solemnity of Saint Dominic’s canonization Mass, granted on 13 July, and kept on 5 August, 1234, the exaltation of that Dominic who so recently had been the “Doctor of Truth and Preacher of Grace,” the story of whose life was fresh on men’s lips. There is a spiritual affinity in saintship, so the spirit of the child went out to the man of God who was soon to call him son. In the Dominican church at Naples, Thomas was often seen absorbed in prayer, while spreading rays of light shone from his head. The friars were well aware of it, so that, after witnessing the marvel for the third time, Father John of Saint Julien said to him: “Our Lord has given you to our Order”. Ripening intimacy begot resolve. When he was but fifteen and a half years of age, on the completion of his Trivium, he declared to the Prior of San Domenico that for some time he had ardently desired to give himself to the Order. On bended knees he made his humble suit and protestation: “But I am not worthy, and is not my age an obstacle?” Father Thomas d’Agni di Lentino, the Prior, and Father John of Saint Julien, a famous preacher, bade him foster the grace of a vocation, but advised him to wait for three more years. This he accordingly did. When eighteen and a half years of age, he was clothed in the holy habit as a Friar Preacher, in August, 1243, probably on Saint Dominic’s feast-day, which was then kept on the 5th. It was a momentous step, a memorable occasion, for the ceremony was carried out before a distinguished assembly. Not a word was spoken to parents or to others of his design: he had learnt his lesson from a saying of Tobias: “It is a good thing to hide the King’s secret” (xii. 7). From that happy hour until death his conduct might be expressed in the language of Saint Paul: “Forgetting the things that are behind, and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I pursue towards the mark, for the prize of the heavenly vocation of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. iii, 13–14).
    Soon the tidings reached Rocca Secca that Thomas had entered the cloister of the Preaching Friars, which evoked a storm of indignation. His mother was especially angered, not because he had chosen to quit the world, but at the unpardonable affront of the scion of a princely house donning the garb of a mendicant friar. Complaints were addressed to the Pope and to the Archbishop of Naples, while loud were the menaces uttered against the Father General and the Prior, and these were caught up by the common herd in the street: as for the monks of the two Benedictine communities in Naples and their brethren of Monte Cassino, they made no protest, advanced no plea, since it was no concern of theirs, nor did they move or speak at his profession two years later. Theodora d’Aquino was a woman of resolute spirit, now thoroughly roused: hermits may prophesy, that is their business, but the settlement of a son is a domestic affair, largely a woman’s affair, if she can but have her way. But no sooner did she perceive that noise and fury would not prevail, than she set out for Naples with masked batteries of tears and entreaties, to induce him to return home. One thing she overlooked in her gage of battle, and that was that her son was also an Aquino, a man of like determined character, though of calmer mood. Directly Thomas heard of her setting out, he took the by-road to Rome, and entered the Convent of Santa Sabina, Saint Dominic’s former home on the Aventine. Thither the eager mother pursued him. Strong in his sense of fidelity to a Divine call, Thomas refused even to see her when she clamoured in the porch. “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me” (Matt. x. 37). What his sentiments were then he subsequently wrote in his “Summa Theologica” (IIa IIae Quest. CIX, article 4), when treating of piety, or duty towards parents. The article is entitled—“Whether Duties towards Parents Are To Be Set Aside for the Sake of Religion”. The answer is a distinct negative, but admitting of one saving exception, which he exposes in the following terms:
    “If reverence for parents withdraws us from God’s worship, then we must not stand by duty to parents against God. Accordingly Saint Jerome says in his Letter to Heliodorus, towards the opening: ‘Set father aside, treading upon him, set mother aside, treading upon her, with dry eyes fly to the standard of the Cross: to be cruel in such a matter is the height of piety’. Consequently, in such an issue, the duties of filial piety must be set aside for the sake of the Divine worship of religion. But if by rendering due reverence to parents we are not withdrawn from God’s worship, then it will be a part of piety, and so it will not be necessary to drop piety for the sake of religion.”
    While the Countess made Rome ring with her complaints and threats, the heroic novice hurried off northwards to Paris. Straightway Theodora vowed to capture and hold the runaway: a mounted courier was speedily dispatched to her elder sons, Landulf and Raynald, who then commanded the Emperor’s forces in Tuscany, bidding them to seize him vi et armis. Thomas was resting by a spring with two friars, close to the little town of Acquapendente, between Sienna and Lake Bolsena, when a troop of horse surprised him. His brothers reviled him for his undutiful behaviour, then bade him put off his habit and return home. Raynald laid violent hands upon him and tried to tear it from his shoulders, but to no purpose, so the brothers led him back to Rocca Secca. Since his resolution was not to be shaken, at their father’s bidding the brothers led him off to the village of Monte San Giovanni, some two miles away, where they shut him as a close prisoner in the castle tower. There he was subjected to harsh treatment, stripped of his religious habit, reviled, and deprived of every comfort. Count Landulf visited his son from time to time to induce him, nay, force him, to forsake the Dominican life: he left a costly suit of garments, and a Benedictine habit, declaring he would be fully satisfied if Thomas would but don the one or the other. What he looked to was pride of place: his son should grace the Court, or rule as Lord Abbot of Monte Cassino.
    Like Christ in the desert, the novice had to encounter three classes of temptation, and came forth victorious. The world tempted him, first by the softness of a mother’s tears and entreaties when these failed of their purpose, it tried the coaxings of his worldly minded sisters, who rehearsed the father’s plea of fame at Court or in arms, or else in Church preferment. By simple and earnest discourse the novice won them over completely to God: Marietta, the elder sister, embraced the cloistered state, and died as Abbess of Saint Mary’s at Capua; Theodora, afterwards Countess of Marisco, entered upon a life of singular holiness. From that hour both laboured to ameliorate his hardships.
    A stronger temptation then assailed him through the baseness of his brothers. Lust of the flesh is death to spirituality: so they bribed a base woman to try her lures, and entangle him in the Circe web of sin. Seizing a burning faggot from the hearth, he drove her from the chamber, then, falling on his knees, he traced the sign of the Cross upon the wall with the flaming brand, and poured out his soul in thanks to God. Presently a gentle sleep stole upon him, like to Adam’s sleep of innocence in Paradise. Then by his side he beheld two angels who girt him about with a lily-white girdle, saying the while: “We come to thee from God, to bestow upon thee the grace of perpetual virginity”. They girded him so tightly that he awoke with a loud cry of pain. He wore the sacred girdle all through life, and only revealed the secret at its close to Father Reginald of Piperno, who was his bosom friend and confessor, assuring him that from that hour he was never again conscious of the slightest sensual motions. The prison cell in after years was turned into a chapel, which may yet be seen in a dilapidated condition. The angelic girdle was preserved with reverence in the convent of his Order at Vercelli, in Piedmont, down to the suppression of the religious houses during the wars of Napoleon I: it is now kept at Chieri, near Turin, the first house restored.
    This precious relic was solemnly transferred in 1894 to a new reliquary, which is a magnificent work of art, made of bronze over-gilt. Standing quite six feet six inches in height, of hexagonal shape and Gothic design, it has six medallions on the base, displaying scenes in his life, wrought in finest Roman enamel. Around the knop in the centre of the stem are the same number of statuettes of Dominican saints, wrought in silver, and under canopies. The reliquary superimposed is also a hexagon, with a double set of silver statuettes, six to each row, allegorical figures below, and angels with musical instruments above, after the designs of Fra Angelico. Enclosed within a crystal case, a much larger angel, with outspread arms, displays the sacred girdle, now grown brown with age, which is held in place by rings and threads of silver. A figure of the Angelic Doctor, all resplendent in gold, stands on high, beneath a pierced tower-shaped canopy, which is finally topped by a gold cross.
    Meanwhile his superiors and brethren had not forgotten him as the months grew into a year, and beyond. Father John of Saint Julien contrived to visit him several times, and supplied him with another religious habit of the Order, which so offended Count Landulf that he held him in durance for some days. Books too were gradually supplied to relieve the tedium of imprisonment; this was done through his sister’s good offices: the works supplied were carefully committed to memory; these were Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard, and portions of the Sacred Scriptures. The Friars Preachers lodged complaints with Pope Innocent IV and the Emperor Frederick against such unjust privation of liberty, each of whom sent stringent orders for his release. The pride of the soldier sons was roused at such commands, nor would they comply, but consented to connive at his escape. Like a second Paul, he was let down from a window in a basket into the arms of brethren who conducted him to Naples, “their hearts leaping with joy at having recovered their Joseph, who was endowed with the spirit of understanding like Jacob’s son” (Tocco). He had endured a close and painful imprisonment for about eighteen months, so now, after a short probation in the cloister, he was admitted to Solemn Vows in January, 1245 [Acta S.S. Mar. vii. 710; Tocca II. 12], making profession into the hands of the same Prior who had clothed him in the habit of Saint Dominic. [The Prior, Thomas d’Agni di Lentino, subsequently became Patriarch of Jerusalem.]
    Having conquered world and flesh, the holy youth had yet to vanquish the devil. Even earnest Christians are at times unconsciously obsessed by the lying spirit: deceived themselves, they labour to mislead others. So was it now, when “the father of lies” spoke by many mouths to “the Father of the faithful”. Appeals and complaints were addressed to Pope Innocent, calling upon him to annul the profession just made. Some urged the impropriety of a prince turning mendicant, since he was a possible heir to the titles and estates: in fact he did survive his elder brothers. Others again alleged defect of liberty in the novice; while not a few of his kinsmen pleaded nullity from the ignorance of a youth who did not know the world he had forsaken, nor realize the sacrifice he had made. At the word of obedience, Thomas presented himself before the Holy Father in Rome, and vanquished Satan by outspoken truthfulness. The Pontiff examined carefully the novice’s motives in choosing the life and in making profession, listened tenderly to the story of his vocation, and ratified all that he had done.
    [The idle story of his having been a Benedictine monk for over twelve years, first came up in the early eighteenth century, and has again been served up in our own days. Such was the contention of an anonymous brochure issued in 1724, professing to be printed in Lyons, but in fact printed in Venice: “De monachatu Benedictino Divi Thomae Aquinatis”. In it his birth is antedated by five years, to 26 April, 1220. It was promptly refuted by another publication entitled, “De Fabula monachatus Benedictini Divi Thomae Aquinatis,” issued in the same year at Venice. The only foundation for the fable was the testimony of Bartholomew of Capua, Protonotary and Chancellor of Sicily, in his deposition for the saint’s canonization. His actual words are these: “His father presented the said friar Thomas to the monastery when quite a child, with the idea of his being one day raised to the government of the Abbey”. When the Pope actually offered him the rank in mature years, even retaining his Dominican habit, Saint Thomas would not hear of it.]
    Baring his very soul to Pope Innocent, he pleaded his cause with candour: while blaming no one, he declared his whole ambition was absorbed in a vocation to renounce all worldly advantages, so as to serve God and the cause of Truth by becoming a Friar Preacher. On this. point he was unbending: so the Holy Father dismissed him with a blessing, and forbade any further attempts to be made to hinder him from following his manifest vocation.
    After the threefold storm came a lull, a great calm. Out of the fullness of the heart, the tongue grows eloquent: so now from overflowing piety he composed and ever after used this prayer:— “Lord Jesus Christ, I pray that the fiery and honey-sweet power of Thy love may detach my soul from everything under heaven, so that I may. die from love of Thy love, Who, out of love for. mine, did’st die upon the tree of the Cross. Amen.”
    Thus, in the opening days of a gracious life, “he shone as the morning star in the midst of a cloud” (Ecclus. L. 6).

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