THE Master-General at this time was the Venerable John of Wildeshausen, formerly a missionary, and Bishop of Bosnia. Knowing well the worth and rare abilities of his subject, he resolved on giving him the best opportunities for developing his singular powers. The first step was to remove him far from the importunities and distractions of home. The school presided over by Albertus Magnus in Cologne being in his judgment the best suited for the purpose, the holy man set out from Rome with Br. Thomas, in October, 1245. But since business of the order required the Father-General’s presence in Paris, they proceeded thither on foot, carrying nothing but a satchel and a breviary. In those days of faith it was a familiar scene to pass Churchmen of every degree upon the road; now bishops and abbots, mounted on well-caparisoned horses, and with a retinue of retainers; now the beneficed clergy riding in company, or with the stout burgesses, and a few men at arms for protection; or else it might be the more modest company of monks and friars and pilgrims, all afoot, and even the veiled minchins on palfreys. The travellers sped on commonly like two streams in their channels, going to or else returning from the threshold of the holy Apostles in Rome. But apart from this throng, it was of daily occurrence to see the hooded friars of various orders wending their way in couples or trios apart, and ever on foot, across the Alps to the greater schools on either side of the mountains, or journeying afar to attend General Chapters. There was a constant movement going on over those rough roads which were the arteries of European life, and across many a river and mountain.
Father John of Wildeshausen and Br. Thomas Aquinas, stooping age and vigorous youth, thought lightly of a journey afoot extending over 1500 miles. They set out each morning and walked a good space, now conversing familiarly, now reciting the breviary or in silent meditation, until by some running brook they opened their wallets for the mid-day repast. At sunset they sought for lodging in some religious establishment, or hospice, or else under the roof of God-fearing folk. Such had been Saint Dominic’s manner of travelling, and that of all the mediaeval saints, and now from this first experience Saint Thomas grew familiar with it. It was a weary task at the outset, until the traveller came to be inured; but the free play of the muscles supplies a vigour and freshness unknown to them who lag at home. But at the same time men’s sense of Christian hospitality was more universal than in our day, and no one wearing the livery of Christ was ever turned from a Christian door: true enough, beds were often lacking, but then there was the fragrant hay in the cottar’s loft, and the lowing of the cattle at night was a reminder of Bethlehem. In this fashion the aged bishop and his son in Christ plodded on across the rainy plains of Lombardy in sad November, crossed the biting Alpine passes in December, and, following the Valley of the Rhone, pressed northwards towards Paris. Their brief halt in the French capital was spent in the great Priory of Saint Jacques amidst their brethren. Once more they set out with wallet and staff, through Brabant, past Louvain and Aachen, until they reached the ancient city of Cologne on the Rhine, in January 1246. The Dominican Schools of Philosophy and Theology were founded therein by the German friars in the year 1222. This ancient foundation, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, consisting of an extensive priory and church, stood in the Stolkgasse, hard by the cathedral. It had risen into public as well as domestic eminence owing to the teaching of that prodigiously learned man, Albertus Magnus. He belonged to the noble family of Bollstadt, from Lavingen, in Bavarian Swabia; during ten years he had studied at Padua, and won his first spurs as a keen dialectician, before taking the Dominican habit. Blessed Jordon of Saxony, the Master General at the time, completely captivated him by his masterful eloquence and holiness, received his vows by Saint Dominic’s tomb in Bologna, and left him there to complete the higher studies. Returning home to Germany, he acquired such a reputation for learning, notably in physical science, that his contemporaries styled him “Albert the Great, the Universal Doctor,” and posterity has confirmed the verdict. [His marble effigy graces the Prince Consort Memorial in London.] The Belgian Chronicle has inscribed his name in its Annals with this just encomium: “Great in Magic [that is, in Physics], greater in Philosophy, greatest in Divinity”. His published works in twenty-seven folio volumes reveal his vast breadth of research, as well as the depth of his acumen. Such was the man marked out by God’s Providence to be the master of “The Angel of the Schools”. Albert was in his fifty-second year, and Thomas just 20 years old, when first they met: little did either of them suppose that the younger would eclipse the elder, as the sunset in glory veils the star. All notions of Albert having ever been mentally slow, or styled “the dull Swabian novice,” must be relegated to the pages of idle romance, for they are utterly void of foundation.
Saint Thomas entered the schools of Albert, as a gem to be cut by a cunning hand, but the fluent genius in the rostrum utterly failed to comprehend him: the truer genius seated below was pronounced to be a dullard. Among his fellow students Thomas passed for a slow wit, however much impressed they might be by his retirement and application. Even Albert shared in the verdict, until he received a rude awakening. Vet this was the youth of whom Rodolph in his “Life of Albertus Magnus” gives the just estimate in impassioned phrase: “Thomas hastened to Cologne with the ardour of a thirsty stag which runs to a fountain of pure water, there to receive from Albert’s hand the life-giving cup of wisdom, and to slake therein the thirst which consumed him”. Among those novice-students, Germans, Italians, French, were youths who afterwards shone in the Church and in Universities as saints, cardinals, prelates, and professors: such were Ambrose of Sienna, Ulrich of Engelbrecht, Thomas de Cantimpré, and many more. Modesty in expressing an opinion, the attitude of rapt attention as a listener, in the tall Neapolitan brother, above all, his profound humility in shunning display, all led up to the common verdict that Thomas was stupid, so a name was speedily found for him: it was “the dumb Sicilian ox”. With them learning meant wrangling: with Saint Thomas it was all thought. When asked later on in life why he had been silent so long at Cologne, he replied: “It was because I had not yet learned to speak before such a mind as Albert”.
A novice more charitable than his fellows offered one day to help him in preparing the morrow’s lesson. The saint gratefully accepted the assistance; but when the would-be instructor got hopelessly involved in the argument Thomas came to his assistance and unravelled the tangle quite easily. Some time after this Albert invited the scholars to give him their views upon an obscure passage in a book of itself obscure, the “Book of the Divine Names,” a fifth century work, but then uncritically ascribed to Denis the Areopagite. The outwitted brother, who had floundered so helplessly in assisting Br. Thomas, now asked him to write down his solution; this he did in candid simplicity. The paper was delivered into Albert’s hands, who at once recognized the impress of a master mind, so straightway he set him up at the lector’s desk to defend certain knotty questions which were subjects of discussion at the time. Thomas explained the matter with such surprising clearness and force that his auditory was amazed. Nor did he handle with less skill the intricate objections raised by the Bachelor, as he cut his way through with keen distinctions. The objector then interposed sharply: “You seem to forget that you are not a master, to decide, but a disciple to learn how to answer arguments raised”. Then came the simple rejoinder: “I don’t see any other way of answering the difficulty”. Albert now interposed: “Very well then, continue according to your method, but remember that I have my objections to make”; whereupon he plied him with retorts, axioms transgressed, and sub-divisions of sub-distinctions, but Thomas never faltered for an instant. To each thrust of argument advanced he had a ready parry of a distinction, or of argument retorted in its utmost conclusions, for he was a swordsman of the tongue, a very giant of dialectics. Albert could restrain himself no longer. “You call him ‘a dumb ox,’ but I declare before you that he will yet bellow so loud in doctrine that his voice will resound through the whole world.” He procured a cell for him next to his own, allowed him to avail himself of the results of his own laborious researches, and made him the companion of his walks.
The lesson was not lost upon the students, who, while admiring his genius, still continued to twit him with his simplicity. One day a novice observing him as he stood by the open window, called out: “Look, look, there is an ox flying over the convent”. Thomas leant forth and gazed up, to be greeted with laughter of derision; but the tormentor quailed before the rejoinder: “I was not so simple as to believe that an ox could fly, but I never imagined that a religious man could stoop to falsehood”. Many years afterwards a similar jest drew forth the same rebuke, when asked— “Could you have believed that a fish could climb a tree?” Saint Thomas was always extremely simple, but it was the simplicity of the Gospel. At this early period he launched forth on his first work, which was a commentary on the Ethics of Aristotle.
Six months were the limit of his first stay in Cologne. The General Chapter of the order met there at Pentecost decided to send Albert and Thomas to Paris, the master to occupy a chair in the University, which was then the foremost in the world, the disciple to continue his studies under the best possible advantages. The progress of this scholar cannot be set forth better than in his own axiom inculcated in the “Summa Theologica”: “Whatever is received by any subject is grasped according to the subject’s capacity”. And his was a genius which already bid fair to overtop Albertus Magnus.
During the month of August three Friars Preachers might be seen journeying afoot from the Rhine to the Seine: they were the Father-General, the master, the disciple: the Venerable John, Blessed Albert, Saint Thomas. Once arrived in Paris, master and disciple resumed their places in the Dominican schools, which were affiliated to the University. Albert’s reputation having preceded him, he drew a vast concourse of students to his lectures; in time the assembly grew to be so vast that no hall could accommodate the auditory, until by compulsion he had to lecture in the open square. Master Albert was outpaced in holiness and in learning by his meteor disciple; but the Church has beatified him, the world has acclaimed him as the “Universal Doctor,” who knew all that was to be known. Daily on his knees he recited the entire Psalter. His eminent piety has been attested to by many, but let one witness suffice: it is the testimony of his disciple, Cardinal Thomas of Cantimpré: “After this ought it to astonish us that Albert should be endowed with superhuman knowledge, and that his word should enflame the heart more than that of other masters? We know now from what source those transports of love proceeded, which we see so frequently break out in his numerous writings.” All the world owes him homage, because he trained the soul as well as the mind of Saint Thomas.
Whether the master commented, or examined in the cloister school or elsewhere, Thomas was always present, forming himself on the great model. At this time he was engrossed in studying Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the “Sacra Pagina,” or Holy Scriptures, and Patrology, for these entered into the normal course of every scholastic; in his hours of privacy in the cell he set himself to read and retain in memory the voluminous writings of Saint Augustine, the most learned of the doctors. To Thomas the mind of Augustine was the mind of the Catholic Church; upon him he based his opinions; his authority was final. Posterity is indebted to Saint Thomas for a benefit so little known and recognized; after assimilating Saint Augustine’s works, which usually extend to forty volumes in octavo, he recast them in the terse and accurate speech of the Schoolmen.
Patrology is sacred science in its least scientific presentment. The Holy Fathers had none of the conciseness in form, none of the preciseness in terminology, which characterizes the thirteenth century Schoolmen; they wrote with a fullness of diction and laxity of expression which is often tedious and sometimes misleading. The great Augustine is a river whose fullness of waters gladdens the city of God. The Fathers are the “Ponies,” the Authorities, while the Schoolmen are but the Exponents; the former define doctrine, the latter define form, whereas “The Angel of the Schools” does both. But it must not be overlooked that Saint Thomas had the Church’s experience of eight centuries from the age of Saint Augustine, during which interval both thought and speech were recast. Here in Paris he was the reader, the thinker, the rememberer, but still the disciple. To write and talk was reserved for maturer days, when the coarse grain now passing through the mill of his mind would emerge as the refined flour, to make the bread of doctrine. What little he wrote was for his own purposes: his hour had not yet come.
Such studious occupations did not cause his spirit of piety to relax. How often does the study even of Divine things cause the wells to dry up! It is to the student’s hurt when the true inner spirit gives way before the outer discipline of learning. With the Dominicans, the novice remains such until priesthood under the vigilant eye and candid tongue of a novice master: forward youth, over pert of speech, has to be kept under, and wilful youth tamed; indolent nature must be jogged, and all show of cleverness put down by timely, yea, and untimely, snubbings. Saint Thomas had experience of it in the novitiate at Paris. One day as he was reading aloud at table, the voice of reproval rang out sharp, correcting him for a false quantity in latinity: now although the error was not the novice’s but the corrector’s, the reader instantly adopted the amended prosody. When afterwards twitted with his want of spirit, he replied: “It really matters little how a word is pronounced, but it is of the utmost importance to practise humility and obedience on every occasion.”
While in Paris he met among our brethren, the Friars Minor, one to whom his soul leaped out in friendship: this was the future Seraphic Doctor Saint Bonaventure, a student at the time. For a parallel friendship one must go back to the days of David. “And it came to pass … the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Kings xviii. 1). Although they had entered religion about the same time, Bonaventure was older than Thomas by about four years. Their intimacy in Paris extended over seven years, that is from 1246 to 1248, and again from 1252 to 2256. It is sometimes stated that Saint Thomas sat with his friend as a student under Master Alexander de Hales: that brilliant man, however, was dead before Thomas’s arrival.
After two years spent in the schools of Saint Jacques, Brother Thomas was raised to the Subdiaconate, and his younger brother, Rayner of Aquino, gave himself to the order in Naples. The General Chapter which met in Paris in this year confirmed the Ordinances made in the two previous chapters, and erected four new formal colleges for the higher studies in other University centres: Oxford for England, Bologna for Northern Italy, Cologne for Germany, and Montpellier for Provence. Master Albert was now designated Regent for Cologne, with Thomas for Bachelor; so once more they wended their way to the Rhine, while Brother Thomas carried in his sack Aristotle’s writings and the Sentences of Peter Lombard. On the road they halted at Louvain in Brabant, passing some days in the priory and church of Notre Dame aux Dominicains, on the Dyle: a relic of this visit is still reverently treasured in the new foundation there, the restored “Studium Generale”; it is the upper portion of the “pupitre,” or lectern, from which Saint Thomas sang the epistle.
As Bachelor he had charge of all the students: it was his task to supervise their plan of study, correct their essays, object severely in the daily defensions, read with them in camera. As a professor he began some daily lectures on Philosophy and the Sacred Scriptures, which were not restricted to his fellow religious, but were addressed to a great concourse of clerics as well. It may not be out of place to give his letter of golden advice addressed to a student, premising that it is not admitted as genuine by some critics
“MY VERY DEAR (BROTHER).
“Since you have asked me how you ought to study in order to amass the treasures of knowledge, listen to the advice which I am going to give you.
“As a mere stripling, advance up the streams, and do not all at once plunge into the deep: such is my caution, and your lesson. I bid you to be chary of speech, slower still in frequenting places of talk: embrace purity of conscience, pray unceasingly, love to keep to your cell if you wish to be admitted into the mystic wine-cellar. Show yourself genial to all: pay no heed to other folk’s affairs: be not over-familiar with any person, because over-much familiarity breeds contempt, and gives occasion to distraction from study.
“On no account mix yourself up with the sayings and the doings of persons in the outside world. Most of all, avoid all useless visits, but try rather to walk constantly in the footsteps of good and holy men. Never mind from whom the lesson drops, but commit to memory whatever useful advice may be uttered. Give an account to yourself of your every word and action: see that you understand what you hear, and never leave a doubt unsolved: lay up all you can in the storehouse of memory, as he does who wants to fill a vase. ‘Seek not the things which are beyond thee’.
“Following these ways, you will your whole life long put forth and bear both branches and fruit in the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth. If you take these words to heart, you will attain your desire.”
This letter is unquestionably the reflex of his own rule of conduct. No one could be more affable, more courteous, yet at the same time it was a principle with him to shun all needless visits; the world might come to him, but he would not go out to it. As the time drew near for him to be raised to the sacred priesthood, he gave himself over to more protracted prayer and watchings. Several hours of the day, as well as part of the night, were spent in attitude of adoration before the altar, often sighing and weeping audibly as his soul melted with devotion; the heat of love within was manifest on the glowing countenance. At early morn the brethren frequently found him like the angel guarding the sepulchre. The Archbishop of Cologne raised him to the diaconate, and subsequently to the priesthood. The prelate who had the privilege of consecrating his holy hands was Conrad of Hochstaden, the princely and munificent Archbishop who rebuilt the choir of the old Romariesque Cathedral. The ordination took place in the year 1250. His attitude in celebrating the Divine mysteries upon the altar was one of majesty, and of rapt devotion. William de Tocco, his pupil and first biographer, describes what he was privileged to witness daily: “When he consecrated in mass, he was seized with such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries, and nourished with its fruits”.
This year of gladness for him was one of dire disaster for his family. His brothers left the service of the Emperor Frederick II in consequence of his hostility to the Pope, and took up arms in defence of the Holy See. The enraged monarch thereupon besieged Rocca Secca Castle, and all but demolished it, put Raynald of Aquino to death, while the elder brother, Landulf, who was now head of the family, fell fighting in the cause of the Church. The Countess Theodora, stricken with grief and years, was forced into voluntary exile with her dependents, and died soon after in sentiments of great piety. Saint Thomas heard of the ruin of his home and family with his wonted calm, humbly accepting God’s inscrutable and adorable will.
All knowledge is aptly distinguished into two classes, which form the divisions of the holy doctor’s writings. The distinction is his own: “The knowledge of Divine things is termed Wisdom, whereas the knowledge of human things is called Science”. His life henceforth may be generally classified into two periods, each of twelve years; as an expository writer he now started his scientific period, which was in 1262 commuted for the sapiential.
During this time at Cologne he composed his first Opuscula, or lesser works. These were first of all Aristotelian: first in order was the treatise “On Being and Essence,” then another on “The Principles of Nature”; for his theological course he wrote a “Commentary on the Sacred Scriptures,” also a “Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard”. At the instance of Adelaide Duchess of Brabant he drew up and sent her a treatise “On the Government of the Jews,” for it was a thorny question of the day, as to how the Jews ought to be treated by Christian rulers.
From the day of his ordination the scholar came forth as the preacher. In the churches of Cologne and Bonn Saint Thomas poured out his thoughts in rich German speech to delighted auditories; he was no utterer of platitudes or profundities, but an orator who spoke to the heart and held men under the spell of his sonorous eloquence. The great German awakening to liberty, and letters, and national prosperity, dated from 1250; their feudalism ended then, and a religious-minded people thought and wrote for the first time no longer in Latinity but in their own vigorous tongue. Saint Thomas caught the public ear by his well-reasoned doctrinal sermons, which were listened to by Jews and Christians alike. To quote from de Tocco once more: “He was heard by the people as if his discourse came from God”. “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life,” as we read in Proverbs xv. 4. We have grown so used to think of him as the theologian teaching and writing that we are apt to lose sight of the apostolic side of his life. Not less an apostle in zeal than Saint Dominic, he never let an occasion of preaching go by; where hundreds heard him in the schools, thousands hung on his lips in the churches of Italy, France, and Germany, for this versatile man could say with Saint Paul: “I give thanks to my God, for that I speak in all your tongues” (1 Cor. xiv. 18).
From - Saint Thomas Aquinas - A Biographical Study of the Angelic Doctor By Father Placid Conway, O.P. (1855–1913)