Thomas was born in 1226, probably in his family’s castle known as Roccasecca, in Naples. His father was Lord Landulph d’Aquino, a knight, a judge, and a baron of the emperor. His mother was from the nobility. He had six older brothers, as well as sisters.
When he was five years old, Thomas was sent to the monastery of Monte Cassino for his education. His family had supported the Benedictine monastery, and it was the custom for noble families to present their youngest children as oblates who might one day become abbots. When he was around 12 years old, Monte Cassino was caught up in a conflict between pope and emperor. Frederick II converted it into a fortress, expelling monks. The monks advised Thomas’s family to send him to the University of Naples.
At thirteen, Thomas arrived at the university, slightly younger than most students. A local Dominican, John of S. Giuliano, became friends with Thomas and encouraged him to join the order, contrary to his powerful family’s wish that he become a Benedictine. Thomas became a Dominican in 1242 or 1243, around 16 years old.
His family refused to accept it. When his mother kept trying to visit him, suspicious Dominicans sent him to a convent in Rome. Nonetheless, his parents were sufficiently influential to persuade the Pope to promise Thomas a comfortable Benedictine future. Thomas refused. The Dominicans moved him again around 1244. Thomas was sent to the studium generale in Paris, accompanied by four other friars.
His mother then arranged to have two of Thomas’s brothers intercept the traveling friars, capturing Thomas. When captured, Thomas asked for a breviary and a Bible, and he was allowed to have those as his brothers led him away to a family castle. Unable to convince him to leave the Dominicans, his mother sent him home to Roccasecca.
While captive in his parents’ house, Thomas continued to wear the Dominican habit, and other Dominicans visited, especially John of S. Giuliano. Thomas read through the entire Bible and studied the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Then his brothers returned from the army and chose a new tactic: they sent into Thomas’s room a seductive girl, hoping to arouse his sensuality. Unaccustomed to such women, he used a burning log from the fire to drive her out of the room, burned the figure of a cross on the wall, and then fell to the ground and asked God for the gift of chastity.
He eventually escaped, and the Dominicans soon sent him to Cologne. Arriving there around 1245, he became the student of Albert the Great, who was lecturing there for that year. Studying for a time in Paris and for a time in Cologne, Thomas gained the nickname “the dumb ox.” He was so quiet that the other students assumed that he was not intelligent. However, Albert recognized his genius, and became his lifelong friend. The other students saw it too, when he politely began to explain an occasional passage that they had trouble explaining to him.
At twenty-five, Thomas returned to Paris to begin five years’ study to become a Master in Theology. There, he began to lecture, in an era when the place of the Dominicans and Franciscans was much disputed. In 1256, barely 30 years old, he was licensed to teach, younger than most others would be licensed. His inaugural lecture still survives.
Teaching in Paris, then Rome, then Paris, once lector of Orvieto, once lecturing in Bologna, returning to Naples, returning to Paris, returning to Naples -- the timing of Thomas’s moves from then on are not easily pinpointed. He was once even asked to be archbishop of Naples, but Thomas declined the invitation. Despite his share in the argument between Dominicans and Franciscans, Thomas accepted the friendship of the Franciscan friar Bonaventure, who was licensed to teach the same year as Thomas.
Thomas lived in the world of books. He said that he had understood every page he ever read, and he enjoyed making things understandable to others. Ideas and logic were his form of play, a complex game that he mastered ever more supremely for fun as much as work. Daily, he went to confessions, said Mass, attended another Mass, and spent the rest of each day reading, praying, writing and teaching until compline. He regularly prayed that he could understand whatever he was studying, and also prayed that his students would have understanding too.
He was unskilled at conversation, and he valued friends who supported him anyway. When he tried to converse, he was often “miles away”, and others brought him back to the conversation by tugging at him. He was tall, fat, and sedentary. His exercise was walking up and down the halls while deep in thought.
While his concept of “contemplation” was largely “thinking,” there remained an ambiguity in it that he never fully analyzed. It was not until after his time that people began to distinguish between contemplation and meditation, or to speak of “contemplative prayer”. He had a deep devotion to the Mass, so much so that in his later years, he would sometimes stop in the middle of the celebration, absorbed by it. Someone had to catch his attention and get him to resume. He had occasional visions, and was reported by contemporaries to have once levitated while in prayer.
On December 6, 1273, something even more strange happened to Thomas during the Eucharist, and he was never able to say what had happened. Not yet finished with the third part of the Summa, he stopped his writing altogether. When encouraged to write again, he said “I can’t.” Asked why, he said only, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
Despite his unfinished work and failing health, Thomas set out to comply with the Pope’s request that he attend a regional Council in Lyons in 1274. He did not complete the journey. Along the way, he fell too ill to continue. He was taken to Fossanova, where he remained for a month, treated as a saint, until his death on March 7, 1274. During a deathbed confession, he spoke of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as if it had been, in his mind, the central focus and motivation in all that he had written.
While some of his ideas remained highly controversial after his death, his tomb became a pilgrimage for people seeking healing. A favorable view of his thinking prevailed. In1309 was “Thomism” adopted as the official doctrine of the Order of Preachers. He was officially canonized on July 18, 1323.
Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, Image/Doubleday,1933, 1956.
Maritain, Jacques, St. Thomas Aquinas, 1958 edition.
Tugwell, Simon, O.P., “Aquinas Introduction” in Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series, Paulist Press, 1988.
Wilms, Hieronymus, O.P., Albert the Great: Saint and Doctor of the Church, translated by Adrian English, O.P. and Philip Hereford, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, Ltd., 1933.