Brother Thomas, what must I do to become a saint?
This advice was not given by a man who lived in an ivory tower, or who was peddling a “willpower-is-all-you-need doctrine” so common these in the self-help section of your neighborhood bookstore. Thomas Aquinas was a man who had set his will on God alone. From there, he developed a practice of weighing, “does this action bring me closer to my goal?” Actions became habits of virtue. Virtue disposed him to receive the abundant graces God has prepared for those ready to receive Him.
Thomas Aquinas was born to a life of privilege near Naples in Italy. His father was a count and his older brothers served the emperor as knights, but Thomas was of a different disposition. So, his parents sent him to school at the famous and powerful Benedictine abbey Monte Cassino and offered him to the Benedictines as an oblate. It was expected that Thomas would further the noble family’s interests, in terms of power, money and prestige, by one day becoming the abbot of Monte Cassino.
But then one day, Thomas came into contact with members of a new Order: an order of poor, mendicant friars, dedicated to study and preaching the Gospel. The Dominican Order had only been in existence for about twenty years and was still viewed with disdain by many. As he was of the noble class, his peers, and especially his family considered it grossly beneath them for a young man of Thomas’ position to join these poor, mendicant religious. If he was to be a religious, it would be as a venerable Benedictine abbot. For the Order to receive him would be to risk a riot or even physical violence, for noble families were known to storm religious houses and drag their family members away by force.
So Thomas and the friars of the Order waited for the right time, then he made his stand. His father had died and his brothers were away. He stole away to the Dominican priory and was clothed in the Dominican habit; he immediately set out with the Master of the Order, ultimately intending to go to Paris to continue his education. But they underestimated his mother. She pursued them. They eluded her. She sent a message to Thomas’ brothers, in the north of Italy with the military. They intercepted him and his Dominican traveling companions. In the scuffle, Thomas’ brothers attempted to remove the habit from him, but Thomas clutched it tightly around him. Nonetheless, they set Thomas on horseback, still clutching his habit resolutely; there was nothing Thomas could do to get away, and nothing the friars could do but watch them ride off.
Returning to the south of Italy, the family locked Thomas into a fortress and set a guard. But as they kept him in isolation, giving him meager rations for food and other treatment intended to be harsh for a nobleman, Thomas merely took it in stride and began his novitiate, praying, fasting, and studying books the friars managed to smuggle to him. His sisters attempted to coax him to change his mind and give up the habit. When that didn’t work, his brothers provided a temptation they were more familiar with from their military service. They obtained the cooperation of a young woman they knew and sent her to their younger brother. But when he realized her intentions to seduce him, rather than give in to the temptation, he drove her from the room with a log from the fire and branded the wall with the sign of the cross.
Realizing Thomas would not be budged, the family eventually “allowed” him to escape and did not pursue him further. But this was not to the end of Thomas’ trials. A few years later, Thomas’ family fell on hard times. A brother was executed. His family was in financial ruin. They begged him to reconsider his decision to be a mendicant friar. An episcopacy was offered to him. If he didn’t want to be a Benedictine abbot at Monte Cassino, then take the episcopacy, which the Church offered to him. After all, Thomas could still study and teach the Gospel in addition to having the comfortable perks of the position, which would also relieve the financial situation of his mother and family. But Thomas, after due consideration, declined.
As he continued his studies and began teaching, his academic approach was often controversial and viewed with suspicion. More than once, Thomas found himself and his doctrine being attacked by other theologians and at times his own Dominican brothers. Thomas kept his focus and submitted his work to God and the Church. When working on a difficult theological problem, he would quietly fast and pray. His study and work was often woven with prayer and he would stop and go before the altar. When he finished a project, he would lay it before Jesus on the altar and offer it to him. On one such occasion, Jesus spoke to him from the crucifix: “Thomas, you have written well of me. What is it you would like as a reward?” Thomas’ reply was simply, “Only you, my Lord!”
There is much more to Thomas’ life, teaching, and spirituality that can be laid out here. And we can ask ourselves, what if at any one of these crossroads, Thomas chose a different path? What if he had not cooperated with God’s grace and established the habit of virtue that helped enable him to make these decisions when they arose? What if he had not cultivated his prayer and singular devotion to Christ and His Church? And this is the meaning of his advice to us – if we want to follow Christ and become saints, we begin by truly willing it, then setting our compass to Him in all things, big and small, and, with His grace, bringing every thought, word, and action into conformity with His will.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!