At first glance, the Summa Theologica may appear daunting due to its massive size. Trying to actually read and study it may prove challenging, and anyone who is not well-versed in theology can quickly get muddled in the deep, philosophical musings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Who is this great Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church? How can we “get to know” someone who lived during the Middle Ages? If you’re not quite ready to start reading the Summa, now is your chance to learn a few highlights from the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Going back to the beginning, Thomas was born in the year 1225, just north of the town of Aquino, Italy. Accordingly, the name Aquinas helps to identify where he is from. He was the youngest son in a very rich family with a noble bloodline, and his parents began preparing Thomas for a prominent position from a young age. They planned for him to become the Abbot of Monte Cassino, which would make him in charge of the monks at the esteemed monastery established by Saint Benedict. In that era, the Abbot of Monte Cassino had so much authority and influence in the Church, the title was nearly royalty. However, after meeting a certain friar while studying at the university in Naples, Thomas discerned a different calling for his life.
At the age of 19, Thomas revealed his desire to become a humble friar, instead of the Benedictine Abbot and chose to join the Order of Preachers, known as the Dominicans. At the time, this religious order was still new, somewhat radical, and would entail a life of immense poverty and penance. His parents did not approve of their son abandoning his wealth to become a beggar, and they would stop at nothing to change his mind. Thus, his mother ordered her other sons and a company of soldiers to seize Thomas and bring him back to their family castle, where Thomas was held hostage for over a year. Various members of the family attempted to persuade Thomas to give up the Dominican habit. Not only did he remain steadfast in his decision, he even debated so eloquently with his sister, Marietta, that he convinced her to become a nun!
Thomas waited in his appointed tower, and secretly corresponded with the other Dominicans whenever he could. One of the last, desperate attempts from Thomas’ family to break his strong will occurred when his brother sent a prostitute to his room to make him break his vow of chastity. Thomas drove her out of the room with a burning-hot piece of wood from the fire, slammed the door, emblazoned a cross on the door, and began to pray. Subsequently, he was visited by two angels, who bound a cord around his waist, claiming, “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy”. Shortly after the incident, Thomas’s mother relented to “let” him escape from the window, and Thomas was able to reunite with his Dominican brothers.
Throughout his life, Thomas Aquinas was constantly writing, and published commentaries on the Gospels, commentaries on Aristotle, while also writing countless homilies. As a theologian, Thomas would lecture and teach in various cities throughout Europe, spent a few years as the regent master at the University of Paris, and he was even requested to advise both kings and popes. Thomas eventually became the most influential, yet controversial, theologian of his time. Despite many theologians who did not think that the philosophy of Aristotle could be reconciled to Christianity, Thomas was able to defend the teachings of Aristotle while abiding by Catholic doctrine and theology. Unfortunately, Thomas never completed his great masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. He stopped writing/dictating (for reasons unknown) in December, 1273, after a mystical vision of Jesus speaking to him. A few weeks later, responding to the summons of Pope Gregory X, Thomas began a journey to Rome for the Second Council of Lyon. This journey would cost him his life, due to an unexpected accident that happened along the way.
Thomas’s secretary, states in his “Acts of Canonization,” that while they were travelling, his head struck a tree branch, and Thomas fell to the ground, stunned. Thomas was able to get up and continue on the way, however, he began to get sick over the next few days. He experienced headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and loss of appetite, so his envoy made a detour to seek treatment for Thomas at Monte Casino. The injury occurred in early February, and he got progressively worse over the course of about five weeks, resulting in Thomas’ death on March 7th, 1274, at the age of 49. The Saint’s final words as he received Last Rites were: "I receive Thee, ransom of my soul. For love of Thee have I studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached, and taught.” Thus, Thomas died in Monte Cassino, the same place that his parents had desired for him to be the Abbot.
According to Dr. Paul Camarata, a Catholic neurosurgeon who teaches and practices today at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, the symptoms experienced by Thomas correlate with the typical progression of chronic subdural hematomas. Dr. Camarata has treated patients that have suffered a traumatic brain injury after a blow to the head, which could cause tearing of small blood vessels in the brain, and start a slow leakage of blood. In some cases, the hemorrhage becomes encapsulated and then sucks fluid into it by osmosis. Someone could have fluid building up in the brain, which will eventually lead to brain death if not treated by drilling a small hole in the skull to relieve the pressure. Dr. Camarata speculates that this is likely what happened to Thomas Aquinas.
Want to take your friendship with Saint Thomas Aquinas to the next level?
Remember the cord that the angels placed around Thomas’s waist? It is said that he never took it off. The wearing of the cord went from practice to popular devotion and now to an apostolic fraternity approved by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727. The Confraternity of Angelic Warfare is a devotion inspired by the lifelong chastity of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Those who are enrolled in this Confraternity wear the cord of Saint Thomas Aquinas around their waists, under their clothing; or one may now choose to wear the medal of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Like most confraternities, there are conditions. One must first read the Catechesis on the Confraternity, to become familiar with its purpose, which is to better understand the truth about human sexuality. Then, obtain a membership packet with the cord, a medal of Saint Thomas, and a set of useful instructions. Aspiring members, prepare for enrollment by learning the two daily prayers for purity and finding a Dominican priest to perform the ceremony. A non-Dominican priest may also obtain authorization from the Director of the Confraternity to enroll new members. In addition to wearing the cord or medal and reciting the two daily prayers for purity, members must also pray fifteen Hail Mary’s a day to strengthen oneself and all members. The fifteen Hail Mary’s may be included in one’s recitation of the Rosary if that is a devotion already in practice. Enrollment in the Confraternity of Angelic Warfare affords its members help from the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Thomas Aquinas in living out the virtue of chastity according to one’s state in life (single/married). He may have died hundreds of years ago, but Saint Thomas Aquinas is ready and willing to intercede for us from his spot in Heaven!