The Dumb Ox
Saint Thomas Aquinas by Fra Bartolomeo
Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know You, a heart to seek You, wisdom to find You, conduct pleasing to You, faithful perseverance in waiting for You, and a hope of finally embracing You.
– Prayer of St Thomas Aquinas
Have you ever been thought stupid, or criticised for your weight or appearance? As a young man, St Thomas Aquinas was derided by his classmates for being quiet, corpulent and ugly – he suffered from edema, which made one of his eyes grotesquely larger than the other. They called him “The Dumb Ox”.
Thankfully, his teacher St Albert the Great was able to recognise Thomas’ true talents, and countered: “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
A Stubborn Ox
Though meek and humble, not prone to showing off his vast knowledge and formidable intelligence in class, Thomas was as stubborn as an ox in his dedication to serving God. He was a son of the Count of Aquino, born in the family castle in Lombardy, Italy.
Educated at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino and then the University of Naples, Thomas was destined to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Abbot Sinibald of Monte Cassino. Being abbot was a respectable position for a son of the nobility.
However, while studying in Naples, Thomas encountered the Dominican preacher John of St Julian, and at the age of 19 he decided to join the Order of Preachers, founded thirty years before. His family was aghast at the thought of their son joining a mendicant order, begging for alms to survive.
The Dominicans sent Thomas to Rome in an effort to protect him from his family, but on the way there, his brothers kidnapped him on their mother Theodora’s instructions, and he was imprisoned in their castle for over a year.
Desperate to change his mind, his brothers hired a prostitute to seduce Thomas, but the fat chap sprang into action, chasing her out of his room with a burning log from the fire. Two angels appeared and bestowed a girdle of chastity upon him, which he wore for the rest of his life. The girdle is now in a monastery near Turin.
Finally, Theodora gave up on changing her son’s mind, and arranged for him to escape by night through his window. She thought it would be less humiliating for their reputation than simply handing him over to the Dominicans.
Scholar and Saint
The Dominicans sent Thomas to study in the University of Paris, where he met Albertus Magnus. When his professor was sent to Germany to teach in Cologne, Thomas followed him, declining Pope Innocent IV’s offer to appoint him abbot of Monte Cassino.
Thomas taught scripture in Cologne before returning to Paris to complete his Master’s in Theology. He became a renowned professor and wrote many works of philosophy and theology which are still in use today, most notably the Summa Theologica, a compendium of Catholic doctrine. Thomas synthesised classical Greek philosophy with Christian theology, showing that faith and reason work in tandem to bring us to God.
In 1273, the sacristan Domenic of Caserta witnessed Thomas levitating in prayer before an icon of the crucified Christ. Jesus said, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labour?” Thomas responded, “Nothing but You, Lord.”
On 6 December 1273, Thomas experienced another mystical ecstasy while celebrating Mass. After this, he said to his fellow Dominican Reginald of Piperno that he could not continue with his brilliant work: “All that I have written seems like straw to me.” This is why the Summa Theologica remains unfinished.
The following year, Thomas was summoned by Pope Gregory X for the Second Council of Lyon. As he was riding there on a donkey, he struck his head on a branch and became ill. After receiving the last rites with Viaticum, his last Holy Communion or “bread for the way”, Thomas said:
“I have written and taught much about this very holy Body, and about the other sacraments in the faith of Christ, and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.”
He passed peacefully away in the care of the Benedictines on 7 March 1274 at Fossanova Abbey, 100 kilometres from Rome.
Today, St Thomas Aquinas is known as the Angelic Doctor and the Universal Teacher. By his lifelong obedience to God, sacrificing a comfortable life and directing his great gift of intellect to the spread of the Gospel, Aquinas shows the ultimate goal of all our studies and work – to give glory to God and assist in the salvation of souls.
A Prayer Before Study
by St Thomas Aquinas
Creator of all things, true Source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of Your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding
and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born,
an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.
Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory,
and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations,
and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.
Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.