Curious, Friar Dominic of Caserta began to observe a monk who daily passed through the monastery at a very peculiar hour. Before Matins – therefore, in the first hours after midnight – he would steal quietly out of his cell and return just as the bell rang for prayer, so as not to be seen.
Determined to discover the reason for this “getaway”, the zealous friar once followed the “transgressor”: they went downstairs, crossed a corridor and finally reached the Chapel of St. Nicholas, where the monk entered. As he remained inside for a very long time, Friar Caserta decided to enter and found him in prayer, suspended in the air! Moreover, he heard a very clear voice coming from the crucifix: “You have written well of Me, Thomas. What reward do you want for your labours?” To which the religious candidly and simply replied: “Only You, Lord!”1
Yes, this ardent monk was one of the most extraordinary geniuses of history: St. Thomas Aquinas, whom everyone knows was a scholar, theologian and philosopher, but whom many forget was a great Saint. The intention of this article is precisely to point out one important aspect of his soul: his piety, especially his Eucharistic devotion, the solid foundation on which he based his life and work.
The event recounted above took place during the Angelic Doctor’s last years on this earth, as he was finishing the Treatise on the Eucharist, inserted at the end of his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. It is conjectured that he was undergoing some kind of trial with regard to his writings. What is certain is that the words spoken by the Saviour stamped with the divine “seal” everything he had set forth on the august Sacrament of the Altar.
Conquered by Mary from the cradle
This deep piety could only have its origin in the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. History has fortunately recorded a wonderful event that demonstrates this.
One day, while bathing the child, his wet nurse noticed that he was hiding a little piece of paper in his hand. Her attempts to take it away from the baby were in vain… He clasped it tightly to his breast and cried whenever anyone tried to open his little hand. Such tenacity was certainly out of keeping with his gentle and tranquil temperament. When his mother finally managed to get hold of the paper, she found on it the simple inscription: “Ave Maria”. Astonished, the Countess of Caraccioli handed the writing back to her son who, without hesitation, placed it in his mouth and swallowed it, and then smiled at her.
Our Lady had chosen Thomas as the object of her predilection from his cradle, and She conquered his little heart to sow in it the love of her Divine Son.
Profound devotion to the Eucharist
As a Dominican priest, his first act of the day was to spend time in adoration before the tabernacle. After Matins, he would celebrate Mass and then attend two more Masses, at which he almost always served. Benedict XVI commented that “the early biographers claim that he would lean his head against the tabernacle, as if to feel the throbbing of Jesus’ divine and human heart.”2
Every visit of Thomas to the Prisoner of the tabernacle, every encounter of his finite and created gaze with the eternal gaze of the Creator, every contact of his human and imperfect intelligence with the infinite and omniscient wisdom, communicated to him authentic flashes of the very divine light, which he then transmitted in his writings.
His union with God reached such a peak in his soul that he was favoured with the gift of infused contemplation, as well as that of levitation and of tears. He experienced profound ecstasies, which sometimes lasted for several hours.
A work of love offered to the Eucharistic Jesus
In addition to setting down the doctrine of this Sacrament, St. Thomas was the poet par excellence of the Eucharist! The Office and Liturgy he composed for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi are a veritable gem which, in the happy expression of a work of the last century, “has already defied seven centuries, and which perhaps we shall continue singing in eternal beatitude.”3
No one has ever translated Eucharistic teaching into prayers and hymns as beautiful as his. It is only right that St. Thomas was given the title of “Eucharistic Doctor”4 by Pius XI. His name will forever be engraved on the standard of history as the bearer of the greatest work of love offered to the Eucharistic Jesus.
Sanctity: the greatest legacy of St. Thomas!
There are certain realities that only attain the fullness of their radiance as they come to an end, like the sunlight, which casts its most beautiful rays when it is about to retire under the mysterious shadows of the night. So it is with souls who walk in the presence of God: their last days on this earth are the most blessed, for they reveal in a wonderful way the holiness of a lifetime.
Thus, contemplating the end of the Angelic Doctor’s earthly pilgrimage, we can fully appreciate his love for the Eucharistic Jesus, whose fervour neither the glories of the world nor the vanities of erudition could dampen.
Every visit of St. Thomas to the Prisoner of the tabernacle communicated to him new flashes of divine light, which he then transmitted in his writings
St. Thomas Aquinas – Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, Vitoria (Spai)
At the age of forty-nine, he fell seriously ill during a journey. His biographers tell us that the Cistercian monks of Fossanova who took him in, fought among themselves to bring some wood to the fireplace that heated his room, in order to have the opportunity to be in the presence of this master whom they admired so much. Thomas thanked them for this favour by succinctly explaining to them the Canticle of Canticles, which they had requested.
At death’s door, he asked for Holy Viaticum. On seeing Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament enter his room, he exclaimed with great emotion: “Lord… hast Thou come to visit me?” Notwithstanding his extreme weakness, he rose with great effort from his bed and prostrated himself at length before the Blessed Sacrament while praying the Confiteor. Then he knelt and said this moving prayer: “Most Sacred Body, price of my soul, viaticum of my pilgrimage! … For love of Thee, my Jesus, I have studied, preached, taught and lived. My days, my sighs, my labours were all for Thee. All that I have written, I wrote with the righteous intention of pleasing Thee. However, if there is anything not in conformity with the truth, I submit it to the authority of the Roman Church, in whose bosom and under obedience to I wish to die.”5 As soon as he had received Communion, he fell into a deep ecstasy.
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This glorious Saint composed many doctrinal works. But none of them can compare with his example of virtue! Therefore, when we look at the genius of Aquinas, let us not only learn from the erudition of his thought and the wisdom of his words, but above all let us allow ourselves to be filled with his devotion to the Eucharist so as to share in the exceedingly great reward that he now enjoys in Heaven! ◊
1 GUILHERME DE TOCCO. L’histoire de Saint Thomas d’Aquin. Paris: Du Cerf, 2005, p.85.
2 BENEDICT XVI. General Audience, 23/6/2010.
3 FARREL, OP, Walter; HEALY, STD, Martin J. El libro rojo de Dios, según Santo Tomás de Aquino. Pamplona: Don Bosco, 1979, p.598.
4 PIUS XI. Studiorum ducem.
5 SAINZ, OP, Manuel de M. Vida del angélico maestro Santo Tomás de Aquino, patrono de la juventud estudiosa. Vergara: El Santísimo Rosario, 1903, p.177.