JMC : Saint Thomas Aquinas / by Raïssa Maritain

III. Childhood

SAINT THOMAS was born in 1225 in the castle of Roccasecca near Naples, a real fortress perched on the top of a dry and rugged rock. His father, Count Landulph Aquinas, was a great-nephew of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. His mother, Theodora of Teano, was of Norman race; a noble and warlike family from which Thomas inherited his leaning to great virtue, a leaning that was changed by his great soul, with the help of grace, into the nobility of sainthood and into spiritual courage. Because we owe to our parents the beginnings of our body, but to God our soul which breathes life into the body.

Here then was the soul of our young Thomas in the making. God, who had predestined him to great saintliness, smiled (in his divine manner) to see him in the future as he would be painted by artists, with his high doctor's bonnet, a halo about his head, the sun upon his breast, and the great book on theology that he was to write in his arms. And God wished to give right away to those about him a sign of his future saintliness, one of those signs that mothers guard in their hearts like a treasure, and tell later to their best friends.

"So it happened that his mother, being in Naples, went to the baths with other noble ladies. The child went along carried by his nurse. While he was being undressed for his bath, Tomaso, stretching out his hand, seized a bit of paper lying there on the ground and clutched it tightly in his hand. When the nurse wished to take it away from him, the child cried loudly. So much so that it was necessary to go on with his bath with his little hand tightly closed on the paper. When they were back at the house, despite his cries, his mother opened his hand: the paper had written on it the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), the salutation of the Angel to the glorious Virgin."

Was it divine grace that told the little child who could not yet read of the gentleness of Our Lord -- taste and see how the Lord is sweet, says Holy Scripture -- of the sweetness of His Holy Mother and how full of joy was the prayer that named them both? It is permitted for us to believe this. God willingly makes Himself known in these ways to the pure of heart. And it seemed that the innocent child expected to receive the same joy from every piece of parchment that he found, for we are told by William de Tocco, his first historian," Each time that for some reason or another he began to cry, no caress of his nurse could quiet him; the only thing that would dry his tears was a piece of parchment with writing on it." And he always tried to eat it!

A good hermit had foretold to Lady Theodora the birth of a son who would be called Thomas; and that she and her husband, Count Landulph, would wish to make him a monk at Monte Cassino in the hope of seeing him govern this great abbey and disposing of its great wealth; but that the designs of God were very different. . .


Everything happened as the hermit foretold.

In 1230, the child being five years of age, his parents and nurse took him to the monastery of Monte Cassino to offer him to God.

The garments of a young lord were taken from him and he was dressed in the black scapular of the Benedictines. A cedula (a written agreement) was drawn up in his name, in which he promised obedience, in the presence of God and of the Saints, and of the abbot of the monastery and the precious relics of St. Benedict. His father made the abbey a present of twenty ounces of gold. Then the hand of the little oblate was enveloped with the cedula in the altar cloth, and the child was offered to God and to the Abbey of Monte Cassino.

Count Landulph made this offering with earthly and worldly ends in mind; so that his son might later be Bishop and Abbot of this rich monastery. His mother did it perhaps so that she might see her child brought up in holy ways and given a good education.

And God, the best of fathers, made use of all these intentions, both good and bad, that the child might be led along the paths that He had chosen for him so that he might be one of the great lights of the world. Thus He gave him for his first school that described by Saint Benedict when he wrote, in the Rules he set down for his sons, "We are starting a school where the service of the Lord can be learned."

The service of the Lord! How can we serve God, Who has no need of us? By not placing any obstacle to His divine will by our pig-headedness; by receiving from Him all the good that He desires to give us; and this is done by obedience to His commandments, and this obedience leads to the perfection of sainthood, which is the love of God and of one's neighbour, gentleness and humbleness of heart.


"Listen, O my son, to the precepts of the Master and incline the ear of thine heart. Receive willingly the counsel of a tender Father and follow it diligently, so that by obedient labour thou mayst be brought back to Him from Whom base disobedience hath separated thee. . . "

"What is sweeter, very dear Brethren, than the voice of the Lord when He bids us come? Here in His goodness, the Lord Himself shows us the way of life."

Some of you will recognise here, children, the Rule of Saint Benedict. Tomaso, at five years of age, did not know it yet. His school, holy as it was, also began with the alphabet. But the old monk charged with his education, and who took the place of his nurse, taught him how to pray, no doubt in Neapolitan, but perhaps also in Latin. And the little oblate assisted at the offices of the day. Under his pointed cowl he followed the long file of monks on their way to choir. And he listened with immense curiosity to the men in black who sang like angels and repeated without ceasing the name of the Lord: Domine Deus! Domine Deus! These words came so often that it almost seemed as though there were nothing else in their songbook.

Deus in adjutorium meum intende!
Domine ad adjuvandum me festina!

O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to deliver me! With this cry began all the prayers of the day. And from morning to evening, seven times the singing began, monotonous and changeful as the waves of the sea.

Like waves the souls of the monks almost seemed to rise and fall.

They were lifted up toward God by love and admiration, and would then withdraw into themselves out of just fear.

Lord, my God, how holy is Thy name!
Blessed art Thou, Lord.

Lord, my God, in Thee I place my trust.
Look upon me, answer me, Lord my God.
I love Thee, Lord my strength,
My God, my Rock.

Tomaso let himself be carried on by these sonorous waves of sound. He Whose name he scarcely knew, but Who loved him and dwelt in his heart, was already guiding him as He wished.

With my God I climb the walls,
Who is God if it is not the Lord?
The heavens praise the glory of God.

Tomaso listened attentively to the Name that came back endlessly to the lips of the monks, like a sweet morsel that they could not leave alone.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
The fear of the Lord is holy.

Praise the Lord because He is good,
Praise the God of heaven.
Lord, Thy goodness is eternal.
O God, how great are Thy thoughts.
I say to the Lord: Thou art my God

The Lord God! The Lord God!

And one day Tomaso, coming back from choir, asked his old master this question, which the master remembered always, and to which, no doubt, he replied in a way that a little child might understand. He told others of it and it has come down to us. It was a question which Saint Thomas himself would answer later in a manner to please God Himself, because of its genius and holiness. Thomas asked, WHAT IS GOD?

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