JMC : Saint Thomas Aquinas / by Raïssa Maritain

VII The Dumb Ox of Sicily

FROM Naples Thomas was sent to Rome. And from Rome, carrying out his former plan, John the Teutonic took him to Paris, to the most renowned university of the times. There, at the convent of Saint-Jacques, Brother Thomas was to study under the direction of Albert the Great, and finally to make his noviciate.

He stayed in Paris three years, from 1245 to 1248.

Then he went with Albert to Cologne, and stayed with his teacher until 1252.

But let us go back to Paris.

Brother Albert, Master of Theology, "enjoyed an unequalled reputation in all the branches of learning."

And Brother Thomas heard him teach on all subjects "a deep and admirable doctrine."

Attentive, with enthusiasm of mind and heart, he could have said, like King David, "I opened my mouth and panted, for I longed for Thy commandments."

It was a manner of speaking, to be sure, because neither King David nor Brother Thomas opened their mouths to receive, one, the words of God, the other those of Master Albert. But this humble image signifies the humility of those who listen and who before Divine Wisdom consider themselves no more than a suckling child, or a small bird opening its mouth to be fed.

Saint Thomas was truly a very humble scholar. He no longer gave any outward sign of his keen intelligence. He did not take part in the lively disputes of the pupils. He kept quiet. Sometimes people even wondered if he understood the difficult teaching of the school, this "great dumb ox of Sicily," as he was called by the students.

"Big, heavy and brown," one could not help noticing it, nor joking about it a little.

But the piercing and subtle mind of the great Albert quickly appreciated the value of this silent disciple, and when he went to Cologne he took Brother Thomas with him.


In Cologne, too, they pitied him, this taciturn pupil.

So much so that one day when Master Albert was explaining and commenting on a particularly difficult text, a student offered " from pity " to repeat the lesson to Thomas.

Thomas let him do it. But when the would-be teacher found himself before a very great diffi culty, Brother Thomas calmly took up the explanation and even added some very beautiful things that Albert had not said. The student was thunderstruck, but Brother Thomas asked him to say nothing about the matter. He said he would not, but he did not keep his promise. So, at the Studium, or School of Cologne, they talked about nothing else but Brother Thomas.

Saint Albert deemed the moment come to place in full light the marvellous intelligence of the humble Brother Thomas.

So he put a very difficult question to him, and said that he must have the answer next day.

Thomas prayed, placed himself in God's care, and started to work. And the next day he treated the question in such a just and subtle way that, filled with admiration, the Master said: "Brother Thomas, you do not speak as a pupil, but as a master who can solve all difficulties!"

"I do not see," said the disciple, "how I could have treated the question otherwise."

Master Albert then put before him four very subtle objections.

But Brother Thomas without any trouble replied to them all in a very satisfactory way.

"We call him the Dumb Ox," said Albert the Great at that time, "but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world."

Less than fifty years after the death of Thomas Aquinas this prophecy was already fulfilled, since, writing the life of the saint toward the year 1320, Tocco drew attention to the fact, saying:

"Throughout the entire world his doctrine has spread among the faithful, and the whole Church is instructed by his voice."

More than six centuries have passed, and everywhere the voice of the Angel of the Schools has carried his message of truth. Like the words of the Apostles, the words of Saint Thomas "are heard to the utmost ends of the earth."

From the thirteenth century until our day the Popes have not ceased to praise and to recommend the study of his works.

It would take a whole book to set down their words of praise; I will quote here only the words that the Sovereign Pontiff, Pius XI, addressed in 1923 to the entire Church:

"So much do We approve the great praise accorded to that very divine genius, that we think that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic Doctor, but the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church, because the Church has made his doctrine hers," and "by the incredible fruitfulness of his genius, he has become in our schools the Prince of Teachers."


In 1252 Brother Thomas was sent to Paris to teach in the convent of Saint-Jacques. In 1256, four years before the age prescribed, and in virtue of a dispensation granted by the Pope, he received the title of Master in theology.

Of a Master in theology many great and fine things are expected: the truth about God and the world, angels and men. And he should kindle in the heart of his pupils an ardent love of divine truth.

And the very young Master Thomas was frightened before the greatness of his task. He cried to God: "Lord, save me! because truth is hidden among the children of men." It is hidden and it must be brought back before the world. Who can do this without the grace of God? Brother Thomas prayed and begged help from the Lord of knowledge. He finally went to sleep, his face bathed in tears. And he saw coming toward him an old man who said to him:

"Why are you praying and weeping?"

"Because I am obliged to accept the honour of Master, and I do not know that I should. I do not even know what thesis to take for my reception as Master."

"Receive in peace the charge of Master," the venerable old man said to him, "God is with thee. For thy thesis take only these words, 'Thou waterest the hills from thy upper rooms: the earth shall be filled with the fruit of their works.' "

And Brother Thomas explained this text saying that Wisdom comes from God: from whose "upper rooms" it comes down upon the mountains, that is to say on the doctors and teachers. If their minds and hearts are humble and pure, prepared by labour and prayer, they may receive wisdom and spread it in their turn. But as wisdom comes from God, to Him should go all the glory and all our praise.

Thus we can see right away that Brother Thomas was a high mountain of wisdom and knowledge.

The silent and retiring pupil, remarked only for his great stature, perhaps also for his great family name, revealed himself as a greater teacher than any other, and surprised the whole school by the brilliance and novelty of his teaching.

The School we are speaking of was a great crowd of pupils and teachers, philosophers and theologians, able and subtle people. The School already had its fixed ways and its routine, but Saint Thomas was going to upset them all.

Everything seemed new that came from his lips, "new methods, new reasoning, new points of doctrine, a new order of questions. "Also, no one hesitated to admit that God had enlightened him with a new light."

And this new light God had given him not because Saint Thomas was looking for new things, which would have been pure vanity; he found it without looking for it because, with great love, he had sought only the truth.

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