Selection from Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work. Trans. Robert Royal, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 278-89.
[W]e would now like to try assembling, from those who knew Thomas, some indications of him, both as a man and a saint. . . .
His travels and especially the long walks he undertook to arrive at the places of his meetings argue for his robustness. If he had to cover on foot the distance from Naples to Paris, then to Cologne and back, then from Paris to Rome and back, and again from Paris to Naples, in addition to the various trips to go to provincial chapters, one would calculate that he must have covered 15,000 kilometers (9,000 miles) on foot. This ignores the possibility—almost a certainty—that several of these trips could have been made at least in part by sea or by river. The storm he confronted (probably on the return to Paris in 1268) is a proof of this; an anecdote . . . even shows him towing a boat by himself and against the current, when the sailors had great trouble pulling. This at least is a remembrance of a river voyage and an echo of Thomas’s physical power.
[One contemporary witness] reports as the common opinion among everyone he had been able to question: “They believed that the Holy Spirit was truly with him, for he always had a happy countenance, sweet and affable.” [Another biographer] reflects the infectious quality of this trait, [writing that] he inspired joy in all those who looked upon him. In support of this supernatural joy, we can add an unusual detail (the only concrete echo, to our knowledge, that has come down to us from Thomas’s courses!), which shows that he was not without a sense of humor. Remigio of Florence recounts that he made joking allusion to the exceptional solemnity of the liturgical celebrations of Saint Martin, when the peasants were so devoted they put Saint Martin above Saint Peter, since the harvest that autumn left them swimming in abundance.
We have no indication of the frequency of such sallies, but what we know from other sources about the vivacity of Thomas’s reactions inclines us to think that they were not rare. However, it has also been said that he possessed a rare humility and patience and that he never hurt anyone through injurious words. Bartholomew emphasizes that, even in disputes, where it is common to go too far, he was always sweet and humble, never using large, affected words. . . .
[Thomas was a teacher] whom his students trusted and who never forbade them to speak frankly or to joke with him. It also shows him to us among his young friars, out for a walk or coming from a solemn session at the university. Sometimes these stories date from the first Parisian period: the episodes from Naples show Thomas more grudging of his time and not hesitating to leave common recreations if time would be lost there in frivolous conversations. He much preferred walking alone in the cloisters or in the garden and returning there to his habitual reflections after he had expedited the business for which he was drawn into the parlor.
. . .
This southern Italian, with strong links to his family, had a very concrete, incarnate piety. We have just recalled the episode when he cured Reginald by the imposition of a relic of Saint Agnes, which he carried with him out of devotion. . . . Remembering, no doubt, the episode when his young sister had been killed by lightning as he slept by her side, he had the habit of making the sign of the cross during storms and repeating “God came in the flesh, God suffered for us.” If we remember that this occurred during the terrible tempest that he endured and that only he remained tranquil, while the sailors themselves were frightened, we will see here not a sign of fear but indeed the expression of a faith that did not refrain from showing itself in visible gestures.
. . .
Without taking an inventory of all the stories or witnesses, it seems that we can identify, with at least a modicum of certitude, three characteristic traits of Thomas’s way of praying. The linking of prayer with study is clearly the first trait; Tocco, for once quite inspired, nicely summed it up as being one of the points of struggle with the [diocesan priests at the University of Paris] who could not understand that we can be saved in sola studii contemplatione. The second point certainly is his devotion to the Eucharist, not to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as it will be understood later, but indeed to the sacrament celebrated each day. The testimony to his attendance at two masses daily—the one that he celebrated, the other at which he was present—is too frequently repeated for us to doubt it. He also had, it seems, the habit of reciting at the moment of the elevation the second part of the Te Deum: Tu rex glorie Christe, Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius, to the end. This matter can be rather well understood if we recall that, the canticle recalls at that moment the whole set of “mysteries” of Christ’s life. It was particularly during the celebration of the Mass that Thomas had the prolonged ecstasies of his last months: the one that occurred on Passion Sunday (26 March 1273) and the one on the feast of Saint Nicholas eight months later (6 December 1273).
Since Thomas had reached Q. 90 of the Tertia Pars, the composition of the treatise on the Eucharist (completed earlier) had therefore occurred approximately between these two dates. The evolution already seen at Orvieto, at the time of the composition of the Office of the Blessed Sacrament, came to its end here also and the author experienced in his own person what he had written: “By the power of this sacrament, the soul is spiritually restored by the fact that it rejoices spiritually and, in a certain way, it is intoxicated by the sweetness of the divine goodness, according to the word of the Canticle (5: 1): ‘Eat my friends, and drink; drink deep my well-beloved.’”
. . .
We get similar verification of the third trait, which stands out even more forcefully, his devotion to the crucifix: when he is presented in prayer or in levitation, it is before the image of the crucified one or in front of the altar, liturgical symbol of Christ. If there were need for further justification of this last point, it would suffice to report how he speaks of Christ in his teaching or in his preaching:
“Whoever wishes to lead a perfect life has nothing other to do than scorn what Christ scorned on the Cross and to desire what he desired. There is not in fact a single example of virtue that the Cross does not give to us. You seek an example of charity? There is no greater love than to give up his life for his friends, and Christ did it on the Cross... Are you looking for an example of patience? The most perfect patience is found on the Cross... Are you seeking an example of humility? Look at the Crucified One...”
“An example of obedience? Begin following Him who was obedient even until death... An example of scorn for earthly things? Follow behind Him who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and who, nevertheless, on the Cross, appears naked, the object of mockery, spat on, beaten, crowned with thorns, given gall and vinegar to drink, and put to death.” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Exposition of the Creed, art. 4]
. . . Thomas never stops reminding us that “every one of Christ’s actions is instruction for us,” and that this was his rule of life for himself.
. . . [In 1273], while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, Thomas underwent an astonishing transformation (fuit mira mutatione commotus): “After that Mass, he never wrote further or even dictated anything, and he even got rid of his writing material [organa scriptionis]; he was working on the third part of the Summa, on the treatise concerning penance.” To Reginald [his secretary], who was stupefied and did not understand why Thomas was abandoning his work, the Master responded simply: “I cannot do any more.” Returning to his charge a little later, Reginald received the same response: “I cannot do any more. Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen.”
[Thomas died 3 months later, on March 7, 1274.]