He is a well-known saint, a doctor of the Church and one of the greatest intellects of his day, but did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas was once subjected to a great temptation against chastity?
Dominican Father Gabriel Gillen, O.P., director of the Rosary Shrine of St. Jude in Washington, D.C. who visited EWTN recently to talk about the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (more on that in a moment), tells the story. Aquinas was born into a wealthy family who did not want him to become a Dominican because, at the time, the Dominicans were a new community with no social standing. Instead, they wanted him to become a Benedictine.
When young Thomas refused to join any order but the Dominicans, Aquinas’ own family put him under house arrest! Unfortunately for them, their son could have cared less. For at least a year, he used his solitude as a time for study. In frustration, the family resorted to a desperate measure.
“His brothers brought in a prostitute!” Fr. Gillen said. “As soon as she came into the cell [where Thomas was housed], they locked the door! Thomas grabbed a brand from the fire and chased her out of the room [We assume she had the key!]. Thomas closed the door behind her, put a sign of the cross on the door with the firebrand, and prayed God would preserve him in his vocation, his chastity and his purity.”
Aquinas’ diary would reveal that the saint later had a dream in which two angels wrapped a cord around his waist saying, “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy.”
Said Fr. Gillen: “A lot of people who have touched a cloth to his cord have overcome whatever chastity problems they were having.”
The cord that Aquinas wore around his waist is now housed at the Dominican Church in Chieri, Italy, which is just outside of Turin.
Of course, sins against chastity aren’t only about fornication. Are you, or someone you know, struggling with an addiction to pornography, with lustful thoughts, or other sexual impurities? Are you a married or single person who struggles to be faithful to your state in life?
“You have to own the gift of yourself [in other words, your thoughts and your own body] to do the exchange of vows [in a marriage ceremony],” Father Gillen says.
If you’re struggling, don’t despair. Help is available! The Dominican order offers anyone who is interested the opportunity to enroll in the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (AWC), which owes its existence to St. Thomas’ victory! Although Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that another Dominican friar, Fr. Francis Duerwerders, established the confraternity at the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium.
The AWC is described on its website as “a supernatural fellowship of men and women bound to one another in love and dedicated to pursing and promoting chastity together under the powerful patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Among other things, the Confraternity formalized the praying of 15 Hail Mary’s daily for persevering in one’s own state of life, as well as for others struggling with the same problem. Pope Benedict XII officially founded the Angelic Warfare Confraternity for the entire Church in 1727.
“I lifeguarded and rescued people out of the ocean throughout high school and college,” Fr. Gillen says. “You can be a great swimmer, but if the waves are really rough, you need help. That’s kind of what a confraternity does. Father Benedict Groeschel used to say: “The saints know they are sinners. The sinners think they are not.’ The Angelic Warfare Confraternity helps you with the spiritual warfare which is always going on. A lot of saints enrolled in it before pornography ever existed. Jesus set some high demands: ‘Whoever looks lustfully at a woman commits adultery.’ It’s about excellence!”
It is encouraging to note that the Dominicans who run this association do not focus on avoiding the seven deadly sins. “As Dominicans, we don’t deny there are weeds in the garden of a soul, but we concentrate on what can grow, on the lively virtues!”
Of course, Father Gillen says the AWC is not a magic wand!
“A gardener can’t make it rain; they just prepare the soil. This is a way to prepare the soul for the rain, the grace. We have to put in the work.”
While the AWC has no regular meetings, there is an enrollment ceremony, as well as other informal gatherings. Find out everything you need to know about enrollment in the AWC at https://www.angelicwarfareconfraternity.org/. While enrollees are asked to say 15 Hail Mary’s a day, Fr. Gillen assures those who enroll that they won’t be penalized if they don’t. “Only good things can come from [enrollment],” he said.
Today, Father Gillen says the AWC boasts 10,000 members. In addition to Aquinas, other saints and blesseds who have enrolled in the Confraternity include St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Columba Rieti and Blessed Stephana Quinzan, who promoted the AWC among women.
“Jesus is always telling us to store up virtue in heaven,” Fr. Gillen said. “Any acts of virtue are like a fruit in the garden of our souls. Weeds – we will always have them! Give them to the Lord. He takes and removes them. It’s a constant process of growth. That’s what a confraternity does. It helps you bear fruit in the garden of your soul. Get enrolled in this confraternity!”
Note: Don’t miss Fr. Gillen in a soon-to-be-posted episode of “Life on the Rock,” which you will find on EWTN’s YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/ewtn in the coming weeks.