Day 5: Saturday, June 14, 2014
Saturday was dedicated to what I call, following Reginald Foster, the Loca Thomistica. For us, this meant an excursion by mini-bus outside of Rome to Monte Cassino, Roccasecca, and Fossanova. At Monte Cassino, we read from the opening paragraphs of St. Benedict’s Rule while taking in the amazing views from high above the surrounding valleys. Once you’ve driven up the very steep mountain to the abbey, it becomes that much harder to believe that during World War II Allied soliders attempted a frontal assault up such a mountain against crack German paratroopers. During lunch we sheltered in a gazebo in the village of Roccasecca while trying to decide whether the dark clouds would blow over or linger with rain and lightning for the afternoon. In the gazebo with views of the valley below and up above of the mountain where St. Thomas Aquinas was born, we read from William de Tocco’s life of St. Thomas Aquinas about a lightning bolt that struck a tower in which both he and a sister were sleeping. The lightning killed the sister and even the horses in the stable at the bottom of the tower, but St. Thomas and his nurse survived. In the end, we decided not to hazard the lightning test of our sanctity and ascended only as far as the first church in the world dedicated to St. Thomas after his canonization. We prayed there for his help in our Latin studies; though St. Thomas is not known for his Latinity, his profound knowledge of the language is obvious not only from his prose tomes but also from the beautiful Latin poetry that he wrote for the Feast of Corpus Christi, almost all of which we read in the course of the trip. The last stop of the day was at Fossanova where St. Thomas Aquinas died. M. B. Crowe in an issue of the Tablet in 1968 paints the scene well:
In all the vicissitudes of its subsequent history Fossanova has been faithful to the memory of St. Thomas. The room in which he died, mourned by the monks, by the Franciscan Bishop of Terracina, by his Dominican confreres from Anagni and Gaeta and by his relatives, was enlarged into a chapel by one of the commendatory abbots of Fossanova’s decline, the seventeenth century Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini. The altar-piece of the school of Bernini and the humanistic verses Occidit hic Thomas lux ut foret amplior orbi / Et candelabrum sic Nova Fossa foret are probably less to our taste than, say, Dante’s apotheosis of Aquinas in the Paradiso (X, 82-99) and Fra Angelico’s portrait. But as touching a reminder as any is the stillness of Fossanova, church, cloister, chapter-room and refectory, when the shuffle of tourist footsteps has died away.
As we stood in this chapel and read the Latin couplets (Crowe has quoted only one), I must confess that, pace Crowe, I rather enjoyed them, even if they are somewhat more clever than solemn. (The second couplet runs thus: Editus ardenti locus est, non fossa, lucerna / Hanc igitur Fossam quis neget esse Novam? Still, I do not think that the author of a poem with the rhetorical force of Pange, lingua, gloriosi would have found them altogether wanting. Did Crowe ever consider the lines: “Verbum caro panem verum / verbo carnem efficit…” Yes, St. Thomas could enjoy a clever line, too!