When Thomas Aquinas went to study at the University of Naples, he joined the Dominican Order. At the time, the Dominicans were a new order in the church dedicated to study, teaching and preaching. The mission of the Dominicans fit Aquinas’ scholastic abilities and his personal sense of vocation; he wrote, “It is a greater thing to give light than to simply have light, to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.“
His family, however, did not welcome the news of this new direction in life. They considered the Dominicans “an upstart group”, writes Gerald McDermott, and they tried to disuade him from joining.
According to one story passed on by G. K. Chesterton, the brothers [of Aquinas] kidnapped Thomas and locked him in a tower. They tried every argument they could think of to get him to leave the Dominicans, but nothing worked. So at last they decided to blacken his reputation, which would cause the new order of teachers to refuse him. They paid a fetching prostitute to come to the room where Thomas was held.
Thomas immediately grabbed a burning brand from the fire and pointed it at the woman, who shrieked in terror and ran from the room. Thomas slammed the door shut and seared into the back of the door the sign of the cross.
Flannery O’Connor loved Aquinas, and I think loved this story about him. She recounts it in a letter to the unbelieving “A”, writing that though “It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman”, “I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”
In a later letter, O’Connor writes more about the incident. She notes that St. John of the Cross:
would have been able to sit down with the prostitute and said, ‘Daughter, let us consider this,’ but St. Thomas doubtless knew his own nature and knew that he had to get rid of her with a poker or she would over come him. I am not only for St. Thomas here but am in accord with his use of the poker.
Thomas, of course, having had to “fight to protect his chastity and reputation” (McDermott), went on to write some of the greatest works in the history of Christianity.