Authorities at Oxford University in the fourteenth century bore a grudge against Dominican friars. "We have learned from experience," grumbled the Congregation of Masters at Oxford, "that noble persons of this kingdom, gentlemen, and even those of common birth, desist from sending their sons … to the university … because they are very fearful that the friars will entice them into joining the Mendicant orders."

Thomas Aquinas's family had reason to fear the friars' influence. His wealthy parents sent their son off to school to begin a lucrative church career, and the next thing they knew, he had renounced riches and joined the Order of Preachers.

Why were men like Aquinas so attracted to the friars that they would risk their family's disapproval and rejection? And just what were a young man's choices when considering the religious life?

The classic choice


In Aquinas's day, thousands of abbeys throughout Europe subscribed to the Rule of Benedict, written in the sixth century. The Rule, not a book of rules only, set up a whole way of life for the monk. It designated eight calls to prayer and worship each day—Vigils began at 2:00 a.m., then Lauds, Prime at dawn, Tierce, Sext at noon, Nones, Vespers in early evening, and Compline. At these hours, monks prayed aloud and sang the psalmody in a choir, then listened to lengthy readings from Scripture or the Rule.

Benedictines lived with many restrictions. Monasteries regulated the monks' diet, forbidding them to eat meat, though some could eat fowl. Monks were allowed one meal per day, usually consisting of vegetables.

They were expected to engage in regular manual labor—monasteries were to be self-sufficient. They could not speak in the church or dormitory, though conversation was permitted ...

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