Thursday, July 3, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Everything is as so much straw..."

When towards the end of his life St. Thomas Aquinas was graced with undoubtedly some of the highest experiences of contemplation, a famous episode occurred while the theologian was celebrating a morning Mass on December 6, 1273. We are not entirely sure what the content of that experience was, whether St. Thomas had a vision or locution (extraordinary graces) or an actual moment of contemplative prayer or perhaps some combination, but we know that after this experience, St. Thomas never finished his famous Summa Theologiæ. When pressed by his assistant and companion, Brother Reginald, why the saint had stopped writing, St. Thomas replied, "I can't go on.... Everything seems as so much straw in comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

This episode is in fact recorded for us by Br. Reginald himself, passed on to a certain Bartholomew of Capua, and made its way into the canonization process for St. Thomas. I bring attention to it because many people, especially those who in subtle ways dislike St. Thomas, point to this episode as if somehow to lessen the emphasis that Thomists give to their intellectual and spiritual master. They use this episode as if to say, "Look, you can't know everything about God. You can't dissect the work of God into an exact science [like Thomas—they mean to imply; this is, of course, a strawman of Thomas's work as well as Thomists']. God is a mystery, infinitely beyond our capacity to understand [when a person has said something like this, you know that he has never read St. Thomas in any way beyond a cursory glance, if at all]. Thomas never would have wanted to be read in this way. His work wasn't supposed to be followed so closely. It was more like guidelines [when a person says this, they clearly don't know or are deliberately ignoring papal and official Church documents promoting St. Thomas's philosophical and theological work]. Even at the end of his life, he admitted that his work was just straw, useless, etc." You may have encountered not a few people who say something similar to these words.

And they must be responded to very simply with a little fact that most people don't know: when St. Thomas compared his work to straw (remember, he didn't explicitly call it straw, but said, rather, "Everything seems as so much straw..."), he was alluding to what was in the Middle Ages a common term for Scripture's literal sense

Recall that the Church has taught that there are four primary senses for Sacred Scripture: the literal (or historical), and the spiritual senses (allegorical, tropological (meaning related to morals), and anagogical (meaning related to eternal things or eschatological). See Br. André Marie, MICM's very good article on the four senses, basing his explanation primarily off of St. Thomas here:

You will see, then, that for St. Thomas, the literal sense—or "straw"—was quite fundamental and nuanced. St. Thomas has a very profound doctrine of the literal sense and how it is foundational for the spiritual senses derived from it. As Fr. Paul Murray, one of the great historical scholars on spirituality of our times, has noted, "So, although Aquinas was compelled, at the end, to acknowledge the radical limitation of his lifetime's work, he was not simply dismissing it all as so much rubbish" (Fr. Paul Murray, "Aquinas at Prayer," Logos 14, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 58, 65 (fn. 80)).

Aquinas was being humble but not dismissive.

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