Thomas Aquinas is a man of mystery. Born into a wealthy, powerful family he chose the simple life of a poor friar. He was a large lumbering man whose classmates labeled “the dumb ox.” Yet he proved himself quick of wit and the possessor of a brilliance so rare that his voice has been heard “bellowing across the ages.”This was the famous prediction of Aquinas’ teacher, Albert the Great.
Even so, I’m not sure his contributions would have caught my attention except for the chance remark of a friend in seminary. When I heard him quip that one of our professors had just passed Thomas Aquinas on the all-time publication list, I laughed and then hid my embarrassment for never having read anything either had written.
I began with Aquinas and quickly discovered that he may have been something of a PC born into a Mac World. That is to say, Aquinas was more of a systematic Aristotelian thinker immersed in a theological climate dominated by Platonists. It bothered him that many of the theologians of his day seemed to take pride in possessing obscure truths mined from introspection and disconnected to the real world. According to G. K. Chesterton, Aquinas confronted these transcendentalists, with something like this:
Far be it for a poor friar to deny that you have these dazzling diamonds in your head, all designed in the most perfect mathematical shapes and shining with a purely celestial light; all there, almost before you begin to think, let alone to see or hear or feel. But I am not ashamed to say that I find my reason fed by my senses; that I owe a great deal of what I think to what I see and smell and taste and handle; and that so far as my reason is concerned, I feel obliged to treat all this reality as real.See G. K. Chesterton, Saint Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1956), 12.
Aquinas pushed back against these “mystics” and became the father of natural theology. He relied on the more “left-brain” attributes of reason and sensory experience to explain God instead of the more numinous “right brain” offerings. His Summa Theologica became the systematic primer of theology for the Western Church. But he purposefully left his classic tome unfinished. And this is where the real mystery begins.
According to G. K. Chesterton, Aquinas’ friend Reginald became concerned when he observed that Thomas was no longer working on his masterpiece and asked him to return to writing. Aquinas replied, “’I can write no more.’”
Chesterton suggests that there was a silence after which Reginald approached the subject a second time. Thomas answered him with even greater resolve; ‘I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.’”Chesterton, 116. And he didn’t. Aquinas, it is believed, had experienced private mystical encounter with God during a celebration of Mass that was so profound it caused him to lay down his pen in awe and humility.
Chesterton records that, at his death, “we may be sure that the great philosopher had entirely forgotten philosophy.” On his death bed, the father of natural theology and great antagonist to mystical theology requested to hear the Song of Songs.
What was the mystical experience of Aquinas that caused him to compare everything he had written—a foundation for Western Theology—to “straw”? This remains a mystery. But it is the striking juxtaposition in Aquinas’ life of careful reason and unexpected feeling, of sensory experience supplemented by the flash of intuition that make Aquinas the poster person for this issue of Conversations on Mysticism and Divine Awareness. While he never wrote anymore, he did not destroy the masterpiece he had written. As a result, his legacy is both the “kite” of natural theology and the “string” of Divine awareness.
According to John Michael Talbot, who is interviewed in this issue of Conversations, “A mystic is someone who believes there are realities to life that are beyond what can be perceived by our natural minds or described in words.”See John Michael Talbot, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 3.I can almost hear a twice dumb ox bellowing in agreement.