The strange lesson of St. Thomas Aquinas

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St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas. Public domain

Question: I learned that St. Thomas Aquinas had a communication with Our Lord, receiving affirmation that he had “written well” about the Eucharist. But, later in his life, St. Thomas stopped writing, having received a vision and believed, as a consequence, that all he had written was as “straw.” These two communications seem at odds.

Patrick A Toffler, via email

Answer: Both stories are widely attested and likely true. However, the first story is an affirmation that, in the limits of human language, Thomas had written well. The second story is more the experience of a spiritual principle that God cannot be reduced to words, no matter how eloquent those words may be. St. Thomas never denied this principle. In fact, he affirmed it. For example, he wrote: “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Summa Theologiae, Part I, Question 3, Prologue). Elsewhere he wrote in his commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate that while we can know God through his creation, and in God’s actions through history, the highest form of the knowledge of God is to know God as unknown (tamquam Ignotum). That is, we must have the wisdom and humility to say that the highest form of talking about the Holy Trinity is to know that one does not know, that one does not comprehend or grasp the full essence about that which we speak. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say comprehensively what he is, in essence.

Therefore, St. Thomas, having had a special vision of God, realized just how true this was and that his words, in comparison to the glory of God, seemed like straw. Not that his words were wrong, just that God is so much more!

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to