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8.5 million words of straw

8.5 million words of straw

Today we remember St Thomas Aquinas.  Now don’t panic.  I’m not about to explain his teleological argument (as if!).  What I’d like to offer for reflection is a simple and beautiful statement.  Your sum total of knowledge about Thomas Aquinas for the purposes of this reflection needs only amount to this:

  • Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), Dominican Priest and Doctor of the Church, was phenomenally intelligent;
  • His work is of such stature that it underpins much of Western philosophy as well as vast swathes of theology, ethics, natural law and political theory;
  • His written work amounts to about eight and a half million words (that’s lots).

There.  Now you’re up to speed.  Here, then, is the rub. In December 1273, Thomas Aquinas was celebrating Mass when he had an amazing experience of the love of God that rendered him speechless for a while.

When he did speak again, he could only say, ‘there are no more words.  After what I have experienced, all my words are as straw,’ and died four months later, leaving his greatest work, Summa Theologica, incomplete.

To understand his statement more clearly, consider straw in the High Middle Ages.  It was useful stuff: useful for bedding and for cattle.  It was also useful for building, though of course you don’t build cathedrals out of straw.  Aquinas had perhaps glimpsed the gap between human wisdom and understanding and that of God and seen his own achievements – still lauded as great today – as a small straw hut in comparison with God’s magnificent stone cathedral. Such an awareness of the gulf between the best of our human efforts and the magnificence of God might lead us into despair if we were to forget that we are God’s children.

I’m immensely proud of my one-year old whenever she claps her hands or stands by herself, even for one second – and so it is with God.  He loves us as we are and doesn’t expect us to show wisdom and understanding like his.  Like any parent, what must delight him most is us loving him.  Then, in loving him, we can turn that realisation of the gulf between us into wonder and awe in God’s presence.

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