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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Secular Interpretation of Thomas's "Palea"

Nov. 15 will be the feast of St. Albert the Great: Bishop, Doctor of the Church, and patron of scientists. Of all the monumental achievements of Albertus Magnus, arguably one of the greatest was his mentorship of St. Thomas Aquinas, another Dominican Doctor who has been described as one of the greatest minds in the history of the Church.

It is perhaps worth the time of every individual interested in the pursuit of the examined life to reflect on one oft-told story of Thomas regarding an event near the end of his life. It is said that, following a profound interior experience, he stepped away from his authorship of the Summa Theologica. When asked to continue his work, he refused, replying to his comrade, "I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me" ("mihi videtur ut palea"). His life on Earth would expire without his ever completing the Summa.

In my experience, two interpretations of Thomas's statement seem most prominent. The first might be called the skeptic's interpretation. This interpretation suggests that through his experience, Thomas somehow came to the realization of the truth that the god on which all of his writings were founded was, in fact, non-existent. Hence, his statement that his writings were "straw" is taken by the skeptic to mean that all of his efforts had been completely in vain.

The next interpretation might be called the interpretation of the faithful Catholic. This interpretation states that in his experience, Thomas caught for just a brief instant the image of God with whom he was destined to dwell upon passing to eternal life. Just this brief glimpse of God was enough to reveal to him that his works - monumental as they were - were, in comparison to this glimpse, nothing more than "straw."

I surmise that many men of much greater erudition than I have supported one or the other of these interpretations, so I will not try to make a case here for either. However, recently, I came across a third interpretation by Prof. Daniel Robinson that is worth considering. I've listened to many lectures by Prof. Robinson, and in none of them does he affiliate himself with any religion. He has, in fact, directed harsh criticisms toward Catholicism in particular: perhaps the most stern criticism being that of Her dealings with the Malleus Maleficarum in the fifteenth century. Anyhow, in what might be called the secular interpretation, Robinson asks us to "step out of the context of religion itself and just consider the man Thomas Aquinas." This perspective affords Robinson the opportunity to provide a reflection that will likely be edifying for proponents of either of the previous interpretations.

"Well, never before or since would there be so complete a faith in an age hosting such extraordinary intellects. It is quite remarkable, I mean, if you step back, and, in fact, step out of the context of religion itself and just consider the man Thomas Aquinas. This is a towering intellect: the author of still-to-be-translated hundreds of thousands of words of rich philosophy, logic, ethics, etc. An instructed mind, a mind fashioned by the best productions of the classical world, and a mind that, at the end of the day, turns itself away from scholarship, from writing - comes out of a chapel toward the end of his life, reflecting on everything he had put in print or put to paper, saying that, 'It was pointless - it was just like sand, do you see?' That is, one who thinks so deeply and so persistently on the meaning of life: a life - an examined life, and examined at such depth and with such sincerety and purpose and gratitude as to find words incapable of expressing truths that somehow and otherwise are known by the grace of God. This is a tradition put in place where the intellectual foundations of the faith are thick and firm and, I should say, even into the twenty-first century, durable. A great figure in a great age: Thomas Aquinas.

...not a bad lawyer, either." ~Daniel Robinson.

Sancte Alberte Magne (c.1206-1280) et Sancte Thoma de Aquino (c.1227-1274), orate pro nobis.