With his last breath, St. Thomas Aquinas revealed a great truth to us all.
“The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to me as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” – Thomas Aquinas
These words were Thomas Aquinas’ last words on his deathbed, and they reveal a great truth to us all. It would be hard to find a mind as agile and profound, as capable and clear, as that of Thomas Aquinas. He was blessed by God with one of the greatest minds in history. His work, the “Summa Theologica,” is one of Christianity’s clearest reflections on the theology, philosophy, and ethics of the Church and is still important in the development of theologians, philosophers and ethicists today.
Thomas Aquinas spoke the above words on his deathbed. And here we are, like him, confronted with a wisdom that is greater than anything we can come to know in this life. What we are able to come to know in this life is immense and powerful, but it is not enough. Still, what we can come to know is guided by the grace of God, just as the writing of Thomas Aquinas was, and the grace of this knowledge can lead us toward the Kingdom of God, but we can not get there on our own, through our own intellectual powers.
Dante understood this truth too. When he wrote his “Divine Comedy,” an allegorical account of a soul’s journey through Hell (Recognition of sin), Purgatory (Renunciation of sin), and Heaven (Salvation). He took a classical character, known for his wisdom and poetic skills, Virgil, and made him the guide for the pilgrim, Dante’s, soul. Virgil allegorically represents Human Reason. It is made clear that Virgil (Human Reason) can guide Dante, the pilgrim, only so far on his journey toward God. Human Reason, as powerful and adept as it is, is not powerful enough to understand fully the mystery that is God.
What was revealed to Thomas Aquinas on his deathbed, we cannot know, that is unique and personal to him, but we can guess at it fairly well. What we do know is that his great work, all of that prayerfully developed thought into the Christian message, its value and purpose to us in this life, was like “so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
If we think that our human reason, our finite intellect, is capable of knowing the infinite wisdom of God in this life, we may be suffering from the most dangerous of sins, the sin of pride. We are too limited in our human state in both body and time. It is only when we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” as Shakespeare so masterfully put it, that we will be able to see and come to know God in his infinite fullness.
Even so, we are aware of the clear whisper of God in our hearts, our souls and our minds. We are drawn to him like a magnet, through the power of love, not just love as we know it in our human terms, but a love so infinite, so powerful that it could let go of divinity, enter into our humanity, suffer, and even die for all of us. As the scripture tells us, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5: 7-8)
We know this through the prism of faith, a capacity that is beyond human knowledge alone. Faith is a gift from our infinite God, a gift of immeasurable worth, for it is in faith that we commit ourselves to God who is so far beyond us. While God is greater than our minds are capable of grasping fully now, he made himself small in time and space. He entered our humanity as an infant, grew to a man, and lived among us, teaching us, showing us the way back home. Though he is greater than our wildest imaginations can conceive, his love is so infinitely powerful, that he could choose to let go of divinity and die for us even though we are weak, easily tempted, and often prideful sinners. He knows and loves us beyond our finite selves. He knows and loves us intimately, because he created each one of us utterly uniquely and personally.
Thomas Aquinas saw that even the mind that God had given him, that God had enlightened with such clear thought, was, in his finite humanity, capable of producing only “straw” in comparison to the vast, unlimited mystery of God that was revealed to him on his deathbed.
This “revelation” expressed in his last words, was not a matter of despair for Thomas Aquinas. Rather, it was a joyful burst of humble awe. At that moment, he was given the gift of the vision of Paradise and knew with a clarity that he could not have known before that moment, how Beautiful, Good and True God and his Kingdom really are. May we all be humbled so beautifully at that moment when we transition from this finite, limited life, into the infinite, eternal life of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. Amen!SKM: below-content placeholder