It remains one of the strangest moments in the history of the Catholic Church and it happened to its greatest theologian. One authority describes it this way,
“On the feast of St. Nicholas [in 1273, Aquinas] was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished. To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, ‘The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.’ When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, ‘I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.’”1
Three months later Thomas Aquinas died while on his way to the ecumenical council of Lyons.
It remains a mystery what Aquinas saw in that revelation. The only person who knew, never told. But this has not stopped others from guessing. Did he see Heaven? Jesus? An angel?
An unlikely source to suggest what Aquinas saw is C. S. Lewis. But in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis discusses the need of God to continually renew in our hearts and minds what we think of Him lest we be guilty of making Him in our own image. Lewis observes,
“He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed . . .’ I suppose it was at such a moment Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’”2
Like all the others, Lewis does not know what Aquinas saw. But having a clearer and more accurate understanding of the nature of God is likely to turn everything to straw.
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” – 1 Corinthians 3:11-13.
- C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 82.