His work synthesizes pagan philosophy, Jewish and Islamic reflections upon God, and, most centrally, the Christian understanding of both God and nature. That Aquinas could see their points of convergence was a testament to the depth of his own knowledge and to his penetrating insight into the natural world, the human being, and especially God who stood at the center of these conversations. Aquinas possessed a mastery of the whole that has perhaps been equaled, but has likely not been surpassed.
And yet, near the end of his life, St. Thomas laid down his pen and described all of the words he had written all eight million of them as nothing but “straw.”
What would drive such a fertile and brilliant mind to consider his life’s work of so little value?
Each morning, Aquinas began his day with a humble prayer, “For Ordering a Life Wisely.” The prayer expresses Aquinas’ sincere desire to increase in his knowledge of God and to do all things in His service:
Put my life in good order, O my God. Grant that I may know what You require me to do. May any joy without You be burdensome for me, and may I not desire anything else besides You. May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake, and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.
As a Dominican friar, Aquinas spent hours in prayer each day. He was often observed weeping while praying or during Mass, especially during the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But the most powerful moment of prayer in Aquinas’ life occurred on December 6, 1273, the feast day of St. Nicholas, just months before his death. While at prayer strangely enough, in the Chapel of St. Nicholas he received a mystical vision of God.
After this vision, Aquinas carried out his final days as one separated from his beloved. To experience God in that tangible way, through prayer, and then to return to the daily task of writing about Him through the feeble instruments of reason and words was too much for Aquinas. While he did not stop writing altogether, he did set aside his major projects, first and foremost, the Summa Theologiae. The work with which he remains so famously associated, was left unfinished.
Aquinas centered his whole life on studying and knowing God. His prayer life and his theological life were the very same life both were ordered toward communion with God. Alongside the image of Aquinas the scholar, then, we must place Aquinas the lover of God, who fervently desired to know Him more and more.
It is in this context that we must understand the words of Aquinas. For it is immediately after his mystical vision that he confided in his colleague and secretary, “All that I have written seems to me as straw.”
How incredible! Aquinas judged that it was prayer and especially this personal revelation received while in prayer that made his studies and writings seem “as straw.” While this image of straw might suggest a renunciation of all his life’s work, let’s think more deeply about his words.
Why did Aquinas call them “straw?”
Here we might ask, “Where does straw figure most prominently in the Christian imagination?” Evidently enough, in the Nativity of the child Jesus. Straw is found lining the manger, where the infant lays His head.
While Aquinas himself never explained his words, I think the Nativity offers a fitting and fruitful way to interpret their meaning. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that setting the manger scene at Christmas, taken for granted today, became popular during Aquinas’ lifetime. With this in mind, his writings and studies were deemed straw not to be discarded but to be placed in the manger to receive the presence of the incarnate God.
Aquinas’ writings and prayers reveal a man who seeks to know God in order to love Him all the more deeply.
And when, through prayer, Aquinas finds his heart’s desire by experiencing God in a mystical vision, all his work, all his eight million words, are judged to be straw straw laid down to prepare for the reception of Christ. Such is the presence and power of God.
Dr. Lee Cole is an assistant professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. This essay derives from his interview with Hugh Hewitt, and the detailed transcripts are available online: