“IS IT ALL STRAW?” (Mk 3:22-30): 28 January 2008 (Thomas Aquinas, Monday)
Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate today, has been declared as the “Angelic and Universal Doctor of the Church” (Doctor Angelicus and Doctor Communis). That’s one helluva title if you ask me! But in his lifetime, Thomas carried another, less flattering title. Because of his slowness and phenomenal silence, his classmates called him “The Big Dumb Ox.” Often mistaken for dullness, his silence made him the frequent victim of his classmates’ pranks.
According to Chesterton’s biography, one day a friar in an jovial mood made fun of him by claiming that there was a flying ox. When Thomas went over to the window to look, his classmates burst into laughter. To them came the calm response: “It is better to believe that an ox can fly than to think that you can lie.”
Thomas probably also got a lot of teasing because of his weight. It is said that he was so big that his place at table had the wood carved out just to accommodate his immense size.
When we read and attempt to understand his teachings, we have to, in a sense, be like that table: We need to, as it were, carve out a portion of our little minds to accommodate the giant thought of Thomas. You can’t talk about Medieval Philosophy without Thomas Aquinas because his thoughts and writings shaped it. His work remains the foundation of the Church’s theology. In my life, he has been one of the most influential intellectual mentors and guides. His metaphysics was nothing short of breathtaking, and reading it, for me, was often nothing short of a religious experience.
But towards the end of his life, on the 6th of December 1273, after celebrating Mass on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Aquinas gave up his writing saying, “All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has been revealed to me.” He died a few months later.
What was it he saw? He must have seen something and experienced some kind of revelation so that even the most elevated thought he had set down on paper and all his eloquent, elaborate words seemed suddenly so inadequate and useless.
So my question for today is: “Is it all straw?”
Some of us know that question and the dread it inspires–especially those among us who’ve gone through some kind of mid-life crisis. Something happens–sometimes a major tragedy, but sometimes even just a seemingly innocuous event–and suddenly we find ourselves unsure of everything. We’re not sure about the value of the things we’ve done, the weight of our lives and even our selves. We question everything, and wonder if it has all been worth with. It can be a scary feeling because all that you’ve worked for and all that you’ve become are suddenly on the line. No wonder some people actually get a nervous breakdown. It’s no picnic, after all, to wake up one morning and suddenly see your life, your work, and your self as mere “straw.”
I suspect that’s what happened to Thomas Aquinas. He must have suffered some version of a mid-life crisis. All his life he had tried to catch a glimpse of the Truth and to share it with others, but now he received a vision of one blinding truth: There is something far more valuable than everything that he has done.
When something like that happens to us, the proper response is not to throw everything out the window, as we would be tempted to do, or to sink into depression because we have dismissed our lives as utterly meaningless and useless. Instead we are invited to re-sort our lives in order to find something more valuable, something that lasts longer than the usual things we use to make sense of our lives. In other words, the challenge is to find a deeper source of meaning for our lives and a stronger basis for our self-worth–especially if, unlike Thomas, we still have our lives to live.
A mid-life crisis can be a dark and scary and painful thing, but it is also the occasion for re-defining ourselves and provides the much-needed opportunity for revising our dreams.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Asking if it’s ‘all straw’–do you know that feeling? What helped you?” Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.