CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - A MEDITATION ON THE MANICHEES
At this point, even so crude and external a sketch of a great
saint involves the necessity of writing something that cannot fit
in with the rest; the one thing which it is important to write
and impossible to write. A saint may be any kind of man,
with an additional quality that is at once unique and universal.
We might even say that the one thing which separates a saint
from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men.
In this sense the word ordinary must be understood in its native
and noble meaning; which is connected with the word order.
A saint is long past any desire for distinction; he is the only
sort of superior man who has never been a superior person.
But all this arises from a great central fact, which he does not
condescend to call a privilege, but which is in its very nature a sort
of privacy; and in that sense almost a form of private property.
As with all sound private property, it is enough for him that he has it,
he does not desire to limit the number of people who have it.
He is always trying to hide it. out of a sort of celestial
good manners; and Thomas Aquinas tried to hide it more than most.
To reach it, in so far as we can reach it, it will be best
to begin with the upper strata; and reach what was in the inside
from what was most conspicuous on the outside.
The appearance or bodily presence of St. Thomas Aquinas is really
easier to resurrect than that of many who lived before the age
of portrait painting. It has been said that in his bodily being
or bearing there was little of the Italian; but this is at the best,
I fancy an unconscious comparison between St. Thomas and St. Francis;
and at worst, only a comparison between him and the hasty legend
of vivacious organ-grinders and incendiary ice-cream men.
Not all Italians are vivacious organ-grinders, and very few Italians
are like St. Francis. A nation is never a type, but it is nearly
always a tangle of two or three roughly recognizable types.
St. Thomas was of a certain type, which is not so much common in Italy,
as common to uncommon Italians.
His bulk made it easy to regard him humorously as the sort
of walking wine-barrel, common in the comedies of many nations:
he joked about it himself. It may be that he, and not some
irritated partisan of the Augustinian or Arabian parties,
was responsible for the sublime exaggeration that a crescent
was cut out of the dinner-table to allow him to sit down.
It is quite certain that it was an exaggeration; and that his
stature was more remarked than his stoutness; but, above all,
that his head was quite powerful enough to dominate his body.
And his head was of a very real and recognisable type, to judge
by the traditional portraits and the personal descriptions.
It was that sort of head with the heavy chin and jaws,
the Roman nose and the big rather bald brow, which, in spite
of its fullness, gives also a curious concave impression
of hollows here and there, like caverns of thought.
Napoleon carried that head upon a short body. Mussolini carries
it today, upon a rather taller but equally active one.
It can be seen in the busts of several Roman Emperors,
and occasionally above the shabby shirt-front of an Italian waiter;
but he is generally a head waiter. So unmistakable is the type,
that I cannot but think that the most vivid villain of light fiction,
in the Victorian shocker called 'The Woman in White', was really
sketched by Wilkie Collins from an actual Italian Count;
he is so complete a contrast to the conventional skinny,
swarthy and gesticulating villain whom the Victorians commonly
presented as an Italian Count. Count Fosco, it may be remembered
(I hope) by some, was a calm, corpulent, colossal gentleman,
whose head was exactly like a bust of Napoleon of heroic size.
He may have been a melodramatic villain; but he was a tolerably
convincing Italian--of that kind. If we recall his tranquil manner,
and the excellent common sense of his everyday external words
and actions, we shall probably have a merely material image
of the type of Thomas Aquinas; given only the slight effort
of faith required to imagine Count Fosco turned suddenly
into a saint.
The pictures of St. Thomas, though many of them were painted long
after his death, are all obviously pictures of the same man.
He rears himself defiantly, with the Napoleonic head and the dark
bulk of body, in Raphael's "Dispute About the Sacrament." A portrait
by Ghirlandajo emphasises a point which specially reveals
what may be called the neglected Italian quality in the man.
It also emphasises points that are very important in the mystic
and the philosopher. It is universally attested that
Aquinas was what is commonly called an absent-minded man.
That type has often been rendered in painting, humorous or serious;
but almost always in one of two or three conventional ways.
Sometimes the expression of the eyes is merely vacant, as it
absent-mindedness did really mean a permanent absence of mind.
Sometimes it is rendered more respectfully as a wistful expression,
as of one yearning for something afar off, that he cannot see
and can only faintly desire. Look at the eves in Ghirlandajo's
portrait of Sr. Thomas; and you will see a sharp difference.
While the eyes are indeed completely torn away from the immediate
surroundings, so that the pot of flowers above the philosopher's
head might fall on it without attracting his attention,
they are not in the least wistful, let alone vacant.
There is kindled in them a fire of instant inner excitement; they are
vivid and very Italian eyes. The man is thinking about something;
and something that has reached a crisis; not about nothing
or about anything; or, what is almost worse, about everything.
There must have been that smouldering vigilance in his eyes,
the moment before he smote the table and startled the banquet
hall of the King.
Of the personal habits that go with the personal physique,
we have also a few convincing and confirming impressions.
When he was not sitting still, reading a book, he walked round
and round the cloisters and walked fast and even furiously,
a very characteristic action of men who fight their
battles in the mind. Whenever he was interrupted.
he was very polite and more apologetic than the apologizer.
But there was that about him, which suggested that he was rather
happier when he was not interrupted. He was ready to stop his
truly Peripatetic tramp: but we feel that when he resumed it,
he walked all the faster.
All this suggests that his superficial abstraction, that which
the world saw, was of a certain kind. It will be well to understand
the quality, for there are several kinds of absence of mind,
including that of some pretentious poets and intellectuals,
in whom the mind has never been noticeably present.
There is the abstraction of the contemplative.
whether he is the true sort of Christian contemplative,
who is contemplating Something, or the wrong sort of Oriental
contemplative, who is contemplating Nothing. Obviously St. Thomas
was not a Buddhist mystic; but I do not think his fits
of abstraction were even those of a Christian mystic.
If he had trances of true Christian mysticism, he took jolly good
care that they should not occur at other people's dinner-tables.
I think he had the sort of bemused fit, which really belongs
to the practical man rather than the entirely mystical man.
He uses the recognised distinction between the active life and
the contemplative life, but in the cases concerned here, I think
even his contemplative life was an active life. It had nothing
to do with his higher life, in the sense of ultimate sanctity.
It rather reminds us that Napoleon would fall into a fit of apparent
boredom at the Opera, and afterwards confess that he was thinking
how he could get three army corps at Frankfurt to combine
with two army corps at Cologne. So, in the case of Aquinas,
if his daydreams were dreams, they were dreams of the day;
and dreams of the day of battle. If he talked to himself,
it was because he was arguing with somebody else. We can put
it another way, by saying that his daydreams, like the dreams
of a dog, were dreams of hunting; of pursuing the error as well
as pursuing the truth; of following all the twists and turns
of evasive falsehood, and tracking it at last to its lair in hell.
He would have been the first to admit that the erroneous thinker
would probably be more surprised to learn where his thought
came from, than anybody else to discover where it went to.
But this notion of pursuing he certainly had, and it was
the beginning of a thousand mistakes and misunderstandings
that pursuing is called in Latin Persecution. Nobody had less
than he had of what is commonly called the temper of a persecutor;
but he had the quality which in desperate times is often driven
to persecute; and that is simply the sense that everything
lives somewhere, and nothing dies unless it dies in its own home.
That he did sometimes, in this sense, urge in dreams
the shadowy chase even in broad daylight, is quite true.
But he was an active dreamer, if not what is commonly called a man
of action; and in that chase he was truly to be counted among
the domini canes; and surely the mightiest and most magnanimous
of the Hounds of Heaven.
There may be many who do not understand the nature even of this sort
of abstraction. But then, unfortunately, there are many who do not
understand the nature of any sort or argument. Indeed, I think there
are fewer people now alive who understand argument than there were twenty
or thirty years ago; and St. Thomas might have preferred the society
of the atheists of the early nineteenth century to that of the blank
sceptics of the early twentieth. Anyhow, one of the real disadvantages
of the great and glorious sport, that is called argument, is its
inordinate length. If you argue honestly, as St. Thomas always did,
you will find that the subject sometimes seems as if it would never end.
He was strongly conscious of this fact, as appears in many places;
for instance his argument that most men must have a revealed religion,
because they have not time to argue. No time, that is, to argue fairly.
There is always time to argue unfairly; not least in a time like ours.
Being himself resolved to argue, to argue honestly, to answer everybody,
to deal with everything, he produced books enough to sink a ship
or stock a library; though he died in comparatively early middle age.
Probably he could not have done it at all, if he had not been thinking
even when he was not writing; but above all thinking combatively.
This, in his case, certainly did not mean bitterly or spitefully
or uncharitably; but it did mean combatively. As a matter of fact,
it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.
That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument
and so much sneering.
We have noted that there are barely one or two occasions
on which St. Thomas indulged in a denunciation.
There is not a single occasion on which he indulged in a sneer.
His curiously simple character, his lucid but laborious intellect,
could not be better summed up than by saving that he did not know
how to sneer. He was in a double sense an intellectual aristocrat:
but he was never an intellectual snob. He never troubled
at all whether those to whom he talked were more or less
of the sort whom the world thinks worth talking to:
and it was apparent by the impression of his contemporaries
that those who received the ordinary scraps of his wit
or wisdom were quite as likely to be nobodies as somebodies,
or even quite as likely to be noodles as clever people.
He was interested in the souls of all his fellow creatures,
but not in classifying the minds of any of them; in a sense it was
too personal and in another sense too arrogant for his particular
mind and temper. He was very much interested in the subject
he was talking about; and may sometimes have talked for a long time,
though he was probably silent for a much longer time.
But he had all the unconscious contempt which the really
intelligent have for an intelligentsia.
Like most men concerned with the common problems of men, he seems
to have had a considerable correspondence; considering that
correspondence was so much more difficult in his time.
We have records of a great many cases in which complete strangers wrote
to ask him questions, and sometimes rather ridiculous questions.
To all of these he replied with a characteristic mixture of patience
and that sort of rationality, which in some rational people tends
to be impatience. Somebody, for instance, asked him whether the names
of all the blessed were written on a scroll exhibited in heaven.
He wrote back with untiring calm; "So far as I can see, this is
not the case; but there is no harm in saying so."
I have remarked on the portrait of St. Thomas by an Italian painter,
which shows him alert even in abstraction; and only silent as if
about to speak. Pictures in that great tradition are generally
full of small touches that show a very large imagination.
I mean the sort of imagination on which Ruskin remarked, when he saw
that in Tintoretto's sunlit scene of the Crucifixion the face
of Christ is dark and undecipherable; but the halo round his head
unexpectedly faint and grey like the colour of ashes. It would be
hard to put more powerfully the idea of Divinity itself in eclipse.
There is a touch, which it may be fanciful to find equally significant,
in the portrait of Thomas Aquinas. The artist, having given
so much vividness and vigilance to the eyes, may have felt that
he stressed too much the merely combative concentration of the saint;
but anyhow for some reason he has blazoned upon his breast a rather
curious emblem, as if it were some third symbolic and cyclopean eye.
At least it is no normal Christian sign; but something more like the disk
of the sun such as held the face of a heathen god; but the face itself
is dark and occult, and only the rays breaking from it are a ring
of fire. I do not know whether any traditional meaning has been
attached to this; but its imaginative meaning is strangely apt.
That secret sun, dark with excess of light, or not showing its light
save in the enlightenment of others, might well be the exact emblem
of that inner and ideal life of the saint, which was not only
hidden by his external words and actions, but even hidden by his
merely outward and automatic silences and fits of reflection.
In short, this spiritual detachment is not to be confused with
his common habit of brooding or falling into a brown study.
He was a man entirely careless of all casual criticism of his
casual demeanour; as are many men built on a big masculine model
and unconsciously inheriting a certain social splendour and largesse.
But about his real life of sanctity he was intensely secretive.
Such secrecy has indeed generally gone with sanctity; for the saint has
an unfathomable horror of playing the Pharisee. But in Thomas Aquinas it
was even more sensitive, and what many in the world would call morbid.
He did not mind being caught wool-gathering over the wine-cups of
the King's banquet; for that was merely upon a point of controversy.
But when there was some question of his having seen St. Paul in
a vision, he was in an agony of alarm lest it should be discussed;
and the story remains somewhat uncertain in consequence.
Needless to say, his followers and admirers were as eager to collect
these strictly miraculous stories as he was eager to conceal them;
and one or two seem to be preserved with a fairly solid setting
of evidence. But there are certainly fewer of them, known to the world,
than in the case of many saints equally sincere and even equally modest,
but more preoccupied with zeal and less sensitive about publicity.
The truth is that about all such things, in life and death,
there is a sort of enormous quiet hanging about St. Thomas. He was
one of those large things who take up little room. There was
naturally a certain stir about his miracles after his death;
and about his burial at the time when the University of Paris
wished to bury him. I do not know in detail the long history
of the other plans of sepulture, which have ultimately ended with
his sacred bones lying in the church of St. Sernin in Toulouse:
at the very base of the battle-fields where his Dominicans had warred
down the pestilence of pessimism from the East. But somehow,
it is not easy to think of his shrine as the scene of the more jolly,
rowdy and vulgar devotion either in its medieval or modern form.
He was very far from being a Puritan, in the true sense;
he made a provision for a holiday and banquet for his young friends,
which has quite a convivial sound. The trend of his writing especially
for his time, is reasonable in its recognition of physical life;
and he goes out of his way to say that men must vary their lives
with jokes and even with pranks. But for all that, we cannot
somehow see his personality as a sort of magnet for mobs:
or the road to the tomb of St. Thomas at Toulouse having always
been a long street of taverns like that to the tomb of St. Thomas
at Canterbury. I think he rather disliked noise; there is
a legend that he disliked thunderstorms; but it is contradicted
by the fact that in an actual shipwreck he was supremely calm.
However that may be, and it probably concerned his health,
in some ways sensitive, he certainly was very calm. We have a
feeling that we should gradually grow conscious of his presence;
as of an immense background.
Here, if this slight sketch could be worthy of its subject,
there should stand forth something of that stupendous certitude,
in the presence of which all his libraries of philosophy,
and even theology, were but a litter of pamphlets.
It is certain that this thing was in him from the first,
in the form of conviction long before it could possibly
have even began to take the form of controversy.
It was very vivid in his childhood; and his were exactly
the circumstances in which the anecdotes of the nursery and
the playground are likely enough to have been really preserved.
He had from the first that full and final test of truly
orthodox Catholicity; the impetuous, impatient intolerant
passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather
a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.
This can have had nothing to do with the intellectualism of which
he was afterwards accused; still less with any habit of dialectic.
It would seem unlikely that at the age of six he had any ambition
to answer Averrhoes or that he knew what Effective Causality is;
or even that he had worked out, as he did in later life,
the whole theory by which a man's love of himself is
Sincere and Constant and Indulgent; and that this should be
transferred intact (if possible) to his love of his neighbour.
At this early age he did not understand all this. He only did it.
But all the atmosphere of his actions carries a sort of conviction
with it. It is beautifully typical for instance, of that sort of
aristocratic menage, that his parents seem to have objected mildly,
if at all, to his handing out things to beggars and tramps;
but it was intensely disliked by the upper servants.
Still, if we take the thing as seriously as all childish things should
be taken, we may learn something from that mysterious state of innocence,
which is the first and best spring of all our later indignations.
We may begin to understand why it was that there grew steadily
with his growing mind, a great and very solitary mind,
an ambition that was the inversion of all the things about him.
We shall guess what had continuously swelled within him, whether in
protest or prophecy or prayer for deliverance, before he startled
his family by flinging away not only the trappings of nobility,
but all forms of ambition, even ecclesiastical ambition.
His childhood may contain the hint of that first stride of his manhood,
from the house onto the highway; and his proclamation that he also
would be a Beggar.
There is another case of a sort of second glimpse or sequel,
in which an incident well known in the external sense gives us
also a glimpse of the internal. After the affair of the firebrand,
and the woman who tempted him in the tower, it is said that he had
a dream; in which two angels girded him with a cord of fire,
a thing of terrible pain and yet giving a terrible strength;
and he awoke with a great cry in the darkness. This also has
something very vivid about it, under the circumstances;
and probably contains truths that will be some day better understood,
when priests and doctors have learned to talk to each other
without the stale etiquette of nineteenth-century negations.
It would be easy to analyse the dream, as the very nineteenth-century
doctor did in Armadale, resolving it into the details of the past days;
the cord from his struggle against being stripped of his Friar's frock;
the thread of fire running through the tapestries of the night,
from the firebrand he had snatched from the fireside.
But even in Armadale the dream was fulfilled mystically as well,
and the dream of St. Thomas was fulfilled very mystically indeed.
For he did in fact remain remarkably untroubled on that side
of his human nature after the incident; though it is likely
enough that the incident had caused an upheaval of his normal
humanity, which produced a dream stronger than a nightmare.
This is no place to analyse the psychological fact, which puzzles
Non-Catholics so much: of the way in which priests do manage
to be celibate without ceasing to be virile. Anyhow, it seems
probable that in this matter he was less troubled than most.
This has nothing to do with true virtue, which is of the will;
saints as holy as he have rolled themselves in brambles
to distract the pressure of passion; but he never needed much
in the way of a counter-irritant; for the simple reason that in
this way, as in most ways, he was not very often irritated.
Much must remain unexplained, as part of the mysteries of grace;
but there is probably some truth in the psychological idea of
"sublimation"; that is the lifting of a lower energy to higher ends;
so that appetite almost faded in the furnace of his intellectual energy.
Between supernatural and natural causes, it is probable that
he never knew or suffered greatly on this side of his mind.
There are moments when the most orthodox reader is tempted
to hate the hagiographer as much as he loves the holy man.
The holy man always conceals his holiness; that is the one
invariable rule. And the hagiographer sometimes seems
like a persecutor trying to frustrate the holy man; a spy or
eavesdropper hardly more respectful than an American interviewer.
I admit that these sentiments are fastidious and one-sided,
and I will now proceed to prove my penitence by mentioning
one or two of the incidents that could only have come to common
knowledge in this deplorable way.
It seems certain that he did live a sort of secondary and mysterious life;
the divine double of what is called a double life. Somebody seems
to have caught a glimpse of the sort of solitary miracle which modern
psychic people call Levitation; and he must surely have either been a liar
or a literal witness, for there could have been no doubts or degrees
about such a prodigy happening to such a person: it must have been
like seeing one of the huge pillars of the church suspended like a cloud.
Nobody knows, I imagine, what spiritual storm of exaltation or agony
produces this convulsion in matter or space; but the thing does almost
certainly occur. Even in the case of ordinary Spiritualist mediums,
for whatever reason, the evidence is very difficult to refute.
But probably the most representative revelation of this side of his life
may be found in the celebrated story of the miracle of the crucifix;
when in the stillness of the church of St. Dominic in Naples,
a voice spoke from the carven Christ, and told the kneeling Friar
that he had written rightly, and offered him the choice of a reward
among all the things of the world.
Not all, I think, have appreciated the point of this particular
story as applied to this particular saint. It is an old story,
in so far as it is simply the offer made to a devotee of solitude
or simplicity, of the pick of all the prizes of life. The hermit,
true or false, the fakir, the fanatic or the cynic, Stylites on his
column or Diogenes in his tub, can all be pictured as tempted by
the powers of the earth, of the air or of the heavens, with the offer
of the best of everything; and replying that they want nothing.
In the Greek cynic or stoic it really meant the mere negative;
that he wanted nothing. In the Oriental mystic or fanatic,
it sometimes meant a sort of positive negative; that he wanted Nothing;
that Nothing was really what he wanted. Sometimes it expressed
a noble independence, and the twin virtues of antiquity, the love
of liberty and the hatred of luxury. Sometimes it only expressed
a self-sufficiency that is the very opposite of sanctity.
But even the stories of real saints, of this sort, do not quite cover
the case of St. Thomas. He was not a person who wanted nothing;
and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything.
His answer is not so inevitable or simple as some may suppose.
As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers,
he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst
for Things. It was his special spiritual thesis that there
really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many
existed as well as the One. I do not mean things to eat
or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place
in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about,
and especially things to prove, to experience and to know.
Nobody supposes that Thomas Aquinas, when offered by God his choice
among all the gifts of God, would ask for a thousand pounds.
or the Crown of Sicily, or a present of rare Greek wine.
But he might have asked for things that he really wanted:
and he was a man who could want things; as he wanted the lost
manuscript of St. Chrysostom. He might base asked for the
solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science;
or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels,
or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied
his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety
of the universe. The point is that for him, when the voice spoke
from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms
were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all
the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west,
to the ends of the earth and the very extremes of existence.
They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity;
the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold
mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures.
That is the blazing background of multitudinous Being that gives
the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer
of St. Thomas, when he lifted at last his head and spoke with,
and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with
the humility of his religion; "I will have Thyself."
Or, to add the crowning and crushing irony to this story,
so uniquely Christian for those who can really understand it,
there are some who feel that the audacity is softened by insisting
that he said, "Only Thyself."
Of these miracles, in the strictly miraculous sense, there are not
so many as in the lives of less immediately influential saints;
but they are probably pretty well authenticated; for he was a well-known
public man in a prominent position, and, what is even more convenient
for him, he had any number of highly incensed enemies, who could be
trusted to sift his claims. There is at least one miracle of healing;
that of a woman who touched his gown; and several incidents that may be
variants of the story of the crucifix at Naples. One of these stories,
however, has a further importance as bringing us to another section
of his more private, personal or even emotional religious life;
the section that expressed itself in poetry. When he was stationed
at Paris, the other Doctors of the Sorbonne put before him a problem
about the nature of the mystical change in the elements of the
Blessed Sacrament, and he proceeded to write, in his customary manner,
a very careful and elaborately lucid statement of his own solution.
Needless to say he felt with hearty simplicity the heavy responsibility
and gravity of such a judicial decision; and not unnaturally seems
to have worried about it more than he commonly did over his work.
He sought for guidance in more than usually prolonged prayer
and intercession; and finally, with one of those few but striking
bodily gestures that mark the turning points of his life,
he threw down his thesis at the foot of the crucifix on the altar,
and left it lying there; as if awaiting judgment. Then he turned
and came down the altar steps and buried himself once more in prayer;
but the other Friars, it is said, were watching; and well they might be.
For they declared afterwards that the figure of Christ had come down
from the cross before their mortal eyes; and stood upon the scroll,
saving "Thomas, thou hast written well concerning the Sacrament
of My Body." It was after this vision that the incident is said
to have happened, of his being born up miraculously in mid-air.
An acute observer said of Thomas Aquinas in his own time, "He could
alone restore all philosophy, if it had been burnt by fire."
That is what is meant by saying that he was an original man,
a creative mind; that he could have made his own cosmos out
of stones and straws, even without the manuscripts of Aristotle
or Augustine. But there is here a not uncommon confusion,
between the thing in which a man is most original and that in which
he is most interested; or between the thing that he does best
and the thing that he loves most. Because St. Thomas was a unique
and striking philosopher, it is almost unavoidable that this
book should be merely, or mainly, a sketch of his philosophy.
It cannot be, and does not pretend to be, a sketch of his theology.
But this is because the theology of a saint is simply
the theism of a saint; or rather the theism of all saints.
It is less individual, but it is much more intense.
It is concerned with the common origin; but it is hardly
an occasion for originality. Thus we are forced to think
first of Thomas as the maker of the Thomist philosophy;
as we think first of Christopher Columbus as the discoverer
of America, though he may have been quite sincere in his
pious hope to convert the Khan of Tartary; or of James Wart
as the discoverer of the steam-engine, though he may have been
a devout fire-worshipper, or a sincere Scottish Calvinist.
or all kinds of curious things. Anyhow, it is but natural that
Augustine and Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, all the doctors
and the saints, should draw nearer to each other as they approach
the divine units in things; and that there should in that sense
be less difference between them in theology than in philosophy.
It is true that, in some matters, the critics of Aquinas
thought his philosophy had unduly affected his theology.
This is especially so, touching the charge that he made the state
of Beatitude too intellectual, conceiving it as the satisfaction
of the love of truth; rather than specially as the truth of love.
It is true that the mystics and the men of the Franciscan school,
dwelt more lovingly on the admitted supremacy of love.
But it was mostly a matter of emphasis; perhaps tinged faintly
by temperament, possibly (to suggest something which is easier
to feel than to explain), in the case of Sr. Thomas, a shadowy
influence of a sort of shyness. Whether the supreme ecstasy
is more affectional than intellectual is no very deadly
matter of quarrel among men who believe it is both, but do
not profess even to imagine the actual experience of either.
But I have a sort of feeling that, even if St. Thomas had thought
it was as emotional as St. Bonaventure did, he would never have
been so emotional about it. It would always have embarrassed
him to write about love at such length.
The one exception permitted to him was the rare but remarkable output
of his poetry. All sanctity is secrecy; and his sacred poetry was
really a secretion; like the pearl in a very tightly closed oyster.
He may have written more of it than we know; but part of it came
into public use through the particular circumstance of his being
asked to compose the office for the Feast of Corpus Christi:
a festival first established after the controversy to which
he had contributed, in the scroll that he laid on the altar.
It does certainly reveal an entirely different side of his genius;
and it certainly was genius. As a rule, he was an eminently
practical prose writer; some would say a very prosaic prose writer.
He maintained controversy with an eye on only two qualities;
clarity and courtesy. And he maintained these because they
were entirely practical qualities; affecting the probabilities
of conversion. But the composer of the Corpus Christi service
was not merely what even the wild and woolly would call a poet;
he was what the most fastidious would call an artist.
His double function rather recalls the double activity of some
great Renaissance craftsman, like Michelangelo or Leonardo
da Vinci, who would work on the outer wall, planning and building
the fortifications of the city; and then retire into the inner
chamber to carve or model some cup or casket for a reliquary.
The Corpus Christi Office is like some old musical instrument,
quaintly and carefully inlaid with many coloured stones and metals;
the author has gathered remote texts about pasture and fruition
like rare herbs; there is a notable lack of the loud and obvious
in the harmony; and the whole is strung with two strong Latin lyrics.
Father John O'Connor has translated them with an almost
miraculous aptitude; but a good translator will be the first to
agree that no translation is good; or, at any rate, good enough.
How are we to find eight short English words which actually stand
for "Sumit unus, sumunt mille; quantum isti, tantum ille"? How
is anybody really to render the sound of the "Pange Lingua",
when the very first syllable has a clang like the clash of cymbals?
There was one other channel, besides that of poetry, and it
was that of private affections, by which this large and shy man
could show that he had really as much Caritas as St. Francis;
and certainly as much as any Franciscan theologian.
Bonaventure was not likely to think that Thomas was lacking
in the love of God, and certainly he was never lacking in
the love of Bonaventure. He felt for his whole family a steady,
we might say a stubborn tenderness; and, considering how
his family treated him, this would seem to call not only
for charity, but for his characteristic virtue of patience.
Towards the end of his life, he seems to have leaned especially
on his love of one of the brethren, a Friar named Reginald,
who received from him some strange and rather startling confidences,
of the kind that he very seldom gave even to his friends.
It was to Reginald that he gave that last and rather
extraordinary hint, which was the end of his controversial career,
and practically of his earthly life; a hint that history has
never been able to explain.
He had returned victorious from his last combat with Siger of Brabant;
returned and retired. This particular quarrel was the one point, as we
may say, in which his outer and his inner life had crossed and coincided;
he realised how he had longed from childhood to call up all allies
in the battle for Christ; how he had only long afterwards called up
Aristotle as an ally; and now in that last nightmare of sophistry,
he had for the first time truly realised that some might really wish
Christ to go down before Aristotle. He never recovered from the shock.
He won his battle, because he was the best brain of his time, but he could
not forget such an inversion of the whole idea and purpose of his life.
He was the sort of man who hates hating people. He had not been used
to hating even their hateful ideas, beyond a certain point. But in the
abyss of anarchy opened by Siger's sophistry of the Double Mind of Man,
he had seen the possibility of the perishing of all idea of religion,
and even of all idea of truth. Brief and fragmentary as are the phrases
that record it, we can gather that he came back with a sort of horror
of that outer world, in which there blew such wild winds of doctrine,
and a longing for the inner world which any Catholic can share,
and in which the saint is not cut off from simple men. He resumed the
strict routine of religion, and for some time said nothing to anybody.
And then something happened (it is said while he was celebrating Mass)
the nature of which will never be known among mortal men.
His friend Reginald asked him to return also to his equally
regular habits of reading and writing, and following the
controversies of the hour. He said with a singular emphasis,
"I can write no more." There seems to have been a silence;
after which Reginald again ventured to approach the subject;
and Thomas answered him with even greater vigour, "I can write no more.
I have seen things which make all my writings like straw."
In 1274, when Aquinas was nearly fifty, the Pope, rejoicing in
the recent victory over the Arabian sophists, sent word to him,
asking him to come to a Council on these controversial matters,
to be held at Lyons. He rose in automatic obedience,
as a soldier rises; but we may fancy that there was something
in his eyes that told those around him that obedience to the outer
command would not in fact frustrate obedience to some more
mysterious inner command; a signal that only he had seen.
He set out with his friend on the journey, proposing to rest
for the night with his sister, to whom he was deeply devoted;
and when he came into her house he was stricken down with some
unnamed malady. We need not discuss the doubtful medical problems.
It is true that he had always been one of those men, healthy in
the main, who are overthrown by small illnesses; it is equally true
that there is no very clear account of this particular illness.
He was eventually taken to a monastery at Fossanuova; and his strange
end came upon him with great strides. It may be worth remarking,
for those who think that he thought too little of the emotional
or romantic side of religious truth, that he asked to have
The Song of Solomon read through to him from beginning to end.
The feelings of the men about him must have been mingled and
rather indescribable; and certainly quite different from his own.
He confessed his sins and he received his God; and we may be sure
that the great philosopher had entirely forgotten philosophy.
But it was not entirely so with those who had loved him, or even
those who merely lived in his time. The elements of the narrative
are so few, yet so essential, that we have a strong sense
in reading the story of the two emotional sides of the event.
Those men must have known that a great mind was still labouring
like a great mill in the midst of them. They must have felt that,
for that moment, the inside of the monastery was larger than the outside,
It must have resembled the case of some mighty modern engine,
shaking the ramshackle building in which it is for the moment enclosed.
For truly that machine was made of the wheels of all the worlds;
and revolved like that cosmos of concentric spheres which,
whatever its fate in the face of changing science, must always
be something of a symbol for philosophy; the depth of double and
triple transparencies more mysterious than darkness; the sevenfold,
the terrible crystal. In the world of that mind there was a wheel
of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or of animals;
but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things,
a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers
to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics.
But there must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous
mill of thought had stopped suddenly; and that after the shock
of stillness that wheel would shake the world no more; that there
was nothing now within that hollow house but a great hill of clay;
and the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber,
ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had
been that of a child of five.
CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - A MEDITATION ON THE MANICHEES