The Silence Of St. Thomas


Robert P. Imbelli recalls this storied detail from the life of Thomas Aquinas:

It is well-known that Thomas Aquinas ceased writing his Summa Theologiae before completing it. When asked why, a long tradition recounts that he told his secretary, Reginald of Piperno: “After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw.”

He pivots from the anecdote to cite this passage from Denys Turner’s new biography, Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait:

Theology matters only because – and when – there is more to life than theology, and when that “more” shows its presence within the theology that is done. So Thomas fails to finish, thereby exhibiting the presence of this “more” in the most dramatic way possible – by leaving space for it. His final sentence is not an empty and disappointing failure to finish. It is an apotheosis. By his silence Thomas does not stop teaching theology. He does not stop doing theology. On the contrary, by his silence he teaches something about doing theology that he could not have taught by any other means.

It brings to mind this description of the great medieval theologian’s final months from Josef Pieper’s classic book, The Silence of St. Thomas:

The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…

The mind of the dying man found its voice once more, in an explanation of the Canticle of Canticles for the monks of Fossanova. The last teaching of St. Thomas concerns, therefore, that mystical book of nuptial love for God, of which the Fathers of the Church say: the meaning of its figurative speech is that God exceeds all our capabilities of possessing Him, that all our knowledge can only be the cause of new questions, and every finding only the start of a new search.

(Image: “Saint Thomas Aquinas” by Diego Velázquez, 1632, via Wikimedia Commons)