Today we celebrate the memorial of one of the great saints, perhaps the greatest, of the Catholic intellectual tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas. Last semester, a colleague of mine asked a rather unique favor of me related to St. Thomas. She was writing an icon of St. Thomas and wondered what text to place in the book he would be holding. Those familiar with iconography will know, in the Eastern Christian tradition this question would never arise. Icons have types and forms, and to a certain degree they must. Otherwise, how would one be able to distinguish St. Peter (full but short hair, full but short beard) from St. Paul (balding, slightly longer beard) if their names were not written in the icon? In the West, however, those of us who appreciate this form of Sacred Art – and it really is theology via another means of communication – have no definitive content-types for Catholic saints who post-date the great age of Christian unity, i.e., roughly the Church’s first millennium. To add to this artist’s query, she also wanted a suitable text in Latin – the original language of St. Thomas’ theological masterworks. Thankfully, this artist already had one quotation in mind. On the right side of the book appears the Latin phrase: Mihi videtur ut palea. This is literally translated as: “to me it seems like straw.” The origin of this quotation is a story with which many of us may be familiar.
Although some may have the tendency to view Aquinas’ writings as mechanistic and dry, St. Thomas himself was a profoundly passionate disciple of our LORD. A friend and brother Dominican once commented that St. Thomas was able to untangle so many theological knots through prayer more than through the power of his intellect. St. Thomas’ spiritual fervor was especially directed towards the Blessed Sacrament and he could often be seen crying during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Toward the end of his life, on the feast of St. Nicolaus in 1273, St. Thomas received a mystical experience during the celebration of Mass. Afterward, when asked by his friend and secretary to continue writing, he responded: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” This statement is not an exhortation to stop pursing God using His gift of wisdom. Rather, it is an expression of the unfathomable and ineffable depth of God’s being. God cannot be limited by what we know of Him. Even those articles of faith which we know to be true simply point us toward the mystery of God. They set us on the right path for our journey, but they are not the destination.
True to his word, St. Thomas indeed stopped writing at this point in his life, and his Summa Theologiae remains unfinished. What gives me particular delight in the icon seen here, however, is that the artist combined this quotation with two others seen on the opposite page of the book. In 1264, Pope Urban IV placed the solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Roman calendar (the Thursday after Holy Trinity Sunday). He then asked St. Thomas to compose suitable hymns to be sung on this holy day – especially necessary for vowed religious saying the Divine Office. What Aquinas composed remain the most beautiful and theologically rich Eucharistic hymns in the history of Catholic Sacred Music. Various composers throughout the centuries have set Aquinas’ words to music – some particular favorites can be found in this collection – but, often, plainchant settings can be the most affective. In this icon, the phrase O res mirabilis! (“O remarkable reality”) is taken from the hymn Panis Angelicus (“The bread of angels”) and Tantum ergo sacramentum (“So great, therefore, a sacrament”) is taken from the hymn of the same name; located in the larger cycle known as Pange lingua gloriosi (“Acclaim, my tongue, the glory”). Both of these quotations, of course, reflect Aquinas’ profound devotion to the Eucharist. The artist has even reinforced this aspect of his spirituality by placing strands of wheat atop the volume which St. Thomas is holding.
According to yet another tale, after placing a treatise he wrote on the Blessed Sacrament upon an altar, St. Thomas heard a voice emanating from the crucifix resting there. The voice said, “Thomas, you have written well concerning the Sacrament of my Body,” and then asked the friar what he would like as a reward. St. Thomas responded with the words: “I will have Thyself, only Thyself.” Though he is best remembered for his prodigious and voluminous theological and philosophical writings, Aquinas was, first and foremost, a great saint! From time to time I think it helps us to recall that the word “saint” is derived from the Latin sanctus, which means “holy.” For the Christian, holiness means “putting on Christ” (Gal 3:27). In this icon, the artist has used every image surrounding the “portrait” of St. Thomas to emphasize his union with the person of Jesus Christ. This is communicated by the quotation acknowledging that this union transcends the limits of human understanding, as well as by those reflecting St. Thomas’ Eucharistic spirituality. It is also achieved by the images of Christ’s life encircling Aquinas’ halo. By imitating the stained glass one might find in a Gothic cathedral, these scenes emphasize that the person of Christ is to be found in His Church, His Body (1 Cor 12:27). In short, this icon is thoroughly sacramental – as is the very medium of iconography. And, while gazing at St. Thomas’ wry and subtle smile, I like to think that it depicts him being given precisely what he asked for: “I will have Thyself, only Thyself.”
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.