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St. Thomas Aquinas on Reflexivity

What humans did to the world has taken its toll. COVID-19 is called the "sin of the anthropocene.” The world now speaks back. We need to listen.

I have been a follower of Thomas Aquinas since my Bachelor of Theology days at the University of Santo Tomas more than 30 years ago. I was reacting to very rigid readings of his writings by some professors back then. But within me was a deep attraction to his theological intuitions. Today, I would like to celebrate the feast of this great theologian by going back to a crucial incident in the last years of his life.

Contemporary thinkers talk about the limits of science in all fields. They call it “reflexivity.” The great Albert Einstein said about mathematics, supposed to be an exact science: “As far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

Reflexivity’s etymological roots point to something crucial to its meaning: to be reflexive means “to bend again” or “to bend back.” It merely means that we humans do not have the last word. The “other” can speak back. The pandemic reveals it to us. What humans did to the world has taken its toll. COVID-19 is called the “sin of the anthropocene.” The world now speaks back. We need to listen.




Aquinas already applied reflexivity to theological science more than 800 years ago. For him, the “Totally Other” whom we call God speaks. He stopped and listened.

On a Wednesday morning – 6th of December 1273 – three months before he died, Thomas Aquinas was celebrating Mass during which he was deeply struck. This event changed him profoundly. According to a witness during his canonization (i.e., Bartholomew of Capua – who himself also heard it from Friar Reginald), “after this Mass, he [Thomas Aquinas] never wrote or dictated anything. In fact, he hung up his writing instruments (an allusion to the Jews who hung up their instruments during the exile) in the third part of the Summa, in the treatise on Penance.”

Reginald, who was afraid that Thomas was going to drastically change his routine, asked him why. “Reginald, I cannot,” Thomas replied, “because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”

Now physically and mentally unable to do what he used to, all that Thomas did since then was pray and accept this inability. Later that December or in the early January of the next year, Thomas had to visit his sister, Countess Theodora of San Severino. The latter got so worried about her brother’s situation that she requested Reginald again to inquire what actually had happened. Due to Reginald’s insistence, Thomas obliged:

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“Promise me, by the living God Almighty and by the loyalty to our Order and by the love you bear me, that you will never reveal, as long as I live, what I shall tell you. All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

Aquinas’ foremost biographer, James Weispheipl, identifies two aspects of this experience: one, physical and mental; the other, mystical. He thinks that Thomas must have suffered a stroke that caused some brain hemorrhage and a breakdown of his normal physical and mental functions. In fact, after the event, Thomas also suffered from impaired speech, which is also a stroke’s accompanying symptom. Or, it could have also been caused by total exhaustion due to a lifetime of intense mental work.

But to view what one has worked for as worthless and hollow like “straw” in front of the mystery that is revealed also discloses another dimension – that of a mystical experience, as many of his biographers claim.

For after the incident, Thomas still continued to follow his ordinary day, especially his life of prayer. He even still took a journey to the Second Council of Lyons as requested by Pope Gregory X, on the way of which he died. All that Thomas refused to do was to continue writing down his theological insights.

We recall this incident at this point to argue that there is a limit to our theological language. This is a good reminder to theologians, philosophers, but to all scientists, professionals, researchers, teachers—all those in the academic field, for that matter.

Our theoretical undertakings, no matter how necessary, do not have the last word. Theoria can never fully approximate praxis. Theory cannot fully comprehend life. The last word has to come from life itself, the Totally Other.

Theology, once considered the “queen of the sciences,” the one who gets to wear the crown of all discourses, in the way that John Milbank wants to project it in our times, is most often at risk of forgetting this history, that is, its limits and inadequacy.

While beholding the unfinished “Summa Theologica,” a realization dawned on Thomas: that no theoretical scheme, no matter how comprehensive and splendid, can fully fathom and articulate the divine mystery.

We have seen how, in Aquinas, “sacra doctrina” takes its principles from a higher science, i.e., “scientia Dei” (ST I, Q. 1, a. 2). Scientia Dei (the science of God), the knowledge communicated in sacra doctrina (sacred doctrine or theology), is first and foremost God’s own eternal act of knowing which is also intrinsically participated in by the “blessed” in Dei (vision of God).

In Summa Theologiae I, Q. 12, a. 1,[3] Thomas is in polemics with the neo-Platonic overly negative theology, thus, arguing that God’s essence and knowledge can in fact be participated by finite minds and “created intellects.” For the “blessed” in patria (in the heavenly homeland) in fact can enjoy the vision of the divine essence.

But Aquinas did not also abandon Pseudo-Dionysius altogether for, even in patria, in what Aquinas postulates as the “lumen gloriae” (the light of glory), God remains incomprehensible in Him/Herself since no created intellect will ever grasp God in His/Her unique status as “Ipsum Esse Subsistens.”

Thus, those of us in via (on the way, on earthly pilgrimage) can even much less do so. We can only look “through a glass, darkly” (to use the title of a novel by the author of Sophie’s World); in fact, quite darkly.

This makes Thomas Aquinas, for all his brilliance, see his Summa as “straw” compared to the “lumen gloriae” beyond the veil that was about to be torn before his mortal eyes.

Posted by the author on January 28, 2022, Feast of St Thomas Aquinas. Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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