“mihi videtur ut palea” or roughly “to me it seems as chaff”
If these were really Aquinas’ words in answer to Reginald’s question, then in the Christian tradition those words say it all: Aquinas didn’t just believe that he had wasted his time in his writing and philosophizing, he believed he had done evil in the eyes of his God. “Chaff” would have been a metaphor for all that was despicable, self-centered, prideful, deceitful, worldly and vain. It would have elicited a gasp from anyone who esteemed Aquinas’ work and heard him utter those words, you can be sure.
To illustrate, here are some excerpts (emphasis added):
From Job 21:
“How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out? That their calamity comes upon them? That God distributes pains in his anger? That they are like straw before the wind,
and like chaff that the storm carries away? You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’ Let him pay it out to them, that they may know it.”
From Psalms 1:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
From Jeremiah 23 (paraphrased):
“So declares the Lord: Am I a God at hand, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? Do I not fill heaven and earth? I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has chaff in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the LORD.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them.”
From Amos 8:
“Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
From Luke 3:
“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So what event had occurred that would inspire such repudiation and rejection of his life’s work? Others have speculated it was a mystical insight, a sense of disappointment or exasperation, a stroke that disabled him - and certainly any of these could be the case. However, I suspect the answer could be much simpler: it might just be spiritual maturity. Perhaps Aquinas was simply growing up and seeing his own intellectual musings for what they were: a distraction from the holy of holies; a noisy gong or clanging cymbal; an intellectualization of the Divine. Not that they weren’t a useful exercise in themselves - for both Aquinas and those who later appreciated his writings - but they were a stage of development he suddenly felt compelled to leave behind.
As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
I suspect that Aquinas simply (though intensely and abruptly) realized what these words meant…it seems in an enduring and meaningful way.
My 2 cents.
(From Quora question: https://www.quora.com/What-could-St-Thomas-Aquinas-have-seen-in-his-mystical-experience)
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