It’s All Straw?

Today we celebrate one of the most revered brothers of our Order, St. Thomas Aquinas.  Students of his writing know his work is not immediately or easily accessible.  St. Augustine’s Confesiones, for example, are more “accessible” than St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiæ.

Straw = worthless, right?

In light of this, St. Thomas is famous for saying, “It’s all straw.”  These words, spoken by the Angelic Doctor toward the end of his life, are sometimes offered as a reason for not reading, understanding, or agreeing with his work.  On several occasions, well-meaning people have quoted to me these words.  Used in this way, St. Thomas’ words lend themselves to a mild anti-intellectualism, as though his dusty old tomes and the words contained therein could easily be dispensed with.  In this sense, “straw” becomes a synonym for “worthless,” “extraneous,” or “useless.”  Used more severely, “It’s all straw” can be used as a bludgeon against academic study: “Ivory tower academics waste their time arguing over straw.”

These words above (dubiously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi) appear on bumper stickers and high school religion classroom walls.  Discussing this phrase, a Dominican friar once said, “And a Dominican reply is, ‘Yes, and words are often necessary!’”  Words are immensely powerful.  Someone in love with another, uncertain if the other knows his love, is overcome with joy upon hearing the words “I love you” spoken by the other. 


Words – logos – and actions – praxis ­– need each other: logos precedes and guides praxis.  It bears remembering that in the beginning was not the deed (contra Goethe’s Faust), but the Word, and that Word became flesh.  Lest we fall into a heated argument, overstate our convictions, and claim things we don’t really believe, we bear in mind that logos and praxis need each other.  


Words matter: spoken, written, or in the mind.  St. Thomas’ life testifies to this: after his vision, he didn’t command his brother friars to destroy his work and he did not repudiate them.  If his written words were straw, i.e. worthless, why did he obey the Pope’s call to travel to the Council of Lyons?  On the way to Lyons, a very ill St. Thomas responded to a question from a monastic abbey: how can we truly be free if God already knows what we’re going to do?  The monks wanted him to visit and discuss their question.  Aquinas refused, instead dictating a letter so more people would have access to his words.  Just straw, right?

“Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen.”  In comparison with what I have seen.  No words can capture the mystery of God, as Thomas himself knew.  Words and ideas do not have to encapsulate mystery to be true – or beautiful.


Main photo (stained glass depiction of St. Thomas) courtesy of Photobucket user jakyl32.