A Tale of Two Wonderworkers: St. Nicholas of Myra in the Writings and Life of St. Thomas Aquinas
By Peter A. Kwasniewski
Angelicum, Vol. 82 (2005)
Abstract: As biographers of St. Thomas have often observed, the personality and interior life of the Angelic Doctor must be judged by signs, stories, and silences, since he himself left us no Confessions, no Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Yet, as recent authors like Jean-Pierre Torrell have demonstrated, a patient search uncovers many clues in the saint’s writings, clues that offer valuable insights into his life and work. One subject that has never been closely investigated is the saint’s relationship to another famous saint, Nicholas of Myra, on whose feast in 1273 Thomas experienced the mystical vision that led to the definitive cessation of his writings. In this article I argue that the date of the vision was no mere coincidence: a closer look hints at deep connections between the medieval mendicant and the beloved bishop. One fascinating piece of evidence is a Parisian university sermon preached in honor of St. Nicholas by Friar Thomas during his second regency (so, on December 6, 1269, 1270, or 1271) — a sermon that has only recently been discovered. This sermon is given to the public for the first time, in the form of a translation made from the provisional critical edition and appended to this article.
Introduction: “The theology of St. Thomas is easily distorted,” Père Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote, “if we misplace the emphasis on what is secondary and material, thus explaining in a banal manner and without due proportion what is formal and principal in it. By so doing we fail to see the glowing summit that should illumine all the rest.” What is this “glowing summit”? As a mountain face or a building’s façade can look quite different at different hours of the day, from dawn to noontide to gloaming—an effect brilliantly conveyed in Monet’s successive paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral—so, too, does the landscape of Aquinas’s theology offer many different views of its elevations to those who gaze out over it. To one, the summit that stands out is the metaphysics of esse inspired by the God who declared Ego sum qui sum; to another, it is the primacy of charity or of the common good; to yet another, the mystery of the Incarnation, with its crowning events in the Paschal Triduum and their perpetual presence in the Mystical Body. Speaking of St. Thomas’s doctrine, all of these statements have their truth. Speaking of St. Thomas’s life, however, surely the glowing summit was the overwhelming vision granted him near the end of his earthly pilgrimage, on the Feast of St. Nicholas in the year 1273, an ineffable “suffering of divine things” that can be taken as the symbol, summit, and completion of his life’s labors.
In an earlier article, I tried to show the biographical and theological significance of this mystical experience. Here, I shall argue that there is a more than passing connection between the divine crowning of St. Thomas’s life and the devotional cultus of St. Nicholas. I will examine texts of Aquinas in which Nicholas is explicitly mentioned, giving special attention to a sermon preached by the former in honor of the latter—a most unusual and precious document whose very existence has only been known to a few specialists, since the text itself has never been published. The Leonine critical edition of the sermons is nearing completion, but meanwhile, and for the purposes of a better diffusion, a translation of the sermon in question has been appended. Having reviewed the documentary evidence, I shall then devote the remainder of the article to building up a plausible case for discerning, with the eyes of faith, the marks of the holy bishop’s decisive intervention in the event that led to the silence of St. Thomas.