In a nearby convent there was a nun who had taken to levitating during mystical prayer. The people were, of course, stupefied by this astounding miracle and were flocking to see the flying nun. The novices in Thomas’ friary were just as excited as the others and dragged the great philosopher off to see the floating sister. Thomas joined the crowd and gazed up at this amazing sight. Then, when the brothers asked him what he thought he said, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.”
It’s a good response to the mystical, the marvelous, the magical, the miraculous and the mysterious. On the one hand he didn’t deny that such things could happen. He didn’t dismiss the supernatural, but neither was he that impressed by it. For Thomas Aquinas a floating nun didn’t prove anything except that you can’t prove anything. In other words, the whole world is far more mysterious and strange than we thought it was. Those who would make out that the world runs on fixed and unchangeable principles have got it wrong. The cosmos is more flexible than we thought. Reality is rubbery.
Thomas’ response to the flying nun shows us the proper response to the supernatural. Faced with apparitions of Mary? Incorrupt bodies of saints? Inner locutions? the gift of bi-location? Eucharistic miracles? Reading souls? Speaking in tongues, miraculous healings? Fatima? Flying nuns? We should just shrug and say, “Hmm. That’s interesting. I’m not surprised. Weird things happen.”
We don’t use these things as proof of the Christian faith, but we do use them as evidence that there is more out there than the cynics, the atheists and the materialists have accounted for. They may one day be able to give a “scientific explanation” for the things we consider miracles. That’s okay. All we were saying in the first place is that things are not always what they seem, that the cosmos has room for surprises and the very laws that govern the universe are not quite as solid as we like to think.
However. However. My other favorite story about the fat philosopher is the one told at the end of his life. He had written volumes of his great philosophical and theological work. He was one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Even atheist philosophers grant that Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant thinkers ever. But at the end of his life he had a mystical experience. He never said what he saw, but he did, from that point on, not write another word and said, “All that I have written seems like so much straw to me compared to what I have seen.”
There is the proper balance between the intellectual and the mystical. When he saw the floating nun his intellect sorted the experience and filtered it. He did not exclude it, but fit the unexplainable into the rest of his philosophy. It was extraordinary, but not overwhelming. His openness to the supernatural, however, allowed that mystical experience whereby he was able to validate all that he had written and put it on one side.
This is also where we should be in our relationship between the mystical, the supernatural and the miraculous and the rational and intellectual. The two work together–neither being so rational as to exclude the miraculous nor being so credulous as to nullify rationality.
Faith and Reason working together–like two legs pedaling a bike– or like two wings whereby we fly.