The incident that ended Thomas Aquinas’ career as a theologian occurred when he was celebrating Mass on the Feast of St. Nicholas in 1273. According to his friend, Brother Reginald, Aquinas heard Jesus asking him what he wanted as a reward for his service. Aquinas replied, “Only you, Lord.” He was then nearing completion of his monumental Summa Theologica, on which he had labored for nearly a decade. He never wrote another word, despite Reginald’s entreaties. "All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has been revealed to me," Aquinas said, without elaborating.

What exactly was revealed to him that would have caused Aquinas to abandon his life’s work without so much as a backward glance? What so possessed Jesus’ disciples that they dropped their nets by the shores of Galilee to follow an itinerant preacher they had never laid eyes on before? What did St. Paul see when, by his own account, he was caught up into paradise and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” To try to utter the inexpressible is at best a fool’s errand in any case. As Lao Tzu put it, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.”

Ecstatic experience by its very nature seems designed to thwart every effort to convey its essence to the uninitiated. Even to describe it as “ecstatic” can be misleading, since this implies that the experience is primarily characterized by extreme joyfulness, which may indeed accompany it but is actually a by-product of something more fundamental. The word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek ekstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. To stand outside oneself is not the same thing as an out-of-body experience. We image the self is contained within a body. But once we learn to see through the self, we discover we aren’t contained by anything. We are creatures swimming in a vast ocean of being, and the exhilaration we feel is like the rapture of the deep. St. Paul – the man who heard things that cannot be told – told Athenians that in God “we live and move and have our being.” Just so. And so it was that Thomas Aquinas got his wish when he said to Jesus, “Only you, Lord.”

2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Acts 17:28

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