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loose canons
There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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3: The theologian who trashed his theology
HERE IS LITTLE SCOPE FOR overstating the extreme cleverness of Thomas Aquinas. "Very clever", for example, would be a grave understatement.

His books are quite incomprehensible to most mortals. Fortunately, there are many books written to explain Thomas's books. Unfortunately, anyone who understands Thomas immediately becomes incomprehensible as well, so they don't get us very far.

Not a likely passenger on the Ship of Fools, you might think. He's considered one of the greatest thinkers in history, by people who know about thinking. His influence on Christian ideas has been immeasurable. And he invented the limerick – although it has to be said that his own efforts weren't terribly funny.

He was entirely obsessed with deep and clever thinking. Ecclesiastical dignitaries and fellow brain-boxes would travel across the world to compare notes or tap his thoughts, only to find they couldn't get a word out of him, because he was too engrossed in mulling things over.

His greatest work of all was the
Summary of Theology, a big title for the biggest book you've ever seen (and if you've seen it you'll probably have seen some other pretty big books as well). In this he ties up all those little nagging questions about who is God, what is everything else, the meaning of life, and whether the Risen Christ had phlegm.

By St Nicholas's Day 1273, he was 49 and had been writing the book for eight years, with no end in sight. That day, he sat in his cell and wrote the words: "The parts of penitence, because they are actions, have these last two relationships of power and order in time, but no order of position..."

He laid down his quill and went out to Mass. When he came back, he looked even more distracted and overawed than normal. The monks asked him if he was all right, and he murmered, "I've met God."

Thomas continued in this state for a worryingly long time. In the end they suggested he go back to his cell and get on with that book they were eagerly awaiting the next volume of.

"Oh no," he said. "I've met God. That's just a big pile of straw."

And sure enough, he didn't write another word of theology for the rest of his life. (Although, admittedly, that wasn't especially long, because he died in a freak donkey-riding accident the following year.)

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