It was most likely on December 6, 1273, one might surmise from the best accounts, that a brother in the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) named Dominic of Caserta, who was serving as sacristan at the priory at Naples, snuck into the chapel of St. Nicholas, to see if he was there once more — that is to say, Thomas Aquinas, who, as this brother had many times observed before, liked to leave his room secretly before Matins, and quietly descend the stairs to the church, in order to pray before the others arrived.
Matins for the early Dominicans was at 3 AM, so we are talking about perhaps 2:00 in the morning. It would have been very dark and cold.
On this occasion however, Nicholas did not simply glance in the chapel to confirm the saint’s presence, as he would usually do, but, for some reason or other, he decided to peer in and look with greater care. What he saw astounded him: Thomas, turned toward a crucifix in an attitude of prayer, was suspended in the air about three feet above the ground, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was levitating.
He was aware that others in the order had spoken of the phenomenon already. In particular, a socius of Thomas, Reginald, and a certain brother James, had witnessed the saint become lifted about five feet off the ground at the high altar once after Matins. But Dominic was so amazed that he kept looking on in wonderment and awe – for how long he did not quite know.
Then, suddenly, he heard a voice, very clear and articulate, coming from the crucifix and speaking to the saint: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What compensation, therefore, would you like to receive for this your work?”
He then heard the saint say in reply. . .
Well, what did St. Thomas say? It is a popular story, repeated thousands of times. You probably have heard it. The background for the story, given above, I have taken directly from one of the earliest lives of St. Thomas, composed by Bernard of Gui in 1318 for the canonization proceedings, about 45 years after the saint’s passing. I am guessing you did not know that his biographer included the story as much for its witness to the saint’s levitation as for the famous colloquy with Our Lord in the crucifix.
I’m also guessing you do not know the saint’s words. In those popular accounts, we are told that St. Thomas said, Domine, non nisi te. Also, we are told that these words mean, “Lord, nothing except you.” But Bernard of Gui gives different words. He reports St. Thomas as saying, “Lord, I would not accept another compensation, without you yourself.” (In Latin: Domine, non aliam mercedem recipiam, nisi teipsum.)
The difference is significant. In the popular accounts, St. Thomas is saying that he wants and expects no compensation, that the possession of Our Lord is enough – call it “St. Thomas the Personalist,” or maybe even “St. Thomas the Kantian.” In Gui’s telling, by contrast, St. Thomas is saying that he would be pleased with compensation. It even seems to imply that he was hoping for it. But he says that he would not be satisfied with any compensation that did not include the possession of the Lord himself. In brief, it’s a difference in whether the concept of merit, and of heavenly reward along the lines of wages earned, enters into St. Thomas’s thought or not.
It’s something like the difference between: Your wife asks what cake you’d like for your birthday, and you say either (1) I don’t want a cake; all I want is you; or (2) I don’t want a cake except one that you are baking for me and serving to me.
Gui goes on to explain the colloquy in a way that definitely supports the second mode of interpretation:
Thomas had been writing at the time the third and last part of the Summa theologiae, where he had been dealing with the Incarnation, birth, Passion, and resurrection of Christ. . . .Since the Lord had posed this question about compensation, he was given to understand that his recent labor would mark the end of his work. And indeed he wrote little after this. Accordingly, he asked to have, as an appropriate compensation, that when he reached his homeland, he should be refreshed with the fullest savor of the One by whom, on this way of pilgrimage, his life had been sweetened with such sweetness.
Gui’s explanation uses language apparently drawn from St. Thomas’s Eucharistic hymns, especially Adoro Te Devote.
And none of this is surprising if one looks at St. Thomas’s own discussion of merit in the Summa (I-II, q. 114).
But we can be absolutely certain that if Thomas’s words were indeed Domini, non nisi te (as William of Tocco, another earlier biographer, has it) these words do not mean “Lord, nothing except you.” Non is a negative; it requires a verb to negate. Non is not a substantive, nihil, “nothing.” In the over 80 occurrences of non nisi in the Summa, it always means “not without,” and “not” picks up a verb.
Without doubt, then, Gui states the meaning correctly. The versions are disparate only because Tocco wrote with compression, relying on the context to fill out the meaning, or Gui expanded St. Thomas’s terse reply, correctly explaining its meaning, given the question. Those hundreds of versions on the internet posted by bishops, Dominicans, and even classical academies, explaining “non nisi te” as “nothing except you,” are all wrong.
Some lessons to draw from all this? Learn Latin to consult primary sources yourself. Don’t put too much stock on stories repeated on the internet and taken from there to embellish sermons and dinner speeches. The true story with its craggy details will always be more interesting.
But, above all, imitate St. Thomas as best we can in prayer, Eucharistic devotion, and hope of heavenly reward.