These short snippets about a very stupid but revered holy man were first published in Hundreds and Hundreds (Puffin 1984), an anthology I edited in celebration of the NSPCC’s 100th anniversary. They still make me laugh…
This year we celebrate the centenary of the Blessed St Thick. We might as well, because the exact year of the saint’s birth is not known. He himself could never tell how old he was, being unable to count beyond four. (His thumb confused him.) Because ordinary people found it easier to identify with St Thick than with other men of great holiness and learning, many legends are told of him. Here are a few.
One evening the Devil came to St Thick and offered to make him clever. St Thick was sorely tempted, but he had been cheated so often by men taking advantage of his simplicity that he at last learnt a thing or two.
‘What’s in it for you?’ he asked.
‘Just my usual fee,’ said the Devil. ‘Sign here.’
And he produced a pen and a bottle of special ink, stronger than dragon’s blood, made from the brimstone cinders of the pit.
‘I cannot write my name,’ said St Thick.
‘Then make your mark,’ said the Devil. ‘That will do.’
St Thick dipped the pen in the ink, but not being used to pens he dropped a great blot on the document, just where the words were written signing his soul away.
‘Fool,’ said the Devil. ‘I’ll have to write it all again.’
To cover his embarrassment the saint looked around for something to drink. Seeing the ink-bottle he picked it up and swallowed the contents, the Lord miraculously hardening his gullet for the purpose. By this time the Devil was in such a rage that St Thick thought he had better make his mark to pacify him, so he picked up the pen and with the last ink on it made the only mark he knew. Not a × but a † . This caused the Devil to disappear in a puff of sulphur.
‘That was good strong liquor,’ said the saint.
Attila the Hun was on his way to sack Rome when he met St Thick, praying by the wayside. St Thick was only on his way to the next village, but he had forgotten the road and was praying for guidance. Seeing a harmless stranger, Attila the Hun, as was his custom, lifted up his great club and smote the saint on the skull, intending to bash his brains out. But such was the marvellous thickness of the saint’s cranium that the club splintered into a hundred pieces. Deeply impressed, Attila the Hun ordered the saint to guide him to Rome, but St Thick had a slight ringing in the ears after the blow and thought he was asking to be taken to the saint’s home.
Now, as it happened the saint had just set up home in a commodious cave, unaware that a large and savage bear was hibernating there. He ushered Attila the Hun into the cave just as the bear woke up and came lumbering out, looking for a good meal. That was the end of Attila the Hun, and so the Holy City of Rome was saved from sack by the miraculous stupidity of St Thick.
The Pope decreed that the lack of learning of certain holy men was a scandal to the Church, and to set an example he commissioned a hundred learned scholars to teach St Thick the rudiments of the Faith. They taught him for a year and a day, working in shifts, and at the end of that time he was not a comma wiser. So the Pope, to remove the scandal, told St Thick to go and convert the heathen. Obediently St Thick went down to the shore and found two short planks, which he lashed together and made a raft. The wind blew him from shore, and he was lost to sight.
A year and a day later he returned, saying that he had sailed to a great land, where the people had copper skins and wore great feathered head-dresses and signalled to each other with smoke and a lot of other absurd and incredible stories.
‘But did you convert them to the Faith?’ said the Pope.
‘I taught them everything I knew,’ said St Thick.
‘That won’t have taken long,’ said the Pope, in his scornful pride.
But it is well to remember that St Thick had discovered America, which was more than that Pope could say for himself.
St Thomas Aquinas, as everyone knows, was the wisest man ever. No knowledge in all the world was beyond him, or so he thought. In the pride of his great learning he set out to search the world and see if there was anything he did not know. He travelled through all the lands of Christendom and found nothing, so he started for home. On the last night of his long journey he put up at an inn and by chance he found St Thick, who had gone there hearing the singing and mistaking it for a place of worship. The saints fell into conversation. All night St Thomas studied the different facets of the ignorance of St Thick, and as the sun rose he fell on his knees and said, ‘I have been saved from a great sin. I thought I knew all that could be known, but I do not know how it is possible for a man to be so stupid as this holy brother.’ And he blessed St Thick and bought him a pint of wine and went humbly home.
When St Thick died and came to the gates of Heaven, he stood and stared at the infinite jewelled walls and the glittering pinnacles and all the holy spirits like different coloured flames moving among them. He fell on his knees, ashamed of his stupidity, and let the other dead souls crowd by. As he knelt there his eye fell on a pebble — nothing but a pebble, fallen from the shoe of some pilgrim. He picked it up and began to turn it over in his palm.
Evening came, and St Peter was about to shut the gate, when he saw the old man kneeling in the dust, gazing at something in his hand.
‘What have you there, friend?’ said St Peter. ‘And aren’t you coming in?’
‘Oh, it’s just a pebble I picked up. An amazing thing is a pebble.’
‘We have wonders much greater than that to show you inside,’ said St Peter. ‘You must be very easily amazed.’
‘Oh yes, I am,’ said St Thick. ‘I think, sir, the wonders of heaven might be too much for me. I am better off with my pebble, wondering at the roundness of it, and the greyness of it, and the hardness of it, and that it should exist at all.’
‘No doubt it was put there for you to find and think about,’ said St Peter. ‘My brother, you know something that the wisest of men do not always know. Come in. You will not be ashamed.’
So St Thick went through the gates, and the angels sang for him and he understood their song, and his pebble was set in the midmost point of the Throne, where a space had lain waiting for it since before time was.© Peter Dickinson 1984