by John Samuel Tieman
There’s a blaze of light
In every word,
It doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken – Hallelujah!
Not long ago, a student asked, “Dr. Tieman, when you were a kid, which poet influenced you the most?” I was surprised by my own answer: St. Thomas Aquinas.
I’ve heard a lot of great poets in my day, and heard them read some of the greatest poems of our era. I heard Allen Ginsberg do the whole of “Howl” from memory. I heard Yevgeny Yevtushanko recite “Babi Yar”. Yehuda Amachai and his “Seven Laments”. Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog”. John Okai’s “Aayalolo Concerto”, and his words which will stay with me for the rest of my life –
Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive
I’ve heard a lot of great poets and their poetry. This is a list that can fill pages. And I haven’t even gotten into that distinct yet related topic, great lyrics. I heard Leonard Cohen sing “Suzanne”. But about that student’s question.
I was born and raised in St. Louis. We used to brag that we were “The Rome Of The New World.” Meaning it’s very Catholic. It is, after all, a city named after a saint. For readers who know St. Louis, I was raised in University City, the Jewish enclave. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school. In grade school, we attended Mass every day – Every day! – before school. That’s weekdays. Then there was Sunday. The occasional Holy Day, which fell on a Saturday, was considered a real rip-off. Ours was a small church, Christ The King. Very art deco. But very small. In my travels, I’ve seen larger chapels.
The design was all that was modern. I once asked my mother about a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Oh, that’s one of those new hymns,” she said. I then noticed that it was written around 1750.
It never occurred to me, until decades later, that there’s something exotic about the notion that there’s the language in which you converse, and the language in which you pray. My Jewish buddies prayed in Hebrew, and I prayed in Latin. (It also never occurred to me that there’s also something odd about a little Catholic kid kvetching the whole time he schleps a ton of books to school. But the Yiddish influence is another essay.) In this pre-Vatican II world, I don’t remember anyone who really had understanding of Latin. Understand in the sense of effortless. Or understand in the sense that many understand a second language. I used to live in Mexico City, but, when I speak Spanish, I frequently have to pause, search my mental dictionary. But Latin, with maybe the exception of a priest or a nun, Latin we knew by rote. In our missals, the Latin was on the left, and the English translation was immediately to the right. The recurring bits of the Mass, these we simply memorized. To this day, I can recite the “Credo”, “Gloria”, the “Sanctus”, all from memory. My point being that, while we didn’t own the words, we did own the poetry.
But about St. Thomas Aquinas. Last Sunday, I saw “60 Minutes”. In the opening segment, Pope Benedict was consecrating, as a basilica, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The choir sang the “Panis Angelicus” by Thomas Aquinas.
That was our Communion hymn when I was a boy. “Panis angelicus / fit panis hominum”. Angelic bread / becomes the bread of humanity. For a few seconds, I was back in that little church, Christ The King. And there they all were, my mother, Uncle Earl, Aunt Helen, my brother, my sister. Gramps. My grandmother. My neighbors both sinner and saint. My playmates. All at the Communion rail. Monsignor Ryan, Father MacCarthy, Sister Mary Amabilis, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Rosella. There they all were. Fifty-five years wiped away by words of a medieval poet.
And that’s what I learned from Thomas Aquinas. That the words matter. That the words can last. But more than that. More than even their ability to transport us through time and space. Once, in a small church in the Midwest, we sang a poem, a poem beautiful, pure and holy. And that poem was us.