Tongue-Tied: Muscle Memory in Prayer

From the Dominican High School we attended, my sister has a framed ‘run-off’ copy of the student’s prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas which we were all required to learn and recite in school before examinations. ‘O Thou Infinitely Perfect Creator,’ it began, ‘who out of the treasures of thy Wisdom didst lay out the heavens in beauty . . . ‘ it went on (I believe). I can’t access it in the memory banks in its entirety, nor in the form we learned it from the peripheral back-up memory generator that is the web, but imperfect as it is in memory, something of it inhabits my bones and I treasure it.

I was to have learned it ‘by heart’ but in truth I could not recite it, and not simply because of the anti-authoritarian streak that characterised much of my adolescence. Was there something of the Dumb Ox (the epithet attributed to Aquinas) about me? (The hagiography notes his large size and what they call ‘taciturnity’–which we might call introversion in our day–as the reason for the name.) Introverted, yes, (and stubborn and willful, too, at the time, ox-like qualities, I know, being a farm-girl) but my tongue-tie is more straightforward: my tongue has possibly the worst memory of any muscle in my body! I can recall and taste and savour words and phrases, but whole poems (which, surely this goes without saying, all good prayers should be), word for word – my talents do not follow my desire for, and admiration of, that kind of memory.

I can feel all the way from the soles of my feet to the top of my spine the scrape and rumble of chairs pushing out from desks on wooden parquet flooring and the daily drone of the noon-time Angelus. I remember bumbling through large parts of that not very long prayer, too. It was not that I was opposed to the old-fashioned language, either. No: I have a genuine affiliation and affection for that. All those ‘thees and thous’ engage my enthusiasm because it is important, in my opinion, to have a language that is ‘higher’ (not totally removed, however) to raise our minds in ritual.

The value of recitation (and corporate prayer) is without question. This opinion from Jeanette Winterson underscores its importance:

Any actor will tell you that the way to learn lines is to learn them out loud, and that the repetition of lines seems to explain their meaning. When we read out loud, or when we recite from memory, we have an audience, even if there is no one in the room. We start to convince or entertain an invisible other, and as we do so, both the sense of the passage, and our confidence in it increase. It doesn’t even matter if we don’t understand all the words. Booming out poetry helps kids no end, and is why why why, we need them to grapple with Shakespeare, with Donne, with Dylan Thomas. The more unfamiliar the language the more spectacular the transformation from incomprehension to delight.

A few weeks ago there was, on the topic of memorization and recitation of poetry, an engaging piece over at the Poetry Foundation (Orality, Literature and the Memorized Poem). It’s worth a look not only for the description of the way mind can begin to work on material remembered when the time is right, but also for the part of the analysis catalysed by the Walter Ong S.J. classic, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (in Part III).

I’ve a good number of hours ahead in the next couple of months to be quietly disengaged from my daily interactions proctoring exams and in other university ceremonies, and in preparation for these (and despite my professed weakness in recitation!) customarily tuck away a print of a poem in a pocket that I endeavour to commit to memory. As St. Thomas is the patron of all universities and tomorrow begins our season of entrance examinations to the University, doubtless the prayer would be a good one to revisit!

For an in depth and feminist approach there is Tina Beattie’s Lacanian reading of Thomas Aquinas, Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void. I am about a quarter of the way through a (necessarily!) very slow read and will take in these Symposia, too, which engage the work and the author.



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