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The Dying Thief and the Pelican

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) sets the gold standard for Eucharistic hymns….Let us look at his Adoro Te, translated into English as Lost, All Lost in Wonder, by the great Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross Thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here Thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

[W]ho knows by what breath of the Holy Spirit, the thief calls Jesus, “Lord,” and begs to be remembered. When we receive the Sacrament, we sinners are in the position of that repentant thief. He could not see the divinity of Jesus, but professed it in one magnificent act of faith. We can see, in the host, neither the divinity nor the humanity of Jesus. Yet we believe. We too seek what the thief sought, to hear that tremendous promise: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

…the first line of Aquinas’ next stanza. It refers to a bit of medieval folk wisdom. From a distance, a pelican seems to be feeding its young from its own substance. Medieval people didn’t see pelicans in their neighborhood, so they trusted the report from afar, and used the Pelican as a symbol of Christ. In the Cistercian Quest of the Holy Grail (twelfth century), the good Sir Bors is venturing across the wilderness when he sees a bird in a nest, whose offspring are dead. Then the bird stabs itself in the breast and its nourishing blood brings the chicks to life again. All Aquinas needed to do was to use the word pelican, and his fellows would know what he meant. Hopkins can’t rely on the understanding of his audience, so he alerts us to the fact that there’s a mythological tale in play here, and hopes that we may find our what it is:

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what Thy bosom ran
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with Thy glory’s sight. Amen.

—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, Ch. 7: The Holy Eucharist



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