Sunday, May 6, 2012

Awful Hymns

I go to Mass on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Even though Sunday is the Lord's Day, and should be the high-point of the liturgical and devotional week, I have to admit that I much prefer Saturday morning Mass. And the main reason is the awful hymns that have to be sung on a Sunday (we don't sing any hymns on a Saturday).

Now, I know the Mass is not an aesthetic experience. I am not there to be entertained. And I know further that every validly-celebrated Mass is quite literally Heaven on Earth, and that we stand in the presence of all the saints, angels, martyrs and apostles in each celebration-- and, mostly importantly, Our Lord himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

So I don't attach too much importance to my own aesthetic preferences, but I do think aesthetics are an aid to devotion. When the priest urges us to lift up our hearts, it is easier to do so when our hearts have already been lifted by the ritual and atmosphere-- and harder to do so when they have been downcast by banal and uninspired hymns.

Some hymns are amongst the greatest poems in the language. I have to admit that the hymns I really admire tend to be Protestant hymns. Take Bunyan's To Be a Pilgrim:

He who would valiant be
'Gainst all disaster
Let him in constancy
Follow the master
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

That swells the heart and braces the soul. It is an evocation of spiritual warfare, of spiritual heroics. It is a manly hymn. And the metre adds to the meaning, with each line rising to a climax.

Now take one of the hymns we sung at Mass today:

The Lord will heal the broken heart
God will seek the lost and find them.

I will bless the Lord all of my days.
I will bless the Lord and give God praise.
For the humble heart the Lord will guard
In the Father's care may you rest from harm.

Can the spirit really rise up at words like this? They are flat, unfeeling, dutiful. There is no movement of thought from line to line; you could almost switch the lines around into any other order.

Let it not be thought that I am merely preferring a more vainglorious hymn to one of humble submission and reliance. It is not a question of subject matter. We could take a hymn whose tone is almost opposite to that of To Be a Pilgrim, but that is equally masterful-- I mean Abide with Me:

Abide with me; fast falls the even-tide
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other comforts fail, and helpers flee
Help of the helpless thou, abide with me.

Those are lines to give you goose-pimples!

I am of the same temperament, in regard to hymns, as CS Lewis: "What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better and shorter hymns; chiefly fewer". (On Church Music.)

This, however, is what Pope Benedict wrote when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

The importance of music in biblical religion is shown very simply by the fact that verb "to sing" (which related words such as "song", and so forth) is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible. It occurs 309 times in the Old Testament and thirty-six in the New. When man comes into contact with God mere speech is not enough. Areas of existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song.

Bah. It seems a Catholic is stuck with hymns (especially since our Lord is recorded as having sung one with his disciples at the Last Supper). But can't we at least have good hymns? Can we have some decent new hymns, or else just revert to decent old hymns, as a part of Church renewal in Ireland?

To soften the curmudgeonliness of this post, let me add that the recessional hymn at today's Mass is actually one that I have always found almost breathtakingly gracious and simple and moving.

As I kneel before you, as I bow my head in prayer
Take this day, make it yours and fill me with your love.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu.

All I have I give you, every wish and dream are yours;
Mother of Christ, mother of mine, present them to my Lord. 

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu.


  1. You would have been deeply encouraged to hear my uncle expounding on this same subject some weeks ago. As nearly as I can remember, he used these excellent words to describe a particularly pathetic hymn, sung at a particularly pathetic tempo: "It doesn't sound like the Church Militant. It sounds like people trudging along, heads drooping, banners dragging. . ." I do like a good (mind you, a *good* hymn) myself (I'm partial to "Adoro Te Devote"), but would hasten to agree that there is something incomparably wonderful in the deep quiet that accompanies the arrival of Our Lord early in the morning.

  2. It's the best. Although yesterday they sang "Hail Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star" which almost gives me goosebumps.