How to Preach

A question that has arisen recently in these pages concerns the way a hymn might convince the faithful to believe or to act.

Fr. Michael O’Connor, the music editor of the St. Michael Hymnal and a priest of the Order of Preachers, has investigated St. Augustine’s rhetoric of preaching here.  He writes:

Augustine understood well that preaching is ultimately about persuading; about moving a person to act, or rather, to respond to God’s action. But, he also understood that persuasion is not a simple, one-step process. The wisdom of the classical, rhetorical tradition taught him that the art of persuasion includes three elements: teaching, delighting and swaying. Effective preaching, then, is preaching which is aimed at the whole human person: preaching which appeals to the mind through teaching, exposing, correcting and explaining; preaching which captures the imagination, adding delight to the presentation of the truth and making it memorable; and preaching which prods the will with words that implore, rebuke and stir into action. This classical, tripartite schema offers a firm foundation for all preaching, because what has been true, for centuries upon centuries, about the art of persuading the human person, continues to be true today.

The rhetorical powers that often go missing in hymn texts that are deliberately didactic are those of teaching and delighting. Take this example from the wondrously prolific American hymn writer Fanny Crosby:

Blessèd Bible, Book of Gold,
Precious truths thy pages hold,
Truths to lead me day by day
All along my pilgrim way.

Blessèd Bible, pure and true,
Guide me all my journey through;
Heav’nly light within me shine,
Help me make thy precepts mine!
Even young children will see through this hymn and realize that it is a lesson with a moral, a reminder of an obligation and a call to duty, rather than a real, full-bodied hymn. The moral is a good one, but risks being glossed over by those who encounter it. Because of Fr. O’Connor’s analysis–and St. Augustine’s–we can see why. Some of the rhetorician’s tools are missing.These verses do not change the mind by teaching, nor reach the interior by delight.

It seems to me that at their best, hymns look at the way things are, and sing about them. O Sacred Head Surrounded looks at the Crucifixion. Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty looks at the Trinity. The angels’ song Gloria in Excelsis Deo looked at the Incarnation. We see these realities with the eyes of faith and sing about them.