Circuibo

I have gone round, and have offered up in his tabernacle a sacrifice of jubilation: I will sing, and recite a psalm to the Lord.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

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Church music and the divinity of the Lord

When Arius argued a heterodox opinion and spread it through hymns, St. Ephrem famously counterargued, writing sound teaching in hymns set to the same tunes.

When the see of Milan was threatened with destruction, St. Ambrose wrote hymns to encourage his flock.

How can liturgical music help the Church in our days, scourged as she is these days by fightings without and fears within?

  1. Follow the liturgical year using the Proper texts of the Mass. The antiphons themselves are very nourishing, filling the imagination with scriptural prayers, often intimate cries for help to God. They introduce Psalms, and sometimes highlight beautifully Christological senses of the Psalms. They dig deeply into the meaning of the great feasts and announce them, framing our understanding of the mysteries of God.
  2. Choose musical settings that help people to pray. If there is one thing missing in modern life, it is a sense of peace. The Church has vast libraries of music that fill the mind and soul with a feeling of spaciousness and rest, much as the soaring spaces of gothic cathedrals fill the imagination with room to dwell in. If our Christian anthropology is correct, if we are “fearfully, wonderfully made,” then the superficial pastimes where our minds ordinarily live cannot possibly satisfy our souls. God can, and music, particularly chant and polyphony, can build aural spaces where the faculties can wander, recollected, innocent, and at peace.
  3. Set the bar a little high, for the sake of teaching. Church architecture, furnishing, and music, at their best, are themselves a liberal arts education. This is immensely important in the spiritual life. It is pretty hard to fool someone whose mind has been freed to think. Some of our best hymns, through the use of beauty, metaphor and simile, and by their sheer literary fluency, help free the mind to  see and think through the difficult aspects of life–and to pray. Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness. God has brought His Israel into joy from sadness, loosed from Pharoah’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters, led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters. Singing texts like these with understanding, which takes some work to do, is an education. The Orthodox have a saying: “The best theologian in the Church is the little old lady in the third row.” God can teach, and those who sing for the Church can help.
  4. Sing worthy music with children. It almost goes without saying that children outgrow childish music. When they outgrow the music, won’t they be in danger of likewise outgrowing the faith? Given the number of young people who either outgrow their faith, becoming “nones,” or who turn to more formal expressions such as the Extraordinary Form, it seems worth looking at the option of teaching young people the best liturgical music–chant and polyphony, according to the Second Vatican Council–from their earliest years.
  5. Choose hymns that testify to Jesus’ Divine Sonship. Like the Arians of long ago, our greatest danger is losing our dependence on the Sacred Humanity, the divine Gift given in the Incarnation. The reason He is the way, the truth, and the life is this unique relationship between the human and divine natures of the Lord Jesus. Since He is our salvation, we should be singing about Him. An awful lot of songs do not, including a remarkable number of Communion hymns in common use. Since there is no other name, since He inspires and perfects our faith, we should be singing hymns that keep our eyes fixed on Him.

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A hymn for Trinity Sunday

This Sunday’s first reading in the Ordinary Form was recast into a hymn by the outstanding but troubled poet William Cowper.
Hymns that quote Scripture at length are rather difficult to write, which makes the fluency of this one all the more remarkable. Writing a hymn free-style, without predetermined content, is much easier, especially in a rhyme-poor language like English.
Like any art, hymn writing, apart from inspiration and prayer, is a series of problems to be solved. When working on a hymn from one’s own meditations and imagination, a rhyme problem that is not easily solved can simply be abandoned, and a new idea, with new potential rhymes, can be substituted. Like an organist moving forward through an improvisation, one can choose to take possible roads, rather than highly difficult ones. There are so many beautiful things that can be said about the faith, that good hymns are possible to write even if the initial trajectory has to be abandoned.
It is different in cases of lengthy quotes from Scripture, or translations from the Latin. One has to stay on the subject that is given rather than moving on to a new aspect of the divine plan. The American Anglican F. Bland Tucker, one of the editors of both the 1940 and 1982 Episcopal hymnals, was outstanding at paraphrase. He is well-known among Catholics for his Father, We Thank Thee Who Hast Planted, which paraphrases the anaphora recorded in the Didache. Perhaps even finer is his incorporation of the Hymn to the Philippians (Phil 2: 6:10) into his majestic All Praise to Thee, for Thou O King Divine.
Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was a parishioner of John Newton’s, and a top-drawer poet of both sacred and secular works. To help him through his serious psychological struggles and scruples, Newton engaged Cowper to write hymns, and the two collaborated on the celebrated Olney Hymns, which include Newton’s Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, as well as Cowper’s God Moves in a Mysterious Way and the following, which may be sung to the tune AURELIA (The Church’s One Foundation).
Wisdom by William Cowper
(Proverbs, viii. 22-31)

“Ere God had built the mountains,
Or raised the fruitful hills;
Before he fill’d the fountains
That feed the running rills;
In me from everlasting,
The wonderful I am,
Found pleasures never wasting,
And Wisdom is my name.

“When, like a tent to dwell in,
He spread the skies abroad,
And swathed about the swelling
Of Ocean’s mighty flood;
He wrought by weight and measure,
And I was with Him then:
Myself the Father’s pleasure,
And mine, the sons of men.”

Thus Wisdom’s words discover
Thy glory and Thy grace,
Thou everlasting lover
Of our unworthy race!
Thy gracious eye survey’d us
Ere stars were seen above;
In wisdom thou hast made us,
And died for us in love.

And couldst thou be delighted
With creatures such as we,
Who, when we saw Thee, slighted,
And nail’d Thee to a tree?
Unfathomable wonder,
And mystery divine!
The voice that speaks in thunder,
Says, “Sinner, I am thine!”

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The Via Pulchritudinis and Evangelization of Young People

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.

Young people of every generation have their own slang and their own priorities. One of the expressions that comes up in young adults’ conversations about Church art and catechesis is “cringe.” Cringe is what young people experience when older people are trying too hard to meet them at their (supposed) level. This is one of the funnier memes used to express this experience.

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Well-meaning efforts to reach devout young people often fail on this account: to the young people themselves, there is an obvious and embarassingly overeager desire to connect with them. The problem is more than just the lack of respect for oneself and others that this implies. The main problems, as expressed by the young people, include the following:

  • Older people guess, wrongly, about what young people need
  • Older people impose unwanted, supposedly relevant experiences on young people
  • Older people’s ideas of the relevant are often outdated
  • Older people do not listen to young people express their own preferences

Just to focus on this last point, it seems undeniable that young people who are serious about their faith tend to prefer more traditional expressions of worship than older people do. Increasingly, the “guitar Mass” is attended by older people, and the more solemn Masses are attended by young people. Young women wear veils. Young people kneel for Communion and receive on the tongue. Young people crowd Masses in the Extraordinary Form. In short, we have a full-blown “generation gap,” only this time–51 years now after the “Summer of Love”–only this time it is upside down. The devout young are not the revolutionaries, but the custodians of something that is deeper and richer than themselves.

Now this is not to say that all young people like traditional expressions, nor that older people all like casual expressions of liturgy. And the existence of a variety of expressions need not be a serious point of contention. It seems to me that young people would be perfectly satisfied if they would only be allowed to continue growing in their faith in the way that seems best to them. But they are not.

Because older people will not let them.

A number of memes illustrate some of the frustration that young people feel when trying to make their needs known. This older one plays on the parental intervention that would happen when a child is found to be using some sort of contraband.

I think that the Church should make a commitment to meet young people where they really are, instead of what often seems to go on: We meet young people where we would like them to be.

There’s a nice story about Walker Percy’s conversion to Catholicism. When he was in college, one of his fraternity brothers, who was otherwise a perfectly normal fraternity brother, used to wake up at the crack of dawn to go to daily Mass. This is the kind of witness that awakes the imagination: the beauty of a committed Catholic life in the midst of the world, like a small but authentic amount of leaven. It is fascinating and compelling and changes minds and hearts.

There’s also an odd statistic that came out a few years ago. One out of six young converts to Christianity attributes that conversion to a visit to a church building. The researchers were astonished.

I think if we really, really listen to the hopes young people have for the Church we would be astonished as well, in a happy way that leads to renewal for us all.

 

 

 

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Let us sing Alleluia, even here on earth

In a way, Eastertide is more difficult than Lent. Fasting for 40 days is not too difficult. Rejoicing for 50 days is pretty strenuous by comparison.

In many parishes the Easter alleluias died out weeks ago. The lilies were gone as soon as the first petals dropped.

Meanwhile the Church in the United States continues what seems to be an endless cycle of exposure of corruption, day after disheartening day, like a tooth whose abscesses periodically drain, leaving the rot that remains deeply rooted festering, with no dentists anywhere in sight.

Under these circumstances, it can seem difficult to keep the Alleluia going throughout all the days of Easter. Although these days are quickly coming to their fulfillment in Pentecost, the liturgy keeps the celebration going with great feasts in the following weeks, as though reluctant to bring out the green vestments of Ordinary time for Sundays right away.

Thankfully, Saint Augustine has encouraging words for the Church in every age, in every circumstance of trial. The liturgy places them in the Office of Readings on Saturday of the 34th week in Ordinary time, the final day of the liturgical year, as if to say, “Next year, in the new year, we will try better to remember to rejoice in God.”

Let us sing alleluia to the good God who delivers us from evil

Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security. Why do we now live in anxiety? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when I read: Is not man’s life on earth a time of trial? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when the words still ring in my ears: Watch and pray that you will not be put to the test? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when there are so many temptations here below that prayer itself reminds us of them, when we say: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us? Every day we make our petitions, every day we sin. Do you want me to feel secure when I am daily asking pardon for my sins, and requesting help in time of trial? Because of my past sins I pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and then, because of the perils still before me, I immediately go on to add: Lead us not into temptation. How can all be well with people who are crying out with me: Deliver us from evil? And yet, brothers, while we are still in the midst of this evil, let us sing alleluia to the good God who delivers us from evil.

Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Man is still a debtor, but God is faithful. Scripture does not say that he will not allow you to be tried, but that he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. Whatever the trial, he will see you through it safely, and so enable you to endure. You have entered upon a time of trial but you will come to no harm—God’s help will bring you through it safely. You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put into the oven therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again; for God is faithful, and he will guard both your going in and your coming out.

But in the next life, when this body of ours has become immortal and incorruptible, then all trials will be over. Your body is indeed dead, and why? Because of sin. Nevertheless, your spirit lives, because you have been justified. Are we to leave our dead bodies behind then? By no means. Listen to the words of holy Scripture: If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells within you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your own mortal bodies. At present your body receives its life from the soul, but then it will receive it from the Spirit.

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.

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It never really was a fair fight

Aurora lucis rutilat
5th c.
Paschal time, Lauds, my trans.

The light of dawn is reddening,
The heavens’ morning praises spring,
The earth exults: “The morning! Hail!”
While hell’s sad dwellers groan and wail.

Our King, the victor in the strife,
When death was smashed apart by life,
Has trampled hell triumphantly
And captive led captivity.

The Lord, whose barricade of stone
The soldiers kept sharp eyes upon
In vict’ry conquers through that gate
And rises forth in pomp and state.

“The Lord is risen from the dead!”
The splendid angel loudly said.
And hell is evermore left free
To grumble in its misery.

Be this our thought through all life’s days,
Our Easter joy, our Paschal praise:
The grace in which we are reborn
Was won in triumph on that morn.

Jesus, to You let glory rise,
Who vanquished death and won the prize;
With Father and the Spirit blest,
Be endless ages’ praise addressed.

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