Heyr himna smiður

This 13th-century devotional poem from Iceland is also the country’s favorite choral work, thanks to music added to it in a more recent century.

Hear, smith of heavens.
The poet seeketh.
In thy still small voice
Mayest thou show grace.
As I call on thee,
Thou my creator.
I am thy servant,
Thou art my true Lord.

God, I call on thee;
For thee to heal me.
Bid me, prince of peace,
Thou my supreme need.
Ever I need thee,
Generous and great,
O’er all human woe,
City of thy heart.

Guard me, my savior.
Ever I need thee,
Through ev’ry moment
In this world so wide.
Virgin–born, send me
Noble motives now.
Aid cometh from thee,
To my deepest heart.

Its text and a translation and the colorful story of its writing are on-line. Not many hymn-writers wage war on their bishops and die from a rock-blow to the head.


Listening to Young People: High Anglican Edition

Some millennials raised in the more informal evangelical tradition are crossing over to the older style of worship. They describe the lure of a Christianity that does not aspire to be relevant or fashionable. The Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie, a 27-year-old priest in Liverpool, said churches did not need to “pretend to be your nightclub” to appeal to the young. “It can be church and have an air of mystery.”

Much more here.


Writing about music, but not about music

I saw a little news item today about how the Pope has paid homage to the important Jesuit baroque composer Domenico Zipoli by writing an introduction to a recent book about him. And a little quote appeared in the Osservatore Romano yesterday (my translation):

“With joy I accept the invitation to write a foreword to the latest publication of maestro Sergio Militello, for some years organist at Santa Marta and currently docent at the Pontifical Gregorian University”, writes Pope Francis in the foreword to the book Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726). The musical dream of a ‘Paradise on Earth’ (Vatican City: LEV, 2018, 250 pp.) “He was,” the Pope continues, “a young missionary who, through the gift of music cultivated with passion and enthusiasm, completed a marvelous work of evangelization still remembered today. The composer Domenico Zipoli lived in the last years of his brief existence as a novice of the Society of Jesus in the city of Córdoba, a place to which I am connected, having been a spiritual director and confessor for some years of my ministry.”

Alongside that somewhat self-referential (!) quotation appears an essay by Maestro Militello, but not about Zipoli, about whom I’d really be interested in reading.  Rather, it’s about themes he considers neglected in Christmas music. He cites the predominance of certain stylistic elements in the received tradition: in some pieces triumphal motifs, in some the tone of lullaby or of the pastorale, as in “Tu scendi dalle stelle”.  But here is what is missing, according to the writer:

[…] in the musical literature it is difficult to find compositions that set the real “drama” of the event of the holy night fully in the foreground: the negative reply to a request for lodging, and taking refuge in a cave for shepherds, with no help…

But the human drama of the holy family of Nazareth is still present […] in so many refugee couples [….] For them also there seems to be no sonic commentary about shared hard-working solidarity, about effective intervention to alleviate the weight of life that often – from its beginning – finds incomprehension, indifference, and atrocious silence.

Whatever else there is to say about such a commentary, it’s not a manifestation of the maestro’s artistic expertise or of any scholarly discovery on his part.  It seems to be just a facile echoing of some of Pope Francis’ themes.  To see this sort of space-wasting in the culture section of the Osservatore Romano, in an edition that only has eight pages for the whole paper, is disappointing.

I’m not even sure the book is worth recommending, for those who can read the Italian.  It has a total of one reader review so far on Amazon, and it’s not favorable:

[…] we’re happy for the Holy Father’s attention to a musician close to our heart…. But did anyone point out that the great scholar Luis Szaran treated the subject with documentary completeness in his splendid essay “Domenico Zipoli. Una vita, un enigma” (2000)? Or perhaps that … Alessio Cervelli already published his essay “Domenico Zipoli: amo dunque suono. La scelta radicale di una vita […]”  (2016)? All this new amazement shown by Militello, when he talks about examining the Spanish sources […] as though it were something unheard-of and startling: we would like to hope that it’s simply ignorance and a lack of investigation about recent publications (something that would be rigorously necessary for any scholar evaluating the status quaestionis on the object of his study), and […]  not rather an insipid act of “courtly obsequiousness” toward an Argentine and Jesuit pontiff.

(UPDATE: I edited the piece after posting to improve a point of the translation. –RC)


Amy Welborn on the Holy Father’s Letter to the US Bishops

When I was in grad school one of my professors was a major Bologna School historian, who liked to tell the story of attending the opening of Vatican II as a seminarian, by pretending to be part of a bishop’s entourage.

I was thinking of him today while, astonished and heartsick, I read the Holy Father’s letter to our bishops on retreat, in particular pages 3-6.

Of all of the problems in this world, it seems to me that the sexual molestation of children and vulnerable adults is the one to caution for the just application of ideals and principles, and against moral relativism.

To see this literally excruciating moment of self-knowledge and conversion turned into yet another opportunity for proposing the creation of a postmodern, postChristian ecclesial community is nearly unbearable.

Thankfully, Amy Welborn thinks it through, so you and I don’t have to.


Investing in the Catholic Faith

When I was in my first parish staff position, a Sister who had been a DRE for decades advised me to charge at least $5 for any program I offered. The reason, she said, was that people tend to stop attending programs unless they had invested in them. Brian Holdsworth argues from that same reasoning in this compelling video.

There is something to this, a recognized phenomenon called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Rather than making coldly rational decisions here and now, I am likely to factor in my degree of past investment in something as a reason to continue it. In business this is often counterproductive, throwing good money after bad. It’s also one of the reasons for indolence in confessional matters: we tend to identify with what we have spent ourselves on. In Christianity, Holdsworth and my Sister colleague rightly theorize, we can use this normal characteristic of human decision making and help people to make investments in their religion. This is not only the case with 5 dollar bills, but with commitments of behavior and time. Making demands helps make disciples, and waiving rules is counterproductive to evangelization.

SImilarly, belonging is enormously important to people, and to young people in particular. Young people are so intent on forming community that they constantly change their slang–and their social media platforms–as though it were a uniform that only young people were allowed to wear. And here again, waiving rules is counterproductive to evangelization.

Further, fairness is more important to the young than to the old, who have normally had more experience of and toleration for disparity. If rules are broken in a game, young people will not accept it. In the early teen years they are likely to try to change rules, but they are unlikely to accept rules’ being broken.

During Lent, one of the few times when Catholic rules are ever mentioned in a consistent way, the investment of Catholics in the Friday abstinence changes the way McDonald’s prices its fish sandwiches. We change McDonald’s (!) by joining together to do something.

Of course, this is all on the psychological level. We can see this investment strategy, if you will, effectively employed by non-Christians such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose young men go abroad two by two, who sacrifice coffee and alcohol, who tithe. It’s a strategy that can be abused by cults and seducers of all kinds.

It is not evangelization unless it is about Jesus. And in fact it is a theme of Jesus’ never to wash away the costs of a life with Him. “Let the dead bury their dead,” He said. “Deny yourself.” “Take up your cross.” Accessible to children, healer of the sick, He was nonetheless the harsh admonisher of fakers, who do lip service to religion.

And this is where I think Holdsworth falls short of a home run in this video, helpful as it is. (He has many others that are also well worth watching.) The reason the Gospel costs so much is precisely because it promises so much. We are not called by Jesus to be “good people” living polite suburban lives. You don’t need too much grace for that, and grace is an infinite fountain welling up inside of us who are baptized into His death. This flood washes away, not only rough edges and gross sins, but a great deal of what we might think of as our identity–what we have invested in. It prepares us not only for death but for the beatific vision and the endlessly blissful life of the world to come.

Rules are so very minimal. They are indispensable curbs to the defects of human nature, and God and the experience of centuries have taught them to us, but they are not the true costs of the Gospel. The true cost comes with the elevation of human nature, being drawn up into sanctity with the dark nights of a Thérèse of Lisieux or Teresa of Calcutta.

“And we are put on earth a little space/ That we may learn to bear the beams of love,” wrote William Blake. The beams of love so far exceed our mortal frames that they burn us poor weak hybrids of flesh and spirit. As the saint is elevated, he or she is suspended between animal and spiritual nature like Christ on the cross. Liturgy makes it bearable; love makes it meaningful. It is a place of grace and intercession and deep communion and thoroughgoing conversion. It is where the People of God belong.



Office Hymn for Christmas

A Solis Ortus Cardine
Office hymn for Lauds during the Christmas Season

From east, where sunrise has its birth,
Across to western rims of earth,
Unto the virgin-born they ring:
The Church’s songs to Christ, the King.

For He, the Lord of ages blest
Is in a servile body dressed,
That flesh by flesh might be set free
that what He made to be would be.

The Mother’s inmost hidden place
is virginally reached by grace.
Within her virgin womb there grows
a secret that nobody knows

This chaste heart’s home has suddenly
The Lord’s own temple come to be.
Unknown by man, and not undone,
a word made her conceive the Son.

And Him the Blessed Mother bore,
Whom Gabriel made known before,
for Whom, when hearing Mary’s voice,
before he saw Him, John rejoiced,

He let Himself be laid in hay;
He willed the manger where he lay;
and He who keeps the birds replete
has just a little milk to eat.

The chorus of the stars and skies
and angels sing with joyful cries:
to shepherds is their Maker shown,
and as a Shepherd He is known.

O Jesus, Virgin-born, to You
be glory as is ever due
Whom with the Father we adore
and Spirit blest forevermore.

Trans. 2014 Kathleen Pluth


Hymn for the Innocents

On this Feast of the Holy Innocents, I would like to offer this hymn text which I wrote some years ago for anyone’s free use for a pro-life purpose.

The text considers a number of scriptural images of human embodiment, and God’s care for His people and indeed for each person, as a body-soul creation of special dignity.

The hymn proceeds chronologically, in the order of salvation history, and is in the meter of 87.87. D.

1. At the dawning of creation, God divided light from shade,
And He made us, male and female. In His image we were made.

And the life that God created we will honor and defend
From conception to the heavens; from beginning to the end.

2. God the Father called a people, and He drew them by the hand
And He led them through the desert and into the Promised Land.

3. In His saving Incarnation, Jesus bore a human frame
To restore the sacred Image hidden by our sin and shame.

4. And He walked among the people, healed the sick and raised the dead,
And the poor rejoiced at hearing the appealing words He said.

5. On the Cross, our gracious Savior Jesus laid His body down,
Dying as the Man of Sorrows; giving humankind a crown.

6. And He sent the Holy Spirit for forgiveness of our sins.
Even now God dwells among us; even now, new life begins.

7. When we share the Holy Myst’ries in the Eucharistic food
We are filled with life eternal: Jesus’ Body and His Blood.

8. When He comes again in glory, all the dead shall rise again,
And our human eyes shall see Him in the splendor of His reign.

There are a number of options for the music, including this setting of Corde Natus by Charles H. Giffen, a mathematician, musician, and composer in the Twin Cities area.

Charles is the President of the Choral Public Domain Library, and the Manager of ChoralWiki. As it happens, today is the Choral Public Domain Library’s 20th birthday. This vast database of choral scores available for free download makes building a high-quality, classical music library for Catholic worship much less expensive than any commercial alternative.

The Cathedral of Birmingham’s Director of Music Bruce Ludwick set the hymn in an American idiom, using the tune RESTORATION, from Southern Harmony.

Most recently I heard from Alan Lynch, the Director of Music at the Syracuse Cathedral, who  set the text to the popular tune HYFRYDOL.

While writing the text, I had the tune BEACH SPRING in mind, which lends itself to marching.

I would be very pleased if this text were to find wide usage during the coming month, when we particularly seek to protect all human life, from conception until natural death.