Monday, December 28, 2009

The Thousand Little Thorns

This is old news, but I'm very glad to hear it. You have no idea how much that "Yahweh" formulation bothered me when I was a recent convert to Catholicism.

Now that that's done, let's please get rid of hymns that require the congregation to speak God's own words in the first person. Like "I am the Bread of Life" and "Be Not Afraid".

And maybe this year we could give a miss to the Lenten"Ashes" hymn which my kids call the Pelagian Phoenix song because notably included in the lyrics are "we rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew". Maybe phoenixes do that, though I think even they need help from outside, but Catholics can't. God does both the original creation and the new creation, and that is why we are singing hymns to Him in the first place. I shouldn't have to tell my kids that the song sung at mass has it wrong.

In fact, while I'm at it, maybe we should stop using Scripture for hymns at all until our collective musical sense, or at least that of the OCP, gets better? Then beautiful passages of the Bible like "I will raise you up on eagle's wings" and "I will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day" won't get totally ruined for my kids by being sung to third-rate movie tunes.

Third-rate is possibly over-stating. Perhaps fifth-rate, as in "Here I am, Lord" which has the same tune as the Brady Bunch theme song -- no doubt admirably suited to make modern 50 plus seekers of God feel like they are back in the comfortable green and orange world of the 70's sit-com, but probably loses a bunch of the younger ones. And makes converts, who grew up with wonderful old hymns like Holy Holy Holy and Fairest Lord Jesus, feel like they are trapped in a nightmare world of formica and linoleum and plaid trousers.

And NO, I don't think the solution is forced LifeTeen masses, either, though my parish seems to, as it also seems to think an illicit ban on communion on the tongue is justifiable for fear of the H1N1 virus. I would like those things to stop, as well, but I'm getting away from the music theme, and once I start I will probably have a hard time stopping.

It all adds up to a shoddiness that doesn't have anything to do with our beautiful Chariot of orthodoxy, in Chesterton's words, that

flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect
It doesn't matter really, because the wild truth is stronger. It's like a crown of thorns, that doesn't change the fact that the wearer is the true King of Glory -- the Ancient and Ever New. The Eucharist is there, even if it's often hidden off to a side corner of the church, and the members of Christ's Body are there, even if they don't realize that a heritage of magnificence has been buried under tawdry wood panelling and pebbly-textured flooring.

But these thorns bother me and cause pain, the little tyrannies and tawdrinesses are unsuitable and just wrong. And I wish they would go away.


  1. Wow, that is the bitterest post I think I've ever read by you, Willa! It seems to me that as generations change things will improve. I am happy this stuff does not bother me so much. I have to say though that I love some of these hymns for sentimental reasons, Be Not Afraid and Eagles Wings were played at my both my mother and father's funerals and I love them. And Here I am Lord has always conjured up the image of Samuel in obedience to Eli answering Here I Am Lord. Sometimes when I sing that line I feel so strongly that I too am saying to the Lord Here I am!

    I remember once after reading all kinds of criticisms about music at mass on various blogs I asked the children's choir director if she was familiar with these criticisms. She looked so startled, I don't think she had been aware of them. It made me wonder how those who want to change the music are trying to affect that change? She looked a bit hurt too. I felt badly afterwards because the truth is she is one of the most devout people I know. I am sure it would pain her terribly to know that she was considered a thorn by other Catholics.

    Mass has to go on in all kinds of imperfect settings, in hedges, bombshelters, prisons, fields, ugly churches built in the 1970s! And again, there are all different ways of worshipping too. I heard a lovely Missa by the Congolese choir, but it sounded like African music with bongos and everything. I know a lot of people would just shudder at the thought! Anyway, we will never be perfect and our expressions in music and liturgy will always be in a state of reform. Those classic hymns that some love are stuffy and meaningless to others. Those guitar hymns that you might despise may be just the ticket to open someone's heart to God. And truthfully you can not dictate taste (though we really ought to get rid of the stuff that is heretical!) You might be very sophisticated but there are many others who are not. The Universal Church ought to be big enough for all of us.

    Around here, though it was never stated outright that reception on the tongue was illicit, it was strongly discouraged out of an overzealous kindness towards the Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers and others. Again what one person might perceive as a slight, another would see as a well-meaning caution.

    I do agree about the Y-W-H issue. I was so happy to read that when the news first came out. I think I should bring it to someone's attention at church (in a nice way). I don't think they do Life Teen here but they do have masses for Teens which I like because it brings in Teens who might not otherwise come to Mass. After the mass they can service projects or rel. ed. speakers so it is an outreach to the teens. One thing I don't like is that the teens used to have a nice mix of traditional music and more contemporary but now our youth director (who just graduated from Steubenville!) has taken over the music and it is all Christian Rock. Will who used to play guitar for the Youth Masses dropped out. He can't stand Christian rock. . . .

    Anyway, don't let this make you angry! We will be perfect in heaven! But down here one must expect some tawdriness even in our beloved Church.

  2. Thanks Faith! I agree that tastes differ. And I don't think mine are particularly sophisticated. If they were, that would be irrelevant.

    I don't think I quite got to the heart of it... partly because this question is not in itself at the *heart* of our faith. Thank God.

    It's something else that bothers me -- something to do with force and mediocrity and vagueness together. There's a kind of untruth in it.

    I don't think your choir director is a thorn ;-) any more than I think ours is. The people are in a different class from the sort of official institutions I am talking about.

    Thanks for mentioning your mother, because now I can remember her when I hear one of those songs, and say a praying for her and the other faithful departed! It's wonderful that this music can be put in a meaningful context, as at your mother's funeral. The good part is that those are real Scriptures and have real meaning especially in the context of a well-spent Catholic life. And because of their sentimental association and Scriptural origin they can sort of acquire a nobility they don't have on their own.

    That reminds me of how CS Lewis said a boy can actually ennoble a sort of penny-dreadful thriller novel of the old days by investing so much of his own imagination and heroism into it. The thing itself is not good but its reader lends it some of his own goodness, so to speak.

  3. Oh, I meant your mother AND your father, and "say a prayer" not "say a praying"! Anyway, I will definitely be offering up those hymns ;-)!

  4. I'm not Catholic (as you know), but I cringe at modern worship songs, too. How I long to see a hymnal in the pews the way I did when I was a child! I read most of the article you linked to concerning the worship brochures (missalettes? was that the word?) being published and printed, along with the music, etc., by a group not directly authorized by the Catholic Church. I find that interesting. I think that this is probably the source of the watering-down of music amongst Protestants--that the music is coming from an organization that has no church of any kind authorizing it nor offering it direction or correction.

  5. Brandy, I had fond memories of the hymns I grew up with in an evangelical church -- the old good ones- but my mom tells me it's not like that so much anymore. They sing the old good ones sometimes (as do we in our Catholic church) but there's a lot of twaddle in there as well.

    I think it's true what you say about the organizations. There seems to be a lot more bureaucracy than there used to be.

  6. Are you sure we are not in the same parish?? We hear these songs ALL the time. I am so sad that my children don't get to hear
    any of the rich heritage of music our Holy Mother Church has. True some of the music is catchy but I would so like them to be exposed to the truly uplifting. {{}}

  7. Or "Gather Us In"? I hate that one. It's heretical and terrible.

    I really miss the music at the high Anglican church we used to go to- no guitars, organ, professional choir, incense. It was lovely.

    There's a marvelous Annie Dillard piece where she starts out lamenting the guitars and praisesongs at her Catholic church, and gradually develops into a warning about being too attached to any of the rituals we've created to protect and shelter us, which can make us forget the danger and glory of approaching the Most High. Remember the rope tied around the priest's ankle as he enters the Holy of Holies.

    I think what I fundamentally dislike about a lot of the modern stuff (beside the terribly wording) is that it doesn't leave room for fear, mystery, and awe. And silence. Our housemate and I were talking about this a few days ago- he's agnostic, but due to an Anglican girlfriend he's found himself attending a lot of high church services, and due to me and Geoff he's been immersed in Catholics (us, friends, writers, bloggers). He said the he's more attracted to liturgical, orthodox churches because he finds the emotionalism and lack of poetry in most Protestant churches repelling. We talked about the space there is in Orthodox/Catholic theology for meditation on suffering, which is something we understand to be redemptive- offered up for us or for others. A lot of the general modern stuff leaves out the dark.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!