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Online Edition:
December 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 9

The Blessing of Hymnody

by Kathleen Pluth

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict has called us to consider our ties with the Church of the past, to keep faith with our ancestors in the faith, to maintain our continuity. One of the most pleasant ways to do this is to keep the liturgical art of the past alive for ourselves in the present time. We can bring forward into our own day the wisdom of ancient architecture and the glorious history of sacred painting. And through our vast treasury of office hymns, we can join with our brothers and sisters in the one great song of praise that rises to Christ the Lord.

The office hymns are especially useful for the Church during the Year of Faith, when pastors around the world are seeking to re-catechize and re-evangelize the Cath-olic faithful. One often hears how bad hymns detract from the experience of worship, and yet it is equally true that good and great hymns have the power to foster a deep and rich experience of faith. When a congregation sings Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, for example, they are making a creedal affirmation, an act of faith in the Triune God: “God in three Persons, Blessed Trinity.” Similarly, when the Church sings Come, Holy Ghost, we affirm the beautiful doctrine of the filioque [“and the son”] in the Creed:

Be this our firm, unchanging creed:
That Thou dost from them both proceed,
That Thou dost from them both proceed.

At present I am engaged in a substantial project of hymn translation. By this time next year, I hope to have made considerable progress in the translation of all of the ancient hymns of the Liber Hymnarius, the official hymnal for the Divine Office. Many others are doing the same, quietly rendering the old songs, our heritage, in words that can be understood in the present day. We are like archaeologists mining the earth for its riches, nearly forgotten now. But these treasures belong to us. We should have them, and they can help us on the way to salvation.

People are converted to the faith by singing: this happened to Saint Augustine, twice, both in the great cathedral in Milan and in the quiet of a garden, when a child sang “Take and read.” Singing makes texts special, and helps as an aid to memory. People rarely remember the details of a homily, but easily remember songs. When doctrine can be taken home, to be whistled in the car or hummed during household chores, the Word of God has an opportunity to really take root in the life of the average Catholic.

Scriptural Symbolism

Poetry and music both have the power to convince on a level beyond the everyday use of words. Likewise, symbols can help us to experience the faith in a deeper way, and in a way that fosters an experience of the unity of revelation. The truths of the faith, through art’s symbolic power, are experienced not as isolated truths but as a coherent system, or in Scriptural terms, “the plan of God.” Fortunately, we have a system of symbols ready at hand: the symbols of Scripture. The ancient hymns are filled with Scriptural symbolism.

A few years ago I translated one of the hymns for the Conversion of Saint Paul, Excelsam Pauli gloriam. A quick glance through the hymn shows how Saint Peter Damian appropriated the symbols of Scripture into his original work of liturgical art.

Let all the Church acclaim Saint Paul
And sing the glories of his call,
The Lord made an apostle be
From one who was His enemy.

The name of Christ set Paul afire
Enkindling him with great desire;
And higher these same blazes reached
When of the love of Christ he preached.

His merits are forever praised
For to the heavens he was raised,
And there, the all-mysterious word,
That none dare speak, by Paul was heard.

The Word, like seed sown in a field
Producing an abundant yield
Fills heav’nly barns whose stores of grain
Are tilled and grown on earthly plains.

The shining of the lamplight gleams
And drenches earth with heaven’s beams.
The dark of error’s night is past;
The reign of truth has come at last.

To Christ all glory, and all praise
To Father and the Spirit raise,
Who for the nations’ saving call
Gave us the splendor of Saint Paul.

Among the Scriptural images incorporated here are Jesus’ own image from the Gospel of Luke of a worldwide fire: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ignited!” The hymn writer applies this image, which also invokes the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the apostles at Pentecost, to describe the mission of the “preacher to the Gentiles,” who preached not only in Jerusalem and all of Judea, but “to the ends of the earth.” In the fourth verse we encounter another Gospel image, that of the harvest coming from the seed that is the Word. And in the fifth verse we find a symbol that pervades the Liber Hymnarius, the light that is the truth.

It certainly is possible for originally English hymns to incorporate Scriptural symbols. A fine example is the beautiful Epiphany hymn Songs of Thankfulness and Praise:

Songs of thankfulness and praise,
Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise,
manifested by the star
to the sages from afar;
branch of royal David’s stem
in thy birth at Bethlehem;
anthems be to thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.

Manifest at Jordan’s stream,
Prophet, Priest and King supreme;
and at Cana, wedding guest,
in thy Godhead manifest;
manifest in power divine,
changing water into wine;
anthems be to thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.

Manifest in making whole
palsied limbs and fainting soul;
manifest in valiant fight,
quelling all the devil’s might;
manifest in gracious will,
ever bringing good from ill;
anthems be to thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.

Sun and moon shall darkened be,
stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee;
Christ will then like lightning shine,
all will see His glorious sign;
all will then the trumpet hear,
all will see the Judge appear;
thou by all wilt be confessed,

God in man made manifest.
Grant us grace to see thee, Lord,
mirrored in thy holy Word;
may we imitate thee now,
and be pure, as pure art thou;
that we like to thee may be
at thy great Epiphany;
and may praise thee, ever blest,
God in man made manifest.

Songs of Thankfulness and Praise, written in 1862 by Christopher Words-worth (1807-1885), Anglican Bishop of London and nephew of the poet William Wordsworth, is a wonderful hymn — one of the best in our hymnals. The images are concrete, and they are forthrightly expressed in vigorous poetry. In places the hymn writer, whose poetic skills are excellent, presents near-paraphrases of Scripture. The second verse echoes the Magnificat antiphon of Epiphany:

Three mysteries mark this holy day:
today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ;
today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast;
today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

In his marvelous morning hymn Aeterne rerum conditor [Eternal Maker of all things], Saint Ambrose similarly weaves together multiple images into a luminous whole: the call of the rooster, the waters of the sea and of repentance, and the morning light.

Eternal maker of all things
Of day and night the sov’reign King,
Refreshing mortals, You arrange
The rhythm of the seasons’ change

The rooster sounds his morning cry— Throughout the night he watched the sky—
For travelers, a guiding light
To tell the watches of the night.

The morning star that hears the cry
Dispels the darkness from the sky.
The demons, hearing the alarm
Abandon all their paths of harm.
The sailor hears and he is brave;
The sea becomes a gentle wave.
The rooster’s call reached Peter’s ears:
He washed away his sins in tears.

Our wav’ring hearts, Lord Jesus, see.
O look upon us, make us free,
For in Your gaze no fault can stay,
And sins by tears are washed away.

O Light, upon our senses shine.
Dispel our sleepiness of mind,
That we may sing Your morning praise,
Then, vows fulfilling, live our days.

The last verse of Aeterne rerum conditor presents us with yet another image, that of sleep, frequently invoked in the Latin office hymns.

This verse could well serve as a prayer of the New Evangelization: Lord, wake us up! Lord, we have been sleepy and dull, rouse us! Rouse our minds and hearts to know, love, and serve You all our days.

***

Kathleen Pluth was born in San Diego, and has sung in choirs since childhood. She has a master’s degree in theology from the Catholic University of America and STL from the Dominican Pontifical Faculty in Washington, DC. Her collection of original hymn texts, Hymns for the Liturgical Year, was published by CanticaNOVA Publications in 2005. From 2007-2012 she was music director at the parish of St. Louis, Alexandria, Virginia, in the Diocese of Arlington, where she founded several choirs, including a Gregorian chant schola for children. She blogs at the Chant Café, chantcafe.com.

***

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