The Scandal of What We Sing

It is with deep gratitude that I greet the new translation of the Mass into English.  At last, we will have a rendering that is theologically and linguistically precise, that captures the figurative meanings intimated in the Latin, that respects the poetic form of the prayers, that embraces the sacred, and that resonates with the word of God.  Well done, gentlemen!

Yet there is still more good new work to do – or still some bad old work to be undone, in a realm that may affect us even more viscerally than the language of our prayers: that used in the songs we’re given to sing in church. In order to understand the gravity of what we’ve endured (and sadly, gotten used to) in recent decades, it’s needful to resort to analogies.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Imagine a committee charged with revising the texts used for high school literature.  Its members are not English professors, and do not actually like the long tradition of English poetry and fiction.  They riffle through the pages of the old textbook.

“Shakespeare, hmm,” says the chairman.  “We’ll keep a little of that.  Some people like tradition.  Maybe Romeo and Juliet. That’s about love, isn’t it?  But who’s this fellow Herbert?  He can go.”

“If Herbert is going,” says the person to his left, who on inspection appears to be a woman, “then definitely Milton should go.  All that nonsense about the hosts of heaven being warriors offends me.  Adam offends me.  Eve offends me.”

Another member, glancing at the clock, pipes up.  “Maybe all poems  about warfare of any sort should be annihilated.”

Agreed.  So Paradise Lost, The Idylls of the King, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale bite the dust, along with every religious lyric by George Herbert, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“You know,” says another of the women, “I think that poems should be more cheerful.  There’s a lot of pessimism here.  It doesn’t reflect the spirit of the modern world.”

Agreed.  So the scissors clips away The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, In Memoriam, most of Robert Frost, and all of T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Jonathan Swift.

“I’m still really uneasy about a lot of what’s left,” says another member, blushing.  “The politics is all right, but the masculinity is stifling.  It reminds me of a sweaty locker room.”

Agreed.  Banished are the rest of Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Defoe, Johnson, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Stevens, and O’Neill.  Someone makes a special plea for A Streetcar Named Desire, because the paperback cover has a  picture of Marlon Brando stripped to the waist.

The chairman surveys what’s left.  “We’ve come a long way.  Of the 500 original pages, only 50 remain.  Now we have to find material to replace what we’ve discarded.”

“That should be easy,” says the impatient member, glancing through his checkbook.  “Does anybody here write poetry?”

“I write poems!” says the chairman.

“So do I!”

“Me too!”

“My roommate writes short stories.”

“I won first place in a story competition in high school.”

“I wrote the poem for our yearbook.”

“I know somebody who writes jingles for cereal commercials.”

“The people at our Womenpower meetings produce free verse poems extemporaneously.”

“Excellent,” says the chairman.  “What say we each contribute five or ten things of our own, and get two or three of our friends to contribute the same?  It’ll pay.  Then we can fill the rest of the space with copyrighted material from popular songwriters.  But there’s still one problem,” he says, his face turning grave.  “Look at those old poems.  Does anyone see what I’m seeing?”

“They rhyme?” someone volunteers.

“Well, some do, but that’s not it.  Look at that old language!  Who’s going to understand the thou’s and thee’s?  And that’s not the half of it.  Look at this line from Alexander Pope.”  He lowers his voice to a growl.  “The proper study of mankind is Man.

“Ooohhh, that’s terrible.”

“What shall we do?”

“I have an idea,” says the chairman.  “Does anybody have any expertise in grammar?”  The members glance at one another, sheepishly.  The cryptofemale raises her hand.

“Perfect,” says the chairman.  “Gladys, see to it that these traditional poems are altered to suit the objectives of our textbook.  Well, it’s almost lunchtime.  Do I hear a motion to adjourn?”

Or I imagine another committee, walking about a neo-Gothic church built by Irish miners in the nineteenth century.  The walls and ceiling are covered with paintings.  They’re not by Michelangelo, but they are quite good, and some are deeply moving.  The Irish knew they couldn’t do the work themselves, so they hired an Italian from Europe to decorate their church.  When a fire damaged the paintings twenty years later, they scrimped again, to bring over the painter’s protege for the restoration.

The walls between the stained glass windows are painted with figures from the Old Testament: a crowned King David, Gideon blowing his trumpet, Moses with the tablets, the youth Samuel.  Over the windows in medallions are paintings of ten of the apostles, each with his Latin name in the halo, and each, except John, bearing a sign of his martyrdom.  The apostles Peter and Paul are portrayed in large medallions in the sanctuary.  The ceiling is dominated by an enormous painting of Mary as Queen of the world, treading on the serpent and giving the rosary to Saint Dominic.  In the foreground a youthful Saint Michael wields his sword.

The committee members shake their heads.  “This is going to be an extensive job,” says the chairman, Father Bob.  “The first thing to go is that communion rail.”

“But I like the mosaics in it,” says an old woman, who has attended church there for seventy years.  “There are all the symbols of the Eucharist: a basket of loaves, two fish, a bunch of grapes, and the Lamb.”

“That’s all well and good, Nellie,” says Father Bob.  “But we must move with the times.  It’s the Spirit of Vatican Two.”  The other members nod.  None of them has actually read the Council documents, but they can recognize a spirit when they see one, especially if it’s pointed out to them.

So the committee make their way around the church, marking with an X the goats to be separated from the sheep.  Among the goats, besides the marble communion rail and its mosaics, are a dozen statues, the tile floor with its cruciform patterns, the pipe organ, the medallions of Peter and Paul, and the marble altar at the back of the sanctuary.

“This means,” says Father Bob, “that we’ll have a lot of free space.  Any ideas?”

“My brother has one of those organs with finger keys and chords.  The white ones are major and the black ones are minor.”

“My aunt Fanny makes posters out of felt for her kindergarten class.”

“I once did Lassie from a paint-by-numbers set.”

“Splendid suggestions,” says Father Bob.  “But there’s still a problem.  Look at what’s left, all those prophets and the ten apostles and the big paintings on the ceiling.  Look at Michael.  Does anybody see what I’m seeing?”

Nellie has left the group and is going home in search of antacid.  The others glance at one another.  They suspect the Ghost of Vatican Past again, but they don’t know what’s implied.  Father Bob proceeds to tell them, whence they vote democratically and unanimously to alter the paintings that remain.  Ray from the hardware store will paint smiles on the apostles and prophets.  Linda, who did a Celebrate Diversity cartoon for the town’s overpass, will paint two women, one Chinese and one African, to stand with John and Mary in the crucifixion painting in the sanctuary.  Father Bob will mount the scaffolding to put flowing hair and breasts on the archangel Michelle.

The two scenarios above are a fair description of what composers and editors of hymnals did to Catholic church music in the 1970s and ’80s. In my next essays, which will run on succeeding days, I’ll analyze in detail the damage they did and how we can restore beauty, dignity, and pathos to the music that accompanies our praise and sacrifice to the Lord.


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