Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
F I WERE to ask each reader to paint a picture of Our Lord’s Nativity, and presuming each one possessed the paint slinging skills of a Rembrandt or Carravaggio, I wager to guess that the majority of the still wet canvases would resemble that joyful night as we picture it based on the Christmas carols we learned in childhood rather than a strict recounting of St. Luke’s Gospel. Did snow lay on the ground? Did stars shine bright? Did the little Lord Jesus cry? Heaven forbid I stir up a debate on the presence or nature of precipitation or celestial bodies (glowing or otherwise) present that incredible night—I would rather sip my eggnog and bask in the glow of the real wax candles on my Christmas tree! I merely point out the power of language, reinforced by sweet melodies, to form the memory and imagination of the Christian—meaning the words we speak and the songs we sing can have a real and lasting effect on the soul. Saints and heretics alike have realized the power and import of religious song and neither has been averse to using it to shape the heart and faith of man. Perhaps not since the Protestant Revolution has it been so important to put beautiful words, true in content and strong in melody, into the minds and voices of English speaking Catholics—and to that end, Nicolas Viel Publications offers the Saint John de Brébeuf Hymnal for use in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.
Others have written more eloquently than I on the merits of the texts and melodies found in the Brébeuf Hymnal and I find no further need to beat that dead horse. (Along those lines, I invite readers to bookmark the comparison article by Mr. Daniel Craig.) Rather than belabor the nitty-gritty, I want to focus on why we need great music.
The Moral Imagination
Edmond Burke, the famous 18th century conservative Irish MP, coined the term moral imagination and first used it in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this excerpt Burke, an opponent of the revolution, writes as follows:
ALL THE DECENT drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. [emphases mine]
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly… On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows…
Burke’s moral imagination refers to the “decent drapery of life”—those ideals, customs and experiences that find a home in the soul of man and shape or reinforce certain deeply held beliefs, creating a bridge between what the mind knows and the heart loves, the intellect and affect.
“All the superadded ideas…
which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies.”
The American Flag
For example, nothing represents our nation quite like the American flag, but if we remove all of the cultural associations attached to it we are left with nothing but a piece of material worked into a defined pattern of three colors—red, white and blue; there is nothing to differentiate it from a dishtowel or any other piece of material. Each one of us has found himself in a fabric store at some point in his life and unless material is “your thing,” you have never wept at the sight of fabric, saluted a certain pattern, or run your favorite set of 800 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets up your flagpole. Your dishtowels are just that; and your sheets simply keep you warm; and the American flag would be just as meaningless, if it weren’t for the American moral imagination.
Our American wardrobe is filled with ideals of freedom and self-rule, knowledge of battles fought and won at great price, images of World War II veterans who insist on climbing out of their wheelchairs in order to salute the flag, knowledge of the men and women who gave their lives in the blossom of youth to preserve our freedoms, countless other fond memories from youth of picnics, parades and firework shows celebrating Independence Day—and finally the simple custom of standing out of respect for the flag when it passes. These are the garments in the wardrobe of the American imagination that give such meaning to the American flag that there exist citizens who would rather die than see it desecrated simply because of what it represents. Betsy Ross designed the flag to represent America and the flag in its own turn increases our love for our mother country. This is the moral imagination at work.
Christmas Carols and the Moral Imagination
Christmas is perhaps the only holy day left on our western calendar possessing traditional carols and hymns recognized by believer and non-believer alike. The fact they are still part of the wider cultural experience is a testament to the strength of their melodies and the beauty of their words—they are hard to forget. Many people have fond memories of caroling, or at least listening to carols in church or hearing them on the radio as they decorate and bake for Christmas. Christmastide would be unthinkable without carols; and for many their texts are the only link to anything deeper than the usual superficial, cozy “peace on earth” feeling that spreads like the plague every December. As long as we remember them, we might remember the God-Man who became a child so that we might become like God. Modern man might hate the notion of God, but he has probably heard Silent Night and been touched by it, and if he has been touched by Silent Night he is not yet beyond the reach of God.
If memory serves me from my time at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, the cathedral distributes (free) tickets for Midnight Mass to parishioners in order to make sure they have seats. This is necessary because many Mormon converts from Christianity show up to hear the beautiful carols they remember from their youth. For them, music is one of the crucial links to a celebration they supposedly no longer keep. Christmas carols—good Christmas carols—touch the believer in a deep way, and if they possess good texts and melodies, also turn around and deeply impress the Christmas mysteries on his soul. Who can deny the love of our Heavenly Father after being touched by Of the Father’s Love Begotten, who can leave Christmas Mass filled with gloom hearing Joy to the World, or who can not desire to grow in holiness at least a little and run to the manger hearing Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella? By working on our affect, these carols help us to love the good, not just know what it is.
Saint Augustine bears this in mind when he writes (in his Confessions):
“I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.”
Here he is speaking about the power of music on the soul, which can also be detrimental…but that’s for another time.
As we forward the cause of sacred music, we can sometimes get so caught up in advancing Gregorian chant that we fail to remember that every single age in the history of the Catholic Church has seen forms of popular religious music (usually in the vernacular) that can be a great aid to the spiritual life if used within the limits and dictates of good reason and taste—and we give thanks for the Brébeuf hymnal, filling a sorely needed gap in religious music since the Second Vatican Council…and maybe even before.
Perhaps I might finish by offering my thoughts as the music director of an Ordinary Form parish. I have to admit that I would not be permitted to choose this hymnal for my own parish at this time due to the fact that people have been so thoroughly immersed in less than ideal musical idioms (I pray to God your circumstances are different). Nevertheless, this hymnal has a place in the ordinary parish. The children in your parish school are still open minded enough to allow themselves to be formed by good religious music—as Sir Richard Terry of Westminster reminds us powerfully. If you aren’t a music director you can still purchase copies for your family or even yourself. If you can’t get good music at your parish, at least ensure it for your family: the domestic church.
May Saint Jean de Brébeuf lead and guide our musical renewal!