Baritones Begone

Consider the first two stanzas of the following hymn-poem:

 

Soldiers of Christ, arise,
    

And put your armor on,
    

Strong in the strength which God supplies
    

Through His eternal Son.

    

 

Strong in the Lord of hosts,
    

And in His mighty power:
    

Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
    

Is more than conqueror.



 

Or this verse from the middle of another hymn, as the soul is beset by those malignant spirits that prowl about the earth, seeking the ruin of souls:

 

Christian, dost thou hear them, 
    

How they speak thee fair?
    

“Always fast and vigil? 
    

Always watch and prayer?”
    

Christian, answer boldly: 
  

“While I breathe I pray!”
    

Peace shall follow battle, 
    

Night shall end in day.


 

Or this, the final verse of a third hymn, a petition for chastisement and for the strength that we can never have without it:

 

Tie in a living tether
    

The prince and priest and thrall,
    

Bind all our lives together,
  

Smite us and save us all;
  

In ire and exultation,
    

Aflame with faith, and free,
    

Lift up a living nation,
    

A single sword to Thee.



 

Think about all these lines. What do they have in common? The first was written by the Methodist, Charles Wesley, in 1749, and is sung to a jaunty march, Silver Street. The second is an English translation from a Greek text, ascribed to Saint Andrew of Crete (660-732). The melody, named for the saint, was composed specifically for the text, moving from an ominous C minor key in the first half of each stanza, to a triumphant C major in the second half, the half that urges us on to triumph over the tempters. The third was written by the Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, in 1906, and was set to a muscular D-minor melody, King’s Lynn, by the incomparable Ralph Vaughan Williams.

A Greek, an English Protestant, and an English Catholic, from the seventh century, the eighteenth, and the twentieth; and of course we could provide plenty of similar lyrics from Christian hymnody, from every age and every nation and, since the days of Luther, every denomination.

"The Chorus" by Edgar Degas, c. 1876
“The Chorus” by Edgar Degas, c. 1876

What did a Greek monk have in common with the itinerant Methodist, traveling across the ocean to evangelize his cousins in the New World? What did the Roman poet Venantius Fortunatus (The Royal Banners Forward Go) have in common with Chesterton, that bluff journalist and warrior of wit and pen?

They were all Christian men writing about the Church militant in such a way as to stir the hearts of other Christian men, to take action, to put on the full armor of God, to fight the good fight, to follow Christ into battle and victory.

They have one more thing in common. None of them is to be found in Gather, Glory and Praise, or the last two editions of Worship, the most frequently used collections of hymns in Catholic churches in the United States.

Plenty of modish-deity-ditties are to be found therein, serenades of Jesus le debonair, and exhortations to be kind to our four-footed friends. There’s a lot of garble (“the vault of heaven springs mute witness”), side-stitches (“loud boiling test tubes”), wobbly grammar (“Thy strong word didst cleave the darkness”), misused words (“A single unmatched stone the builders hurled aside”), unhappy near-rhymes (“Lose your shyness, find your tongue, Tell the world what God has d—”), echoes of Sinatra (“Poet, painter, music maker”), bathos (“publicize his great name”), bowdlerized texts (“born to raise us from the earth”), kazoo Christianity (“his breath makes music in our hearts and mouths”), and lines that are saved from heresy only by meaninglessness (“the rain and the snow are the robes of his choice”).

What’s not there? Other than For All the Saints, and at most two other such for that holy day of obligation, there are no hymns, none at all, that appeal to a man’s desire to give himself wholly in the fight for Christ.

None of the ancient ascesis, that spiritual and physical drill to put you in trim for the battle. Nothing that hints of danger, of a world that hangs in the balance. Nothing for baritones.

And of course, the word “man,” as if it were some vocable scrawled on the wall of a bathroom stall in a seedy diner, scrubbed out.

The hymnal from which I gathered the three texts, the 1940 Episcopal, has about 45-50 such hymns, out of a total of 600. It’s by no means the predominant theme, this of the fighting church, but the hymns are there, as well they should be.

Why then have they been expelled from our Catholic songeries? We can speculate about that. What we shouldn’t speculate about, though, is that we are in dire need of the baritones.

The hymns in those execrable hymnals are, so to speak, all soprano, soprano in harmony with soprano, and maybe a little falsetto now and then.

Let us not fool ourselves. The battle is upon us. We are beset roundabout by a world quickly degenerating into complete insanity, with the most ambitious and unscrupulous among us looking forward to the time when the race will be engineered – to the abolition of man.

We need priests, and plenty of them, and fast. We need fathers, not sperm donors or porn-using begetters of children out of wedlock. We need bands of brothers who will be to one another’s courage as steel sharpening steel. We need quick infusions of courage, that unfashionable virtue without which none of the other virtues have any strength at all. We need true men. We’ll be hard put to get them by consigning manhood to oblivion.

Those who deny this are either living in a feminist fantasyland, or they do not actually want us to win – or even engage – the battle. They should have the honesty to say so.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Josh Levy

    “We are but warriors for the working-day.” The manliness of serving as husband and father each day, one day after the next, without fail, is obvious to those with eyes to see, though few celebrate it. But men can urge each other forward, reminding each other that there is greater glory in rearing our children and protecting our homes than in any fleeting public honor. Thank you, Prof. Esolen.

  • Ryan

    Prof. Esolen, maybe you could push for a new or updated version of the hymnal? Matthew Kelly’s DynamicCatholic.com could produce it and give it to any church willing to try a more traditional hymnal. I noticed the problem clearly this weekend in a song at Mass that was as deep as a glass of water.

    • Josh Levy

      The Esolen Hymnal. Yes, please.

  • frkloster

    I have a good friend who is a retired foreign government official. He is convinced that our meat is tainted with hormones. Specifically that the cattle handlers have subjected us to unsafe amounts of estrogen. They do this to calm down the herds often times confined in smaller pastures or feed lots. It’s a thought well worth pondering as I see more and more men emasculated.

    • erin

      Interesting thought. But there’s no need to involve tainted meat when we’re overflowing in female hormones from the birth control pill. Water sanitation does not cleanse these out – very expensive process, from what I understand.

    • Patti Day

      Would that mean that feminists are non-meat eaters?

  • M

    Great column. Our modern, feminized liturgy at times wears me down. There is a crisis of manliness in the culture, no doubt.

  • Rich in MN

    I am reminded of a somewhat similar article written by George Weigel a few years back in which he relates a time he was in Rome speaking with some clergy member who commented, “If I hear ‘Gather Us In’ one more time, I think I am going to jump out the window.”

    You identify Chesterton as a Catholic but, in fact, he was probably the most Catholic non-Catholic for most of his life, writing articles in defense of the Catholic Church and poems in honor of Mary long before he came into the Catholic Church in 1922. While they say martyrdom is the seed of the Church, I think of the many converts who have been like lighted mirrors reflecting back to us the great treasure that we have in our Church. Among those of our day, names like Rutler, Hahn, Kreeft, Staples, and so many more are (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor) like beacons awakening us to the Truth before our very eyes.

    • Howard Kainz

      I wish you hadn’t mentioned “Gather Us In.” Like a Skinnerian stimulus-response mechanism, the tune is going through my head now.

      • Rich in MN

        Sorry about that! I hope your office is on the first floor….

        Cross talk is probably frowned upon in this combox, but did you know Fr Tom Davitt? He was a friend of my grandfather (Richard Rivers) who taught Jurisprudence at St Louis University and then Marquette for many years. He passed away before I had a chance to meet him in person, only speaking to him briefly on the telephone in about 1978. I believe he died the next year.

  • Stanley Anderson

    “But God chose the foolish hymns of the world to shame the wise; God chose the falsettos of the world to upstage the baritones.”

    Er, uh, maybe not the best translation? I think I’ll stick with the original…

    By the way, as I was typing that parody above, I accidentally first typed “foolish humms”, the “u” being right next to the “y” key and all, and it struck me that therein lies another aspect of the contrast in the sorts of hymns you mention. Those old classics are ones that you can have their melodies running through your head in majesty and glory and they can evoke boldness and determination in whatever work you are engaged in, however dreary the tasks of that work may be.

    But the modern hymns seem to have melodies that tend to fall into two opposite camps — either no real melody at all to speak of, at best maybe the drearily mundane rock-influenced style I refer to as “sawtooth melodies” that, at the extreme, go up and down between two notes a half or whole step apart for whole verses, or else cutesy jingle ditties that haunt one’s brain for days after even one hearing. Where did melody go, anyway? There has got to be a revival of strong melody waiting just around the corner I should think. People simply MUST to be starved for them by now, mustn’t they?

    You write in your final sentence, “They should have the honesty to say so.” Yes. And who knows, if they were to find that honesty, it might just be a dim example of that “quick infusion of courage” you mention that could spark an actual change of heart. One can hope…

  • Mary Carlton-Jones

    Maybe the root of our problem is that “someone” convinced we Catholics and Christians, that we needed to COEXIST with evil, not smite it in all it’s forms. It is the acceptance of evil, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant that has allowed for the destruction of Truth. Those who live a “lie” themselves, accept lies in others without a peep. I have seen Catholic schools, filled with pacifist (mostly young female) teachers literally destroy the future generations of men by simply not allowing them to be boys and frankly boys want to smite evil – think of any childhood game involving “good” guys and “bad” guys.
    I am 56 with two boys, and my husband and I only see social justice, ie. redistribution of wealth, political correctness, peace at any cost and a whole slew of socialist clap trap and I am talking about Catholic K-12 schools! Schools worry about not using politically incorrect words, more than teaching the Lord’s truth. No wonder that standing up for our Faith, or being willing to fight or inspire to fight for our Lord is something that has been removed from any public discussion. But ladies and gentleman, Molan Labe. We need to stand firm.
    I am truly sad that we have not had the inspirational hymns that we could have – maybe I’m radical but the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” all stanzas still makes me cry, but then again I can cry at the “Litany of Saints” in Latin.

  • mark

    Have the honesty to say so? But their father is the father of lies and there is no truth in them.

    In any war it is critical to remove the infiltrators, saboteurs and traitors from the ranks of the army, especially from the chain of command. A good start would be to identify those bishops and priests who teach contrary to the dogmatic truths of the Church. Then get rid of the traitors in the parish offices.

  • Robert A Rowland

    I miss the great Catholic hymns that seem to have been squelched by VCII.

  • 1ray1

    This essay further substantiates Cardinal Burke’s thoughts on the feminization going on in our Church. Thanks.

  • givelifeachance2

    While we’re on stealth dilutions of manhood, why not point to the (over) representation of women in the university, and in jobs in general. I can see how male breadwinners can find it hard to find a job with women taking them all up. And I cringe to think of all the children in daycare centers because mom had to have her job. I am not critiquing single mothers, nor mothers who absolutely have to work but honestly, our society is going down the tubes when children’s needs are so consistently dumped on schools so that mom can work and “fulfil” herself. Those that can, homeschool! and let a breadwinner have your job!

  • Marie

    Dr. Esolen, I noticed you wrote “through His ETERNAL Son” in “Soldiers of Christ Arise”. I have always heard “through His BELOVED Son”. I guess your version is probably the original. Do you know for sure which one is original, and why someone changed it?

    Also, have you ever sung that hymn to the tune Kirkwood, by William B. Bradbury? It’s a serious, stirring tune that has the has the men singing a different rhythm from the women for part of the song. I love that hymn….

  • woodyjones

    You want the 1940 Hymnal, Dr. Esolen? Then come join us in the Ordinariate. Lots of bells and smells, too, with a manly spirit. And speaking of the hymnal, there is also that great hymn of total self-giving, written, if memory serves, by the great Protestant hymn writer of the 19th century, Fanny Havergal: “Take my Life and let it be, Consecrated, Lord, to Thee”. I heard an all male choir sing this at transitional diaconal ordinations at Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and it can really wake one up.

    • Tony

      We use the 1940 hymnal at our parish — the best of all the English hymnals, and twenty times as Roman and Catholic as the happy-clappy hymnals are!

  • Beth

    Start by getting ride of these hymnals, guitars, keyboards (yes, it is that bad) and even pianos and return to the organ. Say “No, thank you” to altar GIRLS and return that service to young men. In Catholic schools at the very least, have same-sex classrooms. Teach boys that they are to provide, protect and to procreate in the image of God the Father. Let St. Joseph be their hero. For the girls, teach them that they are so earth-shatteringly beautiful and should be protected not only from vice on the outside but the vice on the inside that would make them dress and act lower than their proper state demands–and they should be protected FOR a reason, that they are the heart of the family and temper man to true love and high virtue.

    There is oh so much to do Fleshman! Start today, right now, with expectations for yourself and your own children to be men and women. By the Grace of God, it can be done!



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