Treasure in the Basement

I’ve recently written that a young man can attend ten years of Sunday Mass at almost any Catholic church in the United States, and, with the sole exception of a bowdlerized version of For All the Saints on All Saints’ Day, never once sing a masculine hymn that exhorts us to take up our spiritual arms and fight for Christ.

There’s no disputing this. If you are using Gather, Glory and Praise, Worship III or IV, or anything else from OCP or GIA, you cannot possibly have sung one of those hymns. There aren’t any in those hymnals. They have been expunged.

To give my readers a sense of the treasures we have buried in the basement, I submit O Valiant Hearts. It is an excellent hymn, fit for a Sunday near to Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day, or for the funeral of a soldier:

O valiant hearts, who to your glory came,

Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame;

Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,

Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

 

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war,

As who had heard God’s message from afar;

All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave

To save mankind – yourself you scorned to save.

 

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,

Into the light that never more shall fade;

Deep your contentment in that blest abode,

Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

 

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,

Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,

While in the frailty of our human clay,

Christ our Redeemer passed the self-same way.

 

Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this,

Like some bright star above the dark abyss;

Still, through the veil, the victor’s pitying eyes

Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

 

These were his servants; in his steps they trod,

Following through death the martyred Son of God:

Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise

They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

 

O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,

Whose cross has brought them and whose staff has led,

In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land

Commits her children to thy gracious hand. 

John Arkwright wrote those words in 1919, just after the terrible first World War. We do not have to cheer for England’s part in that war to cherish valor when we see it. The men who fought “scorned themselves to save,” says the poet, and whatever may be the shifting sentiments of anyone in the midst of battle, for Christian soldiers that is no more than the truth.

A priest celebrates Mass for on the Champagne front in eastern France, 1915.
A priest celebrates Mass for on the Champagne front in eastern France, 1915.

They heard the call of duty to man and love of country, and they answered that call. Now they await the trump of doom, when the nations of earth shall be no more. For them it will be the last and greatest reveille, the muster of the body from the grave, and their ranks on ranks will join those of the heavenly armies.

Even now I fear that some of my readers are breaking out in hives. Shame on us. The language of spiritual warfare is everywhere to be found in both Testaments, Old and New. Jesus Himself says, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” and He is the Prince of Peace.

The poet understands that the Christian soldier follows the Captain who has gone before him. Long ago, on that bleak redoubt in Palestine, a cry resounded over the stillness of the dead earth. It is the battle cry of Jesus, the cry of ultimate obedience and of the last drop of blood shed for His enemies. “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” said He, and with a groan He gave up the ghost.

The cry still sounds, because that cross still stands. In the dark confusion of our war, the cross shines out “like some bright star.” Is it the star that led the wise men to the child in Bethlehem? Or is it the constant star of the north, by whose light we know where we are and where we must go?

Is it the only light that can pierce the pall of night?  Perhaps so. Behind that veil and penetrating it shine the pitying eyes of the Lord. Just as the Father looked upon His beloved Son upon the cross, so now the Son looks upon His beloved, as they die upon their “lesser Calvaries” – an unforgettable image.

Jesus marched before them, and they followed in His steps. Jesus was slain as a witness to the truth; they followed Him in that witness, through the no-man’s-land of death. Jesus rose as victor, over whom death shall have no more dominion. They who have drunk His cup to the dregs will rise victorious with Him.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says the Psalmist, “I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Here the rod of protection is the wood of the cross, and the Shepherd is a warrior also.

We are beset on all sides by the world, the flesh, and the devil, who prowls about the world like a roaring lion, seeking whom to devour. Why do we think the Shepherd carries the rod, if not to break the backs of the brute beasts, to crack the malignant skulls of demons?

But here, the soldiers too march through that dark valley. They are not only the protected. They are protectors in their turn. We are compassed round with so great a cloud of heroes.

If such a hymn strikes us as unfit for Mass, that only shows how thoroughly we have torn the sinews out of our expressions of faith. Many a soldier of Christ lies in an unknown grave. His hymn should not.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.

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