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

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.

  • Randall Peaslee

    Words many people need to hear – but won’t. I can think of many reasons for this. About a year ago, I argued with another well-known Catholic writer on her blog. She took a very dim view of soldiering. I got the impression that part of her negativity came from the dubious motivations behind many of America’s recent wars. One angle I took in my argument was that we shouldn’t dismiss the love shared among a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Whatever the reasons national leaders have for a war, there’s a love between brother soldiers that gets tested by fire in a way few other relationships do.
    I’d love to hear other readers weigh in on this.

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      If it hadn´t been for the brave soldiers who fought muslim hordes thoughout the Middle Ages and the Modern period, we would all be under hoof of Islam and its barbaric sharia law. If Spanish soldiers had not fought to expell the muslims from their country, there would have been no Queen Isabella to send Columbus to discover America, Spanish and Portuguese l would never have achieveed the greatest missionary feat in the history of the Church, the evangelization of America.

      • Dr. Pegasus

        Yes, and do not forget Our Lady of Covadonga.

    • mark

      Randall: I agree with you. As Jesus said, “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.”

  • Manfred

    Dr. Esolen: You are aware that both World Wars were Divine punishments. The Mother of God told us this at Fatima in 1917. The British lost almost one million men in WW I and the British government had to order 32,000 glass eyes for many of the survivors. These men fought for King and Country as their culture required. I doubt if Christianity played much of a role as their enemies were Christian, at least in WW I.
    Let’s turn to yesterday, where an Alabama judge had requested succor from the U.S. Supreme Court in order to stall a mandate from a Federal judge requiring Alabama to allow sodomite marriage ,until the Court addressed the issue this semester. SCOTUS rejected this request allowing sodomite marriages to proceed immediately. Justice Thomas, the only African American, and ONE OF SIX CATHOLIC JUSTICES ON THE SUPREME COURT issued the dissenting opinion stating that the Court had signalled by this decision that it would decide that “same-sex marriage” is a Constitutionally guaranteed “right”.
    I cannot believe that if these catholic (sic) justices had been singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” each week it would make a bit of difference. The essence of the the Americanist heresy was that American catholis benefitted from “EXCEPTIONALISM” ,and being American and following its zeitgeist was more important than the dogmas, doctrine and irreformable teachings the Church has in Its” “basement”.

    • Tony

      Manfred: I have no doubt that wars in general are divine punishments. But as for the warriors themselves, I take Lewis’ point of view, expressed in The Weight of Glory. And maybe if we all had a healthier (that is to say, perfectly natural) love of manhood and womanhood, we would not now be pretending that a ram and a ram can mate, or a ewe and a ewe. The point of the article is to note the evisceration and emasculation of the hymnals — and much else besides. It’s why I declined to approve of England’s role in World War 1.

      • isaac heckler

        Ah yes, C.S. Lewis, an Anglican who hushed up his 15 year affair with a friend’s mother, Mrs Moore (no St. Augustine, he). Who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism in the face of his colleague’s, J.R.R. Tolkien, stalwart faith. Who was so confused in his logic, the great Roman Catholic philosopher, G.E.M. Anscombe, corrected him during one of his public lectures. That C.S. Lewis.

        Can’t you do better Dr. Esolen?

        • Tony

          Very strange. I understand that he promised to take care of his deceased friend’s mother, and that she was not always a very easy person to live with. You have no proof of their having had sexual relations. She seems to have been the model for the fussy “mother” in The Screwtape Letters. He was bested by Elizabeth Anscombe in a philosophical debate, but that was on her turf, so to speak, he acknowledged the defeat, and he altered his apologetics accordingly. His hesitance to join the Roman Church — I’ll let God be judge of that one. If C. S. Lewis was not on the side of the angels, I don’t know which Protestant is. And yes, I number faithful Protestants among my brothers in arms. Come on — Lewis was not Proust, or Gide, or Sartre.

          But I believe the points he makes against pacifism in his essay are powerful. Read the essay.

  • grump

    Well, I’m ready, Tony. Locked and loaded per Luke 11:21. Molon labe.

  • maineman

    Yes, as Manfred alludes, the battle lines can be very convoluted down here in the world, but I believe you are onto something very important, Dr. Esolen. All around us, the dogs of war are being unleashed, from the racial division being sown by our central government, to the aggressive secular assault by courts in Canada and here, to the all-too-familiar atrocities committed by the more muscular Islam that our esteemed leaders have energized through their nihilist enterprise. Our Lady of Fatima warned us that Russia’s errors would be spread around the world, and now we see the last bastion in danger of falling.

    No one with eyes to see and ears to hear can miss it: we are caught up in a battle between powers and principalities, with divisions even being widened within the Bride of Christ Herself. And all around us, as well, we see signs of Christians gaining clarity with regard to the war we are in. Only this time, it does not seem to be a war between or among nation states or the organized religious militias that marked the Crusades. Rather, it is happening as though dictated by the principle of subsidiarity: Christian militias forming in the Middle East, judges in Alabama refusing to sanction fake marriages, and now many of us beginning to see the diseased fruits born of excessive tolerance. Thomas Merton, in his prophetic last lecture from 1968, said that we had reached a point where everyone was on his own, where we could no longer rely on structures that could be destroyed by political powers at a moment’s notice. Each of us must now take up his or her sword.

  • Rich in MN

    I offer a comment with the deepest reserve since I have never served in
    the military; that is, I have never “anted into the game,” so to
    speak. Many peanut gallery ostriches who like to kibbutz will often
    sing the simplistic refrain of “War is not the answer! Why can’t we
    talk out our disagreements in peace? Why can’t we reason with the other
    side?” Of course, when ISIS burns people alive, or crucifies them, or
    beheads children, ostriches generally do not transform themselves into
    St Francis of Assisi and volunteer for the task of lead negotiator.

    However, there is another side of the argument: there is a grave moral
    complexity to war. I have met a few people who fought for Germany
    during WWII. They did not like the Nazis but they loved their country.
    And “conscientious objector” was not an option on their draft notices.
    These are the sorts of people I would have been killing — or would
    have killed me — if I had fought in a war. I think war is the only
    circumstance in which we give a big fat “pass” on violating a
    commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”). As Chesterton notes, wars should
    be fought not because we hate the person facing us, but because we love
    what is behind us. The tragedy is that many who die are killed at the
    hands of others who feel the same way.

  • M.

    Phenomenal. The treasure is this piece, to remind us of the vir in virtue.

  • Burger Fan

    A few years ago I attended a daily Mass where an elderly priest gave a most unsettling homily. I’m sure other people were upset inside, as I was, but we sat there politely and endured it. At the end of the Mass, after father had finished his final words, a lady in the front spontaneously began belting out “FAITH OF OUR FATHERS” as an impromptu exit hymn, and nearly all of us joined in. I treasure this memory of a firm but polite witness from people who have not forgotten and thank God for such hymns that help us stay faithful!

  • Manfred

    Thank you for your patient reply. The point of my comments was to state that the time for society returning to an ideal of masculinity is past and the barbarians/heretics are not at the gates, but rather within the city walls, and they are not Muslims. They are the Hierarchy in the Church and the Federal judges who are both clearing the way for sodomy to be the law of the land. We know what the Lord does to places where sodomy flourishes: He destroys it! Serious Catholic thinkers admit that the de facto Schism has already begun and there is no turning back. That is why both Benedict and Cdl Burke had to be removed. The book “Remaining in the Church of Christ” in which Cdl Burke and four other Cardinals made contributions (as well as Priest scholars), was written BEFORE the October, 2014 Synod on the Family! They knew that when Francis selected Kasper to give his speech in February, 2014, the direction the Church was being pushed.

  • Matthew

    There is no need to glorify war, to celebrate killing as a “masculine virtue,” or to pretend that the dreadful piece of doggerel offered above is inspiring poetry. War is ugly, brutal, results in the death of innocents, and is, for the most part, fought for reasons of cynicism and avarice. War is evil. Wars usually have their roots in greed, lust, vengeance, bigotry, and hatred. Soldiers don’t die for Christ. They die for Halliburton and for Bechtel and for the lies and personality disorders of their leaders and because they’re paid to kill or have become so frightened and hateful that they’re driven to kill. Let’s not confuse Christianity and masculinity with xenophobia, bellicosity, nationalism, and else that goes with being warlike.

    • Tony

      And you have just slandered every soldier who ever lived. The point of the article, I would like to remind people, has to do with hymns and with soldiership for Christ. I chose that hymn because its poetry was unusual. Other Church Militant hymns have nothing at all to do with combat.

      Read Lewis’ essay on pacifism in The Weight of Glory.

      I hold no brief for American wars since Vietnam. But you are not going to get me to pretend that we can live in Happyland, where it will never be necessary for men to defend their homes and their land. That place does not exist. But even granting the mess and the injustice of war, how hard of heart can you be, not to notice that individual men in the war may be giving their lives to God? Was Washington what you describe? Were all the men who fought in World War 2 what you describe? Were the men who fought the Turks at Vienna and at Jasna Gora what you describe? When Napoleon came to Moscow with his armies, were the Russians what you describe? Were the South Koreans just vicious fools for not wanting to give in to Pyongyang? Should the French under DeGaulle have rolled over?

      Separate the men from the wars themselves, and focus on the intent of the article.

      • Sam Martinez

        BS! He’s saying soldiers are manipulated into dying for reasons that are often evil. It Let’s see a nice manly hymn about standing up to war.

        • Tony

          Tell it to a veteran. It’s the warriors themselves who stand up to war. The German troops come rolling across Belgium into France. What are you going to do, welcome them with beer and pretzels?

          I won’t say anything cross about a genuine pacifist. But Lewis was right in a couple of important respects. These days, and in his day too, if you say, “I am opposed to war; I am a conscientious objector,” it will cost you absolutely nothing, and you will win praise from people in your social class — usually the well-fed class. So what’s to sing about?

          I know quite a few hard-line conservatives who believe that the Civil War was a matter of brazen aggression, the north against the south. But many of the northerners who fought in that war believed that the issue was the eradication of slavery from the United States. To say that there were also other motives behind the war is not to the point. Should we not honor the memory of those men? Does a veteran of one of our wars — maybe one who died in the war — not deserve EVEN ONE HYMN?

    • Loved As If

      Yes, war is ugly, brutal horrible. Children are killed. Non-combatants are killed. And yet, there are soldiers who die for Christ. Some, like my family, have no uniforms but only speak up for those who cannot. Others like St. Maximillian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein wear the uniforms of prisoners. Others, such as the soldiers fighting ISIS/ISIL in Kobani, wear uniforms and protect the helpless. Today, Kobani is free and those who liberated her continue to fight. Sometimes war is necessary because we are broken human beings who lie and have personality disorders. But mostly, war is necessary because we sin and our sin has far reaching affects.

      It’s not as easy as saying all war is evil. Even though war is evil, sometimes God uses it to purify our foolishness, hatefulness, and stupidity. Would it be grand if we were none of those things? Certainly. But it is those things we continue to be. Then again, this is earth and earth, though on the verge of a glorious recreation, remains broken. So when it’s time to fight (and let’s pray those times are few), even though the root cause be our sinfulness, let us at least fight with heads and hearts high.

    • Pat M

      To defend oneself in war is not to “celebrate killing”. The spiritual life has been likened to a war since Paul in Ephesians. Sometimes war is thrust upon you, whether you want it or not. A physical way could be somebody coming at you with a hatchet. A spiritual way could be somebody offering you cocaine in high school for the first time. Or, if you can believe it, offering to have sex with you, that can also be an attack resulting in your spiritual obliteration. So the spiritual war is not a war with guns, but it’s still life or death, and requires a lot of courage and a lot of determination, if that makes any sense. So that’s why a rousing song is necessary. Kumbaya sometimes just won’t cut it when you’re under siege and feel like you’re going to lose your life (or your soul).

    • LawProf61

      If it is ugly, it is because the people who make it necessary are ugly. When they come after you or your children, your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your city or your country, will you defend the helpless against those who would enslave or butcher them?

      It is not “warlike” or “bellicose” to be able to defend one’s self. Nor is it admirable to be a coward.

    • DeaconEdPeitler

      “War is ugly, brutal, results in the death of innocents, and is, for the most part, fought for reasons of cynicism and avarice. War is evil. Wars usually have their roots in greed, lust, vengeance, bigotry, and hatred.”
      But aren’t you happy that millions paid the price for your freedom to say what you will here? But, alas, the likes of you will never appreciate the sacrifices made on your behalf by others. How, then, do make sense of Christ’s crucifixion and redemptive act for your sins – a death freely chosen by Him so you can be free?

      • Sam Martinez

        Most soldiers don’t die to “protect our freedoms.” As someone suggested above, they die for Halliburton and their leaders power plays.

        • Wrong. Soldiers die for their brothers in arms. It is the ultimate act of courage and love. American soldiers take an oath to defend our constitution. If politicians choose to abuse our most brave to attempt to self enrich, or in the case of the current commander in chief, to forward the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the middle east, that is not the fault of the soldier. More soldiers have died u Der Obana than Bush, and yet you are reaching back to Bush.
          Yes, you most certainly owe your freedoms to those that gave up the most precious thing of all, their life.

  • Tom Aspinwall

    In Father William Doyle S.J. by Alfred O’Rahilly, page 261: “Easter Sunday was quite a red letter day in the annals of the town. The regiment turned out in full strength, headed by the pipers, and crowded the sanctuary, every inch of the church, and out beyond. I had eight stalwart sergeants standing guard with fixed bayonets round the altar. At the Consecration and also at the Communion of the Mass the buglers sounded the Royal Salute which is only given to Monarchs.The guard at the word of command presented arms, and in our poor humble way we tried to do honor to the Almighty King of Kings.” There is a website (Google it) dedicated to this incomparable Irish Chaplain killed in WWI.

  • chrisinva

    GGP, OCP. GIA et al make millions on the tawdry dross that fills our pews. the average parish spends thousands of dollars a year on royalties alone so that songs written by hack who would hide under a rock I. Nashville or LA can be forced down our throats by “music ministers” who belong at Pete Seeger’s wake, not at a Catholic Mass.

    • Mary

      Pardon me, but your cynical hatred of whoever is not like you, is showing.

      • chrisinva

        Only to you chosen ones who can read hearts?

  • Tony

    Michael — the English professor confesses that he has never read any of the books by the Anscombe-Geach tag team. Which should I read first?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Miss Anscombe’s Intention is, undoubtedly, her most important and influential work.

      You might like to start with her short essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which you can find on line. It really is a masterpiece of magna in parvo.

      Of her few pieces intended for a general Catholic audience, try Contraception and Chastity, again quite short and available on line; forty years on it remains remarkably topical.

  • Marie

    Another good essay, which is no surprise from Esolen. 🙂 I can’t resist another Christian war hymn I’ve been blessed to sing in church.

    “Faith is the Victory”

    Encamped along the hills of light,
    Ye Christian soldiers, rise,
    And press the battle ere the night
    Shall veil the glowing skies.
    Against the foe in vales below,
    Let all our strength be hurled;
    Faith is the victory, we know,
    That overcomes the world.


    Faith is is the victory!
    Faith is is the victory!
    Oh, glorious victory,
    That overcomes the world.

    His banner over us is love,
    Our sword the Word of God;
    We tread the road the saints above
    With shouts of triumph trod.
    By faith they, like a whirlwind’s breath,
    Swept on o’er ev’ry field;
    The faith by which they conquered death
    Is still our shining shield.


    On ev’ry hand the foe we find
    Drawn up in dread array;
    Let tents of ease be left behind,
    And onward to the fray;
    Salvation’s helmet on each head,
    With truth all girt about,
    The earth shall tremble ‘neath our tread,
    And echo with our shout.


    To him that overcomes the foe,
    White raiment shall be giv’n;
    Before the angels he shall know
    His name confessed in heav’n.
    Then onward from the hills of light,
    Our hearts with love aflame,
    We’ll vanquish all the hosts of night,
    In Jesus’ conqu’ring name.

    Faith is is the victory!
    Faith is is the victory!
    Oh, glorious victory,
    That overcomes the world.

    John H. Yates
    Ira D. Sankey