“Cantare, Amantis Est”

Note to readers in Florida: Robert Royal will be speaking at St. John of the Cross Church in Vero Beach this evening (Tuesday, 3/26/19) at 6:45 on “Controversies, Challenges, and Reasons for Hope in Today’s Church.” Information is available by clicking here.

The phrase of St. Augustine, “Cantare, amantis est,” has become the title of one of Joseph Pieper’s classic small books that say so much. The English title is equally lovely – Only the Lover SingsI recall reading somewhere that songbirds do not need all of the notes that they actually chirp for daily living and reproducing. Reality is filled with an abundance of apparently unneeded things that we could very well get along without. Yet we have them and they embellish our existence. We are given more than we need. Reality is not parsimonious. We wonder why. We are glad of it.

Why do we sing and dance? We come to a point when both prose and sitting still seem insufficient. Why does a bride dance with her spouse and her father at her wedding? The angels are said to be organized as choirs. They praise and glorify God. But does He really need their music to glorify Him? Does He really need us to glorify Him? God lies beyond the category of “need.” He already exists in glory.

God does not need us for lack of something else in His Trinitarian life. Would not the “life” of God be less open to doubt if He were not encumbered with needing to explain just why He brought finite, evidently fallible human beings into His world? The biggest accusation against God is usually: “If He did not want us to sin, why bother to create us in the first place?”

The existence of sin within a good creation means that God had something else in mind. He did not want us to sin, to be sure; but He did not not want to create us even if we did sin. So He created us. Male and female He created us. He figured that we would sin. He bore the consequences in Himself, in His Son.

The answer to this perennially perplexing question of sin is probably found in Augustine’s Cantare, amantis est. Dealing with our sins is not the last word of the God/man, though it is the last word He spoke from the Cross, “the Sacred Head surrounded.”


In the Book of Wisdom, we read: “You love all things that exist; you hold in abhorrence nothing of what you have made.” (Wisdom 11) This love of all that exists would evidently include the love of those who finally rejected Him, something always possible to us. God cannot “make” someone love Him who wills not to love Him. What would be the point?

In a passage that recalls both Martin Buber and Joseph Pieper, Joseph Ratzinger, in his Principles of Catholic Theology (1987), wrote: “The key to the I lies with the thou; the key to the thou through the I. We come now to the all-important question. Is it true then, when someone says to me: ‘It is good that you exist’?” It can only be true if my existence and your existence are themselves willed by an Existence that is itself good, one that is not capable of not existing. Otherwise, our existences and our loves are merely passing.

The 12th Psalm reads: “I shall sing to the Lord, who has granted good things to me.” The language of love affirms that “It is good that you exist.” The language of friendship adds that it is “good that we both exist knowing one another.” The language of truth states: “It is true that you exist.” The language of creation affirms that “You and I both exist even if we need not exist.” The language within the Trinity speaks “eternal life.”

In the Book of Judith, we are urged: “Make noise to our God with drums, and sing to my Lord with cymbals: Begin a new song to him, extol and call upon his name. A new song I will sing to my God.  Lord, great are you and glorious.” (Judith 16) In Psalm 47, “God goes up with sounds of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast. Sing praise for God, sing praise.”

Much reference to music is found in the Scripture, though, aside from the angels on high at the Nativity, surprisingly little is found in the New Testament. When Christ visits the synagogue in Nazareth, He “reads” from Isaiah, He does not chant or sing it. I do not recall any drums, kinnors, or nebels at the wedding feast at Cana.

“Being human begins anew in every man,” Ratzinger wrote in 1979: “The success of the previous generation cannot be simply and automatically transferred to the coming one. Every generation can and must make good use of what has previously been achieved. But each generation must also suffer, endure, and gain for itself the state of being human.”

Each human life begins in the darkness of the Word. “In the end, only its lover sings it.”


*Image: Miriam’s Dance by an unknown artist of the Tarnovo Literary School, c. 1360 [State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia]. From the Bulgarian Tomić Psalter, it illustrates Exodus 15: 20: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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