The Vandals in the Choir Loft

Many readers will recall renovations their churches suffered in the 1970’s, ripping out the Communion rails, tossing statues of saints into the dump, whitewashing walls once decorated with stenciled designs, reducing altars to rubble, or tearing down the buildings whole, to replace them with – things.  It’s hard to know what to call them.

In my experience, fewer people are clear about what was done to the music, and almost nobody knows what has been done to the texts of such traditional hymns as remain in Worship, Glory and Praise, Gather, and other instruments of stupidity.  If that sounds harsh, I beg the reader to consider how much easier it is to ruin things that people only hear rather than see, or not even hear but retain vaguely in the memory.

I have vowed eternal enmity against the liturgically and poetically stupid.  The hymnals I have named give me plenty to work with.  Make no mistake.  God is not well praised by what is slovenly and stupid; and bad taste often slides over into bad theology.  When they mess around with old hymns, the editors do not want so much that we shall feel or think what they like, but that we shall not feel or think what they dislike.  They subtract.

Look at one fine Lenten hymn, spoiled by the editors of Worship.  Here are the first two stanzas, as they appear in old hymnals:

Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Shall we not Thy sorrows share,
And from earthly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Glad with Thee to suffer pain?

 There’s nothing difficult about those lines.  Any child who prays the Hail Mary and the Our Father will have no trouble with thou, thy, and thee.  Those pronouns are convenient for poets, and the bright clear vowel in thee is more favorable for singing than is the dark rounded vowel in its replacement, you.  Since the editors often have no choice but to retain the early modern forms (think of How Great Thou Art and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name), what’s the point in changing them here?  Leave the poetry alone.

But it’s not just the pronouns they found intolerable.  It’s the poet’s cheerful embrace of the ascetic practices of Lent.  If Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights, shall we not rush to join him?  The editors hedge:

Forty days and forty nights,
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Shall we not your sorrows share,
And from worldly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Strong with you to suffer pain?

 “No difference,” you may say.  Really?  If no difference, why make any change?  But there is a difference.  Jesus did not abstain from worldly joys.  Worldliness is at best a necessary involvement in this world of buying and selling.  At best, it brings care and trouble.  At worst, it is evil: you belong to the world rather than to the kingdom of God.

*

Lent is not for abstaining from sin!  We are always supposed to do that.  The abstinence we practice in Lent is from things that are licit, and even good.  Jesus was abstaining from food and drink and ordinary human companionship.  Those are earthly joys.

Why then say that we should be strong to suffer, rather than glad?  We are not strong.  Our strength comes from God.  The poet does not ask us to grit our teeth.  He asks for something that is at once easier and more surprising.  He asks for willingness: that trace of a smile we see on the face of someone who has determined to do without, come what may. In such gladness we wish to be with Jesus in the wilderness now, so that we will be with him in the glory to come:

So shall we have peace divine;
Holier gladness ours shall be;
Round us, too, shall angels shine,
Such as ministered to Thee.

Keep, O keep us, Savior dear,
Ever constant by Thy side;
That with Thee we may appear
At the eternal Eastertide.

It is a fine thing to be glad to suffer alongside Jesus.  It is far finer to know that holier gladness, when we share fully his triumph over Satan.  For after those temptations the devil left him, and “angels came and ministered unto him.” (Mt. 4:11)  The poet is looking forward to the ultimate triumph.  If our Savior keeps us at his side, constant, unswerving in this life, we will appear at his side in the life to come, at the eternal Eastertide.

Well, the editors could not endure the early modern pronoun Thee, and since that was also a rhyming word, they could not just replace it with you.  The result buries the Scripture reference and the dramatic scene it brings to mind:

So shall we have peace divine;
Holier gladness ours shall be;
Round us, too, shall angels shine,
Such as served you faithfully.

The holier gladness now has no term of comparison: holier than what?  No other gladness has been mentioned.

The ministering angels there with Jesus in the desert are replaced with generic angels, who “served” – but where, when?  And faithfully?  As opposed to how, in this poem?  Why is the word even there?  Only because the editors needed a rhyme.  It is lame, anticlimactic.

Could I do a better job?  Anybody could – by not doing anything at all, but leaving the poems as they were, before the great rage for modernist destruction.

Is it just a small thing?  Multiply this case by the 200 old hymns that the editors of Worship permit to remain.  Consider that other features of the Christian life will similarly be muffled or silenced, from awe at the majesty of God, to the painful awareness of how we persist in sin.

Black mold does not weigh much.  But would you want it on your walls?

 

*Image: Christ in the Wilderness by Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino), c.1520 [The MET, New York]

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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