Monday, September 10, 2007

There's a Little Good in Most Things

Catholics have no musical taste.

That has, of course, been apparent since January of 2006, when this article appeared. A whole history of stunning, beautiful liturgical music, and Catholics voted for this?

Seriously. "On Eagle's Wings" is, at least allegedly, the Catholics' favorite hymn, beating out such gems as "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," "Ave Maria," "Panis Angelicus," and "Tantum Ergo." That it also beat out such hip tunes as "Here I Am, Lord," and "Be Not Afraid" is of small comfort, since those two songs placed second and third, respectively, far above the older, more venerable Catholic songs, particularly those sung in Latin.

Before I joined our parish choir I used to "vote with my voice," in a manner of speaking, when songs I consider tasteless modern musical dreck would be scheduled. Since I seldom sang the Communion hymns anyway, preferring to spend the time after Communion in quiet prayer, I missed a lot of the worst offenders; but I still sometimes would hear the song announced for the Offertory and would sigh, and leave the hymnbook in the pew. My daughters grew up following my lead, and thus sang few of the truly unfortunate hymns penned in the decades following the Second Vatican Council.

When we joined the choir I realized that I'd have to sing all of those songs. Choking back my distaste for them, doing my musical best despite my utter disdain for most of these ditties, trying to forget the clever parodies I've read of their lyrics, I've sung them, figuring that it's an act of penance for me and that better music will eventually be preferred to this awful stuff. I haven't had to worry about learning most of them, either--no one can forget tunes that have all the musical staying power of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" or the theme song from Gilligan's Island.

What I have, on occasion, forgotten is that my girls don't know these songs. Thanks to Mom's vocal boycott of these misbegotten musical monstrosities, thanks to the fact that they've never attended a diocesan Catholic school and had to attend school Masses replete with the simplest and most simpering of these auricular assailants, they don't know the vast majority of the exemplars of the "rich musical heritage" of the last forty or fifty years. Which is something for which I should thank God on my knees, but it does occasionally make my children's puzzled glances from the choir loft as we launch into "One Bread, One Body" or some such tune seem pretty amazing, not only to me, but to anyone else among the choir who notices that my children are completely unfamiliar with these "favorites."

And this Sunday, we sang "On Eagle's Wings" as the Communion hymn.

My older two daughters picked it up pretty quickly. It's not an especially challenging hymn. But my youngest wasn't really sure about it, and stayed pretty quiet at my side for the whole thing--not really a problem, since she's sometimes a bit tentative even when she knows a song fairly well, but I could tell she didn't recognize the song at all.

Later Sunday evening, I asked her about it. She admitted that she hadn't heard it, and didn't know it, and so hadn't sung much of it, though she'd read the words and tried to follow along.

"What did you think of it?" I asked curiously, though perhaps a bit unfairly since they all know how Mom feels about most of this stuff.

"I kind of liked it," she admitted, pausing for a moment. "It reminded me of The Hobbit."

I looked at her for a moment, confused. I knew she'd just finished reading The Hobbit and had enjoyed it tremendously, but why on earth would that book remind her of... "Of course!" I cried, laughing suddenly. "The Eagles!"

"The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
"'The Eagles! The Eagles!" he shouted. "The Eagles are coming!'" (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien)

I smiled at my youngest daughter. I've read Tolkien repeatedly for years, and never associated the rescue of Bilbo and his companions with Psalm 91 before she made the connection, all with the help of "On Eagle's Wings."

Sure, it's not well written. Sure, the music is simplistic yet just difficult enough to make congregational singing conveniently impossible, or at least painfully discordant. Sure, it tends to be called "The Youhoo Song" owing to its difficult first phrase, "You who dwell...etc." which begins on a note approximately 93% of human beings are incapable of striking correctly on the first try.

But if "On Eagle's Wings" can inspire a complex literary/biblical connection like the one my daughter noticed, well, I may just have to accord it a tiny measure of grudging respect.

(Very grudging.)

Update: While juggling multiple links for this post I inadvertently posted the link to the book of Psalms instead of the CNS news article about Catholics' favorite music at the top of this post. The link has now been fixed, and should make a whole lot more sense! :)


Susan said...

"on Eagle's Wings" is one of the favorites of my home parish's choir director. He is really, really awful. It's not his fault that he has to play an electric organ--but he WOULD pull the stops that make it sound like a ballpark organ. He sings many of the hymns solo--partly because he wants to and partly because he sings like a lounge singer and no one could possibly join in. The final straw, for me, was the Midnight Mass where he made the dear, young, orthodox priest who married us SING the words of consecration to a jazzy tune and pause every once in awhile for a chorus by the choir. I wept through most of Mass.

Needless to say, we hired an outside organist when we got married in that church and this choir director called me up to have a long chat. He wanted to make sure (since he wouldn't be around to supervise) that we weren't thinking of doing anything that wasn't liturgically appropriate. It was truly a mortifying conversation and I'm so glad it happened over the phone because I truly don't know what I would have done face-to-face.

Glad you can find something redeeming in the Eagle hymn . . .

Opal said...

I am ashamed to say in high school we would "sing" those songs but the really bad part was, we made fun of the whole thing. Not very approriate during mass. Jabs, snickers, hand movements....if they only knew how SICK we were of the songs....maybe that is why they insisted! Sort of like a pennance?!
My children notice when I do not sing and wonde what is wrong with the music....I wonder if I should sing LOUDLY anywhooooo.....

John Thayer Jensen said...

Oh me, oh my!

I have several times refused to be part of what passes for a choir in our parish, because there are some of those songs - well most of them, actually - that I would not be willing to sing at all.

I class the music in our parish in three groups:

1) The musically or poetically dreadful (the huge bulk of them). One of the worst is the thing called the "Galilee Song" whose imagery is so bizarre as to be unsingable with a straight face - "I must follow close, lest I leave my boats behind ..." - what??

2) The musically, poetically, and theologically good, even if not always excellent - a very tiny number, alas! "Holy God, we praise Thy Name" is one.

3) The ones that are simply theologically unCatholic, unChristian - a not trivial number - including "Come As You Are, that's How I Want You" (with the implication "and stay that way", and "We Remember, We Celebrate, We Believe," which, so far as I can get anything from it, denies the Resurrection and the Real Presence.


freddy said...

Okay, confession time: I like "On Eagle's Wings."

That said, we mostly assist at the indult Tridentine (Bl. John XXIII) Mass in our area, so I don't hear it all that often and instead we're treated to a host of beautiful and timeless music.

Once in a while we end up at another Mass and watch my older kids' faces get grimmer and grimmer as they listen to the music and read the words. Last time the communion song was all about how "we are the bread," and my oldest was really having a hard time with that.

Being in the choir you may have - little by little and very slowly --a chance to influence the choice of music!

Lorri said...


I love both "On Eagles Wings" and "You Are Mine." We sang them at our daughter's funeral, 3 years ago this month.

Isaiah 40:31 kept us going during that time, as it still does today.

When we sing "You Are Mine" in church,I cry unashamedly. I know that the Lord loves our daughter even more than we do that she is His and He brought her safely home.

Red Cardigan said...

Lorri, may God comfort you on this difficult anniversary, and continue to be with you and your family.

I think that we associate songs with these occasions, both the joyful and the sorrowful, in our lives. It may be why so many people voted for "On Eagle's Wings"; they've heard it a lot, and probably at least once on an occasion filled with emotions that are forever after associated with the song.

My biggest gripe with "On Eagle's Wings" has less to do with the lyrics, which do follow many current translations of Psalm 91, and more to do with the music--but I realize not everyone will have those issues.

More problematic from a lyrics, and therefore a total, standpoint are the dozens and dozens of Communion hymns that do not relate to the Bible but create their own words about the "bread" "cup" etc. which diminish the proper understanding of the Sacrament. Another thing that I find difficult is that so many songs are not about God, but about "us": how we're gathered, how we're sharing our stories or journeying or serving each other, etc. These songs might be fine for Christian fellowship outside of Mass, but they're not really appropriate for worship.

On those grounds, "On Eagle's Wings" is better in the sense that it is drawn from the Bible and not theologically problematic.

I will keep you in my prayers this month at Mass, especially if we sing "You Are Mine." God bless.

MommaLlama said...


A round of applause and laughter are coming from my side of the monitor... why??? Because we too were forced to listen to these PC and sadly unCatholic ... unsacramental songs this past weekend!!! And it reminded me once again to NEVER over sleep and miss the Monk Mass or earliest mass at our parish.

I would like to add that it seems that these sad pieces of music (term used loosely) are a showcase for the aspiring choir director/theater major! All the showmanship that seems to accompany this job is really beyond me... for some silly reason I thought we were at Mass for Christ, not Sally Jo and her grand waving of arms (which as a musician I have found very few choir directors that actually know how to direct let alone read music).

Lastly, the next time the responsorial psalm is performed I will stand and yell TOUCHDOWN when the signal is given!

Opal said...

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi – How we worship reflects what we believe and determines how we will live.
This is one reason why some of these songs drive me nuts!

(Sorry about your daugters death; may her soul rest in peace)

We had Amazing Grace for our Communion Hymn. In my head I was singing....Oh Lord I am not worthy...

Opal said...

Off the main topic...I wanted to pass on what the Pope had to say about the Liturgy while in Austria...

"In the beauty of the liturgy, [...] wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. 02 Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity. [...] In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. We stand before God – he speaks to us and we speak to him. Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost. [YES!] Either it is Opus Dei, with God as its specific subject, or it is not. In the light of this, I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place, so that it will truly be an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends."

Red Cardigan said...

Opal, thanks for sharing that! It needs to be distributed to every pastor in America!