Today's reflection is inspired by commenter "MR" on Mark Shea's blog, who shares his love for the hymn "O God, Beyond All Praising," words by Michael Perry which are set to music by Gustav Holst. "MR" mentions an inability to locate the lyrics to this beautiful tune, so I'll reproduce them here before commenting on them:
O God, beyond all praising, we worship You today,
And sing the love amazing that songs cannot repay;
For we can only wonder at every gift You send,
At blessings without number and mercies without end:
We lift our hearts before You and wait upon Your word,
We honor and adore You, our great and mighty Lord.
Then hear, O gracious Savior, accept the love we bring,
That we who know Your favor may serve You as our king;
And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill,
We'll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless You still:
To marvel at Your beauty and glory in Your ways,
And make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise.
I've written quite a bit before, here and elsewhere, on the subject of sacred music, on what does or does not constitute a good hymn or sacred song. Rather than add excess verbiage today, I propose a modest thought experiment.
Imagine that you are present during Our Lord's passion and death on the Cross. Perhaps you are beside Him in the garden of His great agony; perhaps you observed the first Mass just before; perhaps you accompany Him through His questioning by the authorities, or follow Him along the Way of the Cross, or stand beneath the foot of that Cross as a silent and invisible witness to His agony and death.
Now imagine, at any one of these moments, that He can hear the words of any piece of liturgical music ever composed. Imagine that He hears us singing, across the ages, and that for one tiny moment He can hear our words of worship or praise.
The song I have just posted would, I think, were the thing I imagine a possibility, bring a tiny bit of comfort to His Heart: it is a song of faith, of faith that triumphs through adversity; it is a song that is humble before God, thankful for His gifts, and desirous of serving His will.
Now imagine that He hears the words to "Gather Us In" or "Bread For the World" or any one of the moderns songs that are somehow jarring to us.
Are these songs even about Him, except in the vaguest and most hidden of ways? Are they humble, thankful, faithful, obedient, holy? Do they offer Him worship? Do they bring Him any comfort in the midst of His agonies?
Liturgical music is about much more than what we find inspiring or pleasing to our ears and our tastes. It should be about Him, worthy inasmuch as our humble and clumsy efforts can be worthy of being heard by Him, pleasing to Him. At the very least, we should be striving to create "worship songs" that actually worship God, that do not spend several stanzas reassuring us how wonderful we all are and how happy church--or anything else, for that matter--makes us.
Because it isn't about us.
It's about Him.