Strong hymns make for strong community

Amanda Sidebottom, Elizabeth Merrill, Grace Bernardo and Clare Maloney record music for "Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding," a CD of sacred Advent and Christmas music that was released last December. (CNS/Courtesy Church of Our Saviour/Harold Levine)

All children sing. They sing because they are human. They sing because humans are created for song.

Sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." No, really, sing it. You know the tune, and all the words. Someone sang it to you as a child and you have, in turn, sung it to another child. You don't have to be a trained vocalist or even a gifted amateur for the song's pretty melody and simple text. There are no tricky rhythms, just a series of quarter and half notes leading the singer up and down, but never off, the treble clef. The first four quarter notes alone -- D-D-A-A -- will get others around us singing along. It's part of the foundational anthology of American childhood songs, songs most of us know and can and will sing. These are songs that come out of a shared experience and common history, and so help build community.

Armies know about the power of a foundational anthology of songs. So do camp counselors and Scout leaders and parents and schoolteachers and advertising executives.

The Roman Catholic church knows the power of a foundational anthology that we call, in text, a canon. We pray either the Nicene or Apostles Creed every time a creed is used. We pray the Our Father and the Glory Be. If I say, "Lord, have mercy," you will respond "Christ, have mercy." If you pray a litany of saints that includes holy ones unknown to me, a St. Cyriacus the Recluse, say, it doesn't matter. I know the form and the framework and the intent. I will answer, "Pray for us." I don't need to be told why we are gathered or what we are doing if I walk in and hear people praying, "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." I know simply to take up the prayer with, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. ..."

This familiarity creates community. It helps us find one another in distant lands. It makes family out of strangers. It allows us not to spend time worrying which word or line comes next. Rather, we are freed by familiarity to enter ever deeper into the prayer.

These learned and known words give comfort when our own words fail. We rarely know what to say in the face of death. We lean instead on the words we know by heart, "Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord."

So, why are we so mistrustful of the idea of foundational anthology, or canon, when it comes to hymnody? Why is new, or different, or complicated, or unfamiliar a goal?

How many parishioners try and give up, defeated, when the high notes and the complicated rhythms are too much? It's akin to our behavior in the face of a Beyoncé video: We can't replicate the dance steps or the vocals, so we watch, observers, not participants. Consider a song most of us have heard, "Gather Us In," by Marty Haugen. There are time changes within the song, and a series of triplets and dotted quarter rests that few people can read, much less count. In the first measure of the first line we have a triplet followed by a dotted quarter note (which loses the dot in the second and third lines) and then an eighth note one step higher that is not meant to be sung in the first line (though it always is) but is there to follow the undotted quarter note in the second and third lines. Sound a little tricky? It is. Which is why, when you're all alone, you're likely to find yourself singing the sturdy common meter hymn, "Amazing Grace," but not the song-leader-dependent "Gather Us In." For this, and other reasons, in most parishes it's less "How Can I Keep From Singing," and more "How Can I Ever Begin to Sing?"

Sometimes the hymnal compilers make the wise choice to use beautiful, simple tunes like "St. Anne." This is the 17th- to 18th-century tune that Isaac Watts used to write "O God, Our Help In Ages Past." It is an ideal congregational hymn tune: 4/4 time, C major (so no sharps or flats,) all quarter notes except for two dotted half notes, and a melody everybody can sing. Combine the melody with Watts' strong text and you have a hymn that belongs in a foundational anthology of parish hymnody. Take a moment and reflect on the words, words of praise, words of promise, words of hope, words of comfort, words of faith:

O God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy
And our eternal home.
Before the hills in order
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting you are
To endless years the same.
   Time, like an ever-rolling
Bears all our years away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the op'ning day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Shall be our guard while
   troubles last,
And our eternal home.

The words speak to universal experiences, experiences that transcend cultures and ethnicities and eras. Every Christian in every place and time knows what it is to seek hope and shelter from the stormy blast, to seek a guard while troubles last, to wonder at the ever-rolling stream of time, to long for an eternal home. And the words speak to the truth of who God is, in every age, the One who is and was, "before the hills in order stood or earth received its frame."

Imagine the gift of learning this hymn by heart, of being able to sing it, alone and in the dark, at a birth bed or deathbed, in prayer and in praise.

And why would we ever trade Watts' words for the later texts that have been set to "St. Anne"? Go to your hymnal and compare "Lord, Grant Us Grace to Know the Time" with "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." Stanza four of the former says,

But you have taught that love
   is feigned
That fails a neighbor's need,
That faith we claim is false
Your word becomes our deed.

Is love that fails a neighbor's need indeed "feigned," or simply human? Human love does fail: neighbor's needs, family's needs, self needs. Shaky theology and anthropology aside, the words are clunky. They feel forced, like this line from stanza one, "Which hour to crowd with waiting work and which with you to share." I understand the composer's dilemma of trying to find the right number of syllables to fit the common meter of the tune, but syllables alone do not constitute a poem.

I have a proposal. Let's make the new church year the year of the hymn canon. Pick a strong few hymns for each season and then sing them, Sunday after Sunday. The goal is to increase participation, which singable tunes and familiarity provide. The gift is of a known body of hymns that goes with us from church to home and work. Imagine having "sufficient is your arm alone, and our defense is sure" rolling around your head instead of the lines of the latest ad.

Advent is easy. Try "Creator of the Stars of Night," and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" for processional and recessional each Sunday of the season. Then add "On Jordan's Bank" or "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" (Stuttgart melody) for the offertory, and the Taizé "Wait for the Lord" for the communion hymn. Strong tunes and strong texts will add up to strong singers.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's column is at Her latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life.]

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