The Poetry of the Saints

It’s not news to say that we Catholics struggle with beautiful music these days. More than two decades ago, Thomas Day released Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, and the problems still exist. We mutter along with the responsorial Psalm; and mumble through the hymnody, with its milquetoast lyrics set to bland music. This is most striking in those parts of the country that have vibrant churches with solid preaching. While the priest or deacon might spend a great deal of time preparing a well-structured homily, the music for that day’s Mass (if there is any) seems to be an afterthought. One of the reasons our music is so bad is that we simply don’t take it seriously.

It was not always so. St. Paul, in Colossians 3:16, calls upon Christians thusly: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The Catechism actually calls the Church’s musical tradition more valuable than any other art (CCC 1156):

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: “Address . . . one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” “He who sings prays twice.

So how do we get from where we are to where we need to be, in terms of our appreciation for the Church’s musical tradition? A good place to begin would be by discovering the riches of the musical tradition bequeathed to us by the Saints. I want to focus on two: St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose feast day is June 9th, and St. Gregory of Narek, who Pope Francis just declared a Doctor of the Church. For both of them, I’ve chosen three excerpts from their hymns/poems/prayers (two short selections, and one long one) that I found particularly beautiful or insightful.

St. Ephrem the Syrian
St. Ephrem the Syrian

I. St. Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem (c. 306-373) is a fourth-century deacon from the region of Syria (modern-day Turkey), who was nicknamed “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” The name fits, as Ephrem was both a brilliant theologian and brilliant musician. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by St. Benedict XV in 1920 (who noted the likely influence of his “liturgical antiphonary with its songs and processions” on later liturgical reforms by St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great).

My first selection for Ephrem is Hymn 22 from his Hymns on the Nativity. Ephrem is celebrating the fact that Creation, so often idolized by pagans, ended up leading the pagan Magi to Christ:

It was a suffering for him, the servant, that instead of his Lord he was worshiped.
Behold the creation is joyful that the Creator is worshiped!
Blessed is the worshipful Child!

[….]

The Magi used to worship [fire] – they worshiped You!
They left it and worshiped its Lord; Fire they exchanged for fire.
Blessed is He Who baptized us in His light!
Instead of the foolish fire that eats its own body itself,
the Magi worshiped the Fire Who gave His body to those who eat.

My second selection is Hymn 21 from this same collection, because Ephrem uses this same theme to describe the fittingness of the Incarnation as God’s mercy towards His often-idolatrous people:

The sun returned worship; by his Magi he honored Him.
In his worshipers he worshiped Him.
God had seen that we worshiped creatures.
He put on a created body to catch us by our habit.
Behold by this fashioned one our Fashioner healed us,
and by this creature our Creator revived us.
His force did not govern us. Blessed is He Who came in what is ours
and mingled us into what is His.

My final choice is the long one (it was hard not to include more of it, actually): Hymn 7 from his Hymns on Paradise. He describes how beautiful Paradise will be:

Whoever has washed the feet of the saints
will himself be cleansed in that dew;
to the hand that has stretched out
to give to the poor
will the fruits of the trees
themselves stretch out;
the very footsteps of him
who visited the sick in their affliction
do the flowers make haste
to crown with blooms,
jostling to see
which can be first to kiss his steps.

But having described the beauties of Paradise, Ephrem then goes in a surprising direction — his own unworthiness to enter Paradise. He weeps for his wasted life, comparing it to the lives of the Saints. He asks for prayers, for the mercy of God, and (employing Eucharistic imagery) for the chance to have at least scraps from the Master’s Table:

I saw that place, my brethren
and I sat down and wept,
for myself and for those like me,
at how my days have reached their fill,
dissipated one by one, faded out,
stolen away without my noticing;
remorse seizes hold of me
because I have lost
crown, name and glory,
robe and bridal chamber of light.
How blessed is the person
who of that heavenly table is held worthy!

May all the children of light
make supplication for me there,
that our Lord may grant them
the gift of a single soul.
Thus would I have renewed occasion
to praise Him
whose hand is, to be sure,
stretched out in readiness.
May He who gives
both in justice and in grace
give to me, in His mercy,
of the treasure store of His mercies.

And if none who is defiled
can enter that place,
then allow me to live by its enclosure,
residing in its shade.
Since Paradise resembles
that table,
let me, through Your grace
eat of the “crumbs” of its fruit
which fall outside,
so that I too may join
those dogs who had their fill
from the crumbs of their masters’ tables.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the hymn comes after this, in which Ephrem confronts his own shame

May my sins not be revealed
to my brethren on that day,
– yet by this we show
how contemptible we are, Lord;
if our sins are revealed to You,
from whom can we hide them?
I have made shame
an idol for myself;
grant me, Lord, to fear You,
for You are mighty.
May I feel shame and self-reproach
before You, for You are gentle.

There were several runners-up that I wanted to include:

  • Hymn 16 on the Nativity: it’s told from the Virgin Mary’s perspective, as she meditates on the fact that Christ is both within her womb and in Heaven, is both the Brother and the Lord of believers, and is both the Eucharistic Bread and the invisible God;
  • Hymn 23 on the Nativity: on the humility of Christ, and how the universe is too small to contain our Lord, but Mary’s lap was big enough for Him;
  • Hymn 23 on Virginity: Comparing the woman at the well to the Virgin Mary, because she “conceives” Christ through listening to the Gospel, and then brings Him forth by proclaiming the Gospel.
St. Gregory of Narek (from an 1173 A.D. manuscript)
St. Gregory of Narek (from an 1173 A.D. manuscript)

II. St. Gregory of Narek

Gregory (950-1003) is a tenth-century Armenian monk, who was also a mystic, philosopher, and theologian, in addition to being a poet. The collection of his hymns that we have in English is his Book of Lamentations. As I mentioned above, Pope Francis just named a Doctor of the Church this year: he is the 36th person in all of Christian history to be honored in this way.

My first selection for Gregory is Prayer 12, a “bedtime prayer” about loving God more than His gifts, and even loving God more than salvation itself:

Not only do I call, but I believe in the Lord’s greatness.
I pray not only for his rewards but also for himself,
the essence of life, guarantor of giving and
taking of breath
without whom there is no movement, no progress,
to whom I am tied not so much by the knot of hope
as by the bonds of love.
I long not so much for the gifts
as for the giver.
I yearn not so much for the glory
as the glorified.
I burn not so much with the desire for life
as in memory of the giver of life.
I sigh not so much with the rapture of splendor
as with the heartfelt fervor for its maker.
I seek not so much for rest
as for the face of our comforter.
I pine not so much for the bridal feast
as for the distress of the groom,
through whose strength I wait with certain
expectation believing with unwavering hope
that in spite of the weight of my transgressions
I shall be saved by the Lord’s mighty hand and
that I will not only receive remission of sins
but that I will see the Lord himself
in his mercy and compassion
and receive the legacy of heaven
although I richly deserve to be disowned.

These themes are constant in Gregory’s prayers: his sinfulness is great, but Christ’s mercy is infinitely greater. We see a common tone in my second selection, Prayer 10, which condemns despair, reminds us of Christ’s mercy even to mortal sinners, and calls us to faith:

Both unruly sin and deep regret
plunge us into damnation, being
essentially similar even though from different sources.
But when compared they share the same character flaws:
one doubts the strength of the Almighty’s
hand like a cowardly skeptic,
while the other, like a wild beast,
brutally cuts the thread of hope.
Satan, flattered by the first,
constantly rejoices; while the second
provides fresh blood for the hounds of hell to lap up.

[….]

For even he who has committed mortal sin,
even he, recaptured in the evil spirit’s prison
and cast down into the abyss of evil,
even he still can grasp the slender hope of salvation.
Even he has hope of escape through redemption,
like the remorseful sinner miraculously reclaimed
through the raindrops of his eyes
caused by the compassion of the Almighty,
the Almighty who again made the earth flourish,
as a gift from the Spirit of God.
Let us remember also the healing and encouraging words of our Lord,
“With faith, anything is possible.”

And my final selection, the long one, is Prayer 5:

The more I compare my sinful ingratitude with your
loving-kindness,
the more I prove that your law is always stronger,
and my lawlessness, always defeated.

You made me in your glorious image,
favoring a weak being like me
with your sublime likeness,
adorning me with speech,
and burnishing me with your breath,
enriching me with thought,
cultivating me with wisdom,
establishing me with ingenuity,
setting me apart from the animals,
endowing my character with a thinking soul,
embellishing me with a sovereign individuality,
giving birth as a father, nurturing as a nurse,
caring for me as a guardian,
You sowed a wayward being in your courtyard,
irrigated me with the water of life,
cleansed me with the dew of the baptismal fount,
nourished me with heavenly bread,
quenched my thirst with your blood,
acquainted me with the impalpable and unreachable,
emboldened my earthly eyes to seek you,
embraced me in your glorious light,
permitted my unclean earthly hands to
make offerings to you,
honored my base, mortal ashes,
like a flicker of light,
imprinted upon a worthless wretch like me
your father’s image, awesome and blessed,
out of your love for mankind.

After recounting the natural gifts God has given him (and us!), Gregory turns to the supernatural ones:

You did not scald my mouth for daring to
call myself your co-heir,
did not reprimand me for arrogantly
associating with you,
did not darken the sight of my eyes for
gazing upon you,
did not exile me in shackles with
those condemned to death,
did not break the wrist of my arm for
improperly reaching to you,
did not crack the digits of my fingers for
touching the word of life,
did not engulf me with fog for dedicating this
to you, fearsome Lord,
did not crush the rows of my teeth for
chewing your communion, infinite Lord,
did not turn in anger as I did with you,
as with the stubborn house of Israel,
did not dishonor me at your wedding party,
I, who am unworthy of singing and dancing,
did not scold me for my disheveled clothes,
I, who am disorderly,
did not cast me into the dark, my hands and
feet shackled.

But then the bad news: our response to these gifts has been sin, not gratitude:

And I exchanged all these portions of
goodness, patience and forgiveness from you,
O beneficent, blessed and always-tolerant God,
for all manner of waywardness of the flesh and the ego,
for the wavering passions of the mind and the
diversions of worldliness.
Yes, that is how, my God and Lord, I repaid you for
your abundant goodness.

[….]

And although on many occasions you attempted
to draw me to you by reaching out your helping hand,
I rejected it, as the prophet accused Israel.
And although I promised and made a
covenant to please you,
I did not keep it,
but again perverted it into something evil.
Reverting to my old ways,
I sowed the field of my heart with thorns of
sin for a harvest of dissension.
The words of the God-fearing holy prophet apply to me,
for you expected grapes but instead I sprouted thorns.
I became an unappetizing fruit of bitterness,
outcast from the garden.
Swaying violently in unsteady winds,
always blowing to and fro, I wavered.

Gregory concludes the prayer by throwing himself upon the mercy of God:

And what is the use of composing these meager and
paltry verses
in my state of remorse which passes all measure and evades all cure?
Now it is up to you to offer life to my dead soul
and without vengeance to visit me,
a condemned prisoner,
O Son of the Living God, to you be all glory.
Amen.

Amen indeed!

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed getting to know these two Doctors of the Church a little better. There are real spiritual insights to be had there, about the Incarnation, about our Redemption, and simply about the heights to which beautiful prayer and hymnody can take us. Happy feast of St. Ephrem!

7 Comments

  1. As an additional prompting we should recall that in the Gospel of Matthew, after communion, Jesus and the apostles found it to be important to sing a psalm before heading out to the Mount of Olives! (MK 14:26)

    1. Cary,

      That’s a very good verse for showing the importance of sung worship in liturgy, because the Last Supper is a Passover meal. Scott Hahn explains here:

      “And you know the circumstances and details surrounding the Last Supper. I won’t recount all of them, but let’s just go over the more salient features. In Mark 14:22ff we read, “And as they were eating he took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said, ‘Take; this is my body. And he took a cup and when he had given thanks [the Greek word for that is eucharisto] he gave it to them and they all drank of it, and he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many.'” And then he adds a kind of unusual statement: “Truly I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And then, when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the night to the Mount of Olives. Now that might not seem very significant to you but to scholars who study the gospel accounts of the Passover in the upper room, there’s a big problem. Why? Because we know the way the Passover has been celebrated for centuries, for millenia; it’s a very ancient liturgy, it’s well known, it’s no secret. Jews still celebrate it according to the same structure. There are four cups that represent the structure of the Passover. The first cup is the blessing of the festival day, it’s the kiddush cup. The second cup of wine occurs really at the beginning of the Passover liturgy itself, and that involves the singing of psalm 113. And then there’s the third cup, the cup of blessing which involves the actual meal, the unleavened bread and so on. And then, before the fourth cup, you sing the great hil-el psalms: 114, 115, 116, 117 and 118. And having sung those psalms you proceed to the fourth cup which for all practical purposes is the climax of the Passover.

      “Now what’s the problem? The problem is that gospel account says something like this: after the third cup is drunk Jesus says, “I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until I am entering into the kingdom of God.” And it says, “Then they sang the psalms.” Every Jew who knows the liturgy would expect: and then they went ahead and said the grace and the blessing and had the fourth cup which climaxed and consummated the Passover. But no, the gospel account say they sang the psalms and went out into the night.”

      He then spends the rest of the talk explaining how Christ consumes the fourth cup at the consummation on the Cross, and that His “it is finished” refers to the Passover liturgy (and the first Mass). Brilliant stuff.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. Great to hear from you, by the way! Beautiful photo of your family. I was just praying for you guys today.

  2. Back when I was an ECLA Lutheran I was in New Orleans as part of a big event and I wanted to go to church that Sunday before I went on the plane. Being that it is New Orleans, there are mostly Catholic Churches (and no Lutherans). So, I went to the Mass at Loyola University because it was walking distance from where I was staying. Long story short, I was the only one singing other than the guy (or was it a woman?) behind an elevated lectern.

    I suppose hymns are for listening to 😛

    1. Yeah, it’s not one of our strong suits, at least these days. There’s a long tradition of using hymns and Psalms to (a) give praise to God, (b) convey theological truths, and (c) confront heresies (Augustine wrote an anti-Donatist Psalm, for example; in more recent years, Belloc penned a delightful anti-Pelagian drinking song).

      Part of the problem of engagement is related to beauty. It’s much harder to get people singing when it’s aesthetically lacking. But it’s a big enough issue that you see things like Russ Saltzman’s essay Catholics Don’t Sing Like Lutherans.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  3. Ah! Thank you so much! St. Ephrem is my birthday saint, but I’ve never been to find much about his life or story. Thanks for expanding my horizons:)

  4. I have a question that may fit here: I understand that we can sing prayers, but is it appropriate to turn a prayer into a song? We have a Hawaiian-shirt wearin’,guitar-playin’ musical director who has everyone singing the Gloria each Mass…as a song. Let alone that it’s a terrible, clunky song, but should the Gloria have refrains and repetitions and such?

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