Anthony Esolen writes on “recovering from cultural dementia:”
Mos amandi, mos cantandi: as we sing, so shall we love. If we don’t sing, our love will become, or must already be, frail and thin. Singing is what the lover does, said Augustine. To know the truths of our faith, but not to sing them, is like knowing that God exists, but never to feel His presence; it is to know that we are loved, but never to feel the race of the heart.
“But we do sing at Mass,” someone says. Yes and no. There are songs, but most of the congregation is silent or is murmuring, because the songs are for Mass entertainment, having been conceived in form and content after the patterns of mass entertainment.
No one remembers the words, because the poetry is bad or nonexistent, and no one remembers the melodies, because they are bad or because they never were written to be sung by an entire congregation and its full range of human voices.
If people are defined by the poetry they share – by the songs they can all sing together with maybe one or two prompts to jog the memory, then we are undefined, not a people at all, only an aggregate.
When Jesus and his disciples prayed and sang at the Last Supper, they didn’t have to pick up a hymnal, good or bad. They prayed and sang from their hearts, where they had kept their people’s poetry as treasure. What pearls do we possess?
I have watched young Christians go into the world like minnows into Leviathan. They go with imaginations unformed, and that is that. They may attend services on Sunday, but they are as worldly as anybody.
So I am issuing a challenge to every Catholic school and parish – a poetic challenge:
First, get rid of the lousy poetry and lousy music. Stupidity is always a vice, says Maritain. Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter what movies my child watches, so long as he watches movies,” or, “It doesn’t matter what my husband drinks, so long as he drinks.” Get rid of it. Nobody but the church performers enjoys it anyway. Replace it with real hymns. Don’t think you can get those from the big presses, OCP and GIA and such, because they have mangled the texts and dragged them through the mud. Sing the poems, as they were composed.
Second, return to poetry. The time is short, and the reward immense. Fifty lines of Tennyson can be committed to memory; five hundred pages of Dickens, not so fast. Have every student in your schools learn, say, twenty poems by heart. And their elders, too, might join in – have a Poetry Night in your parish, with the stipulation that every poem be written in meter.
Eliminating the counterfeit from your life and replacing it with the authentic is one of the simplest things to aspire to, and probably one of the hardest things to do.