The real problem with ‘On Eagle’s Wings’

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“Good morning. Please open your Gather hymnal to number 611, ‘On Eagle’s Wings.’ Number six-one-one.” So many a Catholic Mass begins, prompting weary sighs from the traditionalists in the pews. In the community of Catholic contemporary-hymn haters, there are two Bibles, if you will—Why Catholics Can’t Sing, and the Gather hymnal. One, they might say, explains the other. 

A lot of the criticism leveled against more recent sacred music, unfortunately, can be snide and uncharitable. Some of it relies on quasi-conspiracy theories about the Oregon Catholic Press; some of it takes reasonable critiques and expands them too much.

Deep in the ‘Gather’ hymnal is a treasury of distinctly Catholic meaning set to music. We could use a lot of more that.

You might hear, for example, that sacred music shouldn’t be written in triple-time, i.e., a “waltz.” (Popular triple-time contemporary hymns include “We Are Called” and “Gather Us In,” the latter of which, for some, is a virtual byword for bad hymns.) But plenty of weighty sacred classics are, in fact, triple-time: “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” “Alleluia, Sing To Jesus,” “Come Holy Ghost”—even “Silent Night.” (All of these are also included in the Gather hymnal, as are all the hymns named here.)

Another common complaint is that some of these newer entries are “Protestant.” Well, so are a few classic favorites: the sublimely Trinitarian “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Now Thank We All Our God” come to mind. To some extent, Protestantism is responsible for the entire musical tradition of the casually singable hymn, as opposed to the more ancient tradition of chant, and so one Catholic’s Protestant innovation becomes today’s treasured tradition. Martin Luther’s ur-Protestant hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is more deeply theological, and more frank about the reality of spiritual warfare, than almost any other entry.

A lot of the criticism leveled against more recent sacred music, unfortunately, can be snide and uncharitable.

Other critiques of the newer hymns—that they sound like show tunes or Disney songs, that they have the congregation improperly singing as God (the Almighty’s half of “Here I Am, Lord,” for example)—are similarly relatively surface-level. 

A more substantive issue with a lot of contemporary music is not its aesthetics or authorship but the content. Specifically, many contemporary hymns, even those written by Catholics, fail to convey much depth of theology or Catholic particularity. This usually takes one of two forms.  

The first is those hymns whose lyrics are simply straight or slightly modified passages of Scripture (like “On Eagle’s Wings,” lightly adapted from Psalm 91). There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but perhaps this is a case where the “Protestant” critique is appropriate. Catholicism values not just Scripture but also the church’s long history of exegesis and magisterial teaching. Catholics do not believe in reinventing the interpretive wheel; we expect that the church will do most of the theological heavy lifting for us, and sacred music should be part of this.

As Catholics, we expect that the church will do most of the theological heavy lifting for us, and sacred music should be part of this.

The second substantive shortcoming is lyrics so of-the-moment or theologically vague that they convey very little beyond generic benevolent sentiment. A handful of these latter hymns could even pass for another religion’s sacred music (one hymn pulls most of its lyrics from Hindu scriptures). 

Flip open, for example, to “As a Fire Is Meant for Burning,” a 1992 entry that describes discipleship thus: “Not to preach our creeds or customs, but to build a bridge of care.” (To the credit of the author or the publisher, these lyrics have actually been revised in the most recent edition of Gather; though my church, and many others, still have the ubiquitous early-aughts second edition.)

Then there are those hymns that bring to mind the United Nations circa 1970 more than the Gospel. Look up “For the Healing of the Nations,” which asks for “a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords” and the banishment of “pride of status, race or schooling.” Or you can peruse David Haas’s “Voices That Challenge,” which exhorts us to solidarity with “the women who suffer the pain of injustice!... The people with AIDS and those plagued with addiction!” 

Some hymns bring to mind the United Nations circa 1970 more than the Gospel.

It is not that these sentiments are misplaced, much less un-Christian; they are, indeed, the heart of the Gospel. But they are also so contemporary that their relative overuse can obscure the mystical and time-hallowed dimension of the faith; so particular to our current era as to threaten to shrink the all-encompassing awesomeness of God. They must not be used alone; and, luckily, they do not have to be, even if we retain the Gather hymnal.

Consider, for example, these words, rooted in Scripture but expanding on it, from the ancient eucharistic chant text put to a French melody, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, 
and with fear and trembling stand; 
ponder nothing earthly-minded, 
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, 
our full homage to demand. 

It is impossible to read, much less sing, those words and fail to understand the meaning of “fear of the Lord.” Is concern for those suffering with AIDS, or victims of racial prejudice, “earthly-minded”? Does this spooky old Catholicism contradict social justice? I would argue the opposite: It grounds it in something timeless and immovable.

There is a fearsome grandeur in these older verses, and they do more than just call to mind smells-and-bells Catholic kitsch.

One must also notice the relative dearth of contemporary Marian hymns, also a potentially proper use of the “Protestant” critique. It is true that this family of hymns can sometimes be every bit as sentimental as many modern entries (see “Bring Flowers of the Rarest”). But others are magisterial, like the refrain in “Hail Holy Queen”:

Triumph, all ye cherubim, Sing with us, ye seraphim,
Heaven and earth resound the hymn:
Salve, salve, salve Regina!

There is a fearsome grandeur in these older verses, and they do more than just call to mind smells-and-bells Catholic kitsch. They get to the heart of what makes Catholicism Catholic: priests, sacrifices, altars, flesh and blood, orders of angels, the possibility of eternal damnation. All of this is missing in a great many contemporary offerings.

We can keep David Haas and Marty Haugen, eagle’s wings and folksy spirituals. But deep in that same Gather hymnal is a treasury of distinctly Catholic meaning set to music, and we could use a lot of more that too.

Editor’s note, Nov. 23: Ten U.S. dioceses have banned hymns by composer David Haas following accusations by several women of "spiritual manipulation" and "sexual offenses,” according an August report in The New York Times. Mr. Haas has denied any wrongdoing.

[Read this next: “On Eagle’s Wings”: The simple origin of the song that makes the world cry]

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