In our modern world of so much available, constant entertainment and stimulation, it’s easy to forget the beautiful and soul-ordering comfort and effect of classic metre, such as we find in classic Christian hymns.
I won’t discuss today the many tangents that can be explored about the inner workings of the moral sense within music and how that affects culture, although that is certainly a fascinating philosophical question there for those who would find it interesting and are open to expanding and maybe even offending their current artistic sensibilities. (Full disclosure: I recognize that music has a real effect on us; I also participate extensively in popular culture as a regular singer-songwriter; I hold these in tension.) But for someone who has perhaps never had the chance to consider the question of morality as it relates to art and music, it’s a valuable rabbit trail to go down as part of the consideration of what we put into our hearts and mind through aesthetics and sound. I recommend it.
Here, however, I’m going to go the intuitive route and appeal there, specifically in the context of intentionally peace-giving singing, and simply say that for anyone willing to pay attention, it becomes quite clear that there is something of an ordering effect on the heart and body when stopping and listening to classic metre, whether in poetry or in words.
This is especially the case when it relates to God and our understanding of Him; reflecting on Him, singing of Him, and allowing a sense of simplicity and order to overcome us as we listen or engage musically has the power to help us condition ourselves to the beauty of quiet, meditation, and prayer of the heart. This is critical, especially in an age where we are being constantly fragmented via things grasping for our attention, making thoughtful living and, especially, quiet, regular prayer very difficult.
Case Study of a Classic Christian Hymn with Order & Metre
“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” is a song sung for centuries and now most commonly sung after adoration in Catholic parishes across North America; at least that’s where I have almost universally heard it. Often cut down to the first two verses which features here, there are four beautiful verses in the original translation.
Listen and reflect on how the gentle simplicity and order of the phrasing and melody invites us into a quieter, gentler way of being and relating to others, God, and the world:
Holy God, we praise thy name;
Lord of all, we bow before thee;
all on earth thy scepter claim;
all in heaven above adore thee.
Infinite thy vast domain;
everlasting is thy reign.
Hark the glad celestial hymn
angel choirs above are raising;
cherubim and seraphim,
in unceasing chorus praising,
fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy Lord.
Christian Hymns in Metre: Old-Fashioned or Comforting?
The gentle swells and heightened language of this simple song help us to instantly change gears into a different arena from where our minds usually run in disjointedness; contrary to the common claim that the poetry in songs like this should be changed or updated because it is “old-fashioned,” the intentionally constructed language in classic poetic metre cues our attention, and reminds us that as Christians we are a part of a heritage and and legacy that includes generations of fighting saints who have gone before us in striving to love Christ and win heaven. By preserving these songs, we honour them and participate consciously in that legacy. While living in an entirely different era without social media, air conditioning, and global travel, these souls, who have gone before, yet remain heartbeat-close to us in their fundamental humanity, and we feel an affinity with the reality of the historicity of our tradition through their lived Christian witness. We do well to understand why the songs with which they worshipped and celebrated stood the test of time.
Beyond Hymns and Metre: A Rich Legacy of Catholic Musical Tradition
This melody and these words are by no means the greatest in honour of God ever composed, but they have a rare, lasting quality. There are far greater masterpieces to be explored, and the classic Gregorian chant of the Church offers a specific capacity to bring us up and beyond even the ordered metre found here into a taste of eternal transcendence. But precisely in its simplicity this song offers a window into wisdom about how we may find a way to more stable peace of heart and mind in a world that seems to be increasing in chaos daily.
The music of the Church has the power to draw us into the deepest realities of our existence and calling as Christians, toward God and His beauty and order. Recovering the musical traditions of the Church is something that should have rekindled value in our modern Catholic culture. Starting with a thoughtful listen to the simple famiiarity of a common hymn seems a good way to begin.