Almost every parish in the United States and Canada has such a story to tell. A priest instructs workmen to take away the statues of the saints and throw them in the pond. A bishop orders the removal of wooden pews boasting hand-carved reliefs of local Appalachian flora and fauna. What is harder to notice, though, is that the same rage for reduction and removal did its work on the very prayers of the Church. It is easy for someone to notice the emptiness of a large sanctuary whose dimensions were set precisely for the altar that used to be there. It is harder to notice words no longer spoken, or melodies no longer heard.
I am writing this book to bring back the words of great Christian hymns, most of which are no longer heard anywhere. These hymns are not pious sentiments (or, worse, self-celebrating sentiments or social propaganda) set to a catchy tune. They are works of art. They are, at their best, profound meditations upon the meaning of Scripture, their artistry serving to help us see truths we may have missed or to hear in our hearts, not only in our ears, the implications of the Word of God for our lives. They are verbal and melodic icons of Jesus Christ.
“He who sings prays twice,” says St. Augustine.
And here I return to St. Augustine’s saying above. Why do they who sing pray twice?
Certainly, song requires that we lift up our hearts. “Singing is what the lover does,” says Augustine. It is one thing to say the words of a psalm, but to sing them means that we cherish them within us and proclaim them with our whole being. And yet this is not simply and emotional outburst. The hymns that Augustin heard when he was still an unbeliever, and that he sang out in devotion once he had given his life to Christ, were works of theological art. That is to say, human intelligence and the divine teachings are woven together in a sacrifice of praise, as Abel chose the best of his flock to sacrifice to the Lord. And they do so in a memorable way. Music and poetry help to form the Christian imagination, resonating in the heart long after we have left the doors of the Church, as we sing, “Pleasant are they courts above, O Lord of hosts!”
—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, from the Introduction
Note: The link above also includes audio samples from all 18 songs of the book’s companion CD.