Too Long A Dream

The Cyber Hymnal has Walter Bowie’s “O Holy City, Seen of John,” which we used this past weekend at some Masses. I had overlooked the text for years, but noticed it attached to the shape note tune our parish sings as “The King Shall Come.”

I can’t say it was a raving success. It seemed to fit the pastor’s homily, the “winter village” assembled in our nave (which awaits a creche), and the broad effort of prayer and perspective which accompanies our capital campaign, just now gearing up.

Strangely, the pastor, who usually nods at social justice hymnody, didn’t care for it. The people, who do sing “The King Shall Come,” were somewhat mute. I probably over-thought this one. Maybe you have other thoughts:

O holy city, seen of John,
Where Christ the Lamb, doth reign,
Within whose foursquare walls shall come
No night, nor need, nor pain,
And where the tears are wiped from eyes
That shall not weep again.

Hark, how from men whose lives are held
More cheap than merchandise,
From women struggling sore for bread,
From little children’s cries,
There swells the sobbing human plaint
That bids thy walls arise.

O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry “Christ hath died in vain!”

Give us, O God, the strength to build
The city that hath stood
Too long a dream, whose laws are love,
Whose crown is servanthood,
And where the sun that shineth is
God’s grace for human good.

Already in the mind of God
That city riseth fair:
Lo, how its splendor challenges
The souls that greatly dare;
Yea, bids us seize the whole of life
And build its glory there.

GIA omits the second stanza. Maybe it’s all a little too much for whitebread suburbia. Until Chinese lead makes its way inside American giftwrap.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgical Music, Parish Life, Songlist. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Too Long A Dream

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    I’m not sure if it’s all whitebread suburbia or just the Catholic portion. As one who grew up Protestant, became a Catholic while still in my teens, and directed music programs in both Catholic and Protestant churches, I’ve often been baffled by Catholic responses to “new” music. My wife overheard a man complain this past weekend about having to sing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (Picardy) which he somehow thought was new. No wonder some Catholic musicians throw up their hands and walk away from church work.

    If your congregation already knows the tune ‘Morning Song,’ pairing it with Bowie’s text is hardly a complicated matter. The Protestants I’ve worked with through the years certainly wouldn’t have blinked an eye, particularly since ‘O Holy City, Seen of John’is a strong text. Though they will voice displeasure when dissatisfied, they don’t mind the challenge of a new material.

    Perhaps the problem is that Catholics are so inattentive to texts. That explains why they think nothing of stopping a hymn after only one or two verses, even though the thought is left incomplete.

    In short, I don’t think you are to be faulted for including this hymn. Your parishioners also have responsibilities and must meet you half-way.

  2. Liam says:


    I would program it again. Persevere. The tune is not the issue, and the text is great. It is poetic (“seen of John” rather than “seen by John” – an old verb/conjunction usage you might choose to modernize – also, in Advent, people often assume John refers to the Baptist rather than the writer of Revelation) but people sing all sorts of poeticisms without thinking about it – especially at Advent/Christmas.

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