First Person Problems

Paul Nichols‘ illustration notwithstanding, sometimes the critics of contemporary music can be a bit cartoonish themselves.

In surfing the various conservative sites that just can’t bear to link to the source material, I ran across a critique of “Gather Us In” that struck me as a limp and arbitrary imitation of fisking. Complaining about the emphasis on the first person reference in singing, Bear-i-tone writes:

Here we have the first mention of the true subject of this song: Us. There are 27 or 28 mentions of “we” “our” or “us”. By comparison there are seven mentions of “you” and “your” which is presumably God. Or Edison.

Almost as over-indulged as the complaints about the Mass of Creation are the complaints about the improper focus in contemporary hymnody. The Voice of God complaint has pretty much been scuttled as a serious argument (here, among other places), as we find a good bit of it in the Lectionary: psalms, gospel acclamation verses, and the antiphons.

Some traditional-leaning Catholics have to find something on which to hang a complaint, so the logical approach seems to be to attack prayers of petition, out of context, of course.

For whatever other problems the text of “Gather Us In” may have, it is at root, a prayer of petition. The assembly asks God to do several things in context of the Eucharistic gathering. Do conservatives have a problem with asking God for stuff? If the four-to-one ratio is bothersome, let’s look at a traditional classic. Anybody recognize these words?

I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Word count: God (2), non-Divine persons and their qualities (13).

Are twenty-seven mentions of “we” or “our” or “us” too many for one part of the Mass? Don’t go near the Roman Canon. Would you believe it has forty? If you count the third-person references to other earthbound people (and I exclude the long lists of saints) the actual count of non-Divine persons or references is closer to fifty.

Watch out what you sing and pray for at a Catholic Mass. It may come back to bite you later.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to First Person Problems

  1. Gavin says:

    The “We/us” thing doesn’t get to me too much. I get annoyed with textual revisions of hymnody, but that’s more on an archaism level than a real theological objection. Although I think the issue isn’t so much about use of the first person, plural or otherwise, but the text talking about or to us. “Us” as subject, “us” as object. One song has “you” always referring to neighbor in the pews, the actor is 100% of the time the singer. Now in the protestant hymn tradition, you have hymns such as “Praise to the Lord”, which are directed at the individual (or the community if you have the bowdlerized version) HOWEVER even there you have explicit mention of God’s work: “who (subject) doth prosper (verb) thy work and defend thee.” If you’re OK with a hymn by us, to us, about us, that’s fine with me. I won’t make you change. But it’s a bit shifty for me.

    You make a good point about GUI being a petition, but let’s examine the petitions:
    – “Gather us in, the X and the Y.” What are we being gathered for? There’s a rather problematic view that the Entrance Chant is the “Gathering Song”. Who’s being gathered? The people that arrive at 10:01? When I hear “Gather” I think of the End Times, “..he shall gather from the East and the West.” Maybe that’s what the song means, but I’m not sure. It’s too vague, in other words.
    – “Give us a heart… courage to enter the song” is good, but enter the song? Again, you kinda have to be specific here. Growing up I always thought that line was in there to guilt people who don’t sing at Mass.
    – “Give us… nourish and teach…” are great as well. However, contrast that with earlier in v. 3 where we have “Here we will take…” Ignoring the “bread of new birth”, Catholic theology (and indeed Marty’s Lutheran theology… although ELCA is only Lutheran in name only) emphasizes that we are GIVEN Christ in the sacraments, not that we take grace. It’s a subtle difference but it’s the difference between grace and pelagianism. Again, if you’re comfortable crossing your fingers for those 2 lines, I’m happy for you, but I’m not.

    I think charges of heresy on this are overblown. But, as with many hymns about sacraments and sacramentals, it just makes unwieldy and untrue statements. “We rise again from ashes” – NO! We use ashes as a sign of repentance! We rise again from baptism! “Here we will take” – NO! We receive, God, through the priest, gives to us! “We come to tell our story” – KINDA! We come to hear and participate in “our story” is much more accurate.

    Here’s the problem I had with the Haugen-impostor on April Fool’s: He says he loves Catholicism and loves writing music for our churches, even if he does think we’re a bunch of bigots for not ordaining women. And yet, if he loves writing for Catholicism, couldn’t he have done a bit more learning to figure out that we don’t “take” baptism or the Eucharist? Couldn’t he have learned that the Catholic tradition doesn’t involve songs about the moment in liturgy but scripture (and again, bravo to him for his psalm settings!). This criticism doesn’t just apply to Haugen, of course, but so many other composers/songwriters who write songs that just… fall short.

  2. RP Burke says:

    For comparison with Haugen’s text, let’s take another nonscriptural hymn with the theme of Gathering: Theodore Baker’s translation of the Dutch hymn that we know as “We Gather Together” (and not the Omer Westendorf version that Michael Joncas spurns as a hymn about rubrics).

    By contrasting the two, you can see what the problem is with Haugen’s effort. “We Gather Together” is about WHY we are gathering, and about WHOM, and what we want the Whom to do for us. Haugen’s is about WHO is gathering and what the who is gathering is about to do. Haugen’s focus is well off target. Take a look at Psalm 100 as another example of a “gathering” song that is focused on the object of worship, and not on the worshippers.

    Vaughan Williams himself could have written a tune to this and it would still be a weak hymn. Match it to Haugen’s technically poor music — harmonic rhythm or the lack thereof, just for starters — and you have a two-time loser.

    That’s the beef with this song specifically, and with Haugen’s music generally. Maybe the Unitarians could have a place for his texts, but Gavin’s description of “unwieldy and untrue” statements about Catholic sacramental theology is a rationale to ban his non-scriptural music from the hall altogether (contrast this to David Haas’s largely scripture and sacrament based work, however weak it may be musically).

    It continues to amaze me that Haugen is the big star — and that otherwise intelligent, thoughtful commentators continue to try to apologize for his work.

  3. Todd says:

    “Couldn’t he have learned that the Catholic tradition doesn’t involve songs about the moment in liturgy …”

    It’s not a lengthy heritage, but there is a corpus of pre-conciliar hymnody that was all about catechesis, telling us what was going on and why. It’s clear why those hymn-texts are passe, and why I suspect “Gather Us In”: might eventually retire to the sidelines. It still has mileage left on it, though.

    Just a fun comment, Gavin: “we” is subjective; “us” is objective.

  4. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I think it’s a matter of knowing the purpose of each prayer/song. And I’m not so much interested in counts, but rather a) who is being spoken to, and b) the quality of the language. I’ll explain the second one after a couple examples.

    The Confiteor is a communal prayer, in two parts. The first part is a confession spoken to God in the midst of the faithful; as such, it’s certain to have first-person references: “I confess … that I have sinned“. The second part is not addressed to God, but rather to all the faithful and all the heavenly host; it’s a request for intercession, in addition to our personal confession.

    For another example, look at the Gloria. We say “we” a lot, but we’re the words of the angels: we are announcing the glory of God. Then we’re speaking to God.

    So about the quality of language… it’s a matter of “where does God factor into the equation”? In the Gloria, it’s very clear: declarations of “we praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you”, and then petitions of “[you] have mercy on us”, “[you] hear our prayer”, “[you] have mercy on us”.

    It’s also a matter of how we speak to God. Do we sound demanding, or do we beseech God in humility? Part of the problem is the translation from Latin into English often renders a prayer like “O God, who brought the Israelites through the Red Sea and protected them from Pharaoh, we beseech Thee for Thy protection against our foes” into “God, you brought the Israelites through the Red Sea and protected them from Pharaoh. Protect us against our foes.” It ends up being us explaining to God what He’s done, and then demanding He do the same for us today, rather than addressing God in humility, recalling His great deeds, and asking for His continued work in our lives.

    I’m probably off-topic now. Sorry.

  5. Todd says:

    “It continues to amaze me that Haugen is the big star — and that otherwise intelligent, thoughtful commentators continue to try to apologize for his work.”

    Reading comprehension, RP. This is about skewering the critics, not some enemy of my enemy exercise.

  6. Liam says:

    Well, I think the simpler way to deal with GUI is to recognize the drudgery of its music. And the text attempts to be poetic, but fails at key points (there is *some* nice stuff lurking in there, but overall the text is very uneven in quality).

  7. Gavin says:

    Liam, the problem is that it’s not just about GUI. One of the hymns that struck me is one called “The Servant Song” – “Will you let me be your servant?” I’m sure everyone here could list plenty along those lines. That’s more the crux of the issue than how good or bad GUI is.

    ISTM there’s many different reasons for “singing to ourselves”: exhortation, education, description, dialog to name a few. It seems to me each has its own value, i.e. one may say “Will you let me be your servant” is bad because it is a dialog apart from God, but one would not be saying “Sing Glory to God” is bad by the same token, since the “singing to ourselves” is of a different nature.

  8. bear-i-tone says:

    If my arguments are as weak as you suggest, why don;t you come back to my blog and continue the debate you started? You should have no trouble defeating my linp arguments.

  9. Gavin says:

    Todd, I enjoyed your debating on that blog, and generally agree, but there is one point you made that I think is quite bad and should be addressed:

    You said something to the effect of that you agree songs such as “Gather Us In” should not be used if there’s a serious problem with narcissism at a parish. However, hasn’t it been said again and again from Christian theologians to psychologists that we are inherently self-centered? Isn’t our tendency towards narcissism and vanity a basic fact of human sinfulness? Given that, I’d think it could be spiritual poison to give such a song to a community, whether they have a recognized* narcissism or not.

    *it should be pointed out that you might say “my parish doesn’t have a problem with self-centeredness.” But isn’t it possible that you are included in the self-centered attitude? I’m only stating a hypothetical, but given the deadly nature of narcissism, one should do all they can to avoid it. Same goes, of course, for self-righteousness or exclusion, or any other vice that one might find in a hymn.

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