It’s often been called the four-hymn sandwich, one at the beginning of Mass, one for the Offertory, one for Communion time and one at the end to send us all home. A neat package of wordage that may or may not have been planned with care, but it is what we have come to expect, words with a difference.
It has passed into folk-lore that Catholics don’t sing much and when they do, the quality isn’t great. Certainly my childhood experience was one of silent listening at Mass with hymns associated mostly with Benediction. That has changed and we now have hymnals with words for all occasions. When liturgy is arranged carefully, then the value we attach to words and their appropriateness cannot be overlooked.
Why is it that each of us has favourite hymns, words and tunes that mean something to us? Very often it is through association with something where the words were significant then and carry that significance with the passing years. One friend kindly gave me a list of nearly twenty hymns that have personal meaning for her.
I remember one morning during school assembly we sang that tender and gentle hymn ‘I watch the sunrise’, only to have a member of staff in tears at the end for it had recently been sung at her mother’s funeral. Who wrote the words or the music isn’t known. The final verse concludes an eloquent story of a day and a life.
I watch the moonlight guarding the night,
waiting till morning comes.
The air is silent, earth is at rest
Only your peace is near me.
Yes, you are always close to me
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you
Following all your ways, Lord.
It is an example of simplicity of language associated with a fine, easily remembered tune, nothing flowery yet a firm expression of faith.
Good songs, both secular and sacred, are essentially good poetry and in the case of hymns, should be of sound theology too. That is so clearly evident in the often-used Offertory hymn of Kevin Nichols. His opening words set out the indivisibility of our struggles and the gift of Eucharist. ‘in Bread we bring you Lord’
‘In bread we bring you Lord, our body's' labour
In wine we offer you our spirit's grief’.
He continues to tell that story and finally concludes with the reality of our humanity.
‘Take all that daily toil, plants in our heart’s poor soil,
Take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream.
The chances we have missed, the graces we resist,
Lord, in thy Eucharist, take and redeem’.
Kevin Nichols died some eleven year ago, in the Spring of 2006. His obituary in the Guardian opened with these words.
’Monsignor Kevin Nichols was the acknowledged wordsmith of his diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. His passion and consummate talent lay in the working of language to convey faith’.
I first came across Kevin in the early 60s when he spent a
year with student-teachers at Strawberry Hill prior to going to a post as head of English at the newly-opened Christ’s College in Liverpool. He gave six outstanding open lectures on the poetry of T S Eliot and received a standing ovation each time. The depth of his poetic sensibility and understanding shines through in his offertory hymn. The words of ‘In Bread we bring you Lord’ are rooted in a deep personal understanding of the theology of Eucharist.
During the 60s and 70s a new genre of hymn became popular and gave rise to the phrase ‘Folk Mass’. The hymns reflected the music of the times, often with guitar accompaniment. They brought liturgical singing to a new generation, with some of them such as ‘Go tell everyone’ still in use today. That tradition grew and matured and gave rise in recent years to the beautiful lyrics and music of the late Mike Stanley. Many of us are indebted to his talent that has nurtured our liturgical experience. Sadly it was brought to early close. His fourth anniversary was marked on Tuesday of this week, June 6th.
The Iona Community in Scotland has given us the work of John Bell. The opening lines of his hymn A touching place are quite beautiful.
Christ’s is the world in which we move;
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the one who meets us here
A hymn, written with sincerity and depth of meaning, will continue to speak to us and for us if it has integrity. Each one of us has a small gathering of hymns that we treasure, whose words and music invoke otherness and a deep sense of mystery. The words of Newman’s Lead kindly light still point the way in difficult times.