Having come into the Catholic Church after being an Anglican priest I was accustomed to a certain style of music: reverent, dignified and beautiful. Upon entering the Catholic Church I encountered another style of music that did not fit the mold with which I was familiar (and which I did not enjoy.) I tried for many years to tell myself that it was just a difference in taste – that for lifelong Catholics who had grown up with such hymns it was just as good as for them as the music I enjoyed was for me. At the same time, though, there has always been something in the back of my mind telling me that it was more to it than just a matter of taste. But, I could never put that uneasy feeling into words. Not until now, that is.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, it is within the last year that I discovered the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand. In the current book of his that I am reading, The Heart, I am nearing the end. And it is there, in Chapter One of Part Three, that I have just read something that gives an explanation to the discomfort I have always had with many modern hymns. Up to this point the author has not mentioned music, but mentions it here at the end of the book in order to make a point.
To help in conveying his message in the quote below, it needs to be understood that this book is about human and divine affectivity: Part One is titled The Human Heart and Part Two is titled The Heart of Jesus. I have not finished it yet but the Third Part is titled The Human Heart Transformed and, I would imagine, gives us an idea of what his conclusion will be – that man's heart needs to be transformed and made like unto that of our Savior. But all too often we instead try to bring God down to our level, which does not lead to our transformation but instead, stagnation.
Against the true glory of the Sacred Heart, ‘in which shine forth all treasures of knowledge and wisdom,’ the grave distortion of many hymns becomes obvious. Both in word and in melody these songs not only completely miss the divine, transfigured quality of the Sacred Heart ‘in which dwells all the fullness of divinity,’ but they even present the Sacred Heart in the likeness of a mediocre, sentimental human heart…(If you cannot tell, the author abhors sentimentality because it is not a true response of the heart.)
…It is necessary to grasp the Sacred Heart in its true glory if the nature and depth of the devotion and its classical liturgical character are to be realized, and if we are to unmask the distortion and ungenuineness in many popular conceptions of this devotion which find their expression in certain hymns and art forms, and even some prayers.
It is interesting here that he mentions not only bad word selection in hymns but also brings up the tune itself. Certainly, there are many hymn tunes that I cannot tolerate because just hearing them sounds like what I call false sincerity or what von Hildebrand refers to as sentimentality. Although these tunes do not feel genuine I am not sure how you translate that feeling into a determination that “This hymn tune is appropriate for worship and that one is not.” The words, on the other hand, can easily be compared with the teachings of the Church to see if they are genuine or not. Next, after just a few more paragraphs, he shows why this can be so devastating to us spiritually.
…If we are to understand the transformation in Christ to which our hearts are called, our eyes must see the Sacred Heart of Jesus in its transfigured quality, as the epiphany of God.
The transformation of our ethos depends upon our having a true image of Christ and of his Sacred Heart. As long as we project our own mediocrity and pettiness into the Sacred Heart and nourish ourselves with this image, we remain imprisoned in that medocrity, instead of being transformed and elevated beyond ourselves. Here as in many other instances we are faced with the great danger of adapting the revelation to our narrow outlook, and of distorting it to such an extent that the challenge to be transformed is lost. Instead of grasping the true face of Christ and the challenge of being transformed, instead of letting ourselves be drawn upward by the love of the authentic God-Man, we miss the confrontation with the epiphany of God.
Wow!!! Of course we can substitute Sacred Heart of Jesus with any other divine attribute or understanding of the Church which modern hymns get wrong or, in the least, don’t get completely right. It also doesn’t stop just with the hymns but with any false teaching of what the Church believes. These distortions – these heresies, which is what they truly are – lead us away from the Truth! And if we are led away from the Truth we are being led away from God Himself. I don't know why I didn’t see this before.
What do you, the reader, think?