The well-fought fight

George Weigel

The incorporation of Anglican hymnody into English-language Catholic worship is one of the great blessings of the past 50 years. And within that noble musical patrimony, Ralph Vaughan Williams surely holds pride of place among modern composers. Well do I remember the summer day in 1965 when I heard a massed chorus of men and women under the direction of my old choirmaster, Robert Twynham, rock the Baltimore Civic Center with all eight verses of Vaughan William’s masterpiece, “For All the Saints,” the processional hymn at the opening Mass of what used to be known as a “Liturgical Week.” It was stirring beyond words. And if a retrospective look at the program of lectures and seminars that followed reveals hints of choppy waters ahead in implementing the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council, the bright memory of that great hymn being sung by thousands of voices nonetheless lingers, and without alloy.

Alas, like many other hymns, “For All the Saints” is an endangered species today, gutted by parish music directors and pastors who commit the grave sin of not singing a hymn in its entirety — or worse, who bowdlerize the lyrics to coddle the sensibilities of the Church of Nice. Such butchery is especially problematic with “For All the Saints,” which has a robustly martial character. Indeed, the entire text is a meditation on the struggles, and ultimate joys, of spiritual warfare: that “well-fought fight,” undertaken beneath the captaincy of the Lord who is, for the baptized, “their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might,” the conquering “King of glory” who is, “in the darkness drear, their one true Light.”

In get-it-done-quickly churches which don’t understand that the Mass is its own time-zone, or in Candyland parishes that don’t recognize that spiritual warfare is baked into the Christian life, promiscuous hymn-pruning often means that the fifth and sixth verses of “For All the Saints” get the chop. Here they are, in case you’ve been so deprived:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

 The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia! 

Omitting these verses deprives congregations of the opportunity to ponder in song what must be any serious Christian’s experience in the West at the end of this second decade of the 21st century. Protestations from the ideologically myopic notwithstanding, it’s pluperfectly obvious to any parent or grandparent trying to transmit the Gospel view of the human person to a beloved child or grandchild that the West is in the midst of an often-vicious culture war. At the center of that struggle is the battle over the biblical truth that God created man and woman in his image, equal in dignity but unique in their maleness and femaleness, and made for complementarity and fruitfulness. Fighting that culture war by being a culture-reforming, countercultural Christian can be tiring, even dispiriting. And withdrawal into bunkers among one’s own can seem an attractive option — until you realize that “they” won’t leave you alone in your bunker, for “they” are determined to force you to admit that “they” have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The culture war “out there” is but one facet of spiritual warfare today, however. At the end of the 2019 liturgical year, on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Luke’s account of the crucifixion reminded the Church that the mystery of freedom — the mystery of our capacity to choose between what is good and what is evil, what is noble and what is base, what is life-giving and what is death-dealing — runs through each of us: just as it ran through Calvary, where it was personified by the two men crucified on either side of Jesus and their divergent responses to his holiness. This personal “strife” and “warfare” can be wearisome, too; no one ever said that becoming the saints we were baptized to be would be easy or painless.

All the more reason, then, to hearken to that “distant triumph song” — and to remind ourselves that God has already won the ultimate victory by raising from the dead him whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas. That changed everything. And that is why “hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.”

COMING UP: Books for Christmas 2019

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Resist the twitterization of thought — give books for Christmas! The following titles will delight, instruct, edify (or all of the above):

Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts (Viking): There seems to be no end to the making of books about Winston Churchill. I own 17 and have no hesitation in saying this is the best Churchill biography ever, written with a narrative drive that sustains your interest through even the familiar bits. It’s also a treasure-trove of witticisms, including this rapier-quick Churchillian riposte to Charlie Chaplin’s announcement at a Chartwell dinner party that his next movie role would be Jesus Christ: “Have you cleared the rights?

In Oceans Deep: Redemptive Suffering and the Crucified God, by Eduardo Echeverria (Lectio Publishing): A powerful reflection on the mystery of evil from a fine theologian and insightful commentator on matters ecclesiastical, written while he was mourning the death of a two-year old granddaughter.

Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay (Encounter Books): The antidote to the damage caused by Howard Zinn’s wretched People’s History of the United States. Give it to every millennial on your Christmas list.

Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie (Tim Duggan Books), and 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster): Two powerful reminders that pretending totalitarians don’t mean what they say makes matters worse.

The Day Is Now Far Spent, by Robert Cardinal Sarah in conversation with Nicolas Diat (Ignatius Press): Cardinal Sarah is a radically converted Christian disciple whose love for Christ impels him to speak without euphemism about Catholicism’s contemporary challenges. Some may find the cardinal’s reading of the signs of the times apocalyptic; the same people would likely say the same thing about St. Augustine.

The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America, by Daniel Okrent (Scribner): A chilling exploration of how WASP prejudice married to crackpot “science” warped American politics and law — and a preview of how the same cocktail of nonsense (and some of the same people) helped advance the abortion license.

Last Testament, by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald (Bloomsbury Continuum): Forty-five minutes with the Pope Emeritus in October easily rank among my most bracing conversations of 2019. This interview-style memoir ought to (but likely won’t) clear up some misconceptions about a brilliant and holy man, as it ought to (but certainly won’t) put a stop to lurid speculations about the reason for his abdication.

Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, by David Lowe (Potomac Books): An overdue celebration of a man of conviction and courage and a useful reminder that not so long ago “liberal” meant something much better than “crazy leftist.”

George Marshall: Defender of the Republic, by David L. Roll (Dutton Caliber): Hard as it may be to imagine these days, giants once walked the earth along the Potomac littoral. As U.S. Army Chief of Staff throughout World War II, then post-war Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, George Catlett Marshall didn’t get everything right; no one does. But he was the antithesis of those who crave distinction from high office instead of bringing distinction to it, and his example continues to inspire.

Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, by Mary Eberstadt (Encounter Books): Anything Mary Eberstadt writes is worth reading — and doubly so when her latest exploration of our wounded culture worries a New York Times columnist.

Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, by Father Carter Griffin: A powerful explanation of an ancient tradition’s relevance for 21st-century Catholicism, which should have been a reference at the Amazonian synod but wasn’t.  Especially useful for seminarians but important reading regardless of your state of life in the Church.

The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger (Riverhead Books): A delicious send-up of bulldozer parents in a progressive town, but also (and perhaps unintentionally) a stark evocation of lives without God.

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, by Elizabeth Lev (Sophia Institute Press): Liz Lev not only makes you see things you never saw before in a painting or a sculpture; she brilliantly explicates the meaning of what you’re seeing afresh.

And (if I may): The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the World to Reform (Basic Books): I hope you and those on your gift list enjoy reading it as I enjoyed writing it.