Hymns and Their Texts: Rhythmic, Rhymed Rituals of Language

This talk was presented at the Long Island Liturgical Music Institute in July of 2017.

Hark! The loud celestial hymn,
Angel choirs above are raising:
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord,
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!

Te Deum Laudamus (4TH c?)
Metrical version attributed to Ignace Franz/translated by Clarence A. Walworth

What better way to begin a talk about hymn texts than with this reminder that our hymn on earth echoes the celestial hymn, and joins with the hymn of the communion of saints.

The following are some personal perspectives on hymn texts – as someone who selects them for the faithful to sing on Sunday, as someone who evaluates the texts of others, and as someone who has crafted a few hymn texts along the way. I reiterate that these are personal perspectives—if and when they sound like an apologetic for hymns or their texts, they aren’t intended to be; if and when they sound defensive, they aren’t—these are just some of my own perspectives on the topic.

By way of general definition, I am using the term “hymn texts” to refer to texts that are in (at least somewhat) regular meter, usually with a consistent rhyme scheme, and strophic in nature – that is, they have stanzas, or verses, though some hymn texts certainly do have refrains. (An example is For the Beauty of the Earth: “Lord of all, to you we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.”)

Prior to broader observations about hymn texts in particular, I’d like to set a particularly Roman Catholic framework about hymn singing at Mass.

In the generation or so following Vatican II, in the U.S. there were two general areas of objection to Roman Catholics singing hymns at Mass, the first of which I’m going to break down into two parts.

First objection, part one: Hymn singing at Mass isn’t part of the Roman Catholic tradition. My response, especially when I’m feeling a bit smart-alecky: it is now. Tradition is something that emerges. I’ll usually press anyone making this objection to name a particular part of or practice/custom at the Eucharistic rite that was not, at some point, a novelty. This is not to say that we can dismiss our inherited tradition quickly or easily, but in this regard what was being described as the Roman Catholic tradition was more of an absolutist reading of official documents. As we all know from our own experience, for good or ill our tradition as it is practiced and lived out is something more than—and often something other than—what is in those official books.

First objection, part two: Hymn singing has been part of the Liturgy of the Hours, or used in various devotional rites, but not the Eucharistic rite. This doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be part of the Eucharistic rite. Were I feeling more combative, I might say when you get as many parishioners to come to Liturgy of the Hours as you do to Eucharist, then by all means reserve hymnody for there alone. In the meantime, the presence of hymnody in the LOH (and the hymns’ often catechetical nature, especially in regard to the sanctoral calendar) serves as an admirable model for the Eucharistic rite. Similarly, there is/was a certain wisdom that, in the devotional life of the faithful, the sensus fidelium is at work. This is part of the ongoing process of revelation and the emerging tradition—in particular the hymns that were written and which were widespread in use for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It continues to mystify me why or how hymnody can be appropriate for our adoration of Christ present in the sacrament, but not for our celebration of the Eucharist which makes that presence a reality.

Second objection: This was largely an objection to the four-hymn syndrome, and the absence of its mention anywhere in the conciliar documents. I admit that this objection is not without its merits, but would also point out that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was written with the Tridentine Rite in place and very much in the imagination of the council authors. Even Musicam Sacram the first post-conciliar instruction on music in the liturgy, was written two years before the final version of Paul VI’s Mass was promulgated. The translation of the Mass and its approval for vernaculars would take another several years in the English-speaking world (among the quickest turnaround times).

There was, occasionally, a third objection: hymn singing is something that Protestants do. This, I confess, is the one that my personal experience could not accommodate. I like to say that I grew up in the Wisconsin version of Lake Woebegone—I truly did not know any Christians besides Catholics and Lutherans until I was nearly in junior high. Because I came from a local Roman Catholic population whose members came largely from Germany and the low countries of Europe, there was a tradition of singing hymns at Mass firmly in place, because those countries of our origin had been doing so for centuries. As a boy, I would have put the hymn singing of my parish up against the Lutherans any day. When I was researching my entry for the New Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology on the history of Roman Catholic hymnals and hymnody in the U.S., I came across a number of accounts—especially among the Pennsylvania Dutch—of towns where the same organist would shuttle between either Lutheran or Reformed services and Masses for the Roman Catholic parish. Anyone who has spent some practical time on organ benches betwixt and between various denominations knows that some overlap is inevitable!

As I prepared this talk, I also consulted with some of my hymn-text-writing colleagues. These are people who craft texts only, apart from music. I asked them questions along the lines of “why do you write hymn texts?” or “what value do you see in hymn texts?” and such. I don’t think it was a coincidence that there was a lot of resonance between their various responses, or that I was able to use their responses to sort my own perspectives together into six separate groups.

FIRST – The Church has always used hymns to express the joy of salvation.

It’s been commonly accepted for quite some time that portions of the New Testament originated as hymns – the opening of John’s Gospel (In the beginning…) or, maybe most famously, the Philippians hymn we hear on Palm Sunday (At the name of Jesus…), as well as some portions of the Book of Revelation (Worthy is the Lamb…), and so on. (On this topic, I highly recommend: Christ in the Early Christian Hymns by Daniel Liderbach/Paulist Press.)

So…the joy of salvation. This was one author’s way of expressing it—and it’s true. It fits in with my own view that hymn texts are generated by a kind of “mad libs” approach. I want to write a hymn text that sings about the _________ of _________: The joy of salvation; the call of the Gospel; the cry for justice – and so on.

Of course we can find Bible passages that cover all those topics. The distinctive gift of hymn texts is that they don’t only enable us to express the central concept—God has saved us in Christ, we are joyful—but also to explore what that means: to us as faithful individuals, for the lives we lead, and eventually how we also express that to the world around us.

We can see this explore/express dynamic at work in Paul’s Philippians hymn—he ends up (rather than begins with) his core statement: JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! Let’s work backwards through his text. What does this mean? JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! It means that at the name of Jesus, every knee must bend. Why is this so? Because of the kenosis, the humbling self-emptying of Christ on the cross, which is remarkable because Christ was in the form of, or equal to, the divine God, (and here we are back to the beginning of the hymn text) so we must do the same as Christ.

SECOND – The manner in which hymns and their texts are sung at worship is one of the most truly egalitarian acts of the church.

I like to use an insight of Cardinal Newman, and offer that we “conspire” when we sing together. Cardinal Newman was speaking of bishops and their people “breathing together” – literally, they con (with each other), spire (breathe). A congregation of the faithful baptized—including the ministers who are designated or ordered for particular roles—does “conspire” when they sing a hymn together. Some recent studies by scientists have found that a choir singing together will eventually have heart rates and heartbeats that get synced up. This is due to the integration of their cardio-pulmonary systems. So, too, the congregation that prays in song will pray not only with one voice, but also one heart(beat), because they pray in song with one breath. I often advocate to organists that they need to learn to sing along as they play a hymn. Stravinsky’s complaint about the organ was that “the beast doesn’t breathe” and so organists—the beasts who play the beast—have to. This goes for other instrumentalists who lead and accompany the singing as well.

To put this egalitarian aspect of singing hymn texts into a particularly Roman Catholic context: singing hymns together is an expression of full, conscious, active participation unlike any other. Oddly enough, this was brought powerfully home to me during the year that I was interim professor of organ and church music at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. As you may know, the Mennonites have a long-standing tradition of unaccompanied hymn singing. The chapel did have an excellent tracker pipe organ, but when they asked me to accompany the hymns, I refused – unless it was a hymn that was not intended to be sung in harmony (usually more recent hymns, like Gift of Finest Wheat, yes – Mennonites sang that when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper). Taking my bass part in the unaccompanied singing was an extended, thrilling experience of standing with my sisters and brothers in Christ, united in voice, heart, and breath as we both expressed and absorbed the words we sang.

Whenever this topic of the equal-opportunity nature of hymn singing comes up, I am tempted to think of the Roman rite as a “some ministers are more equal than others” event. Truth be told—it is. We have tended to lapse, however, into an extreme mindset about this in which we believe that unless particularized ministers (lector, cantor, presider, deacon, and so on) are doing something, the rite has stopped. But even the General Instruction doesn’t think this is correct. GIRM 37(a): “Some constitute an independent rite or act, such as the Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest), the Responsorial Psalm, the Alleluia and Verse before the Gospel, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), the Memorial Acclamation, and the chant after Communion”; note that two of those—Gloria and Sanctus—are the two hymns from the Ordinary of the Mass. GIRM 37b does go on to list the portions of the Mass in which music accompanies a specific ritual action, such as the breaking of the bread, or the entrance procession.

My point here is that a hymn text is a specific type of art form functioning within another art form—the Eucharistic liturgy. So why not handle it all artfully? Once upon a time, when I was approached (a nicer way of saying accosted) by a presider after Mass so he could complain that we’d sung an ENTIRE extra stanza of a hymn after he’d gotten to the chair, I pointed out that it was a doxology (Now Thank We All Our God) and it seemed to me that everyone standing and singing praise to the Holy Trinity at our celebration of the Eucharist seemed to be a perfectly good use of 37 seconds on the Lord’s Day (actually I believe I said 47 seconds, but I timed it—I told you I came from a Teutonic background—and it was 37). I am aware that the advocates of the entrance antiphon/psalm format for the entrance procession point to its flexibility for accommodating a particular ritual act done by particular ministers, but I believe that our sung prayer can be large enough and we can be flexible enough to allow that when one ritual act—the entrance procession, for example—has ended, it’s OK if, for a while, we engage in another ritual act: everyone conspiring to sing God’s praise.

THIRD – Hymn texts speak in a way that no other type of texts do; they bring poetry to worship.

There are many texts we hear in the Eucharist—especially the psalms week by week—that are poetic in nature, but when it comes to the distinctive voice of texts that feature regular meter and rhyme in addition to other linguistic/poetic devices, then the poetry of hymn texts is the lone example, and I believe that the poetry of hymn texts is a valid and distinctive “voice” to add to the liturgy.

I like to use Martin Joos’ expression of five modalities of language, from his book The Five Clocks. Joos posits that there are five basic modalities in which we speak:

Frozen              Formal              Consultative                  Casual              Intimate

So here are three expressions of essentially the same truth in the three central modalities:

(Formal) God made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the very righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5:21

(Consultative) It is love “to the end” that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 616


Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
            Charitie Bancroft

To my mind, it is the poetry of the hymn text that embraces the central triad of Joos’ spectrum—from the formal (it contains core beliefs and uses a regular or formal pattern); to the consultative (it expresses doctrine, and is likely to be in some sort of official book); to the casual (it expresses personal joy, divine tenderness and mercy, and a “twist” as well.)

Recently-composed hymn texts, in particular, speak in a way that scriptural texts or the inherited ordinary and proper texts of the Mass cannot, because contemporary authors have access to a world and a church that the scriptural and other ancient authors did not. Think, for example, of cosmology—texts written from an understanding or belief that the entire universe revolved around the earth render a completely different view of that universe and its Creator. The same could be said about ecology/stewardship, or economic systems and the uses and distribution of wealth, as well as—I speak here about what my own work tends to do the most—the building of catechetical/liturgical connections:

From Ashes to the Living Font concentrates on the Council’s re-focusing of Lent as a primarily baptismal and secondarily penitential season:

From ashes to the living font, your church must journey still;
Through cross and tomb to Easter joy, in Spirit-fire fulfilled.

While By God Kept Pure has as its starting point the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: that God’s saving power preserved Mary from sin. Like all of us, she was saved from sin, but through preservation, not redemption:

Mary, in the new creation, radiant through Christ’s victory,
With the saints who sing his triumph, you praise God eternally!
With the saints, shed light from heaven, turn our hearts from sin’s allure
So the Gospel fills our living, as it fills your heart, kept pure.

As a theologian friend of mine expresses it: “Mary always stands with the saved.”

I’ll mention here what I think is a still-largely-untaken opportunity: When Benedict XVI added dismissals to the liturgy that had a more explicit mission-focused content, it became an opportunity for hymnists to amplify this with powerful mission texts, especially those that connect the receiving of Christ present in the Eucharist with being Christ present in the world. This is a way for hymn texts to amplify and concretize an official ritual text.

I would also like to mention that hymn-poems don’t only speak with their own voice, they also “sing” with their own voice—they have their own music. Technically, we’d say that they have their own sonics. This is an aspect of hymn texts that I think is too often overlooked. It is tied directly—in my increasingly curmudgeonly-hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn-old-man mind—to the absence of poetry as one of the sonic events of our surrounding culture. We too often think of poetry as an eye event, when it is really much more an ear event. Gone are the days of poetry societies in which groups would gather to recite aloud to each other. I am probably one of the few remaining walking, breathing fossils who incorporated the recitation of poetry into courtship. Just a few weeks ago, I was called upon to read a poem of Maya Angelou aloud on Sunday morning. It was written in iambic tetrameter, with some very predictable rhymes (she clearly had not read chapter 7 of my book about rhymes’ needing “innocent inevitability”). Reading it aloud made me realize she’d likely conceived it to be read silently. In my view, the sonics of really fine poetry stir and excite the air, they don’t just merely move the air particles around. I fear that some of this eye-only approach is even characteristic of contemporary poets I enjoy, like Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. There was real depth to that Maya Angelou poem, but the shallowness of its craft and its sonics did nothing to help convey it. (On this topic, I recommend chapter 5 of Hermeneutics of Hymnody by Scotty Gray/Smith & Helwys.)

FOURTH – Hymns are one of the ways that St. Paul tells us to pray. (Colossians 3:16 or Ephesians 5:19 Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs.)

One of the great blessings of my life was the five or six years I got to work with the scripture/patristics scholar and composer Fr. Lucien Deiss. I don’t mean to contradict one of my colleagues here at Number Four, but when I asked Fr. Deiss about those passages, he said that Paul wasn’t making a list or setting up categories, but he was trying to emphasize how important it was for Christians to offer their praises together: yes, pray with psalms—but psalms aren’t enough! Pray with hymns, too—but that’s not enough! Pray with psalms, and hymns…and any song you’re inspired to sing!

Whatever your viewpoint – category/list, or ecstatic litany, what’s encouraged in the Pauline text is a diversity within the musical/textual “ecosystem” of the liturgy. As with so much else in creation, I believe that diversity within the system is good—we have seen the disastrous results of local economies built largely on one industry, and there was a fascinating National Geographic special on how taking the top feeders (wolves) out of the ecosystem in Yellowstone led to the clogging of rivers. In the liturgical ecosystem, this runs contrary to the thought that it is best for the assembly/congregation to have only short refrains and acclamations throughout their prayer. Perhaps we ought to think a bit more highly of our assemblies, and understand that it’s OK for their musical diets to give them something substantial to really chew on and digest. Strong well-thought-out and artfully crafted hymn texts do this. They are real theological food for the faithful, and not—pardon the rather graphic image—something always chewed and regurgitated for them by the cantor or choir.

FIFTH – The Spirit doesn’t stop.

When referring to its artists, the conciliar and post-conciliar Church did not include text authors explicitly. When the two foundational documents—the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and Musicam Sacram—speak about vernacular texts, there seems to be a presumption that these will only be translations of existing texts. The Constitution mentions composers twice, authors never; Musicam Sacram speaks of neither (though it does, in one instance, acknowledge the composition of music for the rites). Both sources speak to composers, recommending that for texts they draw chiefly on scriptural, liturgical, and other ecclesial sources; there seems to be no imagining of the creation of newly-crafted texts in the vernacular. Indeed, the primary post-conciliar documents about vernacular texts (Comme le prevoit and Liturgiam Authenticam) focused on translation issues, not on original text composition. The first two main music documents from the U.S. bishops (Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today) likewise do not mention text authors. It is tempting to presume that the bishops were operating somewhat under the presumptions of the Vatican documents, and/or the presumption of the surrounding culture that the composer of the song was also the author of the text. Only when we get to 2007’s Sing to the Lord are text authors mentioned separately—twice with the term “text authors” and once as “poets.”

While the documents of the Council and since the Council seem to be open to and aware of the continuing way in which the Spirit inspires composers of music, no similar continued movement of the Spirit seems to be imagined for those who craft new texts. Imagine our poverty if this mindset predated Thomas Aquinas! The Holy Spirit continues to move through and inspire all the Church, including the members of the Body who craft new texts for our sung prayer.

SIXTH – a good number of answers from my hymnwriter pals included something about hymn texts as a source of catechesis or instruction or teaching of some sort.

For me, a significant part of this is the awareness that our brains are built to recognize patterns. They are built for Rhythm and Rhyme. Some sort of patterned or rhythmic speech is found in language groups throughout the world, and in numerous religions. (Disclaimer: much of what follows is from chapter 7 of my book Words That Work for Worship).

It’s no accident that we learned our A-B-Cs to a song, in a manner that rhymed. We are wired, so to speak, to respond to and remember patterns and repetition. Hymn texts are full of these things.

Meter and rhyme ritualize a text, giving it that recognizable regular pattern and repetition. One of the reasons pattern and repetition still occur so frequently in texts used at worship (especially sung texts) is that they help connect the text to the part of our brains that makes us ritual beings: we learn and express ourselves through patterned behavior. Use of meter and rhyme also increases the ease with which a text can be retained. They are the “skeleton” of a text; like human skeletons, they are helpful in order to stand up and move about–but when they become too visible, or when they start poking through the “skin” of the text, there’s trouble!

I’m going to guess that most everyone has, by now, encountered the maxim “nobody leaves church humming the homily” (or some version of that maxim). Sometimes I fear that musicians gloat about this, or rub their hands together gleefully anticipating their next exercise of power. I’ve been as guilty as anybody in this regard. Instead, this reality should, first and foremost, make us musicians quake in our boots a little bit.

I recall being in a session that shared the results of a survey asking people (almost exclusively Protestant) from the pews what their favorite hymns/songs were. The majority of titles tended to be those hymns that they’d learned or encountered between the ages of 7 and 12. I’d think it might be a bit different for Roman Catholics who lived through the Council, especially those who encountered vernacular singing for the first time. But whether age 7 or 70, what we are planting deeply in people’s minds—what they are learning by heart, we’d say—is a tremendous responsibility. I’ve told the story a number of times about my dad in the last weeks of his life, when he no longer knew who we were, still able to sing “Gift of Finest Wheat” (refrain and verses) by heart.

The fact that hymn texts catechize in a way that no other texts can is connected to a previous observation about hymn texts being able to bridge individual parts of the liturgy, or build bridges within a liturgical season, and so on. As a matter of fact, I most often refer to myself as a liturgical catechist with a rhyming dictionary. Maybe it should be liturgical catechist-preacher. Hymn texts also do preach, in their own unofficial way. (See above: “humming the homily.”) But instruction or catechesis is also part of good preaching, as is challenge, consolation, inspiration, thoughtfulness, broadening of perspective . . . like the work of the Holy Spirit, the list could—and does, and should—go on and on . . .

Lo! The apostolic train
Join the sacred name to hallow!
Prophets swell the glad refrain,
And the white-robed martyrs follow;
And, from morn to set of sun,
Through the Church, the song goes on!







6 responses to “Hymns and Their Texts: Rhythmic, Rhymed Rituals of Language”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur


    If I may add a very approachable resource on the subject: a slim volume authored by Austin C. Lovelace (1919-2010) – “The Anatomy of Hymnody” (G.I.A. Publications, 1965). Should be highly recommended background study for anyone dealing in the programming and craft of English-language hymns. For but one example, it lucidly illuminates why certain meters tend to produce certain results in English-language texts.

  2. Linda reid Avatar
    Linda reid

    I am grateful to have heard it the first time!! Thanks, Alan!

  3. Charles Jordan Avatar
    Charles Jordan

    This is a very good article.

  4. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    This is going to be printed so I can sit and mull it over in comfort.

  5. Terri Pastura Avatar
    Terri Pastura

    Thanks, Alan! Always appreciate your insights!

    1. Christopher Reilly Avatar
      Christopher Reilly

      Thank you, Alan!
      What a wonderful lecture…after having been interviewed for a podcast this morning, where many of the same ideas came to light, I find myself wishing that I had read this last night instead of this one!
      I would’ve been greatly more informed!

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