The following is an excerpt from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song, which can arrive gift-wrapped in time for Christmas if you order today.
It’s obvious that any tome whose authors hope will be carried into bars and used as a songbook must include a heartrending love song. While it’s true that the human heart is often moved to music by other matters, such as love of country, friendship, faith, and early 20th century Irish political squabbles, the best reason of all to launch into song is because you’re in love. From Ovid’s Ninth Elegy, “He Compareth Love to War,” to Kiss’s immortal power-ballad “Beth,” the heartstrings of Western man and teenaged girls have resounded to the melodies of eros. Indeed, the great Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper entitled one of his most eloquent books, a treatise on beauty, Only the Lover Sings. And of course, sitting smack dab in the middle of Divine Revelation is the Song of Songs, a celebration of the sensual pleasures of marriage—which Christians have learned to see as also an allegory of Christ’s marriage with the soul. So we really couldn’t let this book go to press without a love song; people might think we were prudes.
Of the thousands of love songs which have come down through the ages, the most enduring melody is surely “Greensleeves,” whose tune you’ll recognize from the beloved Christmas hymn “What Child is This.” That tune always brings tears to our eyes as we kneel before the Knights of Columbus crèche, as it pipes out of the tape machine securely fastened behind the change box. The Knights leave the manger empty from the First Sunday of Advent through Christmas Eve, and there’s nothing quite so poignant as the sight of the Virgin kneeling, the shepherds staring, the eyes of the plaster ox fixed, on a vacant cradle. It helps make up for those pre-Christmas sales which now begin on Nov. 1—and in 20 years will start with the 5th of July.
The full title of the melody is “My Ladye Greensleeves,” and legend tells that it was written by none other than England’s King Henry VIII (see Gout). At least, we hope it’s a legend. It really might spoil for us even the sound of the Christmas hymn to think that it was written by this enemy of Christ. We hope that by pointing out its possible provenance, we haven’t forever linked “What Child is This” with ruined monasteries, burning Carthusians, and a series of headless wives. For if we’re to trust the legend, King Henry (an accomplished musician) composed the song himself, both tune and lyrics, while married to Catherine of Aragon, for his mistress Anne Boleyn. This was the second Boleyn girl he’d bedded—for two years he’d dabbled with her elder sister, Mary—and it didn’t bode well for Church or State. In pursuit of a live male heir and his passion for Anne, Henry applied for his infamous annulment from Queen Catherine—which the pope denied. (It’s a pity, historians have mused, that the United States had not yet been settled; had Henry applied for his annulment in Los Angeles, Westminster Abbey would still be in Catholic use today) Enraged and afraid of the civil war which might result from his dying sonless, Henry cut England off from the Catholic Church and persecuted any who resisted him. He married Anne in 1536—and within three years grew tired of her, and beheaded her on a trumped-up charge of treason. The poor, 12-fingered girl—a whiz on the harpsichord—came to be known as “Anne of a Thousand Days.” (Watch her sad tale for yourself in the 1969 film of that name starring Genevieve Bujold.)
Should the chance that this is true ruin our appreciation of the song? Should we hate Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” even more than we already do—if such a perfect hatred were possible this side of Hell—just because the singer who made his fortune with this paean to his wife promptly dumped her for Christie Brinkley? These are thorny questions, but as firm artistic formalists we must say no. Some great works of art have been born in squalid contexts, churned out for ready money, or conceived for evil purposes—such as popularizing Bolshevism, extolling the “Master Race,” turning kids on to heroin, or promoting vegetarianism. But that can’t ruin the art work for us—any more than the best of intentions can turn something shoddy into a masterpiece. We really don’t care how sincerely pious was the person who painted that mural in Manhattan’s Immaculate Conception Church—apparently by using various colors of Crest toothpaste—which depicts the angels of the Book of Revelation as doe-eyed flower children waiting for Sergeant Pepper to come command the Yellow Submarine. We’re not his spiritual directors. We’re his victims.
Still, if a great Christian hymn might well owe its origin to the 16th century’s answer to Diocletian, it’s clear that God can bring good out of evil. We like to think of this process as theological recycling. Likewise, in doing His work on earth, we can take works of art which began with pious good intentions but not a trace of talent and put them to good use. For instance, all those hymns the clergy have inflicted on us since the 70s. Now it’s obviously true, as Thomas Day pointed out in Why Catholics Can’t Sing, that most of these songs have no place at all in church. Sappy, weepy, cloying, sing-song, simplistic, most of them would draw disgusted groans at a pep rally for the Special Olympics. Embryologists have employed three-dimensional imaging to detect signs of distress among second trimester fetuses at the sound of “On Eagle’s Wings.”
But that doesn’t mean all these songs are useless. Theologians of divine providence such as Jean-Pierre de Caussade have speculated that the permissive will of God allows great evils to occur to plant the seeds of some greater good. To further that end, we’d like to propose some wholesome uses for some of these musical productions of the post-conciliar liturgical renewal and the Oregon Catholic Press:
- “Be Not Afraid.” This nasal, repetitive drone is too simplistic to accompany the Teletubbies, much less the Eucharist. While its message is apparently intended to be reassuring, NIMH clinical trials have shown that it reduces seriotonin levels in the brain’s frontal cortex, mimicking the short-term effects of cocaine withdrawal or clinical depression. For this reason, we suggest its use is indicated on patients suffering from the manic phase of bipolar disorder, to normalize mood swings and render them compliant with hospital staff.
- “Glory and Praise.” Another sing-songy brain-punisher, this tune is chipper in precisely the manner of a chatty, middle-aged Chicagoan chirping loudly about her grandchildren’s potty training on her cell phone in the next booth at a diner as you try to read your newspaper. But its melody and cadence are perfectly calculated to repel invasive deer which gather outside suburban homes in search of food. (Those concerned about animal rights should use a hunting rifle instead.)
- “Here I am, Lord.” This hymn depicts a human soul responding to the call of Christ—but the music is whiny and grim, evoking in most people’s minds a can of rancid potted meat, being slowly spread by windshield wipers across a plate of dirty auto glass. You hear Christ calling, all right—but you feel like He’s some hobo who’s tapping at your window at 4 a.m. to wake you from a sound sleep so He can ask you directions to Dunkin’ Donuts. You don’t so much want to answer Him as clock him with a slipper. Sung in a sleepwalking, zombie rhythm, its use at Communion time produces a strikingly cinematic effect, which film critics have dubbed “The Church of the Living Dead.” Here again, we have a chance to bring good out of evil: In preliminary tests, use of this song by military interrogators has proved a successful, slightly more humane replacement for water-boarding.
- “Hosea.” A bland, saccharine adaptation of a stirring Old Testament story—a prophetic humdinger in which the relationship of God and His people is presented as a marriage, and human unfaithfulness compared to prostitution. Stern stuff—here reduced by banal lyrics and anile music to a warbling monologue from a straight to video chick-flick starring Eric Roberts. What is more, one of the song’s lines is unintentionally obscene. When the cantor drones “Long… have I… waited for your… coming,” it’s impossible for any Catholic above age 11 to avoid conceiving of certain conjugal—difficulties. If you’re experiencing such problems, you surely hear about them often enough; they shouldn’t assault you in church. Being helpful souls, we have searched out a positive use for this terrible, evil song: Many Catholic husbands who love their wives have attended closely to the injunction of Pope John Paul II, who noted in Love and Responsibility that “the woman’s excitement grows more slowly than that of the man. The man must take this difference between male and female reactions into account.” If you’re one of those husbands trying to take that difference into account, this song is for you. Hum it slowly to yourself, at crucial moments. There’s no more potent buzz kill known to man.
Reviewing the well-meaning output of the past 30 years of Catholic musical creativity is enough to make one nostalgic for a hymnist like Henry VIII.