Paint-by-Number Hymns

“Are you interested in painting, sir?” asks the cheerful curator of the modern art museum.

“No, not me,” says the detective.  He passes his hand across his rumpled hair.  “Now, Mrs. Columbo, she’s different.  That woman is into everything.  She does a little painting herself.”

“She does?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time.  She buys these kits where you put the color in according to the numbers—you’ve seen them?  They actually come out pretty good.”

I like the joke there on modern painting, which to my eye sometimes looks as if the artist could have used a few numbers here or there. But because I have spent all my adult life studying and teaching poetry, from Homer to Robert Frost, I want to cry out to people who try their hands at it, “Please, please, study the masters!  Don’t embarrass yourselves!  It’s a lot harder than you think.” Indeed, my next book will be on the poetry of Christian hymns; I wish to show ordinary people who attend Mass and who want to lift their hearts in song just how rich the best of those poems are. I want to turn their attention to the artistry, both linguistic and theological. I’d like to be their guide, so to speak, saying, “Look over here—see what he’s done! Isn’t that stupendous?”

We do have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart.  Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.

So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?

Sometimes the very titles of the lyrics give them away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let me give some examples from a recent publication:

Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t know—check his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall can be breached; you breach it by breaking it. But you can’t break a border; you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?

Creator of the Intertwined. Ugh. It’s an awkward word, and it calls up a confusing image. Something that is intertwined is either tangled up in knots, or knitted up in a kind of mesh. How can anyone sing that line without asking, “What is that supposed to mean?” The rest of the poem is worse. “Teach us to cherish what is strange,” instructs one of the lines, and the specter of a vampire rises to my mind, or a weird green liquid trickling from beneath the floor. “That sure is strange,” says the janitor. “Well, you better go and cherish it,” says his boss.

How Shocking Were the People. This one is actually all right, once it continues. The title refers to the sinners with whom Jesus broke bread. But that first line won’t do. People are not shocking, in English. A social situation might be shocking, to some upper-class lady wearing a pince-nez. As it is, the line begs for parody:

How shocking were the people
Who grasped the final rail!
Their eyes lit up with wonder,
Their knees began to fail.

God, Whose Farm is All Creation. Making us—what? Domesticated cattle? Are we aphids to His anthill? I suggest the following alternative:

Old Jehovah had a farm,
And on this farm there was a snake,
With a hiss hiss here and a hiss hiss there,
Here a hiss, there a hiss, everywhere a hiss hiss,
Old Jehovah had a farm,

Or this:

God, whose barnyard is the earth,
Bringing piglets unto birth,
Free us piglets from our sty
And make us all to heaven fly.

Christ, Be in Your Senses. Well, he’d better be in his senses. If he’s not in his senses, we’re all in trouble. Oh—he’s supposed to be in my senses? Like a feather tickling across my neck? Not in English.

Crashing Waters at Creation. All right, I have no idea what is going on. What are these waters supposed to be crashing against? Is there a beach, or a dike, or a bridge? The rest of the first verse looks like wreckage after a semantic flood:

Crashing waters at creation,
Ordered by the Spirit’s breath,
First to witness day’s beginning—
From the brightness of night’s death.

I dunno, Jethro, but it do seem there’s nary a verb in that there sentence. But there sure are some metaphors, all mixed up in a creative possum stew. Theological possum stew, too: how could night “die,” brightly or otherwise, when there was no night at all?

Amen to the Body of Christ. Pat and Mike are sauntering down the street. “Hey,” says Pat, “why don’t we duck into St. Mary’s there and get us some Eucharist?”

“Amen to that!” says Mike.

It isn’t as if the opening refrain gets much better:

Amen to the Body of Christ we receive,
bread for the fullness of life.
Amen to the Body of Christ we become,
bread for the life of the world.

A bit of self-celebration, that.  I am a member of the body of Christ, but I am certainly not the Eucharistic bread. You eat my flesh and drink my blood, pal, and you’re paying a visit to the emergency room.

A Woman Knelt Where Jesus Sat to Eat. After they bumped and the food spilled on the floor, Simon the Levite said to himself, “Had he been a true prophet, he’d have known that seat was taken.” The rest of the poem is all right, except for the truly awful line, “While skeptics scorned her prior life of sin.” They weren’t skeptics; that wasn’t their trouble. “Prior” is redundant. The whole line clunks. It’s hard to sing clunks.

The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ. I am lying on my deathbed, and my wife asks me, “Honey, would you like to listen to some music?”

“Yes, I’d like to listen to a hymn.  How about The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ?”

“Oh, that one always gets me, right here.”

“Yeah.  Then after that one can you play Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit?”

I’m sorry, but a true poet knows that certain words smell of the office, or of a fifty-cent detective novel, and certain meters, like the jaunty 4-3-4-3 ballad meter, are not well suited for certain subjects:

The scheming elders challenged Christ:
“What do you have to say?
We caught her in adultery.
We’ll stone her here today.
Come, teacher, speak! Why hesitate?
We know what Moses said.
The law is clear, her guilt is known,
And she will soon be dead.”

That’s not my parody. Those are the actual words. Try to read them aloud without laughing.  “We caught her in a-dul-ter-y!  O dainty duck, O dear!”

When Memory Fades and Recognition Falters. I’ve cheated a little there, giving as the title the whole first line. When cognitive functions grow hazy … The bad choice of the diagnostic “recognition” is followed throughout the poem by misused words. “Speak to our souls of love that never alters,” the verse continues, and we know why alters is chosen: it rhymes with falters. But it makes no sense. God’s love is the most altering thing in the world: it makes us new. To alter is to bring about change in something or someone else. The writer wanted an intransitive verb, but used the transitive instead, which here is impossible.

“You used to be a lover of Dickens. What happened?”

“I altered.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I changed.”

“Oh, I see.”

The second verse begins, “As frailness grows,” and at that my patientness is gone. Well, at least it isn’t feeblety that’s growing.

Faith Begins by Letting Go. “That’s what I do every day,” said Doogie, leaning back against the wharf and sending a spume of cannabis smoke to the morning sky.  “I just let go.

“Let go and let God,” said Brandy.

“That’s deep,” said Doogie.  “Did you read that in The Prophet?”

Banned and Banished by Their Neighbors. “Mr. Aligheri, you are hereby banished from the city of Florence, on pain of death.”


“Yes indeed, and banned too.  Keep that in mind.”

When We Must Bear Persistent Pain. For a contemporary hymn lasting more than four stanzas, please contact your doctor immediately.

God, in the Planning. The title of this marriage hymn evidently comes from a newspaper clipping: “Mayor Jehovah, superintendent of public works in the municipality of Eden, has designated Mr. Adam and Miss Eve, soon to be bridegroom and bride, as chief overseers of the garden.”

This Is a Miracle-Moment. No, no, I can’t go on! Please, Lord, please make it stop! Make them read a real poem, at least once! Please, please—I read hundreds of college essays every year! I’m even stuck reading a newspaper now and again. And there are television commercials when I go to the airport! And magazines in the doctor’s office! Please—let me enjoy the beauty of a poem or a song in church, if nowhere else!

This essay first appeared July 5, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Peter Freeman

    I’m sorry, but “Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit” has to be the awesomest sounding Church hymn title I have ever read. I want that sung at every Mass. Especially during unorthodox homilies.

  • PeonyMoss

    The Scheming Elders Challenged Christ goes beautifully to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme.

    • Karen

      My church closes its 9:30 service with a song that sounds exactly like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I like the Gordon Lightfoot song in the right place, but that place is not church.

      • Mark

        Our Lady of Gitche Gumee?

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  • Nathan718

    No mention of “Lord of the Dance?” We get treated to that one at Mass every couple months or so.

    • truthseeker01

      Yes, this is one of the worst ones. I can never sing “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back” without laughing…and then there’s the nearly-irreverent line, sung to a yippy-skippy tune, “They whipped and they stripped and they nailed him to a tree.”

  • How shocking were the people
    Who grasped the final rail!
    Their eyes lit up with wonder,
    Their knees began to fail.
    They touched the third rail of a subway.

  • Sharon

    I don’t understand why songs composed or translated by non-Catholics are pushed for use in our churches. Many have faulty theology. I think Charles Wesley and his family left the Catholic Faith and formed their own church. I would rather use truly Catholic hymns in our churches. I know some Protestant songs have theology that is in line with Church teaching
    but I’d rather use truly Cathilic hymns, not that post-Vatican II songs have much in common with Church teaching. Why can’t someone put together a truly Catholic hymnal for parish use?

    • Beth

      The lyrics to many Protestant hymns come directly from Scripture. Not to mention there are many with beautiful melodies and harmonies that are singable even by the non-musical types. Please don’t rule Protestant hymns out without giving them a fair listen.

      • Bono95

        Yeah, there are some pretty darn good Protestant hymn, but one that totally should be outlawed is the Lutheran”This Is the Feast of Victory.” It doesn’t rhyme a bit and has absolutely ZERO tune. Well, maybe it rhymed in German, but it’s still totally unsingable. That’s the worst hymn I know. A close second is “Diverse In Culture, Nation, Race”. I defy anyone to sing or listen to that without needing Extreme Unction afterwards. 😛

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  • Karen

    Mr. Esolen, I agree with you on nothing else, but this one thing is enough to merit my sincere gratitude. Christianity’s contribution to music is unequalled, and we are throwing it away with both hands in favor of garbage. A local church here in Austin advertises that its music “sounds like what you hear on the radio,” to which my response is “and that’s why I will never, ever go there.” Best of luck to you in this crusade.

  • I hardly ever literally laugh out loud, but while reading this I made an exception.

  • John O’Neill

    nothing beats Ave Verum or Panis Angelicus; but americans cannot understand anything that does not sound like a tv jingle.

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  • It seems like the contemporary music versions for the ordinary of the Mass are from a musical.

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  • My own modest effort:
    The Canticle of the Cry Room ( To the tune of We are many parts… of something or other ).

    We brought Cheerios, and we’ve got some Chexmix.
    And since we brought snacks, we brought plenty to share
    Please go wash your hands, before the Sign of Peace
    Paddington is a bear. Four equal sides make a square
    Always wear clean underwear.

    I’ve been trying to parody “Anthem” but it does such a good job of self-parody, I just can’t improve on it.

    • Sibyl

      I was already giggling helpessly when i got to this comment. Bravo. My nose is now running and I may not even need that stiff drink usually required at the end of a long week…

  • servusparvulorum

    People who, like me, are converts to Catholicism are sometimes left with the impression that hymns are both abused and undervalued by many in the Catholic Church.

    On the one hand, there are those who – appalled by the ugliness, banality or doubtful orthodoxy of many modern hymns – want to exclude them from the Mass altogether, and replace them with the old plainchant Propers. However, anyone who has had to endure hearing plainchant tortured week after week by inadequately trained choirs and congregations, and converted into a meaningless dirge, would not consider that this would really represent a great advance.

    On the other hand there are those who simply regard hymns as space-fillers to cover the moments in the liturgy when nothing is being said, in order to avoid any risk of the silence they seem to find so uncomfortable. They tend to exclude hymns which have words of theological substance, or tunes of real musical quality, on the grounds that young people, in particular, supposedly can’t cope with them. Otherwise, their attitude to the words of the hymns is rather like that of Despard in Ruddigore, when he sings, “This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter!”

    And finally there are those who view hymns as a tool to advance their modernising, inclusive, politically-correct agenda. They, at least, appreciate the potential of hymns as a vehicle for teaching. Indeed, their technique is very similar to that has often been adopted by Catholic-minded Anglican clergy when they tried to bring their parish “up the candle” without antagonising too many of their people.

    Whereas a homily on Transubstantiation or on devotion to Our Lady might have provoked a riot, much happier results were frequently achieved by getting the congregation to sing appropriate hymns. Some – although by no means all – of these were works of high poetic value. But the essential things was that they were full of clear, orthodox doctrinal and devotional teaching, expressed in rhythmical language that was easily memorised, and set to tunes that really enhanced the Liturgy.

    In the context of both parishes and schools, the axiom of lex cantandi, lex amandi surely applies just as much as that of lex orandi, lex credendi. Just as General Booth of the Salvation Army did not want to let the devil have all the best tunes, so those who believe in the hermeneutic of continuity should be as determined as the adherents of the hermeneutic of rupture to make full use of the teaching potential of hymns.

    I can still remember every line of many of the hymns I sang when I was at school: they became an important and integral part of my spirituality. When I am hearing confessions I therefore sometimes set the memorising of an appropriate hymn as a penance. I hope that by this means I shall have given the penitent a gift that will be of lasting value.

    By all means, throw out the dross. By all means let those parishes that have the necessary musical resources replace some hymns at Mass with the Propers. But at a time when so many parishes have suffered from a disastrous failure of catechesis, and when so many Catholics have such a tepid belief in and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady, I think the use of carefully-chosen hymns, in which substantial and orthodox content is clearly and beautifully expressed, sung well to tunes of real musical worth, can be a tool of the greatest liturgical and catechetical value to the Church.

  • A Mitchell

    I thought this might come in handy. I know that this is a very important issue, but we consider it neccesary to laugh about this. It’s a Catholic thing.

  • Kevin

    God In the Planning? I don’t buy it. Dresses, shoes, flowers, DJ, yes. God? Nah. Well, maybe, if they’re counting on a Cana-like miracle to make up for their foolish decision to have an open bar.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “Amen to the Body of Christ we receive,
    bread for the fullness of life.
    Amen to the Body of Christ we become,
    bread for the life of the world.”

    The thought can be traced back to St Augustine (Sermo 229 De Sacramentis Fidelium Dominica Sanctae Paschae) in which he says that Christ gives us His body to make us into His Body. He is pointing, of course, to the life of the Mystical Body of which we are parts and whose life we share and of which Christ declares He is the food.

    Also St. John Damascene, (De Fide Orth., iv, 13, P.G., xciv, 1153): “Because we partake of a single bread, we all become a single body of Christ, a single blood, and members one of another, being made of one body with Christ.”

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  • Marietta

    I’ve never heard any of the hymns Dr. Esolen discussed in this article. He should have discussed bad hymns from OCP and Gather hymnals, of which there are plenty. What country is he in?

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  • James Kabala

    Where you did dig these up? I have heard many awful hymns in my time, including some that I refer to as “Harrison Ford hymns,” after his memorable alleged remark to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars, but I never encountered any of these.

  • sibyl

    Oh, brother, was this ever funny. I’ve never heard any of these, but how delightful to know that some earnest soul put these words to music and actually had the guts to publish!

  • KittyMeringue

    My least favourite modern hymn is ‘Mary’s Wandering’ with lyrics by Joan Baez, who should have known better. It contains the immortal line

    ‘Who met she as she journeyed forth?
    St. Peter that good man,
    who sadly did her scan’

    I wince every time I have to sing it. Also whatever that hymn is with the line

    ‘Rise up church with broken wings’

    Which always seems both counterproductive and a bit defeatist. Fix the wings first, then do the rising up. Any qualified medical practitioner will tell you that.

    • MaryK


      I always listened to the Baez Christmas album growing up. Mary’s Wandering is an English translation of Marias Wallfahrt by Johannes Brahms. The awkward lyrics are probably due to translating the original German into English.

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