Sense and Nonsense: The Right Question

Reading the Divine Office each day requires some attention and diligence, but also routine and repetition. I have a great fondness for C.S. Lewis’s remark that if you have only read a great book once, you have not really read it all. This is why we priests and whoever else read the whole Psalter every month are really a privileged lot in our daily charge to praise the Lord in the classic manner of the Church. We understand much about human nature when we comprehend, as the Church does, why we must also be “obliged” to do what we really should delight in doing in the first place. Yet this studied rereading is also a surprising insight and inspiration at times. You are, for instance, sleepy, busy, or otherwise distracted. You find yourself one morning or afternoon reading a Psalm, several Psalms, or a Reading from someplace in Scripture or one of the Church Fathers, or even a short verse. I am regularly struck by a line from Psalm 119 that appears on Thursday in the Third Week of the Psalter, to wit , “I have no love for half-hearted men.” I never read this line without wondering if I am “half-hearted,” and hoping that I am not; for somehow, this condition strikes me as a sign of the greatest weakness of soul.

Thus, you reread something you read last year, the year before, and the year before that; sometimes you have read it the previous week, or month, or, like the Magnificat or the Our Father or the Benedictus, every day. The Office is varied, yet after you read it for a number of years, the same, too. There is a comfort both in this variety and in this regularity.

Still, such is the profundity of revelation and its abiding words, something new always confronts you in rereading the text of the Office. You find yourself, maybe the next day or a couple of days later, going back again to look up a certain passage that sticks in an odd corner of your mind. Somehow the words or images or rhythms lodge in your memory, like the refrain of “I have no love for half-hearted men.” I was thus reading, for another example, the Office for the Tuesday of the Third Week after Easter. As I read it, I recalled that the Second Reading, from a Sermon of Saint Augustine, was very beautiful.

In the Psalms of a couple of days later, I assumed that I had found the citation from the Psalm that Saint Augustine had used, the Psalm, in fact, that began “Sing a new song to the Lord.” That phrase too—”Sing a new song to the Lord”—always has struck me as a particularly beautiful one, a phrase that often appears in Scripture in various ways. At first I had assumed this passage was from Psalm 98, “Sing a new song to the Lord, for He has done marvelous deeds,” but on inspection it really was Psalm 149, “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing His praise to the assembly of the faithful.”

I love to hear each year on Holy Thursday the processional Pange lingua; and at Benediction I anticipate the Tantum ergo, which is the ending of the same haunting hymn. But I hope, with my own uncontrolled singing voice—to give it its most positive connotation—that we can also read silently or aloud a new or old song to the Lord. I admit, of course, that we mostly prefer to hear praises to the Lord sung, as with Bach or Palestrina, or with those Spanish monks who are finally waking us up to the fact that the old Gregorian Chant is really a new song that few of us have ever really heard.

How do we sing a new song to the Lord?” we might ask. We know that piety is a natural virtue that requires us to return something to the Lord for His goodness. What can we return to the Lord? We know that the initial answer to this, perplexing question, and it is the profoundest of questions, is precisely “nothing.” The Lord lacks nothing; we do not praise Him as if something in the Divinity were lacking. This fullness of the Godhead is exactly what the Christian doctrine of the Trinity means. And yet, here we have this Psalmist telling us to “sing a new song to the Lord,” as if we are commanded to sing, as if we might not really know ourselves what we ought to do when we behold what is.

Augustine began his sermon with these very words from the 149th Psalm—”Sing to the Lord a new song; his praise is in the assembly of the Saints.” We are urged to sing this new song “as new men who have learned a new song.” Our songs reflect our souls as perhaps nothing else does or can. Plato understood this more clearly than perhaps anyone else before or since. That is to say, if we understand what the world is, who we are, who God is, our whole outlook will be different; some transformation of our being—we call it, yes, grace—seems to invite us to what is beyond our own being for the very completion of our own being.

Here is how Augustine memorably put it:

A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly a thing of love. Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life has learned to sing a new song, and the new song reminds us of our new life. The new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to the one kingdom of God, and so the new man will sing a new song and will belong to the new covenant.

This strikingly lovely passage is from the man who wrote that “two loves have built two cities,” that, “late, late, have I loved Thee,”—from a man, in other words, who knew how to write. So radically different kinds of songs must somehow be possible. This harkens back to the very Platonic chapter on music in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in which he warned us that music, often demonical music, not the professors, has been the primary teacher of the youth of our time. We are loathe to acknowledge this warning.

‘Do we not all love something?” we might ask. And therefore do we not all sing some songs, some new songs? Augustine’s remark is to the point: “There is not one who does not love something, but the question is what to love?” Two loves built two cities—”the new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to the one kingdom of God….” Then Augustine wonders how can we choose unless we are first chosen?” He adds something of remarkable profundity, “We cannot love unless someone has loved us first.” These words can hardly be read, I think, without recalling Augustine’s association of joy and love with song. Joy is the proper possession of what we love, loving what is good in the way good exists, in its own being. Of and by ourselves we are not complete and, if we be sane, do not even want to be.

Several years ago, I reviewed Josef Pieper’s little book, Only the Lover Sings (December 1990). Of course, this book has its title from these very words of Augustine—Cantare amantis est. Pieper remarked in his brief Introduction that he wrote the book to make one thing clear, namely, that music, indeed all art, “derive their life from a hidden root, and this root is a contemplation which is turned toward God and the world so as to affirm them.” This “affirmation” is, of course, in some mysterious sense, why we are, why we exist, something that in the Symposium Plato himself began to suspect, something that became commonplace with revelation.

If it be true that we cannot love unless we are first loved, then the remarks of Saint John are the more astonishing. We love God because “He first loved us.” The new song, then, is possible not because we love God but because He has first loved us. This, ultimately, is why we exist in the first place. Augustine responds to his flock, “Now it is your unquestioned desire to sing of Him whom you love, but you ask me how to sing his praises?” The answer, Augustine concludes, is in the singers themselves. “If you desire to praise Him, then live what you express. Live good lives and you yourselves will be his praise.”

The fifty-fourth verse of Psalm 119, in the Vulgate, reads: Cantabiles mihi erant justifications tux in loco peregrinationis mete. This means, roughly, “In the place of my pilgrimage, O Lord, Thy ways were singable to me.” Omne ens, autem, est cantabile. “At the heart of each created being exists what is worthy of praise, what is, in the end, singable.” Cantare amantis est. “The new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to one kingdom of God.” “A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly a thing of love.” Of such are the right answers to the right question.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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