Saturday, January 23, 2010

Woodward: Hyfrydol

"You can take the boy out of Protestantism, but...."


I confess that I have a partiality to hymn-singing that will forever separate me from the most fastidious of the Catholic liturgical purists. I spent the first 22 years of my life as a Protestant -- first as a Methodist, then as a Presbyterian, as my parents' own sectarian allegiances dictated. We sang mostly good old 18th- and early 19th-century hymns in those days -- Watts and Wesley -- and I am still occasionally stared at by my fellow Catholics in the pews when they notice that I can sing "Crown Him with Many Crowns" or "Rise Up, O Men of God" without looking at the hymnal.

My favorite hymn tune, I think, is "Hyfrydol." It comes to us from the staggeringly rich tradition of Welsh choral song, and it is -- in my opinion, at least -- almost heartbreakingly beautiful. Its 8.7.8.7 metrical structure makes it suitable as a setting for any number of texts. It's the traditional tune for "Alleluiah! Sing to Jesus" and is also often used with the Advent hymn "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus." Last week at Mass we sang it as the tune for the great Charles Wesley hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."

The text to this last-mentioned hymn caused a minor theological rift between Charles Wesley and his more famous brother John (the founder of Methodism). John Wesley detected in his brother's poem a hint of Christian perfectionism -- the false doctrine that human beings can attain a degree of holiness on their own that fits them for heaven. I suppose the offending lines were these:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place.

The fact that nothing in those lines should trouble a Catholic today -- but did cause trouble between two Protestant brothers in the middle of the 18th century -- perhaps says more about the course of religious history in the last 250 years than any number of books on the Great Revival or Modernism or the Social Gospel or the Spirit of Vatican II. I consider myself a well-informed and conscientious Catholic, and yet I feel closer to Charles and John Wesley than I do to Hans Kung or Charles Curran or Joan Chittister or .... Unfortunately the list could go on and on.

In any event, I am happy to sing "Alleluiah! Sing to Jesus" or "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" or even a really Protestant hymn like "Come, Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing" -- as long as it is to a tune as beautiful as this: