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 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:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Woodward: Science and Religion...

...Can they get along anywhere?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Woodward: The Christmas Season

Technically, the Season of Christmas will continue for three more days, until the Baptism of the Lord this coming Sunday, January 10. But the Woodward Christmas tree came down today, and that brings the season to a close for us, sentimentally if not liturgically.

If there is a historical place and time associated with Christmas in the popular imagination (other than first-century Palestine, I mean) it's surely Victorian England, thanks to Charles Dickens. (Who wouldn't have enjoyed spending Christmas with the Cratchits, or the members of the Pickwick Club?) But for a long time now I have also thought of Christmas as a medieval holiday. Maybe because we have to go back pretty much that far to encounter a time when the feast was relatively free of the secularism and commercialism that disfigures Christmas nowadays.

I discovered this wonderful collection of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music, performed by Lionheart, only towards the end of the season this year, or I would have recommended it sooner. It is full of the quiet joy that Christmas itself must once have been full of. And it includes music devoted to almost every one of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. For example there is a song for December 29, "Seynt Thomas Honour We," to be sung on the feast of St. Thomas Becket. It includes this beguiling -- if unsettlingly graphic--pair of lines describing Thomas's martyrdom:

"The king but little while him spared:
Knights in church his crown off-pared."

Despite the lyrics, it's a lovely song.

Here's a downloadable sample--a medieval carol still popular today--to show you just how good Lionheart and this CD are.

See you in Ordinary Time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Woodward: The Curse

January 3, 1920, is often cited as the day on which the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, thereby incurring the "Curse of the Bambino" and condemning themselves to 83 more years without a baseball world championship. The deal to sell Ruth to the Yankees was actually reached the day after Christmas 1919, but some part of the paperwork was completed on January 3 and that is the date listed in most baseball histories.

Ruth had annoyed Harry Frazee, the owner of the Red Sox, with his unreasonable money demands. (He wanted his salary doubled to the unthinkable sum of $20,000 a year.) Frazee had also suffered some financial reversals in his other business -- producing Broadway shows -- and needed cash fast. And so on this day 90 years ago, the Bambino -- the best left-handed pitcher Boston had ever had and the best hitter New York would ever have -- was gone, and with him (if one believes the legend) went four generations' hopes of seeing the Red Sox win a World Series.

For those who believe the Curse was real, this is what it looked like in action. Bill Buckner (a very good first baseman, actually) improbably lets a Mookie Wilson ground ball roll between his legs, allowing the Mets to beat the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and making possible a Game 7, which the Mets also won. (Ignore the commercial.)

And this is what it looked like when the Curse was broken at last.

The Red Sox got $125,000 for Babe Ruth in 1920. In June 2005, the sale contract -- the piece of paper -- was purchased at auction for $996,000.