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The well-fought fight

No one ever said that becoming the saints we were baptized to be would be easy or painless.

(Image: TeroVesalainen | Pixabay.com)

The incorporation of Anglican hymnody into English-language Catholic worship is one of the great blessings of the past 50 years. And within that noble musical patrimony, Ralph Vaughan Williams surely holds pride of place among modern composers. Well do I remember the summer day in 1965 when I heard a massed chorus of men and women under the direction of my old choirmaster, Robert Twynham, rock the Baltimore Civic Center with all eight verses of Vaughan William’s masterpiece, “For All the Saints,” the processional hymn at the opening Mass of what used to be known as a “Liturgical Week.” It was stirring beyond words. And if a retrospective look at the program of lectures and seminars that followed reveals hints of choppy waters ahead in implementing the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council, the bright memory of that great hymn being sung by thousands of voices nonetheless lingers, and without alloy.

Alas, like many other hymns, “For All the Saints” is an endangered species today, gutted by parish music directors and pastors who commit the grave sin of not singing a hymn in its entirety — or worse, who bowdlerize the lyrics to coddle the sensibilities of the Church of Nice. Such butchery is especially problematic with “For All the Saints,” which has a robustly martial character. Indeed, the entire text is a meditation on the struggles, and ultimate joys, of spiritual warfare: that “well-fought fight,” undertaken beneath the captaincy of the Lord who is, for the baptized, “their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might,” the conquering “King of glory” who is, “in the darkness drear, their one true Light.”

In get-it-done-quickly churches which don’t understand that the Mass is its own time-zone, or in Candyland parishes that don’t recognize that spiritual warfare is baked into the Christian life, promiscuous hymn-pruning often means that the fifth and sixth verses of “For All the Saints” get the chop. Here they are, in case you’ve been so deprived:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Omitting these verses deprives congregations of the opportunity to ponder in song what must be any serious Christian’s experience in the West at the end of this second decade of the 21st century. Protestations from the ideologically myopic notwithstanding, it’s pluperfectly obvious to any parent or grandparent trying to transmit the Gospel view of the human person to a beloved child or grandchild that the West is in the midst of an often-vicious culture war. At the center of that struggle is the battle over the biblical truth that God created man and woman in his image, equal in dignity but unique in their maleness and femaleness, and made for complementarity and fruitfulness. Fighting that culture war by being a culture-reforming, countercultural Christian can be tiring, even dispiriting. And withdrawal into bunkers among one’s own can seem an attractive option — until you realize that “they” won’t leave you alone in your bunker, for “they” are determined to force you to admit that “they” have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The culture war “out there” is but one facet of spiritual warfare today, however. At the end of the 2019 liturgical year, on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Luke’s account of the crucifixion reminded the Church that the mystery of freedom — the mystery of our capacity to choose between what is good and what is evil, what is noble and what is base, what is life-giving and what is death-dealing — runs through each of us: just as it ran through Calvary, where it was personified by the two men crucified on either side of Jesus and their divergent responses to his holiness. This personal “strife” and “warfare” can be wearisome, too; no one ever said that becoming the saints we were baptized to be would be easy or painless.

All the more reason, then, to harken to that “distant triumph song” — and to remind ourselves that God has already won the ultimate victory by raising from the dead him whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas. That changed everything. And that is why “hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.”


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About George Weigel 278 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His most recent book is The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform.

15 Comments

  1. Amen! To put an exclamation point on Bro. Weigel’s very fine article. To say that Jesus defeated or triumphed over death is a common but inadequate translation of the word. The original language posits that Jesus destroyed (annihilated, exterminated, extinguished, and obliterated) death. Alleluia is our song!

  2. This hymn is theologically problematic in one sense, in that it defines saints in the Protestant way. See the verse about the countless host streaming through the gates of pearl. I recall this hymn being sung at many a Methodist funeral. This verse is left out of Catholic hymnals.

    • ‘This hymn is theologically problematic in one sense, in that it defines saints in the Protestant way. See the verse about the countless host streaming through the gates of pearl.”

      I’m confused. A ‘saint’ is anyone who makes it to heaven. So unless there’s a problem with the imagery of ‘gates of pearl,’ what’s so Protestant about a hymn that speaks of ‘all the saints’ referencing all (countless streams) of saints entering into heaven?

      Explanation, please?

  3. As a former Protestant myself, I find some Protestant hymns, past and present, to be very Catholic. Indeed, anything and everything worthwhile in any Protestant Denomination, is definitely, surely Catholic, if not in the letter, then in its spirit and intention. Protestants, in a very general and sometimes deformed way, have for the most part retained some of the militant, selfless attitude that provoked fear in all evil camps and made sure tyrants made it a priority to eliminate Catholics. That’s why today Protestants are very busy evangelizing (proselytizing mostly) while we modern Catholics twiddle our thumbs and are told by the Pope that we should stop proselytizing non-believers (therefore destroying any possibility of evangelization).

    Jesus on His Battle Cross exemplified Selfless Humble Violence against all sin and evil. We need to embrace Christ’s Holy Selflessness again, the thing Satan and his parasites fear the most. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”, (Matthew 16:25). That’s Selfless Humble Violence against our sinful nature and that of others!! Jesus showed graphically that for True Love, Peace and Joy to exist, sin must be crucified, annihilated, killed, not accommodated, “accompanied” or pampered into “conversion”, which just fuels Satan’s Hate, Lies and Death Machine. That’s the Catholic Attitude, even if God sometimes puts a Protestant face on it to confront and squash our very comfortable accommodation to sin and pacifist pride.

  4. Ukulua was the name of an N’goni [Zulu] village I visited when I heard the deep intermittent spaced drum beat while hiking in the forest behind the seminary. It sounded warlike actually a Zulu wedding ceremonial warrior dance with spears and mock assault. I asked the name of the village what it meant I was told Fight. I was brought a chair made welcome to attend. I liked the Zulu although they were much disliked by the predominant Acewa who were of course assaulted by them some made slaves. The British ended that when Malawi was taken much to do with Dr Livingstone’s travels and lectures back in England. Livingstone was an explorer missionary and doctor and lover of Africa and the people. What was apparent with the Zulu as well as the warrior Maasai later in my return to Africa was that both peoples had a certain a distinctive dignity and moral forbearing. A roundabout comment on Weigel’s essay on the value [or virtue] of valor. A good thing today downgraded especially with the phraseology toxic masculinity. I firmly believe God created us to be brave and men to be men whether physically capable or not. And that moral courage in agreement with G Weigel’s insightful essay on the Christian struggle is a much needed virtue in today’s Church.

  5. I’m not so sure I like Weigel’s favored Protestant hymn as much as he does. “Aren’t we great! Just think of how hard we’ve fought! And now we get our reward!” vs. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Adoro Te devote!”. I like the older understanding of our relationship with the Almighty.

    • Hey, BMC, what are you talking about? What is that “older understanding of our relationship with the Almighty”? Whatever it is, this Anglican hymn is not only theologically correct (to think that anything even “smelling” of Protestantism is always wrong is cultic- as in a crazy cult) but this hymn also emphasizes the amazing Christian Fraternity, Solidarity and Communion that Jesus came to bring to all Christians, in rest and in the battle for His Honor. For that I will include here the whole text of the hymn.

      As said before, anything and everything spiritually worthwhile in Protestantism IS CATHOLIC, because that’s where they received it, from the Catholic Church, even if later they twisted and changed this and/or that, etc,. etc. Your total misrepresentation, slander and mockery of the hymn only diminishes you, not the hymn, which you (and everyone here) should listen to in the Internet. It’s that powerful!! Your attitude has not one iota of the True Traditionalism and True Catholicism of the True Church, which isn’t slanderous, mocking by misrepresentation, cultic or narrow in any way because Jesus wasn’t and isn’t and never will be.

      1 For all the saints who from their labors rest,
      who thee by faith before the world confessed,
      thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      2 Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
      thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
      thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      3 O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
      fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
      and win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      4 O blest communion, fellowship divine,
      we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
      yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      5 And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
      steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
      and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      6 The golden evening brightens in the west;
      soon, soon to faithful warrior cometh rest;
      sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      7 But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
      the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
      the King of glory passes on his way.
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      8 From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
      through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
      singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
      Alleluia! Alleluia!

      • You’re right. It’s a great, stirring hymn. I love it when our organist plays it (and leads the singing from up in the organ loft – no arm-waving show-boating from him, stealing attention from the altar). Perhaps I’ll ask him to play it more often than just around All Saints’ Day. It is glorious.

    • And when was the last time we heard or sang “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee”, the Battle Hymn of the Republic or America the Beautiful? All hymns that praise God as the “Author of Liberty”. That’s the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the little tin demagogues in the District of Corruption.

  6. “If we only give them two verses, they’ll sing” is both an empirical lie and a pedagogical absurdity.
    It is a lie because Catholics obviously do NOT sing two verses; whole books have been devoted to this.
    It is a pedagogical absurdity because the real message conveyed to the laity is the hymn is unimportant, something we just need to “get through quickly”, and the people of the pew have internalized this message. Just as they have internalized the message that the Holy Eucharist is nothing special from the contempt with which He is treated liturgically.

  7. Sadly, there are even very orthodox priests who over-prune the hymns.

    My parish in the northwest suburbs of Atlanta has a great young pastor, extremely faithful, pro-apologetics, good teacher, pretty good homilist, firm about making the church beautiful with gold and art (no felt banners or brutalist architecture). He is excellent in nearly every way.

    But this is an area he falls down in: The verses of the hymns are selected to last just barely long enough to cover whatever else may be going on at the time (e.g. introit procession, lines of communicants). Once Father and the deacon are standing in front of their seats and ready to sit, the organist wraps it up. This makes the hymn seem like transitional filler music…”bumper” music, they call it, in radio. And that makes it hard to take the lyrics seriously, let alone be TAUGHT by them.

    Fathers: Hymn verses aren’t all of equal quality or theme! Often the first and last verses are the best ones (you want to start strong, and finish strong), whereas the middle verses are kind of “Meh.” Often, too, the middle verses bid the singer to contemplate a problem or struggle, which will be triumphantly resolved in the final verse.

    (Consider “Holy, Holy, Holy”: First verse states the theme…but then in a later verse you get “Tho’ the darkness hide Thee, tho’ the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.” This darker observation is the low point; but glory returns triumphantly with, “All thy saints shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea!”)

    So, Fathers, when you stop on the second or third verse, you are often…
    (a.) ending with the lyrically-weakest verse,
    (b.) stopping on what is an unresolved problem or dark-point, thematically, and,
    (c.) teaching the parishoners to shrug off the hymnody as mere “filler.”

    Now if your hymnody stinks, I guess that’s okay. “Gather Us Into The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” doesn’t deserve better.

    But, Fathers, if your hymnody is good, please: Give us one more verse, and let it be the strongest and most triumphant of them verses. End on a high note.

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