For All the Saints: Fighting the Good Fight of the Faith
In his essential book, Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church, Anthony Esolen reviews a range of great Catholic hymns that are too little heard among Catholics today. Or, if they are heard, it is too often in a butchered and emasculated rewriting designed to suit the modern spirit.
Too many hymns today, Esolen writes, celebrate the wonderfulness of the singer–God certainly is lucky to have friends like us, friends who will build the city of God ourselves and sing a new Church into being; after all, as one particularly awful modern hymn puts it, “we have been sung, throughout all of history”. Yet, with so many hymns that celebrate ourselves, Esolen laments that almost all songs celebrating the greatness of the saints, shining models of the faith, have been excised from the hymnals. Perhaps it would be too difficult to delude ourselves with an outsized image of our own wonderfulness if we were confronted with the genuine virtue, humility, and holiness of the saints.
One of the few such hymns that does survive in many modern hymnals is the wonderful “For All the Saints,” composed by William Howe (1864) and set to its current recognizable tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Unfortunately, too often, it only survives in an edited, weakened form. Some of the best, most martial verses have been edited out entirely while others survive only in a heavily redacted form. But the original is well worth hearing. We are perhaps familiar with the opening:
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
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.
It almost seems a minor miracle that the second verse often survives in modern hymnals since it contains references to a fight, and Christ as the saints’ Captain in that fight. It does not always survive, though; the thoroughly modern OCP deletes that verse entirely. Words like “Captain,” “fortress,” “might,” and “battle” do not sufficiently fit the modern spirit. The next three verses are usually left out of most versions:
For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
For the evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy name adored.
For martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
These verses mention three groups of saints. First: the Apostles, poor peasants and fishermen, who by their bold proclamation of the Gospel “shook all the mighty world.” No wonder we edit that one out. In a world where Catholics seem terrified to proclaim the Gospel, better we not be challenged with the example of the Apostles. They, simple men, shook the whole world while we sit about in synodal listening sessions and committee meetings. The last verse is perhaps especially magnificent, imagining the martyrs set to face their own deaths but who, rather than fearing their murderers or cowering before their enemies, saw only the great crown of martyrdom descending, not as a punishment from their enemies, but as a gift from God. What a challenge to a modern world that seems determined to avoid any suffering at all possible costs! How could we possibly sing about our own wonderfulness while being reminded of the faith and courage of the martyrs?
Later verses in the hymn call on us to imitate the example of the saints. Rightly so. The saints are given to us as intercessors, inspirations, and models. Ordinary men and women given great graces, they prove that sanctity is possible for all of us, if only we too can take up our own crosses and fight the same spiritual battle they fought.
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.
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.
Esolen is worth quoting here at length, picturing the rousing call to battle given us by the hymn:
We can well imagine the scene. We are soldiers slogging through the mud, bearing upon our bucklers the brunt of the enemies’ swords, yet carry on, when all at once-- do you hear that? Yes, there it is! The Clarion call of victory, coming from the far city of God. And all at once, we take heart and our arms swing with the greater force.
We pray that we ourselves will follow the example of the saints we have been given, and join in that fight, that spiritual battle.
The notion of the spiritual life as a battle upsets many today who have, perhaps, grown too comfortable. But the image is entirely Pauline, as St. Paul tells Timothy (1:6:12) to “fight the good fight of faith.” And the spiritual life is a struggle. We have fallen natures, and too often find the life of virtue and holiness difficult.
But we are not, in this fight, alone. In addition to the many graces God gives us, He gives us one that we commemorate especially today: the help of the saints. They are to us both intercessors and models; and as the great hymn, “For All the Saints”reminds us, we have only to follow their bold examples, so that one day too, we can enjoy their triumphs.
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