And she wants us to sing them everywhere, but especially at Mass!
Kate Bluett is a part of a new generation of Catholic lyricists, one who strives to create new hymns that are truly prayerful. She’s the sort of person who thinks carefully about the philosophy behind her work, and has spent time reflecting on the place of hymns in the modern world.
A cradle Catholic who wandered a bit before returning to the Church, Bluett holds a BA and an MA from the University of Dallas. She is a published poet and the homeschooling mother of two young boys. She took the time to chat with Aleteia about her writing, the role of hymns in the church, and why they are essential to our spiritual growth.
What inspired you to write your first hymn texts?
It wasn’t inspiration so much as determination. After years of being a happy participant in online liturgy wars (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), I decided that, since cursing the darkness wasn’t doing a damn bit of good, I would try lighting a candle instead. So when I met a composer, Kevin Keil, whose music was wonderful but whose lyrics — in my opinion — could use a little punching up, I volunteered to write if he ever needed anything.
I had published a few poems by then, so I figured I was qualified. Kevin let me show him my stuff. I had no idea how much I had to learn, but he was gracious enough to give me a few chances. Eventually, he liked what I was writing well enough to set some to music, and the collection Shine In Me was born.
What goes into writing a great hymn?
Can I get back to you after I’ve written one? In the meantime, I can mention a few things about some I’ve sung.
A great hymn is firmly grounded in both Scripture and poetry. Neither can be fudged to fit the rhythm, and both have to fit the music. Part of the reason I haven’t written great hymns is that I tend to work with just the words, but writing with a tune in mind is a completely different animal. Meter alone still gives a writer plenty of space to play, whereas a tune dictates so much more, it narrows that space, and fitting the words to a specific tune is a greater challenge. But it’s worth it when the words and the tune fit hand-in-glove and magnify each other.
Why are hymns at Mass so important? Why can’t we just sing any old song that happens to mention God?
Unfortunately, a good many of the songs that happen to mention God are exactly the ones we can’t sing — physically, they are out of many people’s range. A great deal of modern worship music is written with soloists or trained choirs in mind. But the Mass is an act of communal worship, and singing together is one of the ways we worship as a body. It is important that the members of the congregation sing, and a great deal of music is designed to prevent them from doing just that.
Songs that leave the congregation behind should be left out of most Masses. Yes, there are special occasions and feast days, when solos or choral anthems are appropriate, but worship must not habitually exclude the congregation.
What are some of your favorite hymns? Why are they memorable or significant for you?
Absolute top of the list is “How Can I Keep From Singing?” The whole congregation sang this at my wedding, and I hope they do it at my funeral, too. Because it can’t be said too many times that “Love is Lord of heaven and earth,” and since he is, how can any of us “keep from singing?”
Some other favorites: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” followed by “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” I could sing any one of these all day, every day. In all three of them, the music, the language, and the sentiment are pitch-perfect. “Joy of heav’n to earth come down”: that’s the Incarnation, that’s all of it, right there. “I heard the voice of Jesus say / come unto me and rest. / Lay down, thou weary one, lay down / thy head upon my breast.” Yes, please. “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall: / Still be my vision, O ruler of all.”
That’s prayer, wrapped in beautiful melody.
I also love “On Eagle’s Wings.” I know the high notes don’t work for everyone but people still manage to sing it, and when they do, they’re singing straight-up Scripture. Lots of people hate this song — there are entire corners of the internet devoted to bashing it — but I’ve loved it since I was a kid, and my kids fell in love with it the first time they heard it. And they know God will hold them “in the palm of his hand.”
Not technically a hymn, but I love the Our Father, chanted — not the Pater Noster but the chant in English. I love the way the priest, any priest, intones those first three syllables, and suddenly even the most tongue-tied congregation is making the rafters ring. In my mind, there is nothing that compares with a capella singing for unifying and electrifying the body of worshipers — they just need someone to lead them!
So many other churches use songs and hymns to catechize children. How can Catholics get better at this?
I think this is the wrong question. If we want to catechize the children, we have to catechize them. There are no shortcuts.
If, on the other hand, we want to implant in their hearts and minds the prayers and the phrases they can fall back on when the well runs dry, when they can’t find words to pray in — songs are good for that; they provide them with something to lean on when they are completely empty. Songs are good for forming memories that will see them through their ages.
But we have to sing. We can’t rely on the choir or the cantor–we have to sing! We have to take the music home and sing it outside of Mass. We have to sing at mealtimes and work times and with our bedtime prayers. We have to take the music into our hearts before we can plant it in our children’s hearts.
What songs do you suggest?
It doesn’t matter which songs. I say, chant together! Belt out gospel music together! Lift up your hands in a praise chorus together, and sing hymns in four-part harmony together — sing with your kids! They won’t just retain the words of the song, they will remember that Mom and Dad sang with them. They will remember making music as a family. They will treasure it!
Parishes could do more to encourage this. Fill the Masses with songs that are worth singing at home — of whatever age or style or culture of origin. Train cantors to lead music, not to sing solos. Keep instrumentation to a minimum, except for special occasions. Host prayer services outside of Mass and fill them with all the praise music that doesn’t fit in the Mass.
Include music in adult education programs — teach the parents to sing, and let them teach their children. Host parent-and-child music programs, too — Making Music, Praying Twice is a great one — but make sure you get the parents in the door! Equip the parents to lead music at home, equip them with music to take home, and let them find the times and places that their families sing together.
It’s not about catechesis; it’s about building habits of prayer and strengthening families. Not everything comes down to doctrine; we need spirituality, too.