Monday, April 24, 2006

"Voice of God" texts

There is no doubt that Thomas Day stirred up a lot of controversy with his book "Why Catholics Can't Sing", one particular issue being the dreaded "Voice of God" hymns.

I see the point that he makes, though I find myself unable to work myself into a tizzy over the issue as most of my fellow conservative liturgical musicians do. I continue to use some VOG hymns in my parish and not one congregant has approached me afterwards to proclaim their newfound divinity, thanks to the offertory hymn, "Here I Am, Lord".

Anyway, I guess I sit right on the fence on this one. On one hand, I want to be faithful to the wishes of Mother Church; on the other hand, I have a hard time rationalizing the disposal of a quarter of my congregation's repertoire due to a dilemma they don't even know exists.

Now my intent is not to get this debate stirred up again and continue to beat the dead horse. The issue I want to bring to the table (as a result of an exchange between Cantor and I) is this: how do we get around the fact that many of the Proper texts use the "Voice of God"?

I quickly shuffled through my "Sunday's Word" (GIA) last night and came up with these texts (only up through Easter Sunday):

Year B

5OT Communion Antiphon: "Happy are the sorrowing; they shall be consoled. Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; they shall be satisfied."

8OT CA: "I, the Lord, am with you always, until the end of the world."

2 Lent CA: "This is my Son, my beloved, in whom is all my delight: listen to him."

5 Lent CA: "I tell you solemnly: Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest."

Palm Sunday CA: "Father, if this cup may not pass, but I must drink it, then your will be done."

Now before anyone raises the objection that some of these are different than what is in the Graduale Romanum, (BTW, why are there discrepancies? I really do not know.), my Gregorian Missal lists the exact same Communion Antiphons for 2 Lent, 5 Lent and Palm Sunday, not to mention the Improperia.

So what gives? How do the anti-VOG advocates explain these texts?


At Monday, April 24, 2006 2:52:00 AM, Anonymous ScholarChanter said...

Can you explain VOG hymns a bit or refer us to some reading material, for those of us who don't know what they are? Thanks!

At Monday, April 24, 2006 8:57:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

Voice of God: “I, the Lord of sea and sky...”

non-VOG: “Holy Goy, we praise Thy name”

At Monday, April 24, 2006 9:42:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

It’s worth considering, PT, that the Propers were not meant for congregations to sing, but for the people to hear and incorporate into their prayer.

In other words, Day’s arguments might be irrelevant to the Proper per se.

At Monday, April 24, 2006 9:48:00 AM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...


First off, Thomas Day's book that I referred to is must reading for anyone interested in the topic of liturgical music, especially here in the US. That is where the whole VOG-thing got its start.

There's also a few articles floating around though on the 'net. Try this one:

especially Part 3 of the article.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2006 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous brandon field said...

Many places in the Psalter (which is used, even sung in many places, as Liturgical Prayer in the Divine Office) also uses VoG. I'm not versed in the arguments, but I would be very surprised if absolutely no "traditional hymns" used it at one place or another. The Voice of God is certainly used by the priest as part of the liturgical celebration ("This is my body"), and the OT prophets also have used VoG in their writings (prophets were not priests, and therefore were lay people -- congregants). Lay Catholics are called to be prophetic and priestly (although not Sacramentally priests), so I'm not sure I understand the vehemenence of all the objections.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2006 1:55:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


Keep in mind that most of the traditional hymns we now sing originate from outside the Church.

Of the traditional hymns I know that do originate from within the Church (Crux fidelis, Pange lingua, Ave maris stella, Faith of Our Fathers, Te Deum, ...), not one prays *as* God.

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 7:52:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


Just curious, which passages of the Psalms do you have in mind as being VoG? (“vox Dei”)

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 9:49:00 AM, Anonymous brandon field said...

Keep in mind that most of the traditional hymns we now sing originate from outside the Church.

So do you see the problem a modern problem, or as a Protestant problem?

which passages of the Psalms do you have in mind

Without dragging through my Brievary, Psalm 2, "You are my son, this day I have begotten you". It's cited, meaning the psalmist says: The Lord said to me..., but still when you pray the psalm, you pray part of it in the voice of God.

Granted, the majority of the psalter is the voice of various human concerns. That's why it's so beautiful. But dialogue between God and man is as old as... well, as old as the Garden of Eden.

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 2:18:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

Howdy, folks.

To add to Brandon's, Ps 94(95) has a passage in God's voice exclaiming about how He endured the generation of Israel that wandered in the desert for forty years.

The discussion has brought out several separate issues, some of which are germane to PT's original post and some of which are not. I intend to weigh in with a more extensive response but that will have to wait until I'm back at home with my books. For the moment I'll say this: Day's criticism of the vox Dei song is not a blanket dismissal of anything whose text speaks in the voice of God; there are several factors, some of which have not yet been mentioned, that combine to produce the opprobrious type of vox Dei song.

More in a little bit.

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 3:19:00 PM, Anonymous brandon field said...

Ps 94(95)

You can tell you're some sort of a traditionalist when you cite the psalms between 9 and 147 with two numbers.


At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 5:19:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Brandon: You’re either a tradition-minded person, or just someone who bears in mind that the liturgical documents still use the Greek numbering. Or you’re Gather 1. :)

At Wednesday, April 26, 2006 5:26:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

Parenthetically, I ought to add that Why Catholics Can't Sing, while an important book, needs to be taken with a smaller or larger grain of salt depending on which part you're reading. In some of his jeremiads Day can wind up leaning towards an extreme and thereby obscuring or defeating the (good) point he is making.

At Thursday, April 27, 2006 5:55:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

I think if you look at most Protestant hymns that quote God or, in the case of the readings, there is always a qualifier such as "and the Lord said" or "said Jesus".


At Thursday, April 27, 2006 9:55:00 PM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...

moconnor brings out the distinction I should have made earlier: when I say VOG-texts, I am *excluding* ones that say, ". . . says the Lord." or something such as that.

At Saturday, April 29, 2006 7:07:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

A related issue is that of texts that speak more about the people than about God.

This is an offshoot of the zeal to emphasize the idea of the congregation as the assembled Body of Christ. Frankly, I find this teaching needs a good deal more explaining: it’s too easy to come to the idea of “wait, ..... does that mean I’m God? But I sin and all that....”

While I’m willing to go along with a “vox Dei” text or three, a text like Haas’s “Song of the Body of Christ” is AWFULLY muddy in its teaching of doctrine:

“We come to share our story”
But I haven’t said anything about myself.

“We come to break the bread”
Actually no, the priest does that.

“We come to know our rising from the dead”
This is borderline heresy - I don’t know that I will rise from the dead.

The first two quotes I can see figuratively: the Scripture can be our sharing of our story (maybe with catechumens/elect?), and one could see the fraction as a symbolically communal action. But these kinds of flips require some explanation. That last one is part of what hopefully will pass: the idea in Catholic churches that salvation is assured.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 12:33:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...


Haas is, in fact, not being a heretic with "we come to know our rising from the dead." We all will rise from the dead, at the end of time. And, whether it be in Heaven or Hell, we will spend eternity enfleshed. Given the current state of catechesis, I do agree that the line is apt to be understood as indicating guaranteed salvation, but as it stands it is not heretical.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 1:18:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

To further analyze the vox Dei phenomenon it is helpful to consider hymnody in the Roman liturgy, since most of the vox Dei songs are loosely classified as "hymns."

If we accept James McKinnon's arguments in The Advent Project and date the creation of the Roman Mass Proper to the late 7th Century, we are still left with a 1300-year tradition that proposes mostly Scriptural antiphons rather than non-Scriptural hymns as appropriate for the Mass. (There are exceptions, mostly in the sanctoral cycle, where a non-Scriptural text is used for one of the Propers.) The few hymns that do occur in the Mass occur in the context of processions (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Corpus Christi) or the Veneration of the Cross (Good Friday). One need only glance through the Missal or the Gradual to find Proper texts that are in the voice of God, unadorned, and I shall not add to PT's list. Those texts that have been listed, however, are direct quotations from Scripture. Indeed, I was only able to find one occasion where the voice of God is used in a text that does not quote from Scripture: the offertory for Wednesdays in Late Advent.

Non-Scriptural hymnody, by contrast, found a home in the Divine Office. One notes, however, that composers of new hymns did not put their texts into the voice of God, nor did they usually quote or paraphrase scripture. The case is somewhat different with nonliturgical hymns; as an example I may cite O filii et filiae, which contains paraphrases of the post-Resurrection narratives in the Gospels. That notwithstanding, the divine voice is offset by some syntactical means, whether punctuation or something equivalent to "Thus saith the Lord," whenever it is used. As has been noted, this same practice was followed in hymns composed for those ecclesial communities formed in the Reformation.

(In passing I should note that I am not considering the Gloria or the Te Deum, which combine direct Scriptural quotations and fresh composition in the same text, yet still do not speak in the voice of God. Nor am I considering the Byzantine or Syriac traditions; my focus is on the major Latin hymnodists whose work found its way into the Breviary: Ambrose, Prudentius, Sedulius, Gregory the Great, Fortunatus, Maurus.)

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 1:37:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

Where do my preceding comments leave us with regard to Day's criticisms? Let us consider two relevant extracts from Day's critique of the vox Dei song:

"In other words, the composer sets the text so that the congregation sings God's words, usually without quotation marks, in a somewhat bored, relaxed, almost casual style." (p. 64)

"In the past, a very sensitive Catholicism (Roman, Byzantine, Orthodox, and even Anglican) hesitated to let divine words come from the lips of anyone, in just any commonplace way. The monks in a cloister, for example, wanted to begin the Easter Mass by singing the words 'I arose.' To avoid the presumption of 'playing God,' they sang the text in Latin (Resurrexi) and in a musical style reserved exclusively to the church." (p. 66)

From the first passage one may identify three key elements of the undesirable vox Dei song:

1. The congregation sings in the voice of God.
2. The text does not distinguish the voice of God.
3. The musical style does not necessarily indicate the words as the voice of God, and may in fact not have sacred connotations at all. This point is reinforced by comparison with his coments on p. 32, where, in speaking of "contemporary" church music, he says: "Notice how those biblical words are lolling in the soft, quilted sentimentality of the music."

Day's subsequent comparison with the introit of Easter Sunday does not produce as strong of a contrast as one might expect. The text is from Ps 138(139), and while the original is written in the Psalmist's voice, in this liturgical context the monks are singing in the voice of Jesus Christ. (If we accept Cantor's argument that the Propers belong to the choir and not the congregation, which I do, the contrast is instead strengthened.) The Latin language has not always had the same hieratic quality it does for us in the early 21st Century, so any linguistic distinctions may be diluted. Day's strongest point is saved for last: he is correct when he asserts that the musical style is definitely ecclesiastical. Church chant has almost always been distinguished from other types of music as something specifically set apart for and appropriate to worship.

I infer that Day's primary complaint is that the music of a vox Dei song is inappropriate both for its text and its function, and destroys the awe that the voice of God ought to produce. The list of undesirable songs Day presents on pp. 64-65 of his book are a mixed bag; some are completely fresh compositions, others paraphrase Scripture, and still others quote it directly. In the first two cases, the author has usually not followed the tradition of somehow marking the divine voice in his text, and in the first case particularly the author is putting words into God's mouth, a questionable act at least. In the third case, the author can at least point to the use of unaltered Scripture in the Propers in his defense.

The one constant between them all is their musical style, be it "folk" or "reformed-folk" or "contemporary," and Day's assessment of said style has already been quoted. When that style is used for unaltered Scripture, we have a text consistent with tradition but music that is not consistent; when it is combined with texts intended for singing by a congregation that are in the voice of God and do not follow the tradition of demarcating that voice, we have the vox Dei song proper.

So I understand him, at least.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 11:17:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

Klaus: Worth pointing out that Musicam sacram advocates congregational singing of the Proper.....which means either I was wrong in my argument, or the document is wrong. Just going by faith alone, I’m inclined to presume the former and chow down on the hat.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 9:48:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

If I were to answer PT's final question from my own perspective, I would say this: when the Missal or the Gradual present as the Propers direct quotations from Scripture that happen to be in the voice of God, I just can't get particularly upset. I have no problem with using the Good Book in the liturgy, and I certainly have no problem singing according to the Church's own chants.

On the other hand, I do object to the kind of song identified above as the "vox Dei song proper," with bad music and a freshly-composed or sloppily-paraphrased text, because it deviates from the Church's own methods of using texts in the divine voice in her worship. The difference is in the absorption of tradition or lack thereof, not simply in the use of the divine voice.


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