One of the more famous English-language hymns used in Christian services, be they Catholic Masses or various traditional Protestant liturgies (Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran), is Marty Haugen’s “Canticle of the Sun”, supposedly based on Francis of Assisi’s Cantico del frate sole. Haugen, a Lutheran composer, came to prominence in the tumultuous years following the Second Vatican Council. This period was marked by an unwarranted yet large-scale abandonment of Gregorian chant and the venerable patrimony of sacred polyphony in favor of simpler melodies and questionable lyrics. Often, they betray their composers’ Baby Boomer/Postmodern adolescence, which eschewed the things of tradition and sought more “accessible” forms of art. Lyrics rooted in solid Scriptural foundations and music developed specifically for the Mass gave way to vague, New-Age-like words and folksy pop-rock tunes. New melodies were composed in the tonic-third-fifth harmonic paradigm, and new texts were written to fit the music, whereas in the past, music was written to match a given text from Scripture or an ancient prayer, with due diligence for the text’s integrity. The order of composing sacred music was turned on its head, and the distinction between the sacred and profane was blurred.
Two of the biggest publishers of modern Catholic music for worship, GIA and Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), have made a fortune from the folksy hymns of composers like the St. Louis Jesuits, Bernadette Farrell, Dan Schutte, and Marty Haugen. Their popularity has ensured that, for the last three generations, most Anglophone Catholics have a skewed sense of what true sacred music really is, having received instead a liturgical life completely contrary to the intent of the Second Vatican Council. The chant propers– the Entrance Antiphons (the introit in the older form), the Communion Antiphon, and the various other proper texts– have been eclipsed by Haugenesque songs to such an extent that musical settings for the propers of the day are nowhere to be found in the GIA or OCP repetoire.
It’s bad enough that the texts from Scripture or composed by the Church have been supplanted by the work of these lite-rock composers; possibly even worse are the instances in which a basis in Scripture or tradition is asserted by Haugen et al., when the final product in fact twists the sense of the original text. Haugen’s “Canticle of the Sun” is such a prime example; if one reads Francis of Assisi’s original Cantico as well as the rest of his written works, one cannot but conclude that Haugen’s “Canticle” is a text that St. Francis would have never written! Below is Francis’ Cantico in the original Umbrian dialect, with my English translation.
When one examines St. Francis’ beautiful poem, one will find that il Poverello‘s first stanza suffices alone to break any worthwhile connection to Haugen’s handiwork. “Praises, glory, honor, and every blessing” are directed to God alone in Francis’ opus, while Haugen, adapting the text to the rhythm of his music, renders “Praise to the [sun/moon/stars/wind].” The words “May you be praised, my Lord” resound repeatedly and gloriously throughout the Cantico, a theme glaringly absent in the modern version. Francis is clear that it is not the earth nor the elements nor the heavenly bodies who should receive praise; Haugen, on the other hand, manifests the Postmodern tendency to revert to Spinoza’s Deus sive natura (and to its roots in ancient paganism) instead of authentically interpreting the evangelical spirit of Francis.
What follows is an analysis of Haugen’s song. While the whole song is questionable, I will confine myself to examining the refrain and the most problematic verses.
Refrain: The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And all creation is shouting for joy!
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!
The exhortation to “dance in the forest” and “play in the field” contrasts starkly with the sober, contemplative tone of Francis’ words. This, again, is a symptom of Haugen’s Baby Boomer revisionist tendency to view many of the saints (and in some cases, Christ himself), as proto-hippies in the mold of the 1968 cultural revolutions. Now to say that all creation speaks of God’s majesty and an exhortation to “sing to the glory of the Lord” are most praiseworthy, having precedent in Scripture and the perennial tradition of the Church; but to attribute this command to “dance” and “play” to the original Cantico is a careless and sloppy translation at best, and an ideologically-driven mischaracterization at worst.
Verse 1. Praise to the sun, the bringer of day,
he carries the light of the Lord in his rays;
the moon and the stars who light up the way unto your throne!
Verging close to sun worship, here Haugen saves himself with a close though messy re-rendering of Francis’ words, “O most high, [the sun] carries your likeness”.
2. Praise to the wind that blows through the trees,
the seas’ mighty storms, the gentlest breeze;
they blow where they will, they blow where they please to please the Lord!
3. Praise to the rain that waters our fields,
and blesses our crops so all the earth yields;
from death unto life her mystery revealed springs forth in joy!
From our reflections on the Baptism of the Lord, we know that in Scripture, water is a symbol of death as much as it is a symbol of life. I wonder if Haugen (or anybody) would sing these verses to the families of sailors lost on the tempestuous high seas, or in places recently devastated by typhoons, hurricanes, and freak storms.
6. Praise to our death that makes our life real,
the knowledge of loss that helps us to feel;
the gift of your self, you presence revealed to bring us home.
This overly positive appraisal of death lacks the depth of Francis’ (and the Church’s) doctrine, though here Haugen’s Lutheran background comes to fore. Francis says guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali while also speaking of “the second death”– the Final Judgment– in which Christ will deliver his eternal verdict on all space and time, irrevocably separating the saved from the damned. The presumption that eternal life is almost guaranteed is certainly not a Christian virtue, but to explain this fact in the rhythm and rhyme of the verse is too hard; thus Haugen ends up praising death itself, the mark of our sin, instead of praising God, who transforms death for the holy ones who keep his laws. Haugen’s omission of any reference to sin or to divine Judgment is a grave injustice to the deeply Catholic piety of the Poverello.
Returning to the Cantico, astute linguists will notice the subjunctive construction of the stanzas: “may you be praised, my Lord” (laudato si’). The subjunctive is the mood of contingency and uncertainty. It is as if Francis acknowledges that the various heavenly bodies or the elements will not always move in ways pleasing to God or salutary to men; he recognizes freedom and complexity in the created order, and thus appeals for a situation in which the destructive potential of the sun, the moon, wind, fire, water, etc., yields to their life-giving capacities. Haugen, on the other hand, writes in the indicative mood, praising the celestial bodies and the elements in an absolute sense, with limited reference to God, to whom St. Francis says belongs all praise and glory.
Let nobody think that I’m splitting hairs: Haugen’s distortion of Francis’ Cantico is symptomatic of the modern crisis in sacred music, in liturgy, and in catechesis. In his work and the work of composers like him there is an apparent desacralizing tendency in which focus on God is diminished. References to sin and judgment are expunged, and venerable texts (sometimes Scripture itself) is modified to such an extent that the distinctively Catholic or Christian is overshadowed by the idiosyncracies of the composer.
If those idiosyncracies would have me praise the sun and the moon, I would abandon them and echo instead the true sentiments of Francis: Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore, tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione. Amen.