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When Pagans Help Me Worship Jesus

Music, Opinions, Uncategorized

One of the things about the rich culture and history of a 2000 year old religion is that eventually, even unbelievers end up paying homage to it.

This makes sense. There is going to be a whole lot in Shakespeare, for example, that you simply will not understand if you have no knowledge of the Bible. Your understanding of a large amount of Renaissance art will be impoverished if you don’t know a few stories in the Gospels.

Christian culture – and by that, I mean Catholic culture – took root in the imagination of Western civilization. Composers, artists, philosophers, and thinkers tended towards its values and themes for centuries.

You might think, “Well, that’s all dead now.” In a lot of ways, I would agree with that. Europe is fairly post-Christian, and the U.S. is following suit in many ways.

But the beauty of that forgotten world still lingers and inspires. And sometimes, to their credit, even atheists and agnostics create some of the most beautiful pieces of Christian art that almost moves me to tears.

Two of these works, I’d like to share with you and then point you in the direction of another vast field of achingly beautiful religious music. I am a musician, so that’s what I’ll look at. 

Bjork’s Jesus Prayer

Don’t ask me why, I have no clue, but Bjork decided to put music to the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is a short but very old prayer still spoken by Eastern Orthodox monks as part of their spiritual development.

She took the prayer and, in her own Bjorkean way, sang it over and over again in multiple languages. It is fifteen minutes long, and I have used it in my own prayer life.

Notice the reverence in it. This is not “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I don’t know what the prayer means to Bjork, but it evokes the meaning I have always given to it: Jesus, I need you. I love you.

Rufus Wainwright’s Agnus Dei

Rufus Wainwright was so taken by the beauty of the Agnus Dei, he decided to put it to music himself. If you do not know, the Agnus Dei is what the congregation speaks or sings at one of the highest points of the Catholic Mass. Wainwright sings it in Latin, but the English version goes like this.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

The Agnus Dei

He begins quiet and mysterious. Then the music and his voice swell until he belts out, “Dona nobis pacem!”. “Grant us peace!”

Again, you can feel the reverence in it. You sense the pathos.

Rufus Wainwright considers himself pagan.

The Mass

So here is where you can do your own research. The Catholic Mass is one of the most often used scripts to be set to music. I already mentioned Wainwright’s Agnus Dei, but I could also mention works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach

An honorable mention, Bernstein also set music to the Mass, but it’s a little out there. You can’t blame him too much. It was the 70’s. Brahm’s Requiem is not technically a Mass, but it delves into themes of Heaven and death. It is definitely lit with the fire of the Christian faith. 

The Religion We Cannot Leave

The vast Catholic superstructure of philosophy, music, art, and many other creative fields which stood for centuries were largely deconstructed down to something entirely different today. The cathedral is being pulled apart brick by brick. 

But for some reason, even pagans don’t want to take it all down. They leave the altar. They leave the crucifix. Our culture has never been able to fully walk away from this Catholic thing. It is too beautiful. Even while many of them think it a lie, it seems a wonderful deception just the same. 

I like to think, being biased myself, that our culture can never fully walk away from the faith because deep down, something in all of us knows that it is true.

And what at the deepest level is true is also beautiful. 

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

Check out my podcast Wisdom of Pope Francis and also my YouTube Channel with video meditations on the Catholic faith.


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