I’m terrible at remembering what year specific events occurred. I know the year I was born, and—usually—what year it is right now. Most everything else, no matter how significant the event, will likely take a strenuous recall effort and/or some research.
Yet I remember twenty years ago—St. Francis day of 1999—due to what still remains with me as a Paraclete-brushed occurrence: receiving a commission for a creation-based hymn text to celebrate the Jubilee Year’s day for artists at Chicago’s Cathedral of the Holy Name. If you recall, during the Jubilee year 2000 (even I remember that year!) there were specific days set aside to celebrate individual ministries within the church. So I invoked the Spirit, St. Cecilia, and St. Francis the mystical hymnist of creation, as I turned to the opening of Genesis:
God, your vast, creating breath swept out chaos, banished death;
“Let there be!” you gave command, life and light flashed from your hand;
Starlight danced and planets twirled, colors, creatures filled the world,
You, in marvel at their play, thundered “It is good!” each day.
I knew that the hymn would not have a disengaged “Unmoved Mover” deity, but one in a delighted relationship with the creation. There was discussion about which arts and artists to incorporate, and the ways they built up the church and the world. To this day, when I look at the opening stanza (above), I recall the caution not to mention/include liturgical dance or dancers on the roster; Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George was among dance’s opponents in the bishops conference. So I decided that the celestial bodies themselves would lead off, dancing and twirling in the heavens.
God, your graced, creating word spoke through prophets, you were heard;
Thrilled their tongues with joy’s delight, bursting quills with wisdom’s might.
You—the psalmists’ voice—were near in melodious praises clear;
Ageless, saving song they shared: Challenge, courage, comfort, care.
I was the one to propose writers and artful preachers/speakers for the list, since the commissioners seemed to be largely focused on visual/graphic and sonic/performative arts. It seemed odd to me that a hymn text written specifically for the occasion would not include writers. Of course, we also have the Spirit’s great gift of scripture, and its pre-written origins in the proclamations and songs of Israel and nascent Christianity.
God, bestow creative gifts, through the senses, souls uplift;
Here anoint as earthly saints all who sculpt, design, or paint;
Craft our talent, skill, desire, actors’, poets’ rhymes inspire;
For your sanctuaries, hone those who fashion wood and stone.
While I worked on the text, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that part of the divine design that makes artistic, creative activity possible is the endowing of humans with senses and souls. The wonders around us can only be grasped and given meaning in this way. As the text progressed, I found myself striving to include, name, or allude to the myriad ways that the arts and artists contribute to our spiritual lives. I would have needed at least twice as many stanzas to include the whole array!
God, sustain creative hearts, heaven’s reign in human arts;
May vocations vivid weave symbols speaking “We believe!”
Lyrics to you let us raise, never blaring our own praise,
Help our halting, babbling speech chant, proclaim, imagine, teach.
From my years as an ecclesial artist, I know that working and/or ministering in and through the church in the arts can be challenging when our work is not valued, or appreciated, or utilized. The experience can leave one with a heavy heart. I also have often known the temptation to think that what I do points to me, in which case it will not serve to strengthen faith. In my PrayTell reflection on the fourth day of creation, I pointed out that artists don’t truly create, but merely re-organize what God has already created. Nevertheless, those of us in the arts can, along with everyone else (sometimes, it seems, more readily than everyone else), stumble over pride, the sin of Eden.
God, Creator, by your will, shape us in your image still;
Uncreated Word-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ, reveal, refresh;
Holy Spirit, Advocate, come, instruct, illuminate;
Grant us artful ministry, great creating Trinity.
One of the stipulations of the commission was that it had to have a concluding doxology. As it turned out, this doxology was the first stanza to be written down, reaching its final form before the others. It was here that I sought the expansive vision of St. Francis, who saw and understood all creation giving itself back to its Creator in beauty and wonder. I knew that I wanted to use the doxology to expand on the rather limiting “job description” use of the term Creator for the first person of the godhead, to emphasize our own imago Dei when we do God’s will, and to include the creative roles of the other two persons of the Trinity.
Looking back at things we did twenty years ago doesn’t always yield happy results. If you’ve ever encountered a picture of yourself with that haircut from sophomore year, you know what I’m referring to. I am relieved that my experience re-visiting this text qualifies for the “happy memory” category—save, perhaps, the text’s over-fondness for alliteration.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did do a brief version of this trip down memory lane in 2015 when Laudato si’ was issued by Pope Francis, so this twenty-year remembrance did have a jumpstart a few years back. As we continue to celebrate St. Francis, and continue the crucial work of tending to the creation we have driven into crisis, it’s my hope that we can occasionally look around and still encounter that flash of the original divine, creating spark in the lives and work of the artists around us.
Blessed Saint Francis Day!
An Artists’ Hymn
Alan J. Hommerding
77.77D Common tune: Salzburg
Copyright © 2002, World Library Publications. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.