How ‘alt.’ Lost the Kingdom—and Why it Matters

Back in the day, before the parish repertoire was expanded to accommodate the hymn sandwich (the “opening hymn” and “closing hymn”), the “offertory hymn,” and the almost-never-sung-by-parishioners “Communion hymn,” Catholics in the U.S. didn’t know a lot of hymns. Everyone knew “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” disfigured by those baroque trills (“In-fih-ih-neh-ett thy vast do-oh-main”) that aren’t in the score, but the American Catholic fight song, nonetheless. Then there were the Marian standards, of which the treacly confections (“Bring Flowers of the Fairest, Bring Flowers of the Rarest”) were more prevalent than the noble classics (“O Sanctissima”).

And there was “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist,” which I may have learned for my first Holy Communion in 1958, but which was certainly a standard long before then. In an era of theologically thin hymn-texts, it was a eucharistic hymn chock-full of theology. It centered the Church’s identity and unity in the Eucharist. It reminded Catholics of the ecumenical imperative. It closed with an image of the Supper of the Lamb, in the Kingdom where the redeemed live in the unity of trinitarian light and love.

It’s a fine hymn. And it’s now been wrecked by that great wreckovator, “alt.” You say you’ve never heard of “alt.”? Go to the bottom of any page in the hymn section of your worship aide, and there you will find the ubiquitous “alt.,” a protean character who seems to have re-written virtually the entire repertoire. “Alt.” did a particularly egregious job on “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist.”

Here’s the original last verse:

So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease
May we be one with all Thy Church above,
One with Thy saints in one unbroken peace,
One with Thy saints in one unbounded love;
More blessed still, in peace and love to be
One with the Trinity in unity.

“Alt.,” who breaks out into hives whenever he encounters “Thy,” was not content to wreckovate that into Eliza Doolittle English. No, “alt.” had to flatten the theology as well as the vocabulary. Thus the wreckovated hymn now limps to the finish-line with a slavish repetition of previous verses: “O may we all one bread, one body be/Through this blest sacrament of unity.”

What happened to the Kingdom-to-come? Or to the life of the blessed who live within the really Real Presence of the Most Holy Trinity? They’ve been jettisoned in favor of togetherness. This kind of gelding is not without consequences, and the consequences aren’t only literary; the deeper consequences are theological and liturgical. Lex cantandi, lex credendi, lex orand — what we sing affects what we believe and how we pray.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist here-and-now is our privileged participation in the liturgy of angels and saints that goes on constantly around the Throne of Grace. In the Eucharist, we experience the unity of the Church in this world, true; even more importantly, we experience our unity with what we used to call the “Church Triumphant.” The Eucharist doesn’t simply focus our attention on us, and on now. The Eucharist, rightly understood, points us toward our fuller communion with the redeemed of the Lamb, in the time-beyond-time that is God’s time, trinitarian time. To diminish this Kingdom-sense is to diminish an essential element of the Eucharist.

As I’ve argued in this space before, losing a sense of the Kingdom-to-come is one key factor in our post-Vatican II liturgical languors. If the reformed liturgy has failed to do what two generations of liturgical reformers expected it to do — equip the People of God for a new evangelical Pentecost in the world — that may have something to do with too intense a focus in our prayer and song on us, and on now.

The answer? Catechetical preaching on the Kingdom-dimension of the liturgy is essential. And might I suggest the proper authorities consigning hymnals defaced by the arch-wreckovator, “alt.,” to the parish dumpster?

George Weigel

By

George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • margaretmary

    “O may we all one bread, one body be/Through this blest sacrament of unity.”
    Funny, I never understood that as anything less than my being one with all those who make up the Kingdom–past, present, future–and most assuredly, the Trinity.
    Perhaps I’m weird (certainly some of my children think so), but when I hear or use “we” or “us” in Church, I tend to think in terms of the whole Church. Sure those there physically are more noticeable, more tangible. That doesn’t make them the only “real” persons present.
    As to the “thee/thou/thy” words, I don’t get why God would be more pleased with my use of them than with the ones that are part of my language.
    Shalom

  • guitarmom

    Thank you George Weigel!
    As a liturgical musician for 20 years, I watched even modern hymns changed in the name of political correctness. These changes always resulted in a more stilted and less theologically correct lyric.
    And as an adult convert, I never knew the original words of “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist.” They are so beautiful. “May we all one bread … be” never really made sense. Jesus is the bread of life, not we who partake of Him. I should have known that it was another politically correct change of lyric.

  • Cooky642

    MargaretMary, I’d like to take a stab at answering your question even though I’m not Mr. Weigel and have a limited idea of what was in his mind.

    I’m older than he is, and I converted to Catholicism when Vatican II was still a twinkle in Bl. Pope John XXIII’s eye. I was all of 15. The Mass was entirely in Latin (except the 1st Gospel reading and the “homily”, which was a “sermon” then), and so were most of the hymns. The etymology is more than this space can handle, but the useage seemed inclined to reinforce the “otherness” of God. That “otherness” is, in fact, one of the factors that brought me to re-version at the age of 42. The “kumbyah” fever of Vatican II has “alt.”‘d the “otherness” of God pretty much out of existence, too, although I was able to find what I needed.

    I agree with you that God is “beyond” our language, be it English, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, or some unknown tongue spoken by a dozen people on an undiscovered island. However, to understand what Mr. W. is getting at, try this: deliberately, willfully change the pronouns in your prayers to the old-fashioned “thee/thine/thou” for a week. Notice what happens to your relationship with God….and, His with you.

  • c-kingsley

    The funny thing about Thee/Thy/Thou is that in old English they are INFORMAL. They’re how a parent would talk to his children, or children would talk with their friends. (Like “Tu” in French and Spanish. Pay attention to it the next time you watch Shakespeare — masters use “thou” to their servants, servants use “you” to their masters.) The prayers were written this way, I believe, to emphasize our closeness and familiarity with God.

    Since that time, however, we only hear them in church and we have come to think that they are formal. The prayers hit our ears with the opposite of the writers’ intentions, to separate us from God and emphasize the “Otherness”.

    For this reason I think we should switch to modern English promptly: people are misunderstanding the prayers when said in antique English.

  • SolaGratia

    From the ignorance of my youth up to the present time, I have always felt that Thee/ Thy/ Thou had become special words for God that were both familiar & reverent at the same time.

  • terrygeorge

    if i could chime in, certainly there is nothing wrong with the first verse in and of itself, i think w is pointing out that there is something lost by replacing the last verse with a repetition from the first. while a few people may understand it to include unity tot he heavenly worship, most people would lose that with the replacement.

    i like what sg says about thee/thy/thou

  • heinz

    Great point, SolaGratia. I would also like to make note of one thing “alt.” has not changed: Gregorian Chant. Maybe, or perhaps probably, “alt.” is not familiar with Latin, especially since it has not even thought about consulting the original lyrics in its process of “wreckovating” classic hymns. Yes, the old chants that can still be found at various churchs even here in the United States still seems to be the gentle beating of the heart of the Church which brings utter bliss to so many Catholics in these times of “alt.” infested, watery chicken soup, loud gaudy and theologically flattened hymns of our time. How I and so many other Catholics love Adoro Te, Tantum Ergo, O Salutaris and the rest of the crew.

    Pax

  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Heinz, for reminding me how instantaneously calming Gregorian Chant is. I think you’re right: ” ‘alt.’ is not familiar with Latin”. ;-)

    To c-kingsley: Thank you for summarizing the basic etomology of “thee/thy/thou” so succintly. Now, I’m REALLY glad I didn’t try! ;-)

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