7 Secular Musicians Who Accidentally Stumbled on the Sacraments
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As a teacher, one of the primary things I try to instill in my students is the notion that whether one is a professed Catholic, or running away from the Faith, one cannot avoid talking about (and even glorifying) the Faith… if only accidentally. In other words, to be human in the fullest sense is to be Catholic. And ironically, the more one chooses to fight against the Faith, the more one finds one’s self, not avoiding it altogether, but bumping right up against all of its truth and goodness.
Consequently, what I like to point out to my students, particularly through music, is how the true artist, even when they are not professed believers, and even when their goal is to decry the Faith, cannot help but to “preach the Good News”. They may do so in a way that sounds more combative than grateful, but they nevertheless reveal a treasure trove of Catholic images.
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While our natural reaction may be to dismiss the music of these artists because they do not explicitly profess our Faith, I would argue (and I do with my students) that they are in many ways the best witnesses to it, for they are in some ways the fulfillment of the words in the letter to Philippians; “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
The following songs are profoundly sacramental. And while I am not suggesting that this is in any way sacred music, I am suggesting that in these songs they are pointing out, however imperfectly, the glory of the Sacraments. As I examine each of them, I will attempt to show how they celebrate in their own way the true beauty of the Seven Sacraments… if only accidentally.
1. Billy Joel – The River of Dreams (The Sacrament of Baptism)
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There’s a great story behind this composition, and if one is interested in an extended treatment on the subject, the video in this -Link #2- post provides a fascinating reflection. In any case, the quicker version of the story involves the fact that Mr. Joel did not want to write this song at all. And he didn’t want to write it primarily because he knew the song would inevitably have religious connotations. Being a professed atheist, he certainly wasn’t in the business of acknowledging the divine. Yet, oddly enough, the song wouldn’t leave him alone (think hounds of heaven). According to the story, the melody was so catchy that it even “followed” him into the shower one morning; “I got religion in the shower”, he explained. The lyrics, in essence, explain why Mr. Joel (as a musician) finds himself constantly “walking in his sleep” at night. He is not literally walking, but rather feels as if he has traveled to the land of vision; a land traveled provides musical inspiration, but also leaves him wanting more. Worst of all, he goes there to find the answers, but the answers are on the other side of the river, which, as he describes, is too far to cross. The water in the song is both a barrier and a baptizing agent. As for the fire, it inspires him, but also leaves him irrepressibly thirsty. Salvation is at hand, but Joel seems completely ignorant to its larger significance. You will notice in the lyrics he recognizes what the water is for, yet in waking life- as an atheist- he cannot bring himself to acknowledge what the vision so plainly is telling him:
“Not sure about life after this, God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man/ Baptized by fire I’m wading into the river that is leading to the Promised Land… In the middle of the night…”
2. Billy Joel – Only the Good Die Young (The Sacrament of Confirmation)
Of all the songs on this list, this one may be the most shocking. However, as I mentioned before, the goal here is not to laud the artist’s intent, but rather to point out how in spite of his intent, he reveals something of the glory of the Sacrament. The claim is not that it is a pro-Catholic or moral song. It is not. The point that I am attempting to make is that even while he is mocking the Faith, he is doing so by employing a whole tapestry of Catholic imagery that demonstrates quite the contrary of what he intends (i.e. just how beautiful and multi-faceted the Faith is).
Long before Joel revealed to his audience his penchant for wading into the rivers of baptism, he also “waded” into another controversy. According to Mr. Joel, this song was written as an “ode to lust”, and while that obviously comes across in the song, what also comes across is the incredible attention he gives to sacramental details. Even while his tongue is firmly implanted in his cheek, he also delivers a rich mosaic of images that demonstrate just how wonderfully intricate (like a cathedral) the life of a practicing Catholic can be; from stain glass windows, to temples, to rosaries, to virgins and statues, to saints weeping, even mothers praying for wayward poor souls like his own. Indeed, few songs in the annals of rock ’n’ roll are more blatantly Catholic (if ironically so) than this one. And then there’s this little gem:
“You’ve got a nice white dress and a party on your Confirmation/ You’ve got a brand new soul, and cross of gold…”
Like the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit, this song reminds us just how wonderfully God equips us in the Sacrament of Confirmation, providing us with the necessary weaponry to resist just the kind of puerile and short-sided temptations suggested in this song. Hence, if “Virginia” (as she is called in the song) was a truly wise and prudential confirmand and was faithful to her promises therein, she certainly got the better end of the deal in this narrative, especially when you consider the long term consequences of living a life dedicated to lust.
3. Audioslave – Like a Stone (The Sacrament of the Eucharist)
Unlike the previous artist, the lyricist and vocalist for the band Audioslave (who was also the founding member of the well-known Seattle grunge band Soundgarden) is more of what one might describe as an agnostic. In his youth, Chris Cornell went to Catholic School, but after that experience, he never really found himself connecting with any one religion. All the same, if one were to pay close attention to his lyrics, one might be struck by his not too infrequent use of religious imagery. For example, in the song Black Hole Sun he writes; “…In my youth ‘I prayed to keep’… Heaven send hell away, no one sings like you anymore.” In the song Show Me How to Live, he exclaims; “Someone get me a priest… To put my mind to bed, this ringing in my head! Is this cure, or is this a disease?!” Moreover, on some occasions, he even performs a rather extraordinary rendition of the Ave Maria. Yet perhaps most poignantly of all, in his song “Like a Stone”, he tells the story of a man at the end of his life, reading “a book” that sounds suspiciously like the Scriptures. As the man reads it, he feels a tremendous sense of remorse- not just for what he has done wrong, but also for everything that he has “blessed” that he ought not to (a most profound insight). Though the reference to the Eucharist in the song is passing, it is nevertheless quite powerful:
“… And on my deathbed/ I will pray to the gods and the angels/ Like a pagan/To anyone who will take me to heaven/ To a place I recall/ I was there so long ago/ The sky was bruised/ The wine was bled/ And they led me on… In your house, I long to be…”
True to his doubts, but also delightfully open to the Lord and his coming, he describes beautifully the sense of longing one might have a the end of one’s life. Like a righteous pagan, he awaits the coming of the Savior, one with whom he “longs” to sup. Hence, in spite of his admitted ambivalence towards the Church, remarkably he chooses an image that looks a lot like something from his own past; a faint, though vivid, Eucharistic memory from childhood.
4. Sting – All this Time (The Last Rites/Anointing)
Almost every artist on this list has at least a few things in common. For example, most are of Jewish and/or Catholic heritage. And while, paradoxically, Catholic symbolism sets alight their imagination, they are more than a little uncertain about what they think about the Catholic Church as an institution. Sting is no exception. Perhaps the most comfortably sacramental of any on the list, Sting’s lyrics and music always tend towards a kind of medieval and chivalrous atmosphere. The album the Soul Cages is perhaps the most indicative of this particular spirit. All of the tracks on the album were written soon after the death of his father. Consequently, according to Sting’s own reflections, the lyrics focus on his childhood and the history of his hometown. Not terribly close to his father in life, this album was meant as a tribute to him in death. As a result of growing up on a river (and in the shadow of the shipyard, as he explains), he imagined burying his father at sea, particularly because his father had always wanted to travel, but never was financially stable enough to do so. In any case, this song is all about the complex relationship he had with his father, coupled with Sting’s deep and abiding desire to bury his father at sea. The lyrics of the song seek to contrast his desire to “bury his father at sea”, with the Church’s “rigid” policy surrounding Christian burial:
“Two priests came round our house tonight/ One young, one old, to offer prayers for the dying to serve final rite. One to learn, one to teach, which way the cold wind blows. Fussin’ and flapping’ in priestly black, like the murder of crows… If I had my way/ I’d take a boat from the river, and I’d bury the old man, I’d bury him at sea… Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth/ Better to be poor than be a fat man in the eye of a need/ As these words are spoken I swear I hear the old man laugh; ‘What good is a use up world and how could it be worth havin?’”
While, again, the tone is noticeably cynical, especially where it refers to all things Catholic and Biblical, the humor, while dark, would have no bite to it at all without the distinctive beauty and poetic imagery of the Catholic rites…. especially those, as is the case here, which are administered last.
5. Mercy Street – Peter Gabriel (The Sacrament of Confession)
There are countless movies which utilize the Sacrament of Penance/Confession/ Reconciliation (whichever you prefer) for dramatic effect. However, there are not many songs which mention it directly. Perhaps the reason for this is because in a certain sense music itself is a kind of confessional (though admittedly in this particular kind of confessional some boast of their sins). At any rate, Mercy Street explicitly mentions the Sacrament of Confession. A fan of the poet Anne Sexton, Peter Gabriel wanted to write lyrics that would capture some of the spirit of this poet’s soul:
“Nowhere in the corridors of pale, green, and grey/ No where in the suburbs of the cold light of day/ There in the midst of it, so alive and alone/ Words support like bone/ Dreaming of Mercy Street/ Where you’re inside out/ Dreaming of Mercy Street/ In your daddy’s arms again…”
Gabriel himself is an imaginative lyricist, and has on occasion been known to incorporate religious themes into his songs (viz. In Your Eyes, Solsbury Hill, and Here Comes the Flood). While Mercy Street is a beautiful and earnest song, there nevertheless seems to be a hint of cynicism in it, if only where he makes reference to Confession:
“Pulling out the pages from drawers that slide smooth/ Tugging at the darkness word upon word/ Confessing all the secret things in a warm velvet box/ To the priest/ He’s the doctor/ He can handle the shocks…
Yet even while possessing what seems to be a bit of jaundiced attitude towards the rite, he admits, if only accidentally, the true nature of the sacrament with the subsequent line.
“Dreaming of the tenderness/ tremble in the hips/ Of kissing Mary’s lips…”
The sacrament of reconciliation is a paradox wherein “justice and mercy kiss”. The child who truly knows the Father, rushes into His “daddy’s arms,” for there he knows he will find true peace.
6. Leonard Cohen – Joan of Arc (The Sacrament of Matrimony)
Born of Jewish stock, these days Leonard Cohen describes himself as a Buddhist. Yet for whatever reason, on occasion he has a penchant for writing songs about Catholic saints. Apart from his famous song “Alleluia” (which is of course is more in keeping with his Jewish roots), he wrote a song called “the Song of Bernadette, performed by Jennifer Warnes (you may know her from songs like Up Where We Belong, Right Time of the Night, and I Had the Time of My Life). Another exquisite piece written by Cohen (and performed by Warnes) is “Joan of Arc”. Even were there no music at all in this piece, the concept itself would suffice as a work of art. The story describes Joan’s martyrdom. Yet what is utterly unique about this rendering, is the fact that Joan has a conversation with the fire that is to burn her. One might assume that this dialogue would be rather one dimensional and unromantic. To the contrary, this remarkable dialogue turns out to be a discussion of Joan’s forthcoming wedding and the consummation of her vows…
“‘Then fire make your body cold/ I’m going to give you mine to hold’/ Saying this, she climbed inside/ To be his one/ To be his only bride. And deep into his fiery heart/ He took the dust of Joan of Arc/ And high above these wedding guests/ He hung the ashes of her wedding dress”
Amazingly, Cohen, a self-professed Buddhist, understands what so few Catholics do today, that the ultimate purpose of sacramental marriage (not to mention sanctity itself), is to prepare us for eternal life inside the “fiery heart of God”.
7. Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles (The Sacrament of Holy Orders)
Though Paul McCartney was raised Catholic, the faith of his childhood rarely appears in his music. Apart from songs like “Let it Be,” it is hard to see any direct influence Catholicism may have had on his music. However, Eleanor Rigby strikes an interesting note on this front. It is an ode, and an expression of sympathy, to all the “lonely people” out there. Interestingly, all of these “sad saps” seem to be congregating around a church, as if their sadness is compounded by the fact that they are stuck at church and cannot leave;
“Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been/ Lives in a dream/Waits at the window, wearing a face the face that she keeps in a jar by the door/ Who is is it for…”
And then there’s poor Father McKenzie, who of course must be a lonely sad miserable man, because who in their right mind could possibly want to be a priest, unless you were condemned to do so by your social ineptness. I jest, but this- to some extent- must have been the perception of Mr. McCartney, why else would he make the church “Ground 0” of said tragedy.
“Father McKenzie writing the words of sermon that no one will hear/ No one comes near/ Look at him working/ Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there/ What does he care?”
While I do not deny that these scenarios are very real, I would suggest that McCartney’s sympathy is somewhat misplaced. The tragedy is not that these “lonesome losers” are stuck at church, but rather that there are countless lonesome people in the world who haven’t even that much solace. That is what is truly heartbreaking. By contrast, what is in fact heartening is the reality of both a church and a clergy that offers a home, a purpose, and a community for people such as these. Why does Eleanor Rigby go to church in the first place, certainly not because the church itself is depressing, but rather because it might be the only place she feels welcomed. The real tragedy here is that Paul McCartney (and so many others) can only envision a priesthood as a kind of vocational default. How does he even know that Father McKenzie is not a priest for the same reason that Jesus Christ was, namely to bring glad tidings to the poor, especially to the Eleanor Rigbys of the world!