Grant Us Peace, With Music

I would not be bold enough to assert that I have answers to the horror suffered this past weekend. There is much to be said about racism and xenophobia, much to be organized to fight them, and much to be further suffered on the way to a better future. I do not have any personal connection with what has happened (and what has kept happening), and I do not presume to speak as if I did. I would, however, like to reflect on the power and persistence of the Latin phrase "Dona nobis pacem" (in English, "Grant us peace") in music, which is, we must keep affirming, a great agent of peace.

The phrase is derived from the "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God") text in the Catholic Mass: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace." This idea of peace, then, is specifically and inextricably linked to eschatological peace brought by Jesus, the peace that "passeth all understanding" and which is not given "as the world gives." I am a Catholic, and I believe in this as true peace; in a sense, my favorite play (Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot) is an extended reflection on that belief. I think it would be bigoted, however, to disregard and scorn sincere movements towards peace on the part of secular activists. (I am also very aware that there are Catholics who are not exactly free of that kind of bigotry.) For this reason, I am very glad that the phrase has gone far beyond its liturgical context; here are three musical examples of that.

One of my favorite contemporary composers, Daniel Elder, has a great choral setting of those three emblematic words. (As for hypocrisy in asking God for help and doing nothing ourselves, Elder has a passionate piece that deals with just that.)

As I mentioned in a previous article, I'm very moved by (the agnostic Anglican) Ralph Vaughan Williams's antiwar cantata entitled Dona nobis pacem; it uses the Latin text translated above ("Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem") as the center of its extended plea for peace.

There's a classic canon using this text, which I happened to get to know via a Christmas song with my parish's choir. I later realized that this canon is the one referenced in Madeleine L'Engle's novel A Swiftly Tilting Planet, one of the sequels to the well-known A Wrinkle in Time. The novel (it was, of course, published during the Cold War) features a supernatural battle against nuclear destruction. L'Engle was an Episcopalian with a decidedly generous outlook on people belonging to other faith traditions; she disliked being pigeonholed as a Christian writer, and she had zero tolerance for fundamentalism.

This article does not, I hope, serve to propagate hollow "thoughts and prayers." I do think it is essential, nevertheless, that a fervent desire for peace, encapsulated in a simple phrase, has lodged itself quite beautifully into our culture in various ways. If there are any things that will mold minds to reject and move beyond the evils we now face, that is certainly one of them.

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