Gloria Patri

At Evensong this afternoon we sang Herbert Howells’ Collegium Regale setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, composed for the choir of Kings College, Cambridge.[1] It is simple and limpid, with a setting of the Gloria Patri – used at the end of both canticles – that is a favorite of Anglican choristers everywhere. Altos in particular; for their first note of the Gloria is a D, the highest in the “fat” range of most countertenors. Howells lets them run with it, God Bless him.

That whole Gloria Patri is just smashing. Howells writes better for choirs singing at the tops of their voices than any other composer. It’s every bit as thrilling and solid and magnificent and profound as Beethoven or Brahms, but without the vocal death or fiendish tricks, respectively. I know the “Col Reg” setting very well, having sung it since I was a seven year old boy. I love it as a dear old friend, whom one is excited to meet again after any time of separation. So, I was looking forward to that D very much, and to the huge and wonderful measures that follow it.

But as the Gloria began, and as I was singing it, the glory of the music burst in on me with tremendous, sweet force. This combined with the sublime words as a concrete enaction of the Gloria. With something of a shock, I understood that as I sang the glorious Gloria, and felt its glory so acutely, I was, precisely, glorifying God in his Holy Temple. I was suffused with gratitude, and love. I wanted to give just everything to God. It was pouring out of me, as sound. This was not a new experience; it is not rare for singers of good liturgical music in good choirs, although it is indeed rare for them to speak of it.

It is the feeling, I have thought from the beginning, that the saints and angels feel as they sing to God in the courts of Heaven.

Soon it was too much, and the flux of sprits stopped my voice for a whole measure. When I was able to begin singing again, my own contribution to the performance had already been brought low by my few beats of silence, when I ought to have been sounding like a trumpet. I never quite recovered myself. But, the moment of religious ecstasy was worth the loss of a moment of aesthetic perfection. What had happened to me, after all, was that the music sounding through me had translated me somewhere far “above all Earthly thought.” And this is the whole point of sacred music in the first place. So I was not unhappy.  

It is no exaggeration to call the text of the Gloria Patri sublime. Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to call it superlime:

Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

“World without end” is spooky enough, but the Latin from which it is translated – in saecula saeculorum – is totally over the top: “in the world of worlds.” It’s not just that we have this little cosmos of ours, which at the eschaton will die and be raised again to live everlastingly. We do, and that’s a staggering thought, to be sure. But it’s much, much bigger than that: the Gloria Patri indicates to us that there is a cosmos of worlds like ours, billions and billions of them, as Carl Sagan used to say. By definition, after all, there is no limit to omnipotence, no maximum to the number of worlds that infinite fecundity could pour forth. God does not create because he must, but freely, for love, and for joy. These being without limit in him, neither is his creative act anywise stinted. As there is no maximum of beauty under the firmament of infinite beauty, so there can be no maximum number of beauties.

Well and good. But this notion of glorifying God begs a question: how can creatures possibly do it? What can it even mean? When we glorify God, obviously, we aren’t increasing the glory intrinsic to him; you can’t increase infinite glory.

The answer must be that when his creatures glorify God, when they pour themselves out in worship and praise, they reflect his glory back to him. It is not, after all, as though they could have obtained the ontological resources required for this motion from any other source than God; all things come of him, and so all we may ever give him is of his own. The light must be absorbed before it may be emitted by the creature whom it has animated. To glorify God at all, then, creatures must themselves be somewhat glorified. The greater the plenitude of their glorification, the more may they glorify.

Now, to glorify God, to worship and praise him, one must turn one’s attention Godward. You can’t do an effectual job of glorifying God if your thoughts are stuck on that fool at the office or yesterday’s disagreement or the terrible stuff that’s happening in the news – or, for that matter, on a lovely dinner, or a silly romp with the children (or even, God help me, on that exaltant alto entrance). However good, or important, or indeed even holy the matters of one’s life, effectual worship depends upon an act of metanoia, whereby we turn from God’s creatures – particularly the creature we see in the mirror – toward our source and Lord, who makes them, and makes them good, and makes them good for us.

The direction of our attention is the direction of our soul. When we attend to something, we increase its importance in our own constitution, and it plays a greater role in what we become. Attend more and more to x, and x will be more and more what you are about; x will more and more inform you, and guide your choices. If you are all about x, then your causal and moral and economic output will be pretty much all about x. You will glorify x. And this will tend to promote the importance of x in the causal system of things.

What is it, at bottom, to glorify something? It is to lend it your ontological weight, by becoming it, and so doing it; or by doing it, and so becoming it.

[This consideration casts rather a hideous light on idolatry, addiction, obsession, slavery to sin. What is your x? If you are like me, you have about ten of them to cope with, like monkeys on your back. How pathetic is it, indeed, to spend the substance of one’s life glorifying sex, or fame, or power, dope, or gluttony; on hatred, envy, fear, or sloth? How stupid, to squander one’s very existence on pride or “personal achievement,” or a big house or a prestigious career? What good even are virtue, excellence or goodness that are not reckoned and submitted to their source?

Not that any of the goods to be found in the world are not veritably good; but, rather, that their goodness subsists only in virtue of their proper ordination – i.e., their subordination – to the Good himself.]

When we attend to God in worship, then, likewise, God more and more informs us, and we live more and more Godward. God then plays a greater and greater role in our constitution – i.e., we are more and more glorified, and glorious – and in our causal output – we more and more glorify God.      

So then: glorify God with the whole of your being, in a motion wholly pure, and you cannot but be suffused with glory. You will then begin yourself to glow, as Moses glowed when he came down from his conferences with YHWH on Mount Sinai, and as the Russian sta’aretz glows with uncreate light.

What happens then? The man who is suffused with glory is like a star, who radiates it out into the whole world.[2] By its light, other men may come to see. No man is an island, and all things cohere (whether they want to, or not); so, the glorification of God in one creature of a world is the glorification of that whole world. It is the sanctification, and ergo the preservation and perseveration of that world in its career toward the source and end of all light. This is why almost all religions believe that the faithful performance of their central sacrament is necessary to the maintenance of the good order of the cosmos – or, as in the case of the Eucharist, *just is* the enaction of that Logos, as being the actualization of its epitome, exemplar, and apotheosis – its archetype and angel.

Whenever we on Earth sing the Gloria Patri, we participate in the Heavenly Gloria as type participates in archetype. We are lucky to do so. Deo Gratias!

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him, throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Gloria begins at 3.46.


[1] Howells wrote a whole service for each of the great Cathedral and Chapel choirs of England; all of them are beloved of singers. My personal favorite is the service he wrote for St. Pauls; absolutely massive.

[2] This is why sacrificial victims are generally understood to become angels, stars, gods. Consecrated wholly to the god, they are assumed by him, and join the glorious army of martyrs.  

4 thoughts on “Gloria Patri

  1. Good thoughts Kristor. I’ve enjoyed singing what little I have of Howells.

    So, I was looking forward to that D very much, and to the huge and wonderful measures that follow it.

    Sorry to bring things down several notches, but I must know…does this mean that you sing countertenor?

    • To be sure. Omnipresence suffuses and glorifies life exhaustively, including both the dull dry duteous bits and the terrific tragedies. Of the first, an adequate summation of the properly humble response is given in the zen recipe for eventual access of samadhi: chop wood, carry water. Of the second, the greatest and most profound proper response was given by our Lord himself from the midst of the original of all tragedy on the Cross: Psalm 22, which sings both of the desolation of the psalmist at agony from which Divine purveyance has provided no escape, and of his determination to praise that God in the whole congregation for the salvation he has nevertheless surely accomplished.

      Christ triumphs everywhere, and so everywhere is God glorified – whether we feel it at any particular time, or not. No creature therefore is ever utterly forsaken, nor are any of our sufferings in vain. Under omnipotence, how could it be otherwise?

      There is then ever but one choice: to pray the Magnificat, or not.

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