Why Latin is so reassuring

Charles Cowling

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson
I’ve just spent a bit of time searching youtube for fine funeral hymns. I’ve sampled classics from The King of Love My Shepherd Is to Guide Me O My Great Redeemer. Some renditions were plonkety plonk solos, some belted out by enthusiastic congregations, some performed by the best Cathedral choirs. Whichever way, I have to conclude I’m not a great fan of many hymns. Their words are often too sentimental, and their tunes too basic, predictable, clumsy even.

Abide With Me, written by the Revd. Henry Lyte in 1847 while he was dying of tuberculosis, stands out as an exception. Its music, by William Henry Monk, combines with Lyte’s words to stir gentle melancholy.

Feeling like a bit of a killjoy by and large, though, I turned my search towards familiar Latin pieces. They instantly focussed the mind on a higher plane, stirring not just melancholy but contemplation of life beyond death. Music and words both have the power to move, and it’s usually words from our Mother tongue that have this ability. But if we already know by heart the words of Our Father or the Creed, their meaning is somehow enhanced when their Latin version is put to beautiful, solemn music.

See if you agree by listening to the Credo 

and Pater Noster here:


Then there’s Dies irae, a medieval hymn forming a prayer for salvation from Hell on Judgement Day:


And last but not least there’s the incomparable Ave Maria, which asks Our Lady, who experienced such sorrow and offers such comfort to the afflicted, to pray for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’:

18 thoughts on “Why Latin is so reassuring

  1. Charles Cowling

    Ah, Vale, such delights you conjure up! (Age doth not weary this excellent history. Indeed, it just goes on getting better and better.)

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Late addition this, but I just came across this from 1066 and all that. I am aligning myself with the Dullards, obviously:

    Wyclif and the Dullards

    During this reign the memorable preacher Wyclif collected together a curious set of men known as the Lollards or Dullards, because they insisted on walking about with their tongues hanging out and because they were so stupid that they could not do the Bible in Latin and demanded that everyone should be allowed to use an English translation. They were thus heretics and were accordingly unpopular with the top men in the Church who were very good at Latin and who liked to see some Dullards burnt before every meal. Hence the memorable grace ‘De Heretico Comburendo, Amen’, known as the Pilgrim’s Grace.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    There seems to be a consensus among both English and Americans that English sounds wonderful when spoken with an Irish accent!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    I often wonder that myself Charles! Dread to think.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Depends on the language, I always think, Phoebe. French can sound very nasal. Italian’s about perfect. I wonder what English sounds like to those who aren’t English (what we used to call foreigners).

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Vale says: I never realised I was such a Protestant until I started reading your posts Richard.

    I’ve never been in any doubt you come from good Protestant stock, and that great, great, great…Vale was a roundhead rather than a cavalier. Nothing wrong with that either! Pax!

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    I prefer religious music in a language that I don’t understand; perhaps that is because I can’t relate to religion. I appreciate the sound rather than the words…

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    I never realised I was such a Protestant until I started reading your posts Richard. The words and music make a lovely noise – a sort of blank page for you to project all those yearnings – but there is no real meaning in them for us. Compare this:

    1. ADESTE, fideles læti, triumphantes;
    Venite, venite in Bethlehem:
    Natum videte Regem Angelorum.
        Venite, adoremus Dominum.

    2. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
    Gestant puellæ viscera,
    Deum verum, genitum, non factum.
        Venite, adoremus Dominum.

    3. En grege relicto humiles ad cunas
    Vocati pastores approperant:
    Et nos ovanti gradu festinemus.
        Venite, adoremus Dominum.

    4. Stella duce Magi Christum adorantes
    Aurum, thus, et myrrham dant inunera:
    Jesu infanti corda praebeamus.
        Venite, adoremus Dorninum.

    5. Æterni Parentis splendoreni æternum
    Velatum sub came videbimus,
    Deum infantem pannis involutum.
        Venite, adoremus Dominum.

    6. Pro nobis egenum et fœno cubantem
    Pus foveamus amplexibus:
    Sic nos amantem quis non redamaret?
        Venite, adoremus Domninum.

    With this:

    1. O come, all ye faithful,
    Joyful and triumphant,
    O Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
    Come and behold Him,
    Born the King of Angels;

    O come, let us adore Him,
    O come, let us adore Him,
    O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

    2. God of God,
    Light of Light,
    Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
    Very God, Begotten not created. Chorus

    3. See how the shepherds,
    Summoned to His cradle,
    Leaving their flocks, draw nigh with lowly fear;
    We too will thither
    Bend our joyful footsteps:  Chorus

    4. Lo! star-led chieftains,
    Magi, Christ adoring,
    Offer Him frankincense, gold, and myrrh;
    We to the Christ child,
    Bring our hearts’ oblations: Chorus

    5. Child, for us sinners
    Poor and in the manger,
    Fain we embrace Thee,
    With awe and love;
    Who would not love Thee,
    Loving us so dearly? Etc.

    I think the English measures up – and manages to get some very nice theological distinctions across as well.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    I’m not sure if any living languages have the same effect. Before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Latin was, far from being elitist, the universal language of the Church, meaning you would understand Mass in Latin whether you were a Pole visiting England, a Brit visiting Poland or a Peruvian visiting Timbuktu.

    This universality sets it apart from any vernacular tongue although national languages, of course, have their merits. Polish is, I believe, a notoriously difficult language which some say is not so easy on the ear. French is widely hailed as a beautiful-sounding language and, as an Englishman, I love the richness of our vocabulary. Our Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon words are as wonderful as those of Latin derivation.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    Wikipedia might be lying to me, could have Latin lyrics…can’t really tell what they are apart from the ‘Amens’.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    Does polish have the same effect? Here is a little number by the clever Henryk Gorecki,

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Whatever it is, Jed, I’m glad it uplifts you too.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    I don’t think it’s the elitist Latin that does it. It’s plainsong, those chords could be applied to the instructions on a bleach bottle and still cleanse my soul. Or maybe it IS the elitist Latin, those other worldly words, above and beyond me, higher than my peasant native tongue, maybe that is what lifts me up?

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Evelyn Temple

    I am not terrible
    You are not terrible
    He is not terrible
    We are not terrible
    You are not terrible…

    They are terrible

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    *I am not a terrible…miss-read that!

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    You are not a terrible Catholic Richard! I am not a convert/convent girl, far from it I’m afraid! Boarding school was to blame.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Hi Phoebe

    St Patrick’s Breastplate is indeed an uplifting hymn. I was perhaps too harsh on the vernacular above as there are several good English hymns. But I’m glad you agree Latin words (Ave Maria etc) have a special resonance. Were you a convert girl? Sorry to ask in public! You come across as such a nice, liberal, arty, thoughtful student, I don’t mean to out you as a terrible Catholic! 😉


    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    I have to say I have never thought about it before Richard, but now that I have I fully agree. Being forced to sing hymns seven days a week at school didn’t help. I would never listen to a hymn in English by choice but more than happy to in Latin. The only hymn I enjoyed singing was St. Patrick’s Breastplate, as everyone belted it out and sounded very convincing!


    I think that was the exception.

    Charles Cowling

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