I Heard The Bells/Dona Nobis Pacem
Ellen Soukup, along with her husband John and their two children, is a personal friend of mine whom I’ve known for years. In addition to having recorded four albums that are popular in Nebraska, she has also appeared on the nationally broadcast EWTN program “Life On The Rock.” She teaches music at St. John’s Grade School, directs her “Celebration Choir” at 10:30 Mass on Sundays at our parish, and each year about this time gets together with my wife to bake a ton of Christmas goodies. So I must admit up front that I’m a bit biased with this selection.
Ellen released her album of Christmas recordings What Shall We Give? in 2001. I was given an early copy to use in capturing snippets of songs for her website. This was in the weeks that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I was in my home office listening to the disc when the intro to “I Heard The Bells” began to play and I dropped everything to listen. I commanded my attention for a few brief minutes and flowed immediately into the album’s finale “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I listened to both pieces back to back six or seven more times. It got better with each listening.
Longfellow provided the lyrics to this song when he wrote his poem “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” on Dec. 25, 1864. Written during the horrors of the Civil War, it was a time of both national and personal tragedy for Longfellow. And in the uncertain holidays of 2011 the lyrics from this stanza struck a chord with us all:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But immediately after, in the final verse, comes this:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
On Ellen’s recording this high note is followed immediately by her accapella-layered version of “Dona Nobis Pacem”. Latin for “Grant Us Peace” and coming from the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) portion of the Roman Catholic Mass, it is the perfect coda to Longfellow’s poem.
When I wrote our family’s Christmas letter that year I referenced Longfellow’s poem. Since being written one hundred forty-seven years ago there have been few years where it hasn’t been a relevant and necessary message in our world. But as Longfellow wrote in his finish “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep” despite the world’s best efforts to make it seem this is so. Wrong shall fail, and Right will prevail. Let not your heart be troubled, and do not grow weary in well-doing.
In other words: keep the faith.
Ellen’s music has not found it’s way to YouTube. But I’ve included two of my favorite artists doing their renditions. Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins in 1992, and Beth Nielson Chapmas from her 2004 CD Hymns.
Read more about the events that surrounded Longfellow writing his poem here.