Sting is a fantastic artist, but he’s no historian.
A couple of years ago Sting performed his interpretation of a very old Catholic hymn, “There is No Rose of Such Virtue”, a hymn devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. You might know her as “the mystical rose“.
Roses were regarded as pure, beautiful, and highly valuable since ancient times, which is one reason why Mary is compared to a rose. And why is there “no rose of such virtue” as her? Because no other human being of a solely human nature rivals our Blessed Mother in virtue. She is pure, beautiful, and most highly regarded by God and by man, because of her virtue. There’s the background for you. So what’s my problem?
His interpretation and performance were really beautiful and very moving. I think I’ve listened to this song about a hundred times. But how he introduced it really disappointed me. I want you to appreciate it, as I did, and not get weighed down by what was disappointing about it. So you may want to scroll down and watch the video first, so that you can appreciate it by itself before reading my criticism of it. Which is this…
A Motherless Son?
The lyrics to the song begin this way:
“There is no rose of such virtue, as is the rose that bare Jesu”
The first part points to Our Lady, and the second to Our Lord. But Sting’s introduction completely undermined its Catholic roots, and treated the song as some abstraction from its inspiration—the Blessed Mother. The hymn isn’t actually about Jesus, it’s about Mary. Yet he didn’t mention her even once. He begins by saying “The rose is a medieval symbol of flawless perfection”, but there was no mention of why the rose retained that symbolism—God and man’s high regard for Our Blessed Mother. He does point back to Our Lord when he mentions the book of Isaiah, which says “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots”. But talking about the incarnation of Jesus without talking about Our Lady is like discussing a sunrise without mentioning the sky, or the sun itself. One is not detachable from the other. One is, because the other is. One has its nature, because the other has its nature. The sun, and the sky need to be talked about when discussing the sunrise. The rising sun doesn’t cast colors across an abyss. The sky isn’t framing a nothing.
The loot that is the lute?
In his performance Sting plays an instrument called a lute. In his introduction he discusses the lute, and its history, but distorts
“…this lute, in Arabic is laud (la-uhd). It was brought back to England by the Crusaders….stolen”
It’s troubling, and disappointing that Sting thought it worthwhile to discuss the origins of the instrument he’s about to play, but not the inspiration to the hymn he’s about to sing. We get a brief snippet of the history of the lute, but no mention of the Blessed Mother being the pure and perfect rose of unparalleled virtue, about which the hymn was written. The lute is rooted in Arab or Middle Eastern culture, and the Blessed Mother is rooted in Christian culture. So for me this part of his introduction was a demonstration of the culture’s mass confusion, where we’re over-eager to discuss all things Islamic, or Arabic, but we’re quick to sweep anything Christian under the rug. We hold up all things “Middle Eastern” for veneration, and we cast all things “Christian” into the dungeon.
What made this a little more frustrating for me was how he framed this history. He seemed to be appealing to the popular-but-incorrect understanding that Christianity is suspect, the Crusades were evil, and the Crusaders corrupt, by telling the audience that the lute made it to England because it was stolen by the Crusaders. I’m fairly certain that the lute’s origin is indeed the Middle East, but I’m almost as certain that it made its way to Western culture long before the Crusades. The Crusades were not Western man’s or Western culture’s first exposure to the Middle East. Westerners had been traveling to the Middle East and been trading with merchants in Middle East for centuries already. It’s possible, even likely, that the lute made it to English culture as a result of these relationships and exchanges. And, as Sting correctly points out, Christianity comes from the Middle East. Isn’t it possible that the lute was brought to Europe by the early missionaries who were bringing the faith to pagan Europe?
But let’s take Sting at his word for the moment and allow that the lute was brought to England by the Crusaders. Can we honestly cast a shadow of moral judgement on it and say it was “stolen”? Was this the only lute in all of the Middle East, and did the crusaders deprive the Middle Eastern people of their beloved musical instrument, or of music itself, by bringing lute to Europe? Was this instrument the musical eequivelant to the Ark of the Covenant? On what basis do we use the word “stolen” here? Is it similar to how England literally stole property and Churches from the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII, and through the period of the Protestant Reformation? Is it similar to how the Islamic empire stole Christian lands, and Christian (Catholic) institutions of learning and study during their centuries-long war path? I don’t think those are similar, I think those are wholly different from a mysterious crusader bringing a common instrument from the Middle East to Christian England.
There is No Rose of Such Virtue!
Though this all frustrated me, I hope it doesn’t frustrate you to a point where you can’t appreciate what followed. The song itself was truly beautiful, and I actually enjoyed Sting’s Middle Eastern interpretation of the song, which also retained much of its medieval style. I think Sting is a brilliant artist. I hope you are delighted and inspired by the song, and I hope that it orients your thinking to the reality of the beauty of virtue. We can’t be as virtuous as Our Lady, but we can grow, and grow, and grow in virtue, which means we can grow and grow and grow in beauty, from the perspective of God, the author of life, the designer of our persons, and the sculptor of our individual being. May Our Lady be the model for us all. Be more beautiful. Be more virtuous.