‘O God, Beyond All Praising’ is my favorite song

By Annie-Rose Keith


With Airpods installed and the cushion of my desk chair sub-par, I began that sunny day with the first installment of an eight-day course from the Theology of the Body Institute. Institute President Christopher West has made it his life’s work to teach the four corners of the earth about this catechesis of the human body and human creation, which was penned by Pope St. John Paul II. I am eternally grateful for their efforts. Not only do I have a better understanding of why we were created and the purpose of our human bodies, but I also learned that I need a song to pray.

West mentioned that God speaks to him through song. Quite frankly, that blew my mind. From Neil Diamond to a Tallisian harmonic polyphony, God can use His musical creations for any means necessary to pierce our hearts and gently call us back to Him. That hadn’t ever occurred to me.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes that, “One of God's greatest gifts to us, his creation, was the gift of song. In words and music, our ancestors in faith – Moses, David, Deborah, Paul, St. Gregory – have taught us how to revel in God's infinite love, proclaim his glory, give thanks for his abounding generosity, and plead for mercy and forgiveness.”

Our earliest ancestors used song to teach and entertain, and to pass the time while they worked long laborious hours in their societal roles. Songs, music and instruments have history and meaning for our lives – so much so that they were used to teach congregants in the early Church.

Nobody could read; and for the first 1,000-or-so years of her existence, the Church was the seat of education for the laity. How else would the early Church fathers (and mothers) be able to teach our faith if not for the beautiful chants and antiphons composed during the medieval period? Cathedrals were built with height and detail meant to bring our eyes “upward.” Pipe organs were installed in churches to not only mimic the human voice, but to make the entire building an instrument. Read that last sentence again.

Sentimentality also plays a major role in sending our hearts upward to our heavenly reward. Joncas’s classic, “On Eagles Wings,” is either associated with daily Mass or a family funeral. Schutte’s opus, “Here I Am, Lord,” or Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You,” spurs the hearts of congregants across the globe through honest lyrics. Music speaks so we don’t have to – and this is never more true than when we’re in prayer, and when we’re passing on knowledge and our faith.

My favorite song, surpassing any worship or secular work, is “O God Beyond All Praising” – and I want it to be yours, too. I associate this song and its musical potential with feelings of nostalgia and for providing words of praise even amid great struggle. It was sung in the last Christmas Mass before my church was destroyed in the 2012 tornado; and for that memory, I will always be grateful. I sang it to my kids when they were newborns, and I’ll sing it every chance I can get – and when it’s appropriate – for Mass.

To me, it’s an example of a song that lifts my heart upward, and makes prayer and worship of the King of the Universe very easy. When I was spending a semester abroad, I learned songs that were passed down and collected through oral tradition. The Carter Family, early predecessors of Johnny and June (Carter) Cash, were responsible for playing work tunes and hymns that wouldn’t have otherwise made it past the hollers in which they were raised if it weren’t for the advent of the early recorder. Sacred music can lead us to Jesus – often in ways that are unexpected. It can help us understand the unfathomable and teach what is unteachable. It can help someone feel less lonely and pierce the hearts of anyone as they start their walk with Christ.