Who sings well prays twice… NOT!

We had a look at the phrase "In necessitatibus unitas…", etc. often but falsely attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo.  Someone asked about another famous phrase attributed to the Bishop of Hippo, "He who sings, prays twice".  Augustine didn’t write that either!  Let’s look at it.

First, the original phrase is in Latin and the modern language versions leave out an extremely important little word: bis orat qui bene cantat… "he who sings well prays twice."   I think any of you who attend parishes with sub-optimal pop-bands at Mass understand this.

So, if Augustine didn’t write that phrase, did he write anything similar that gave rise to the phrase?

He did write, "cantare amantis est… Singing belongs to one who loves" (s. 336, 1 – PL 38, 1472). This is the citation for qui bene cantat bis orat in the primitive edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1156. 

But this is not the end of the story, folks!

In the Latin edition of the CCC we are sent to footnote n. 26 (oddly, this is note 21 in the newer English edition, which adds a confer reference to Col. 3:16 – which is not in the Latin CCC). Latin CCC 1156, note 26 reads:

Cf. Sanctus Augustinus, Enarratio in Psalmum 72, 1: CCL 39, 986 (PL 36, 914).

Surprise surprise, I just happen to have CCL (= Corpus Christianorum Latinorum, a vast series of volumes of Latin authors) vol. 39 at hand. Looking up that reference, we find what Augustine really said:

Qui enim cantat laudem, non solum laudat, sed etiam hilariter laudat; qui cantat laudem, non solum cantat, sed et amat eum quem cantat. In laude confitentis est praedicatio, in cantico amantis affectioFor he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyously; he who sings praise, is not only singing, but also loving Him whom he is singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation (praedicatio) in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) there is deep love.

This is a very interesting passage. Augustine is saying that when the praise is of God, then something happens to the song of the praiser/love that makes it more than just any kind of song. The object of the song/love in a way becomes the subject. Something happens so that the song itself becomes Love in its manifestation of love of the one who truly is Love itself.

However, it does not say qui canit bis orat. There seems to have been some confusion of the verbs laudare and orare.

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  1. Jenn Miller says:

    Oh, thank you so much for clarifying this! I’ve heard this over and over again being attributed to St. Augustine, but since I couldn’t find the actual quote, I didn’t like to use it.

  2. Jenn Miller says:

    But who did write orat qui bene cantat… “he who sings well prays twice”? Any clue?

  3. CaesarMagnus says:

    Certainly makes you think, in reference to how horizontal the liturgy has become.

  4. Séamas says:

    It seems that in the first line he is saying that something happens to our praise when it is sung, before he moves on to talk about how the song and singing is transformed by the praise.

    “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyously…”

    “He who sings praise, praises twice”?

    (Nothing about singing it well, either–Deo gratias, since my singing certainly wouldn’t qualify)

  5. Maureen says:

    I always heard that the “prays twice” thing was St. Gregory the Great. In fact, I think we had a poster or banner or plaque to that effect in my home parish’s choir loft, back in the late 70’s – early 80’s. I didn’t understand at the time what some Pope had to do with singing, but it seemed like a good saying.

  6. mike aquilina says:

    Last week I saw it attributed to St. Basil!

  7. Okay Patristibloggers! Let’s get to the bottom of this!

  8. mike aquilina says:

    I can’t find the place where it was attributed to Basil. I do recall that it was an Orthodox source, so it might have been a knee-jerk re-assignment on the part of the citer. After all, anything worthwhile in Augustine had to be lifted from Basil, right? ;-)

    My guess is that this passage — like “Roma locuta” and “In necessariis unitas” — is just the crystallization of one of Augustine’s arguments. Good teachers tend to distill long treatises into simple, memorable principles. Augustine himself did this, and I think he inspired other teachers to do the same for him down the centuries. It was a habit (and useful mnemonic) in the Middle Ages, when I’ll wager these three sayings found their lovely form. Yes, they can be misused, but so can everything, from St. John’s Prologue to the errand list my wife hands me on Saturday morning. (But woe to the man…)

    Though I’m a proud patristiblogger, I’m also a good son of my medieval forebears. I’ll continue to attribute these three principles to Augustine. He deserves the credit.

  9. William Sheley says:

    OK… so what about another line attributed to Augustine that was super popular in the 60s… “A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to toe!” You or anyone know the provenance of that gem???

  10. mike aquilina says:

    I’m so glad I missed the 60s. I read these “Augustinisms” without the hippie associations, and they seem reasonable and even Augustinian to me — even the Alleluia bit. By the time the flakier teachers got around to me, they had lost any sense of obligation to invoke Augustine’s authority. I can assure you that in that decade after Humanae Vitae I never heard “Roma locuta, causa finita”!

  11. Dim Bulb says:

    If St A is saying that when one sings, something happens to the song that makes it more than a song, then couldn’t this be used to justify all kinds of liturgical crap?

  12. Tadhg Seamus says:

    To William Sheley:

    “OK… so what about another line attributed to Augustine that was super popular in the 60s… “A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to toe!” You or anyone know the provenance of that gem???”

    I believe that would be the painfully hip Sister Mary Felix Culpa who served, if memory serves correctly, at The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now, Baby! from sometime in the late 60s to sometime in the late 70s, at which time she left religious life for membership in Jefferson Airplane.

  13. Dim Bulb: People who want to foist liturgical crap on others don’t need quotes from St. Augustine to justify the foisting.

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