There is no lovelier hymn to Mary in modern English than "Let It Be," the Beatles song written in 1969:
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom:
Let it be.
Those pellucid lyrics by Paul McCartney, who, with John Lennon, composed the plaintive melody, stand out as peerless against the backdrop of the saccharine Marian hymnody of today's Catholicism, where such chestnuts as "Immaculate Mary, Your Praises We Sing" still reign supreme.
To find an equal to McCartney's song, you have to go back 600 years, to this:
He came also still
There his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.
Indeed, the 15th-century carol and the 1969 Beatles lyric both concern the Annunciation, when Christ came to be Mary's son in the quietness of a spring evening. "Whisper words of wisdom: Let it be," wrote McCartney in his second verse. The words are those of Mary's fiat to the angel Gabriel in Luke's gospel: "Let it be done unto me according to thy word."
Of course, when I first heard "Let It Be," when it was released on the album of the same name in 1970, I was a cheerfully benighted lapsed Catholic, and I didn't make the connection between the Annunciation and the Beatles. Or even realized that "Mother Mary" was the same Mary whose May altars I had constructed out of shoeboxes and birthday candles when I was a child at parochial school. I thought she might be a personage from Eastern spirituality. "Let it be"--that sounded like Buddhist resignation. Many of us in those days, Beatles included, were way beyond Christianity; we were somewhere between California and nirvana.
The Beatles are currently enjoying a huge revival. We now can hear "Let It Be," along with 26 more of their top-of-the-chart hits, in glorious re-release on the new "Beatles 1" CD. Their first movie, "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), is also in re-release. "The Beatles Anthology" (Chronicle) has been a best-seller since its publication last October. Listening to a Beatles song now, however, turns out to be a very different experience from that of listening to it 30 or 40 years ago.
When the Beatles burst onto the American pop music scene in 1963, it was their brash, upstart quality, driven by the thrumming percussion of the underappreciated Ringo Starr, that caught the instant attention of young people like me bored with Fifties pieties. The Beatles had steeped themselves in American rhythm-and-blues in their native Liverpool, and even tried to Americanize their dense Lancashire accents.
Now, more than three decades later, it is difficult to listen to a Beatles song without hearing...Liverpool. Many of the songs are specifically infused with the Catholic culture of Liverpool, which, as a port on the Irish Sea, has more Catholics than any other city in England because it has more Irish. They came in droves to flee starvation during the potato famine of the 1840s, they lived in densely populated slums and worked the docks in the years when Liverpool was England's busiest shipping entrepôt, and they stayed on when the shipping in Liverpool died after World War II, still in the dense slums but as often as not on the dole.
McCartney, who was Irish on both sides of his family, and George Harrison, who had a devoutly Catholic mother, were baptized in the Church and raised as Catholics. Lennon was Irish on his father's side, but he was never baptized, as his father deserted the family after his son's birth. Catholicism didn't take with any Beatle, and Lennon, by the time he was shot to death in 1980, was truculently nonreligious, usually oscillating between Marxism and Maoism.
Nonetheless, the bedraggled Catholicism of the beaten-down Liverpool Irish permeates a number of Beatles songs. They treated Catholic culture sardonically:
Lady Madonna, children at your feet,
Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.
They treated it with sadness:
Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear,
No one comes near....
And as they were on the verge of breaking up forever, making the last album they would ever make as a foursome, they treated Catholicism as offering an iconography of hope and comfort.
The Beatles weren't very Christian, and their music often seems to mock Christian belief. Yet art has a life of its own that outlasts its creators' intentions. Now, finally, it's easy to see that in nearly their last song together, the Beatles were celebrating the ancient faith of the ancient city where they were born, the faith that was itself born when a woman said yes to an angel:
I wake up to the sound of music;
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be.