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‘Godspell’s “Day by Day” was written by a 13th-century Catholic saint

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Victor Garber - Godspell - 1973 With all the energy of a "holy fool," Garber’s performance can at times seem a bit over-the-top, but this allows for a more potent scene when he tones it down for the Last Supper.

Zelda Caldwell - published on 03/28/22

St. Richard of Chichester wrote the prayer that inspired the catchy song, and recited it on his deathbed.

It’s not often that medieval saints write pop music hits, but such is the case with the rock ballad, “Day by Day.” The refrain to the catchy folk rock ballad from the 1971 musical,Godspell, was composed by a 13th-century Catholic saint, Richard of Chichester.

We can’t credit St. Richard with the music that helped the tune reach #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. The English bishop did compose the prayer that inspired the song in the musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. 

The musical’s song repeats the lines:

Day by day,
O dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.

This is close to the lyrics of an Anglican hymn based on the prayer:

Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.

St. Richards’s original prayer, which he is said to have recited on his deathbed, went like this:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ

For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

Originallywritten in Latin, and transcribed by St. Richard’s confessor, the Dominican friar Ralph Bocking, the prayer was later published as part of a 68-volume encyclopedia on the saints calledActa Sanctorum.

The very definition of an ear-worm, “Day by Day” is easy (even for the vocally challenged) to sing along to, and very hard to get out of one’s head (apologies to those who are reading this article).

When Godspell opened off-Broadway in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, the musical’s message of peace and loving one another resonated with audiences. Made up of a series of parables from the Gospel of Matthew, Godspell is today associated with some of the stereotypical excesses of the 1970s church liturgies. From the tambourines, to the clowns, to the hand-clapping, the Godspell soundtrack offers a trip down memory lane for someone who grew up going to church in the 1970s.

Who was St. Richard?

By all accounts St. Richard of Chichester was not exactly a feel-good, hippie Catholic, but he did share certain aspirations for a sort of authenticity. He was quite serious about restoring reverence to the liturgy and was merciless with corrupt priests and those who mumbled their way through the Mass. A friend to the poor and the oppressed, he sold his gold and silver and gave the proceeds to the needy. A vegetarian and ascetic, he lived on a simple diet and wore a lamb’s wool hair shirt. 

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A 13th-century wall painting of Saint Richard of Chichester, painted not long after his canonization. Public Domain.

When Pope Innocent the IV asked St. Richard to preach a crusade against the Saracens, he travelled along the coast of England on his mission. When he reached Dover he succumbed to a fever that killed him on April 3, 1253, at about 56 years of age. He was buried in Chichester Cathedral, and his shrine became a popular pilgrimage site until King Henry VIII ordered it destroyed in 1538. Today he is venerated by both Catholics and Anglicans.

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