Saturday, September 05, 2009

Bring Back Dies Irae

From all the accounts I read of the Ted Kennedy funeral (I didn't watch it), or, rather, the political beatification, what happened was as tragically contrary to Catholic/Christian teaching and liturgy as we might expect. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the life of the deceased, and of course declare the deceased to be in Heaven. Bad theology aside, these are abuses which would not happen under stricter rubrics.

Even today, diocesan regulations are as clear as they are widely ignored, e.g. this from Chicago: "A eulogy is never appropriate where a homily is prescribed (Order of Christian Funerals), but examples from the person's life may be used in the homily."

There are many reasons for this ban, but one reason is to put a stop to the tendency of all eulogies to state with certainty that the person who died is in Heaven right now. Of course we cannot know this. It is outrageously presumptuous of us to pretend to know the mind of God and the eternal destination of the recently deceased.

Why do we so badly want to do this? Is it because we want the best for the person who died? Certainly but the Church encourages us to pray for the dead to fulfill this pious impulse.

Another reason, perhaps the real reason, is actually more selfish. We are trying to comfort ourselves, give ourselves assurances that we are in God's good graces and so should have some sense of certainty about our own eternal destinations. We are declaring ourselves to be Heaven-bound and thereby shielding our own eyes from our sins that have stained our souls and might have separated us from God. We are seeking comfort not in truth but in the tapestry of myths that we are weaving about ourselves: all sins aside, we all deserve salvation and we are going to get it.

Of course none of this makes any difference. The eternal destiny of the dead is not up to us. Neither will our own fates be of our own making after the day of wrath.

That's an interesting phrase, isn't it? The Day of Wrath. There is a hymn that was once prescribed as part of every Requiem Mass, from at least the 13th century. Without debate and without explanation, it was removed from the Missal of 1970, so that several generations have Catholics have never been exposed to its terrifying truths. The Church has known that we want to avoid the truth when we face the death of others; we were given this hymn, the Dies Irae, to remind us of what death should teach the living.

The chant tune itself is still with us, appearing in movies and popular culture and even in video games. The music is ominous, even astonishing. The words are even more so.

It contains such thoughts as:

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.

In English verse:

Low I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.

Followed by:

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

In English verse:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

So you can see what is being addressed. This is a song about the dead, yes, but mostly it is song directed toward the living. We need to hear this because society will not tell us these things. Our culture and politics presume to control all things. Nothing is being our capacity for management. Our intelligence, our politics, our science have led us to believe that nothing is beyond the capacity of mortals.Man is in charge.

And yet, there stands death. We've exhausted unfathomable resources trying to delay it as long as possible, understandably. We spend money on surgeries and diets to mask signs of aging and permit us to imagine that we might undertake just the right steps to become immortal. There are even diet and exercise cults that promise infinite life extension.

When someone dies, we demand to know why: what did he die of? Surely there must be some exogenous cause for this completely unexpected turn of events! We do this despite the evidence of all history that there will come a time when each of us will die. And the cause? The cause is the human condition. We will return to ashes.

We need the Dies Irae back in our Requiem Masses. It needs to be permitted and used in every parish. Indeed, it should be re-prescribed. It will change the way the funerals proceed, and it will change the way we think of death -- not in the ridiculous way the world tends to think of it today but rather the way the Church has taught us to think of it.

Dies Irae is required in the extraordinary form. It might be permitted in the ordinary form and it certainly isn't banned. Just because some bureaucracy in 1970 made a stupid mistake doesn't mean that we should just throw out all Catholic teaching on the topic today.

Here is an excerpt from a homily by Cardinal Newman. Here we see a beautiful and terrifying expression of the Church's teaching. I would like to reprint part of this here because you are not likely to hear this from the pulpit today. We can sing Eagles Wings rather than Dies Irae but it does not change the truths of which Newman speaks here:


Consider, then, what it is to die; “there is no work, device, knowledge, or wisdom, in the grave.” Death puts an end absolutely and irrevocably to all our plans and works, and it is inevitable. The Psalmist speaks to “high and low, rich and poor, one with another.” No man can deliver his brother, no make agreement unto God for him.” Even “wise men die, as well as the ignorant and foolish, and leave their riches for other.”

Difficult as we may find it to bring it home to ourselves, to realize it, yet as surely as we are here assembled together, so surely will every one of us, sooner or later, one by one, be stretched on the bed of death. We naturally shrink from the thought of death, and of its attendant circumstances; but all that is hateful and fearful about it will be fulfilled in our case, one by one.

But all this is nothing compared with the consequences implied in it. Death stops us; it stops our race. Men are engaged about their work, or about their pleasure; they are in the city, or the field; any how they are stopped; their deeds are suddenly gathered in -a reckoning is made- all is sealed up till the great day.

What a change is this! In the words used familiarly in speaking of the dead, they are no more. They were full of schemes and projects; whether in a great or humbler rank, they had their hopes and fears, their prospects, their pursuits, their rivalries; all these are now come to an end.

One builds a house, and its roof is not finished; another buys merchandise, and it is not yet sold. And all their virtues and pleasing qualities which endeared them to their friends are, as far as this world is concerned, vanished. Where are they who were so active, so sanguine, so generous? The amiable, the modest and the kind? We were told that they were dead; their suddenly disappeared; that is all we know about it. They were silently taken from us; they are no met in the seat of the elders, nor in the assemblies of the people; in the mixed concourse of men, nor in the domestic retirement which they prized.

As Scripture describes it, “the wind has passed over them, and they are gone, and their place shall know them no more.” And they have burst the many ties which held them; they were parents, brothers, sisters, children, and friends; but the bond of the kindred is broken, and the silver cord of love is loosed. They have been followed by the vehement grief of tears, and the long sorrow of aching hearts; but they make no return, they answer not; they do not even satisfy our wish to know that they sorrow for us as we for them.

We talk about them thenceforth as if they were persons we do not know; we talk about them as third persons; whereas they used to be always with us, and every other thought which was within us was shared by them. Or perhaps, if our grief is too deep, we do not mention their names at all. And their possessions, too, all fall to others. The world goes on without them; it forgets them.

Yet, so it is; them all as mere parts of some great visible system. This continues to move on; to this the world ascribes a sort of life and personality. When one or other of its members die, it considers them only as falling out of the system, and as come to naught. For a minute, perhaps, it thinks of them in sorrow, then leaves them – leaves them for ever. It keeps its eye on things seen and temporal.

Truly whenever a man dies, rich or poor, an immortal soul passes to judgement; but somehow we read of the deaths of persons we have seen or heard of, and this reflection never comes across us. Thus does the world really cast off men's souls, and recognizing only their bodies, it makes it appear as if “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts, even one things have all one breath, so that a man hath no pre-eminence over a beast, for all is vanity.” ...

What a dreary prospect seems to be before us, when we reflect that we have the solemn word of truth pledged to us, in the last and most awful revelation, which God has made to us about the future, that in that day, the books will be opened, “and another books opened, which is the book of life, and the dead judged out of those things which were written in the books according to their works!”

What would a man give, any one of us, who has any real insight into his polluted and miserable state, what would he give to tear away some of the leaves there preserved! For how heinous are the sins therein written! Think of the multitude of sins done by us since we first knew the difference between right and wrong. We have forgotten them, but there we might read them clearly recorded. Well may holy David exclaim, “Remember not the sins of my youth nor my transgressions, according to Thy mercy remember Though me.”

Conceive, too, the multitude of sins which have so grown into us as to become part of us, and in which we now live, not knowing, or but partially knowing, that they are sins; habits of pride, self-reliance, self-conceit, sullenness, impurity, sloth, selfishness, worldliness. The history of all these, their beginnings, and their growth, is recorded in those dreadful books; and when we look forward to the next future, how many sins shall we have committed by this time next year,-though we try ever so much to know our duty, and overcome ourselves!

Nay, or rather shall we have the opportunity of obeying or disobeying God for a year longer? Who knows whether by that time our account may not be closed for ever?