Friday, June 21, 2013

What the Requiem Mass Meant to Me

"Catholicism is the only religion to die in," wrote Oscar Wilde in a private letter to a friend. And, sure enough, he did. His final words on this earth were from the Act of Contrition. He received the Holy Eucharist and passed from this earth.

But what did he mean with his statement? It was surely a reference to the Requiem Mass that he attended several times in his life. It goes without saying, really, but the ritual he knew was (and is) very different from the typical Catholic funeral of today. Yes, it was in Latin. It included the astonishingly beautiful prayer Dies Irae. The vestments were black. The visual and textual drama of the ritual were epic in scope.

Now this ritual is called the extraordinary form, itself brought back from a near-death experience. It's absolutely shocking to think that this nearly vanished from the earth from 1969 forward. History records that there was a generation of liturgists who somehow, incomprehensibly, thought that it would be better for this form of the Mass to disappear and for something else of their own making to take its place. That generation even turned against the Dies Irae and wrote this sequence clean out of the ritual books.

One can only shake one's head at the extent of folly. It is one thing to offer a vernacular and simplified alternative, but to attempt to suppress this Mass? Unthinkable.

In any case, it is not suppressed. It lives. The experiences of this world, taken in total, provide no greater and more profound reflection on the meaning of life and death that the old form of the Requiem Mass. Of this I'm convinced.

I attended one yesterday at the Sacred Music Colloquium. I left feeling like I had discovered new truths, seen new things, observed in my mind and heart a new expanse of time and eternity. It was the sort of experience that makes everything else in life seem trivial by comparison. If the opportunity ever comes your way, do not miss it.

This was the first time I had attended this rite when accompanied by a polyphonic setting of what otherwise would be the main chanted prayers of the Mass. The first notes of the intonation Requiem was chanted and then the polyphony began. I had a sudden chill in my spine that quickly extended up, down, and around, and flood my arms and legs too. And this feeling grew more intense of the course of the 90-minute liturgy. The setting was by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). To sing it all required fully three choirs, simply because there was so much music.

The overall effect was not dreadful -- contrary to the reputation -- and not terrifying. It is truth telling, and there is a difference. This Mass covers up nothing. This ritual does not avert its eyes from the mysteries of life and death and the beautiful hope offered by the graces of the sacrament. To attend this Mass is painful in the way that discovering truth always is, but it was also comforting.

It embodies the most pressing imposition of a reality that we all want to avoid: we are going to die. What happens then? And if it can all end in a flash, what was the purpose of this life? How should I structure my limited days on this earth in light of this? These were the sorts of questions the Mass raises.

Usually this Mass would be said for the death of a particular person. But this Requiem on this occasion was said for many deceased friends of those in attendance. There was a catafalque present. This is an empty coffin, draped in black.

The celebrant said it was there to represent those who have gone before. But as I walked by it and stood in the communion line, and the cloth touched the side of my leg, I saw clearly that this empty coffin was for me.

God willing, not today. God willing, I have many years left on this earth. But the time will come.

Feeling a bit weak following this revelation, I proceeded in the line and knelt on the hard marble floor and waited for the priest to come my way. I was facing west and the sun was setting and pouring through the stained glass to land on my face. The colored light felt hot on my face. Time stopped. Or seemed to. Just as in death.

I closed my eyes. Then I heard the words "Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi...." and I opened my eyes to see the priest in front of my and the paten under my chin ..."custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.”

The body of Christ - sacrificed for the salvation of the world both in history and on the altar in this space this very day - had now entered my own body. A taste of death, and victory over death. Food that is a foretaste of the life to come.

What is it that we want to leave behind in this world? When we think of the shape of this side of eternity after we are gone, what is it that we want to know will be here? Joy and prosperity for our children and their children, certainly, and for the flourishing of all humanity.

But at this moment, I'll I could think was: I want to know that this Mass will persist. It must be here. It must be available for those who wish it, for their own deaths. But most of all, it must be here for the living so that all people can have access to the truth that it tells.

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