Thursday, November 02, 2023

Durandus on Prayer for the Dead (Part 1)

The following is taken from the entry on All Souls’ Day in William Durandus’ Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (7.35), the Summa Theologiae of medieval liturgical commentaries. This is one of the longest sections of the seventh book, which covers the Sanctoral cycle, and will be presented in several parts as we begin the month especially dedicated to prayer for the dead.

This Office follows the feast of All Saints, and three consecutive days are dedicated to three mysteries. For the vigil of All Saints is a day of affliction; the solemnity is a day of exultation; but today is a day of prayer. On the first day, we afflict ourselves by fasting, as we remember the misery of this present life. On the second, we rejoice together with the blessedness of the Saints, bringing thanksgivings to the Lord. On the third, we pray for those who are detained in purgatory, obtaining for them with our prayers either a lesser suffering, or full absolution.

The commemoration of all the faithful departed was instituted by the Church on this day so that they might be helped by general services… for as Peter Damian says, St Odilo (born 962; abbot of Cluny from 994-1049), upon learning that at the volcano of Sicily (i.e. Mt Etna) frequent voices and wails of weeping demons were heard, because the souls of the deceased were being snatched away from their hands through almsgiving and prayers, decreed that in his monasteries, after the feast of All Saints, there should be a commemoration of the departed, which was afterwards approved by the whole Church. …

A statue of St Odilo of Cluny in the basilica of St Urban in Troyes, France. As the inventor of All Souls’ Day, he is shown standing in the middle of the flames of Purgatory. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by GO69, CC0 1.0)
This Office had its beginning in the Old Law, for, just as Ambrose says, when Jacob was dead, Joseph and his other brothers with many Egyptians brought him to Hebron, but first they wept for forty days in Egypt, and afterwards wept for him for seven days in the field of Harad. And again, we read in Deuteronomy that when Moses was dead, the people of Israel wept for thirty days, as they had done for Aaron and Miriam. Again, Solomon says, “The mourning for the dead is seven days: but for a fool and an ungodly man all the days of their life”, because they die forever. (This is actually in Sirach 22, 13, which medieval often spoke of, inexplicably, as if it were written by Solomon.)
Note that some people keep the memorial for the dead on the third day, or for three days, representing the three days of the Lord’s burial, looking to the resurrection of Christ, who rose on the third day, and desiring the resurrection with Christ for the dead; or else, looking to the Trinity; or so that the sins which they committed may be forgiven them, because while they were living they sinned in three ways, namely in thought, word and deed.
A Cretan icon of the 1490s.
Others have Mass celebrated for seven days, and both of these customs are shown in the book of Numbers (19, 11) where it is said, “he that touches the cadaver of a man, and for this sake shall be unclean for seven days, shall be sprinkled of this water on the third day and on the seventh, and thus shall he be cleansed.” Clearly, the one unclean because of the cadaver signifies the soul of the dead man, polluted because of dead works.
Therefore the Mass is celebrated for seven days, first, so that the dead man may be able to come the more quickly to the Sabbath of eternal rest; second, so that all the sins may be forgiven him which he committed in life, life lived over seven days. (This refers to the classical idea of the seven ages of man.) Third, because of the sevenfold nature of soul and body; for the soul has three powers, namely the rational, the concupiscent, and the irascible, while the body is made of four the elements. Therefore, in order that the sins which a man has committed through this sevenfold nature … maybe deleted, a sevenfold celebration is made for the dead. Fourth, just as the sons of Jacob wept for seven days when he died, as mentioned above, so also the Church celebrates the Office for its Dead for seven days.
Others have Mass celebrated for the Dead for thirty days, or on the thirtieth day, in the first place because the sons of Israel wept that many days for Moses and Aaron, as is mentioned above; in the second place, because three times ten makes thirty, and by three we understand the Trinity, by ten the decalogue. Therefore, we make three tens for the dead, so the sins they have committed in the observation of the decalogue or the precepts of Christ, and against the Trinity, maybe forgiven them by the mercy of God. In the third place, because the number of the moon is perfected in thirty days; therefore the Office is done for the dead for thirty days, so that their works may be understood to be full before God.
The Last Testament, Death and Burial of Moses, 1482, by Luca Signorelli. Fresco on a wall of the Sistine Chapel.
Some also celebrate forty Masses for a period of forty days, so that the sins which they have committed against the teaching of the Four Gospels and in the ten precepts of the Law may be forgiven them. Again, those who keep the fortieth day represent the Lord’s burial, desiring that the dead have glory with Christ who for forty hours lay in the tomb, counting from the hour in which He breathed forth his spirit to the last hour of Sunday night, on which He rose, according to Augustine. They represent also that which is said above, that when Jacob had died, his sons mourned him for forty days.
Others keep a period of fifty days. In the Gloss (i.e. the Glossa ordinaria, the standard Biblical commentary of reference in the Middle Ages), Bede and Gregory comment on the place in which it is written that Abraham asked of the Lord who wanted to destroy Sodom (Genesis 18, 16-33), “ ‘if there should be fifty therein, will thou destroy them?’ and the Lord answered, ‘No’,” saying that fifty is a perfect number, which signifies the jubilee year, that is, the eighth age, in which there shall be forgiveness and full liberty. Therefore, so that the souls of the dead may obtain full liberty and remission of their sins, they celebrate the office for them for fifty days.
Others keep a period of sixty days, since the sixtieth day signifies the grief of the Church for the absence of Her Spouse… so do they represent grief for the absence of the deceased person. And for their consolation, and the expiation of the soul of the dead, sacrifices offered to the Lord, and alms are distributed to the poor.
Some also keep the hundredth day, so that the dead may pass from the right to the left, from striving to triumph, from earth to heaven, from misery to glory, from death to life. For they long for them eternal blessedness, which is indicated by the 100th day.
Two folios of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD, showing Masses for the Dead. The Mass which begins on the bottom of the left side is that for the third, seventh and thirtieth days after death; the second prayer on the right side is for the anniversary Mass.
Now some others observe the anniversary for three reasons. First, so that the dead may come from the years of calamity to the years of eternity, or rather to eternal life which is without end, like a year which always returns to itself, and because there is sameness and no variety shall be found.
Second, because just as we celebrate the anniversary of the Saints for their honor and for our benefit… so also we celebrate the anniversary of the dead for their benefit and our devotion.
Third, the day of the anniversary is repeated for the dead for this reason, because according to Augustine, we do not know how it goes with them in the other life, and it is better that the benefit (of our prayers) be superfluous for them than that it be lacking (where needed.)
But if an anniversary falls on a Sunday or a solemnity, it ought not to be moved to the following day, as is done with the feasts of the Saints; but rather, it should be done on the preceding day, so that help may be given more quickly to the pains of the deceased which they bear in purgatory; for the dead need our help and benefit, the Saints do not.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: