Dies Irae, Dies Illa

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This morning I assist at a Requiem Mass at which the Dies Irae will be sung after the Gospel–not a far-flung setting by a great composer but rather the original one by an anonymous monk who wrote this chant, which features the most moving, terrifying, and reflective text and melody I’ve heard. If music can sound like the final judgement, this is it.

Here is the text. Here is an MP3.

This remarkable Sequence has been lost in the sacred-music shuffle of the last 40 years, but it is not entirely gone. It is still permitted as an option in the Graduale Romanum. It made an appearance a few years ago at the funeral of Princess Diana. She had chosen it and the shocking setting by Verdi. I can well remember commentators’ befuddlment that she would have been drawn to a song that seemed out of sorts with all aspects of her life. But it was her choice. She had seen death–terrible, random, unjust, unthinkable–in her travels to countries experiencing famine. She had premonitions of her own. She knew.

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit,
nil inultum remanebit.

When the judge will be seated,
all that is hidden will appear,
and nothing will go unpunished.

Painful indeed. Death is very different. We can only hope for the return of this text, because few texts treat the subject of death so directly. It is for funerals that understand that the purpose of the gathering is to pray for a soul facing the final judgment, and also to reflect on our own mortality.

Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis,
voca me cum benedictis.

Having destroyed the accursed,
condemned them to the fierce flames,
Count me among the blessed.

How impossible does the modern person find the subject of death! We treat it as if it were not inevitable. We believe that death must always have a “cause”: the person was killed or didn’t exercise or eat right or whatever. To face the inevitability of death is to face our own limitations, which we find too humbling to consider. We can expand life, create amazing technologies, bring civilizations up and down, and master every aspect of life itself except for this one issue: we all must die. There are very few moments in the liturgical year when we are required to confront this shocking fact. Good Friday, yes, and funerals, when done not as a happy clappy celebration of fun times but a time of grief and tragedy, one that is ultimately terrifying to us.

Not all is doom however. Another prayer that is integral to the Roman Rite funeral Mass is the In Paradisum:

May angels escort you into paradise;
when you arrive, may the martyrs welcome you
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels welcome you,
and, with Lazarus who was once poor,
may you have unending rest.

7:06 am on July 8, 2005
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