Sacred music can play an important role in helping us to digest the wisdom contained in sacred texts. By evoking passions befitting the truths of faith, music can help the intellect gain a better grasp of these principles, and assist us in regulating our passions (and hence our lives) in accordance with right reason.
During the month of November, the Church urges us to pray for the souls of the faithful departed. The supreme form of and model for such prayers is the Requiem Mass. From Gregorian chant to Mozart’s unfinished but justly celebrated masterpiece, Christian culture has given us many musical aids to the fulfilment of this holy and wholesome duty.
Praying for the dead, we are reminded that “all flesh shall come to thee, (O God)” (Ps. 64:3). At the heart of the traditional Requiem Mass is the Dies Irae, a liturgical sequence that prompts us to reflect at length on our own inevitable demise.
In recent times, the Dies Irae has been rejected on the grounds that it “overemphasize[s] judgment, fear, and despair.” Meditation on the text itself rebuts this claim.
The hymn indeed begins with a depiction of Judgment Day as a “day of wrath.” As the world we know dissolves into ashes, the earth quakes and a miraculous trumpet awakens the dead to face their Judge. Confronted with a book in which each of our hidden deeds is recorded, even the just soul is at a loss to defend himself before this fearsome King of majesty.
At this point, the song takes a crucial turn. Reflecting that Christ freely (gratis) saves those who are saved, the accused soul reminds Christ that he died on the cross to redeem his soul. Admitting his guilt, and acknowledging God’s justice, the contrite soul finds hope in comparing himself to Mary Magdalen and the forgiven thief.
Far from emphasizing despair, the Dies Irae points us to the precise grounds of our hopes. Though we must strive always for virtue, our own efforts always prove unworthy. Only a sincere confession of our sins, and acceptance of God’s gracious pardon, can win us a place among the sheep as opposed to the goats.
There is one catch to this message of hope: our confession and collaboration with divine grace must take place “ante diem rationis”—before the day of reckoning. To the extent that our modern sensibilities cause us to recoil from the fearful opening lines of this sequence, they also rob us of the cure that can turn that inevitable day from one of wrath to one of mercy.