Friday, January 27, 2012

"Pray for me, my friends, who have not strength to pray."

My girlfriend's grandmother died last night, and I have been praying for her soul.  We are called to pray for the dead in general, for they cannot pray for themselves once they have passed, and we usually especially pray for those who are close to us.

One way I pray for the souls of the faithful departed is by listening to a musical setting of a Requiem Mass, the beautiful prayers of the Church for all her departed children.  While listening, I pray for the recently deceased (I often do this whenever someone I know dies).  While I have a soft spot in my heart for the works of the famous Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, the setting I usually pray with is the setting by the famous Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.  Though Verdi was an atheist, he felt inspired by the sacred prayers of the Church found in the Requiem Mass, and his recently-deceased friend Alessandro Manzoni (a poet and novelist famous for The Betrothed) was Catholic, so he felt inspired to compose a Requiem.  The music stuns me with its beauty and power, and it truly helps me pray for those who have passed.

One of the most striking parts of this Requiem is the opening of the "Dies Irae," a long Latin poem, thought to be written by Thomas of Celano (the first biographer of St. Francis of Assisi), about the Day of Judgment, which is included in the Requiem Mass.  Below is a video of this opening, which truly portrays the opening lines of the poem: "The day of wrath, that day / Will dissolve the world in ashes."  Never have I found a piece of music that inspired me with the fear of God's judgment as this piece does.


Yet praying this music does not feel to be enough for the departed souls.  I could pray countless rosaries, countless Divine Mercy chaplets, and yet I would still feel that I have not done all I could.  I could offer penances and indulgences for souls, yet it would still not be enough.  In the end, our prayers can do nothing if God does not will it.  In the end, we can only entrust the departed to the mercy of God.

I feel like I have said nothing worthwhile here.  I feel like I have merely discussed a custom I have without getting to the point: death is terrifying.  No matter how close we are to Christ in this life, there will be uncertainty at our death.  In the end, I am fearful for the salvation of my girlfriend's grandmother, not due to a multitude of sins on her part (indeed, if I were the one judging her salvation, I would have no doubt in my mind that she would be saved), but due to the sheer mystery of death.  It truly is a mystery, that "crossing of the bar," in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  At death, it seems we face "that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss, / That utter nothingness, of which [we] came" (in the words of Bl. John Henry Newman's Gerontius), and we are terrified.  While St. Francis was able to greet his end joyfully, calling her "Sister Death," I have more fear than that: it is no lack of trust in God, but more a true fear of the Lord, the mysterious Lord Whom we can never know in His fullness.  Even though I believe, as St. Hilary of Poitiers wrote, that "Immortal God has not given life only to end in death; for none can believe that the Giver of good has bestowed the pleasant sense of life in order that it may be overcast by the gloomy fear of dying," I am still terrified of the mystery.

In the face of the utter mystery of the edge of life, I can only plead to God for mercy on the departed, and I can only implore Christ for mercy on me (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!), and I can only hope that when, with Gerontius, I beg, "Pray for me, my friends, who have not strength to pray," the Holy Spirit will move my friends to respond.  And now I pray in the only words that come to mind, the memorial prayer of the Eastern Church, and I pray for the beautiful woman who so lately died, and I humbly ask you to pray for her too, that she may be resurrected by Christ at the end of time:

Eternal memory, eternal memory.  Grant to Your servant Mary, O Lord, blessed repose and eternal memory.

Nota Bene: The quotes from Bl. John Henry Newman's "Dream of Gerontius," and the quote from St. Hilary of Poitier's On the Trinity (I.2) come from the Faith Database, while the quote from the "Dies Irae" comes from Wikipedia.  Information on Verdi's Requiem can be found on Wikipedia.

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