Dies irae

One of my upcountry correspondents wrote this in response to my “All Souls” column (published this morning at Catholic Thing):

“Whenever our choir performs the Mozart Requiem, with its magnificent showcasing of the Dies irae, we sell out. Up here, in redneck country-&-western Grey-Bruce, we sell out: 700 tickets for a one-night stand. People are hungry for the truth that their decisions, their conduct, their lives, have eternal meaning, even if the only way they can enunciate that truth is by buying a ticket to a concert.”

It is just so, & I have long noticed that as the post-modern (or more precisely, post-conciliar) Church has been putting her legacy out in the trash, the secular world has been picking through the pieces. The incomparably magnificent musical heritage of Holy Church survives, for the most part no longer in the churches, from where it was banished after Vatican II; but outside, on things like CDs. It has become “classical” music, & against all expectations, holds some considerable ground in competition with the “popular” music of the street & the gutter. Churches that have been emptied out by the liturgical “reforms,” fill up again for secular concerts of the music that was discarded.

There is mystery in the thing itself — the mystery of evil, & its defeat — but no mystery in a phenomenon that has been known throughout history. People are drawn to beauty, but also often repelled by it. In either case, they know what beauty is. Indeed, public authorities in many cities have discovered that they can drive thugs & vandals out of dangerous passageways, simply by piping in Bach & Mozart. Conversely, raucuous noise can be used to attract the same to locales for drugs, violence, & fornication.

Beauty, truth, goodness, are allied; as too, their opposites. It is important to remember this in a Christian way. In a difficult passage (Matthew 12:26 et seq., but parse the Greek carefully) our Lord warned that spirits not working for him were working against him. But speaking of people (in Mark 9) He turned this around: “those who are not against me are for me.” Bear this constantly in mind, when speaking with non-Christians: that the unchurched sheep still hunger.

We needn’t judge what we do not understand. But we must be fiercely on our guard against what is very plain to the understanding. For we live in a fallen world, in which the good, the true, & the beautiful, need defence.

That extraordinary sequence, Dies irae, going back I now learn to the 12th century, & not the 13th as I previously understood, gathers together the strands of a Catholic teaching now half-remembered. It presents the reality of Purgation, in an appropriately visionary way. That trumpet makes no uncertain sound. It calls us to battle. It flies upon Satan’s greatest lie: that our lives are inconsequential. It attacks all the corollaries of that lie: that we are helpless in ourselves, that we cannot help each other, that we cannot bolster one another in prayer; that our dead lie beyond the reach of our love, & we beyond theirs. It provides a vision of the Last Judgement in which all of the consequences of our acts coalesce. And by necessity, it is terrifying: because life is not a dream, & death is not its ending.

This is the truth, to be accepted or ignored, to be lived or hidden from. It was the wisdom of the Church through the ages to teach this with great clarity. Yet today she prefers to teach in a half-hearted way, as if to children who must not be frightened, omitting or disguising the scary bits.

Without the Black Mass, without the black vestments, without the clarion call to repentance, of course the churches empty out. Why bother listening to preachers who are not sure what they have to say? Who dress a part they cannot play? Who, standing even before the altar, turn their backs towards our Christ. And play their nursery tunes, & speak as if we were a kindergarten class.

But take heart. The little men cannot keep the Rex tremendae majestatis out of our chapels. They haven’t the strength. They cannot hide our Lord from us, for we can look past them. For consider, that the trumpet will sound, through all the sepulchres of this earth; & the sheep & the goats will be parted.