Thursday, November 1, 2007

‘Dies irae, dies illa’

I remember our Benedictine school days when Nov. 1 and 2 were marked as special liturgical days. As college boarders (synonymous with brats), we would listen to the nuns singing the Latin “Dies irae, dies illa” at Mass on All Souls’ Day even when English was already the liturgical language of the day.

It was very neo-monastic and I would picture the square-ish Gregorian notes swimming in space while I tried to keep my thoughts from wandering. The organ roared and the voices soared, shaking the rafters of the neo-Romanesque, Germanic chapel which, I must say, is the only one of its kind in this country.

Yes, Gregorian was part of our music appreciation class (part of our expansive Liberal Arts education!) and we were taught how to read those funny notes on four lines and sing them right with the mouth correctly shaped. There was no beat or time, just rhyme and round-ish strokes in the air from the conductor. One was supposed to go with the swelling and the receding of the waves, the ebb and the flow of the sound of the spirit.

It takes time and hindsight for one to get to appreciate all these. Today I can still sing some of the lines from the “Dies irae,” particularly the soaring “Lacrimosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla…” toward the end. (It translates as, um, “Full of tears and full of dread, is the day that wakes the dead.”) It is as lachrymose as Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” and “Rex Tremendae” are grand and tremendous.

Today, I can appreciate Gregorian going pop, with “pop-monks” in red velvet robes gregorianizing even the most current songs. Try listening to “Heaven Can Wait.” I must concede that Gregorian sounds best with male voices. I have yet to be convinced that female voices could sound as good.

As we celebrate All Saints and All Souls, our thoughts turn to our dear departed even as our view of the afterlife has changed somewhat over the years. Thank God, the Catholic Church has erased limbo from the landscape of the afterlife. But there is still heaven and hell and purgatory. You either believe or you don’t.

Recently I had lunch with a known literary figure and his wife and as we discussed the disgusting political circus, the corruption, the lies and the betrayals, he said something like, “I don’t know what the afterlife would be like, but one thing is certain, each of us will be judged.”

“Dies irae,” with its arresting tone and somewhat terrifying but hopeful message, will certainly remain a liturgical musical classic. (I think it was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.) There are many translations of the 18-stanza Latin original.

“Dies irae, dies illa, Solvet saeclum in familla, Teste David cum Sibylla….” [“That day of wrath, that dreadful day, When heaven and earth will pass away, Both David and Sybil say…”] The theme was derived from the prophet Zephaniah’s words which should strike fear in the hearts of the corrupt leaders of this land. Why, even last Monday’s “barangay” [village] election, which is supposed to be closest to home and our everyday lives, was not entirely cheating-free.

Zephaniah’s biblical wrath is for those who remain incorrigible: “Jerusalem is doomed, that corrupt, rebellious city that oppresses its own people. It has not listened to the Lord or accepted his discipline. It has not put its trust in the Lord or asked for his help. Its officials are like roaring lions, its judges are like hungry wolves, too greedy to leave a bone until morning. The prophets are irresponsible and treacherous, the priests defile what is sacred, and twist the law of God to their own advantage. But the Lord is still in the city…”

Oh, but he ends with a song of joy. And I can’t help but think literally of the millions of Filipino workers toiling abroad. “I will bring your scattered people home, I will make you famous throughout the world and make you prosperous once again.”

That should bring tears to our eyes. But as to striking fear in our hearts, this much-admired translation of “Dies irae” by Dr. W.J. Jones should do the job. Nature is very much a part of the scenario, so defilers of the environment, hearken and heed.

“Day of wrath and doom impending,/ David’s word and Sibyl’s blending!/ Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

“Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,/ When from heaven the judge descendeth,/ On whose sentence all dependeth!...

“Death is struck, and nature quaking,/ All creation is awaking,/ To its judge an answer making.

“Lo! The book exactly worded,/ Wherein all hath been recorded,/ Thence shall judgment be awarded.

“When the Judge His seat attaineth,/ And each hidden dead arraingneth,/ Nothing unavenged remaineth…

“Righteous judge! For sin’s pollution,/ Grant Thy gift of absolution,/ Ere that day of retribution….”

On the lighter side, All Saints and All Souls will remain among the Filipinos’ favorite feasts. Only Filipinos can celebrate these feasts with so much fun and laughter. Until the West introduced the grossly macabre into our feasting, these feasts were religious and ethnic in nature, solemn but family-oriented and fun too.

As we celebrate these days, let us remember not just the special human beings in our lives who have gone ahead of us. Let us also remember the non-humans, the other creatures that have enriched our lives and this planet. We are all part of a web, of a cycle of life.

A glorious All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.