Catholic Hymn You Should Know: Dies Irae
The Dies Irae is the name of the traditional sequence (sung before the proclamation of the Gospel) during the Mass of All Souls Day and during a Requiem Mass. Many know it in more of a classical music context rather than a liturgical context because many composers have composed beautiful and haunting Mass parts for the Requiem Mass. For those who only attend the Ordinary Form of the Roman Mass, you may have never heard this haunting sequence of warning. I certainly did not hear it myself until I was in college or graduate school. My melancholic husband enjoys playing it year round for its magnificent intensity and its always timely reminder that we will all of us someday face the judgment seat of Christ. This past Sunday at Mass, I was informed by the priest that this sequence was actually originally used during Advent, and not exclusively for All Souls or a requiem, which I find fascinating. We usually view Advent as a season of joy and hope and anticipation of the coming of the infant Christ in the manger. It certainly is that! But the priest reminded us with gusto that this season is also very much about preparing for when Christ will come again in power and as a judging King. If his first coming was not what was expected (as a defenseless child), he has told us what to expect with his second coming and we ought to prepare ourselves for that day since we know not the time at which it will occur.
The sequence is credited to the hand of Thomas of Celano, a friend and fellow friar of St. Francis of Assisi, which would place the dating of this Latin hymn to at least the 1200s. There have been arguments for its earlier and later composition, but it is generally accepted to have been written by a Franciscan friar in the thirteenth century. It eventually found its way from Franciscan missals in Italy to the general Roman Missal from which it has been proclaimed during Advent and Requiem Masses for the last several centuries.
We would do well to meditate on the words of this powerful Latin hymn and the meaning it has for each and every one of us: the day of Christ’s judgment is real. We will have to endure it whether it comes after we have died and faced our particular judgment or whether it comes while we still live on earth. Are we truly prepared to face Christ? If not, what must we do to find ourselves separated from the goats as a sheep among the Good Shepherd’s flock?
Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum,
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.
Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus?
Rex tremendæ majestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.
Recordare, Jesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuæ viæ:
Ne me perdas illa die.
Quærens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.
Juste Judex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis,
Ante diem rationis.
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Preces meæ non sunt dignæ;
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.
Inter oves locum præsta.
Et ab hædis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.
Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis,
Gere curam mei finis.
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla,
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. Amen.
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with 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.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth;
All before the throne it bringeth.
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 judgement be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
When the just are mercy needing?
King of Majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
Think, kind Jesu! – my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation.
Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
On the Cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Righteous Judge, for sin’s pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution,
Ere the day of retribution.
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning;
Spare, O God, Thy suppliant groaning!
Through the sinful woman shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope hast given.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.
With Thy sheep a place provide me,
From the goats afar divide me,
To Thy right hand do Thou guide me.
When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel, with heart’s submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition,
Help me in my last condition.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning,
From the dust of earth returning
Man for judgement must prepare him,
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him.
Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest,
Grant them Thine eternal rest. Amen.