Sunday, 17 November 2013

Praying for the Dead

It is November, the month in which we traditionally pray especially for the Dead.

We should, of course, pray for them on a daily basis (just as we don't wait till May to pray to our Blesed Mother) but in her wisdom the Church recognises the value of having a particular time for especial prayer.

Purgatory, and the accompanying desire, need and duty to pray for the dead, are distinctively Catholic (though finding their roots in Jewish belief, as does so much of our Faith, particularly in the Second Book of Macchabees).

I have long thought that one of the best expressions of Purgatory is in Blessed John Henry Newman's Dream of Gerontius.  Here the soul, on meeting God face to face responds: 'Take me away!' He recognises that he is unworthy - unable even - to stay in the Divine Presence in his present state and needs to undergo painful transformation; and of course longs to do so.

Elgar set this to music in the most wonderful fashion: first the orchestra suggests the final approach to the Throne, and then the awful moment of standing in the Presence of God.  Then Gerontius responds.

Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be, 
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,
Until the morn.
There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne'er can cease
To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest
Of its Sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:—
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.

The full text of The Dream of Gerontius is here; if you have never read the original source for the hymn Praise to the Holiest, you are in for a treat, including many verses you will never have seen.

Oh, and on that subject, Elgar does something very wonderful with that, too… (it starts about 1 minute in; don't skip to there, though, as the build up is well worth listening to as well).

(Never let it be said I only like ancient music, with words in Latin!)

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