Sunday, November 30, 2014

A time for rousing.

With the Advent Season rolling around once again, conversations in the real world and online have led me to conclude that this might be a good time to once again share a series of Advent reflections first posted on this blog five years ago, partly in hopes that they might thereby gain some new readers. Though I may revise some of the others before posting them again, the text of the first such reflection is posted below exactly as it was first presented in 2009. Readers wanting to get a copy of the book referred to below may find it in various versions, including an older English translation (the one I used in preparing the original reflections) as well as a newer and apparently more complete translation, and naturally also the German original. I note that Father John Zuhlsdorf is also recommending this book for Advent for at least the second year running, and I would be happy if the attention gains some new readers for a modern spiritual classic.


Christmas is not a good time to be caught unawares. As the annual hype surrounding "Black Friday" reminds us, it's usually a good idea to start one's Christmas shopping as early as possible. Putting off Christmas shopping until the last minute can be risky: you may get lucky and find some bargains, but you're more likely to find half-empty shelves that may not include the items you were looking for. Whether it's a matter of finding the right gifts for loved ones, obtaining and decorating the right tree, or planning the family dinner, Christmas is a time when it generally pays to be prepared - not just materially and physically, but spiritually as well.

Preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Christ is no easy task. In the Christian East, the "Winter Pascha" of Christmas is preceded by a forty-day Nativity Fast that partly mirrors the penitential season of Lent. For Roman Catholics, the task of preparing spiritually for Christmas begins today with the First Sunday of Advent. Many churchgoers look forward to the sights and sounds of Advent - the four candles of the Advent wreath, the strains of hymns like Veni, Veni Emmanuel - but I suspect that relatively few take the time to reflect on the grave task that confronts us during this season.

In the modern age, few have articulated the meaning of Advent with as much clarity or force as the twentieth-century German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was murdered in February 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. From December 1944 to January 1945, as he sat in Berlin's Tegel Prison awaiting execution, Father Delp produced a series of reflections on Advent and Christmas that would later be published in a book called Im Angesicht des Todes (In the Face of Death), translated into English in the early 1960s as The Prison Meditations of Father Delp. Early on in his reflections, Father Delp explains that Advent is a time for our awakening to the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God:
Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go of all his mistaken dreams, his conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretences with which he hopes to deceive himself and others. If he fails to do this, stark reality may take hold of him and rouse him forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

The kind of awakening that literally shocks man's whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. A deep emotional experience like this is necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord. A shattering awakening; that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. There can be no proper preparation without this. It is precisely in the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden threat which binds earth to heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fulness it is capable of realising and is called upon to realise.
A few pages later, in a meditation on the First Sunday of Advent, Father Delp explains what the process of awakening that we undertake during this season is really for. In Advent, we discover anew the necessity of the Incarnation and the purpose of human striving for God:
Unless a man has been shocked to his depths at himself and the things he is capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, he cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely-inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly:

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment.

Secondly it must be recognised that it is God's alliance with man, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement towards fulfillment. But this also means that in his progress towards fulfillment man is vulnerable; he is perpetually moving towards, and is capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.
As we prepare to celebrate God's coming among us, I pray that we may take Father Delp's words to heart. As we reflect on own unique personal failings and weaknesses, may we become more conscious of our need for redemption. As we awaken again to the truth about ourselves, may we come to appreciate more fully the gift of the Incarnation. As we seek to understand the true meaning of Advent, let us prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Canadian Churches and the First World War.

Here is some good news for Remembrance Day: Yesterday I received a copy of Canadian Churches and the First World War, a newly-published collection of scholarly essays on the impact of the Great War on various religious groups in Canada. I mention this here because the British edition of the book has one of my photos on the cover, duly credited in a blurb on the back. The photo in question first appeared in a Remembrance Day post published here two years ago, and I was both surprised and moved when a representative of the publisher contacted me a few months ago and asked for my permission to use the image; as you can see from the results, I readily agreed.

For me, one of the strange things about keeping a blog is the unpredictable results generated (and not generated) by one's work. Oftentimes, posts that took considerable time and effort to produce and reflect a great deal of personal commitment seem to receive little or no response, while other posts that were quickly and less carefully assembled generate positive comments. In some cases, the most gratifying response comes long after the post was published - such was the case with the Remembrance Day post mentioned above, and such was also the case with a 2011 Holy Thursday post discussing Rudolf Mauersberger's motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, on which account I later received appreciative mention in the liner notes of a CD featuring a new recording of the same motet. It's all a bit of a mystery to me, and rather than seek to provide an explanation I'll rest content to note the phenomenon and to give thanks. As I do each year on Remembrance Day, I also give thanks for all those who have sacrificed their lives so that others might live. AMDG.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Dies irae, dies illa.

As is now my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below as well as my commentary are identical with what I have provided in years past; I now chuckle a bit at my line about the hastiness of the translation and its need for improvement, as I have yet to find the time to actually sit down and do the serious work of revising the text. In any event, I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

Attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the sense of the original faithfully and in a style that flows well in English without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex 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 meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
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 Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I to say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.