Have you seen the Star Wars movies? Or the Lord of the Rings trilogy? How about It’s a Wonderful Life, The Lion King, or The Exorcist?
Then you’ve heard the ancient Christian chant Dies Irae (Latin for “day of wrath”).
No one knows exactly how old it is, with various sources dating it to the beginning of the second millennium or even as far back as St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Either way, it’s been used in Catholic requiem masses for the dead for centuries.
Although the hymn is no longer used as much in Catholic liturgies, in the last few decades it’s been creeping into popular culture. Tom Allen of CBC Music gives a fascinating tour of how this ancient chant has found it’s way into some of the most iconic movie scores:
Here’s a full recording of Dies Irae if you want to hear the whole thing:
The chant has beautiful lyrics in Latin. Here’s one translation into English:
Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from Heav’n the Judge descendeth
On Whose sentence all dependeth!
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers 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 judgment 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, good Jesus, 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 that day of retribution!
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning:
Spare, O God, Thy suppliant groaning!
From that sinful woman shriven,
From 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 favored sheep, oh, place me!
Nor among the goats abase me,
But to Thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me, with Thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel with heart submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition;
Help me in my last condition!
Day of sorrow, day of weeping,
When, in dust no longer sleeping,
Man awakes in Thy dread keeping!
There is nothing wrong with old, it may be better than new.
Oh how the faithful need this once again! The current Rite of Burial does not stress the fact that so many are lost to Perdition, that somehow all are saved regardless. Remember Our Lady of Fatima telling the children that so many go to hell that is like falling leaves. The Dies Irae describes our fate and was the Processional Chant at the beginning of the Latin Rite of Burial.
I couldn’t hear anything but a man whispering. What is that????
Oh my Lord. A throw back to my youth as an altarboy. I’m 70 years old & remember fondly bolting from 6th grade classes at St John the Evangelist school in Binghamton at 10 min before 10am to don cassock & surplice and stand at the ready at church entrance. Somber to say the least. As I approach that inevitable time I consider the Dies Irae as an appropriate part of the final commendation.
The Dies Irae is no longer appointed for use at funerals in the Catholic Church (more’s the pity, IMHO), but it has migrated to the breviary–the “Liturgy of the Hours,” as it’s called. During the final week of the church year (late November-early December) the hymn is divided into three parts, one sung at each of the “hours” of the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer. It fits there thematically, with is emphasis on the end of time and the day of judgment. Unfortunately, the translators of the English edition used in North America dropped it for reasons unknown. But the English breviary is currently undergoing revision, and one of the principles guiding the revision is to restore use of the hymns from the Latin original. So there are grounds to hope that the Dies Irae will soon begin to reappear!