Recently I saw a movie that reminded me of a phrase from the Latin mass of my youth. The movie is called Ida. It is about a young novice in a Roman Catholic convent in Poland in 1962. The convent and the whole country have the run-down drabness that one associates with Eastern Europe in the 1960s. As Sister Anna is preparing to take her final vows, her superior calls her in and tells her that first she needs to go visit her only living relative. I am not giving away any more of the plot than has already appeared in reviews when I say that when Anna arrives at her aunt’s apartment, she learns that she is Jewish and that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Both Ida and her aunt set out to find out what happened to her family during the Nazi occupation. When they find what they’ve been looking for, Ida asks, “Why am I not in there?” You’ll have to see the movie to hear the answer and where this journey takes Ida and her aunt. What strikes me about the movie is how its bleak look into depths of death opens Ida to a life of love that totally defies the conventions of Hollywood romance in being banal, bland, and stark, yet almost shouting joyfully in its quiet opening to others.
The phrase is “Death Will Be Surprised,” and it comes from the Latin hymn, Dies Irae, Day of Wrath. Written in the 13th century, the hymn conveys all the emotions felt at the prospect of Christ’s coming as the Final Judge. It is still recited in funeral masses. Non-Catholics are probably most familiar with it from the operatic versions of Verdi and Mozart in their Requiems. After my father died, I listened to Verdi’s rendition over and over again, even though I had left the Church 15 years before. But the Dies Irae that is still seared in my heart after 50 years is the Gregorian chant of the Dominican rite performed by two friars at the Providence College mass to mark the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
A more contemporary, and more accessible performance that captures the ethos of the Dies Irae can be found in the closing sequence of the HBO series about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “Generation Kill.”
As departing American soldiers gather to watch and cheer their videos of that war, over the scratching of an old phonograph record Johnny Cash rumbles the opening line of Chapter 6 in the King James version of the Book of Revelation:
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying, “Come and
see.” And I saw.
And behold, a white horse.
Then he starts singing “The Man Comes Around,” the second verse of which goes:
The hairs on your arm will stand up.
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
Will you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the Man comes around?
A number of the soldiers are upset by what is going on, and with each verse more and more soldiers get up and leave, sickened and shamed by what they see and by their own cheering. As the last soldier to cheer stares alone at the picture of a dead Iraqi, John Cash intones from the King James Book of Revelation, again over the scratches of the phonograph:
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts,
And I looked and behold: a pale horse.
And his name, that sat on him, was Death.
And Hell followed with him. (Rev. 6:8)
I still like the Dies Irae for the same reason I love to listen to Johnny Cash singing “The Man Comes Around,” or to Bobby Dylan singing “When the Ship Comes In.” I like them for the same reason I liked Clint Eastwood even before he started making thoughtful movies. In those worlds, the Adversary gets what he deserves. “Listen to the words long written down, when the Man comes around.”
In the Dies Irae, death will be surprised, mors stupebit, because the dead will rise to meet their Judge, cum resurget creatura. Ida’s aunt, in fact, played this role in Poland after the war. She was “Red Wanda,” the judge who punished collaborators with the Nazis. I will let the movie show you how this turned out for her.
As we wake up, we are not escaping into the Dies Irae’s apocalyptic starkness, “nothing will remain unpunished,” nil inultum remanebit. Rather we are awakening to the starkness of living every day. Death will be surprised because death is not the end, the closure, the cessation of the “big self.” As Gotama Buddha told his friend, Ananda, death is no big deal. It happens every day.
Live openly in the present moment, and we don’t have to wait till Judgment Day for whatever is hidden to be revealed, quidquid latet apparebit. If we’re paying attention… today… the banal… the bland everyday is just as stark as the Last Day. James Kugel became aware of this starkness of “the concrete here-and-now” when that became his whole world as a cancer patient. As he describes, we have found many ways to stop the background music and to open our ears to the deep, but imperceptible sound of open-close-open.
At the end of the movie, Ida also wakes up. She closes her journey through death on an open road, heading towards the simplicity of a bland life. As you begin to realize where she is heading, you can feel the joy of her release, but (or perhaps because) it is hard to see the smile on such a blank face.