It begins with the woodwinds, soft, low and warm. Next the violins enter, at first intermittently, and then the brass burst forth with the chorus shortly thereafter. Forcing the listener to run the gamut of emotions, from fear to joy, horror to relief, and with overwhelming force and great empowerment, this piece tears into you. Leaving one breathless and vulnerable, it renders your soul, bare and open, to God.
Mozart’s Requiem (click here for audio), arguably one the finest pieces in the western canon of music, has for over two centuries awed audiences with its solemnity and audacity. This Requiem has particular meaning, a hidden emotion, behind it. It is very likely that Mozart believed that he was writing his own Requiem, so he would have treated it with the greatest of care. He would have been thinking about his legacy as a composer, but also about the state of his soul. His Requiem is a prayer for the dead, whom he would be shortly joining, and as a Catholic those prayers meant a commendation of his soul.
This Requiem has been performed at the services of Frederic Chopin, Joseph Haydn, John F. Kennedy, Napoleon I, among others. In each of these cases, it was about the soul. The purpose of the piece is to send the soul to God, to proclaim the prayers of rest and resurrection with the utmost beauty and satisfaction. It is played all over the world by some of the finest musicians of our era, but the meaning has changed drastically, just as our society has.
As our society is ever secularizing, so are the ways we approach the major moments in life. I was at a lecture recently given by a Jesuit where we discussed the secularization of death. He made the interesting point that American society has shifted from focusing on prayers for the deceased’s soul to a focus on how they lived their lives. We are now more likely to place emphasis on “remembering the dead as they were.” And this is a dangerous concept.
It would be callous, heartless even, to say that someone doesn’t have the right to remember and to mourn the loss of a loved one. It is a natural part of the grieving process. It is absurd to suggest to a widower after 60 years of marriage, or to the parents of a young soldier fallen in the line of duty, that they should only focus on the afterlife of the person and not hold them in remembrance. We need to remember our loved ones because that gives them value to us and helps to console us. However, we have to ask a very important question: How do we best render the soul to God?
We must remember that there is a spiritual side to all of this, that we need to pray for the souls of the departed. In simply remembering, we cannot have any affect upon the soul—theirs or ours. It is through our prayers, our petitions and our pleas that the soul makes the journey to God. By reducing the individual to a set of remembrances, we are objectifying the human person as a physical creature that we remember for certain material things and not for the spiritual being that we are all created to be. In the process of this reduction, we deny ourselves the spiritual fruits of consolation, of charity, and of eventual joy.
Ultimately, failing to recognize the role of the soul in the grieving process damages our ability to fully cope with the loss of a loved one. We do not focus on the charity needed to render the soul to God through prayer and we do not seek the joy found in the consolation of the complete union formed between the deceased and the Father. Let us not forget what the late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., so aptly described as the human condition: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” And let us not forget the grace and beauty with which Mozart commends the soul to God, be it his own or that of all who “have fallen asleep in the hope of the Resurrection.”