Mozart’s “Requiem” and Prayer’s For the Dead

Requiem – Mozart by Gardiner – YouTube.

Over the last few weeks, my girlfriend and I have found ourselves in the presence of some of the most glorious music ever written, including symphonies by Beethoven and cantata’s by Bach.  And while experiencing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony is sublime, the work that I am most interested in addressing is Mozart’s Requiem which we saw performed at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.  I claim no musical expertise.  I play no instruments, my sense of rhythm is shoddy, and my voice is an insult to shower singers everywhere.  Unlike literature and film, in which I have a certain working knowledge, my understanding of music theory and even basic terminology is limited.  I do believe, however, that I can recognize great music when I hear it, and like everyone, I love great music.

That the Requiem was Mozart’s final work (and what a finalé to an astonishing oeuvre!) is unquestioned, but what has become a rather well known piece of music lore maintains that while writing it (at the behest of a generous benefactor) the great composer was well aware of his impending death and focused all of his passion and energies into completing what he might well have considered his own funeral music.  Whether this is true or not (I tend to think so) is up for debate, but the music speaks for itself, and like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, it sings out with the fervor of a dying man’s final plea for mercy on the souls of dying men.  Kyrie Eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  Lord, have mercy on us.  Christ, have mercy on us.  Lord, have mercy on us.

The Requiem’s merits as a work of art and music have been well established, probably from its very first performance, but what of its merits as a work of theology?  I find it very difficult to separate the two, because the very tone, substance, and spirit of the music is derived from its theological intent, namely an extended prayer for the dead: a Mass set to music.  The often grim texture of the music reflects the grimness of its subject matter: death and the hope of posthumous salvation.  As far as I can tell, the idea that the living can, through prayer, influence the souls of the dead–specifically, those souls in Purgatory–is exclusive to Catholic theology (and ancient Orthodox Judaism).  The Eastern mystic might claim that there is no such thing as death, only the transference of one energy into another, thus there is no sense in praying for those who have merely altered states; for the Protestant it might seem like little more than a quaint anachronism, instead claiming that one’s eternal destination is determined in life and cannot be altered afterwards; and to the atheist, the very notion of praying for the dead might seem like borderline lunacy, for death has to it a grave finality.  Yet to the Catholic, it is an essential part of the Christian life dating back to the early, primitive Church, and to St. Paul, and inherited from Orthodox Judaism from before the era of the Maccabees.  There are prayers, services, and Masses devoted to those who have passed away, and none more beautiful than the Requiem Mass.

But beyond the historical evidence which confirms that the public practice dates back a good deal further than many of its opponents would suggest, praying for the dead is inseparably linked to the doctrine known as “the communion of the saints” which holds that what St. Paul metaphorically referred to as the “body of Christ” (i.e. the Church) is composed not only of the living followers of Christ, but of the departed–the Saints in Heaven and those souls in Purgatory.  Salvation, therefore, it would seem, is not a purely individual effort, but one in which the entire body of Christ takes part and is held accountable for.  Unlike Cain who denied responsibility for his brother (in order to hide his crime), we–both the living and the dead–are in part responsible for each others well being, for the body need all of its parts in order to function fully.  Far from being either morbid or sentimental (as it has alternately been accused), the communion of saints and consequently, public prayers for the dead, is a doctrine of compassion and brotherhood in which the intercessor and those for whom he/she prays are bound together in hope and love.

I can be quite certain that the Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints is true and be equally certain that Mozart was in no way trying to prove it by writing the Requiem.  It is not an apologetic work, nor an argument, nor is it particularly cerebral (unless, I suppose, you happen to be a music theorist); it is a work of art–and a great one at that–but beyond that, or perhaps because of it, it is also a work of charity and love in which a great artist utilized his considerable talents for the benefit and spiritual enrichment of those whom he had never met, and provided for all time a voice for the voiceless and a song for those who, like myself, might otherwise never hear that eternal melody.  Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

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Wise Blood, or, the strange marriage of John Huston and Flannery O’Connor

wisebloodPeriodically at my church St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, I host an evening in which I show a film and then lead a discussion afterwards focusing on the finer points of film artistry and how, through the vehicle of art, we as viewers might come to know God more deeply and have a fuller understanding of our own place as human beings.  This past Sunday, I showed John Huston’s Wise Blood and in the following post will attempt to distill 45 minutes worth of discussion into a brief essay on this unique and sadly underseen film.

Paradoxically, the film of Wise Blood succeeds because it is an atheists rendering of a profoundly Catholic novel.  It is this same paradox which perhaps explains why Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew remains arguably the most moving depiction of Christ yet put to film.  Director John Huston’s adaption of the Flannery O’Connor novel is almost startlingly direct, and this is its strength.  Whereas a Catholic or even Protestant filmmaker might have been too taken by O’Connor’s near allegory, Huston is uninterested, and instead presents the story with the textural details of the physical world of small town Georgia, emphasizing character, story, and location, rather than theme.  Huston’s film succeeds because consciously or not, he recognized that O’Connor’s work exists within the physical world, and her themes exist to serve her story rather than the other way around.

Wise Blood is an unusual film by just about any standards and is perhaps destined to always be a cult favorite rather than a mainstream success.  It tells the story of an ambitious young man named Hazel Motes who returns home after being discharged from the Army and promptly begins to preach the Church of Christ Without Christ in which “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay that way.”  Finding himself surrounded by false prophets, charlatans, conmen, and charismatic revivalists (including flashbacks of his fiery preaching grandfather played by Huston himself), Motes’ gospel is one where there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no need to be redeemed, because to Motes, “No one with a good car needs to be justified.”  Brad Dourif plays Motes with all of the zeal of O’Connor’s prose, as does the equally compelling supporting casting, including, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, Amy Wright, and Dan Shor as a troubled young man who becomes Motes’ only disciple.

Hazel Motes fits squarely within the O’Connor tradition of “Christ-haunted” characters.  To her, the South was hardly “Christ-centered” but “is most certainly Christ-haunted” and Hazel Motes might well be the prophet of that vision.  The book describes his obsession by saying, “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.”  The imagery is simultaneously Biblical (referencing St. Peter’s brief walk on the water) and ghostly, the spirit of which is wonderfully captured in Dourif’s performance.  It is from such descriptions that I feel the figure of Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ seems more at home in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor than the work of the Gospel writers, and why that film is so successful as a film and questionable as theology.

But the Christ-haunting of Hazel Motes is not simply for dramatic value, and certainly not to promote any kind of religious hysteria, but because the story is about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.  “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”  Motes must be broken down in order to be rebuilt, and he must lose all that he has been clinging to so that the only hand left to hold onto to save him from those drowning waters is the hand of Christ.  Far from being hopeless and brutal as some readers/viewers have claimed over the years, both O’Connor’s novel and Huston’s film affirm that amidst a world of charlatans and competing religious hoopla, there is a genuine faith to be found; a faith that is seldom easy and often painful (anyone who advocates an easy, pain free faith is probably trying to sell you something), but very real and life-changing.  O’Connor recognized this, and while Huston may not have, he was smart enough to know a good story when he saw one.