It’s the time of year when the veil is thin. I think of my parents. I don’t pretend to know where they are now. I don’t pretend to know what I still need from my parents, much less what they need from me.
Although sometimes for an instant or two, I have a feeling.
My parents’ parents: Immigrants on one side, and children of immigrants on the other. And the parents of those, mostly speaking tongues I don’t know. And so on and on. How far back? How many parents of parents? Even within just historical time, it’s quite a crowd of ancestors I’m linked to.
Most of this crowd for the last, oh, 1000 years, were immersed from birth to death in that great morphic field called Christianity. (A notable exception: my mother’s father, that Polish cartomancer, who left behind precious little besides a crystal ball and the bill for his burial.) A tradition with so much outpouring of energy, over so many generations, takes on a kind of life-form, an organizing structure–morphic resonance, if you will. The gestures of the Mass and other rituals reside in that field. Monks, chanting the psalms and the Divine Office in Latin daily, created a powerful field. Somewhere in the ether, you can hear the sound of all those voices, all those feast days, seasons, centuries. In the ether, and in the stones of old cathedrals and monasteries, soaked in vibrations that wash over a modern, selfie-snapping visitor, perceived or no.
Christianity’s Bible–in Latin, the Esperanto of the Middle Ages–is an integral part of that field. Oddly, our prissily data-driven mindset would judge Christianity’s standard Latin version of the Bible as, um, not all that great. St. Jerome was the translator, and his tour de force was to translate the Bible’s Old Testament directly from Hebrew and Aramaic, rather than from an intermediate Greek translation. But working away in the 4th century he of course didn’t have access to the latest 21st century cache of unearthed scrolls and texts. He did the best he could, producing the translation known as the Vulgate (from versio vulgata, “the version commonly used”). And the Vulgate was THE Latin Bible for all of Roman Christendom, for centuries. King James? By historical standards, way less influential than the Vulgate, if only by virtue of its upstart status (16th century, and springing from Anglican sources rather than Roman) and the utter provincialism of being written in–gasp–English.
Modern scholars have of course debated at length about the best, most faithful and accurate translation of every single word in every single book of the canonical Bible. So while not as florid as the King James Version, so beloved by the English language itself (which allowed itself to be shaped by KJV cadences), and certainly without the build-up of etheric substance that coats the Vulgate, these modern translations presumably allow for us to better know what God really meant–or at least what He said, leaving us to figure out the meanings ourselves.
However. The great ponderers in the Christian tradition, like Ambrose and Thomas Aquinas, pondered the words of–the Vulgate. Monks chanted psalms as written in–the Vulgate. So here’s a centuries-old tradition of chant and of theological inquiry, all based on a somewhat inaccurate rendition of the Word of God, now grown into a palpable resonant field. It’s delicious, really. Like counting the number of angels on the head of a pin, but miscalculating the area of the pinhead in step one.
But it’s all good. Because the chanting and the pondering were what mattered in the end, more than the words. Salvation isn’t really content-driven so much as it is a slaking of spiritual thirst. When it really matters, you drink what’s handy and reasonably clean.
The chant that comes to me at this time of year–the one I sing often these days, for my Christian lineage and especially for my parents–isn’t actually from the Bible itself. I don’t know where the words–or the melody–come from. But it’s been in the field for a long, long time. The chant is In paradisum, the antiphon sung after the Requiem Mass–the Mass for the dead. This was traditionally sung when transporting the body out of the church. (There’s another chant for when the body is being put in the ground. The morphic field was highly elaborated.)
Although the church got modern and relatively chant-less by the time my parents died, I happened to know and love this chant. So of course it rose to accompany me then. For me it has an everlasting claim on that liminal period when they each went, one by one, out of this life we know.
Here are the words:
In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.
The English translation goes like this:
May the angels lead you into Paradise, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you, and like Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.
To be honest, a lot of poetry moves me on a fairly surface level. But the poetry of this chant speaks to my core. It was there to channel my fiercest wishes for my loved ones. It’s not just nice words, poetic thoughts, this one. Though I wonder about Lazarus–was he poor when dead, or when raised from the dead, or when dead for the final time? (In any case, we’re implicitly assured that by the last go-round, he found rest.)
You may have mixed–or purely negative–feelings about Christianity. I’m with you, I find it a bit problematical myself–I have my grandfather’s crystal ball, after all. But you also may have ancestors who heard this chant all their earthly lives and hoped–maybe hope still–that someone would wish these wishes for them. If they haven’t found eternal rest, they may be longing to hear it sung for them. Here’s a recording I made if you want to hear In paradisum, or sing it yourself. Time’s not linear; you could give it a try, for the sake of those before you or even those yet to come. Or for your own sake.
May the angels lead us all to Paradise.