Harrowing Of Hell
November 6, 2022

The Duruflé Requiem–A Study in Light

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Tonight, we celebrate All Souls. It is the service where we remember those who have died. The service is set within the framework of Maurice Duruflé’s requiem mass. Duruflé, a French composer, wrote this mass in response to a commission offered in 1941 by the Vinci regime in France for the composition of a symphonic poem.

Many of you may know that a symphonic poem captures a narrative, within a single continuous section of music. And so, Duruflé did that within the framework of a requiem mass, which, given the dark days of the Nazi march across Europe, seemed very appropriate. As an act of defiance, it seems, Duruflé set within the mass the resurrection imagery of light and lightness as that what casts out the darkness.

Duruflé did not complete this work until September of 1947, three years after the fall of the Vinci government, but he was still awarded the commission prize by the new French Government.

He wrote the mass text in Latin, framed by nine movements, and strongly influenced by Gregorian chant. Duruflé scored the work for solo voices in the central movement Pie Jesu with a mixed choir accompanied by organ (as heard here). He wrote this symphonic poem in memory of his father, who passed five months after Paris was liberated (para: Wikipedia, Durufle Requiem mass).

I invite you this evening during the singing of the service, to close your eyes and let it wash over you. And as you do imagine the sound waves as light waves coming at you from far, far away, from that place where your loved one who has passed, now eternally resides.

In the darkness of the grief that naturally accompanies the death of someone we love, there’s the paradox, for what seems dark is not dark at all, but, as we are taught by our faith, it is only BEYOND our capacity to see.

Astronomers have an analogous paradox called Olber’s paradox. It plays out through the darkness of the night sky; for, as the physicists explain, given the billions and trillions of stars, the sky should be as bright, or brighter than the sun at all times. In fact, the heat from these billions and trillions of stars, over billions of years, should have caused even the dust particles of space to turn into luminescent balls of fire.

But that is not the case, which has stymied physicist ever since Wilhelm Olber, 500 years ago, asked: “Why is the sky dark, when math tell us it should be bright as day? What happened to the light that was there, that should be there, but it is not there now? Where did it go?”

I have the same feeling about the souls of the departed. I am stymied by their “disappearance”, because I believe they are children of God; and I believe that God never puts an end to anything that God loves, so, then, where are they? Why can’t I see them, touch them, talk to them, hold them?

Why the darkness? Where did their light go, and why am I kept from them by the darkness that shades the reality of their eternal glory?

As for the physicists, God shed light on their dark night sky paradox. In the 1920’s Edwin Hubble had an insight, revealed through the new technology of stronger telescopes, that the universe is expanding. That stars and galaxies are moving away from each other at a rapid speed; a speed faster than the speed of light. This insight made possible The Big Bang theory, and also, answered the question: “Why is the sky is dark at night?”

The answer to the riddle is the Doppler effect. We know what this is if we’ve ever heard an ambulance as it races down the street. The sound comes towards us, is loudest in our presence, and then disappears as the ambulance speeds away. This phenomenon has to do with the length of sound waves, called the Doppler effect.

The same effect takes place in the universe. As the universe expands the light that returns back to us from the stars that are accelerating further and further away from us does so through longer and longer light waves that fall within a spectrum of light we cannot see.  It is known as infrared light, which is a spectrum the exists outside our sense comprehension.

And so, there IS light shining upon us from all of the stars generated by The Big Bang. It’s just a light that we can no longer see, speeding away from us toward some new purpose known only to God.

It is fitting, at least to me, that the words of the Duruflé requiem are in Latin. Because, while I hear the words wash over me, and know hidden within them are words about “perpetual light,” “holy light,”“light eternal,” I do not recognize these words, I cannot place them, because of my inability to comprehend Latin. I just have faith they’re there, and by faith their beauty, truth, and grace wash over me.

In the same way we live in a world awash with light, infrared light, that we just cannot see.  It is the light that “In the beginning was the Word, spoken by God, and this word was with God, and this word was God. He was with God at the beginning and all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”

And so, the night is as bright as the day; both day and night are alike, the Psalmist tells us. We know this by faith.

Just as by faith, we know that our loved ones who have died and gone to glory continue to be as vital and soulfully present as they have always been, yet, just beyond our capacity to comprehend.

And so, we have faith. We have faith in the love of God. We have faith in the goodness of God’s creation. And in this faith, it is my hope for you this evening, as your souls are washed over by this requiem mass, that there is an equanimity in your heart, and that there is some ease for you around the loss of the one that you love.

For they are indeed in glory. They are on the other side of the expanding universe, seeing it rush toward them. For them it is light perpetual shining upon them. It is that for us as well, only known and seen by our faith.