This antiphon was composed by Frei Manuel Cardoso for use during the Matins of the Dead. (Matins is the first canonical hour, occurring at sunrise.) Sitivit anima mea (‘my soul has thirsted’) comes from Psalm 42, and the text is as follows:
Sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem vivum,
Quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei mei,
Quis dabit mihi penas sicut columbae
Et volabo et requiescam?
My soul hath thirsted after God, who is great and living:
When I come and appear before the face of my God,
Who will give me wings as of a dove and I will fly and be at rest?[1. requiemsurvey.org]
As I was reading through the Matins of the Dead, I was struck by the scriptural selections employed. Matins of the Dead is a prayer for the repose of the deceased, so the psalms, prayers and lessons all deal with mortality and the inevitable death that we all must face. However, there is not a despair against a great yawning nothingness, but rather a hope and confidence in vindication. For example, in the First Nocturne Psalm 6 is read, which is the prayer of someone who realizes their sinfulness and need for mercy. The first couple verses capture this well:
LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, LORD, how long?[2. Psalm 6:1-3 NIV]
It is immediately followed by Psalm 7 which continues the narrative being formed by this office: The one who is crying out to God for mercy has received it; now, he seeks vindication from God, confident that God will grant it. The Psalmist uses bold words such as these:
LORD my God, if I have done this
and there is guilt on my hands—
if I have repaid my ally with evil
or without cause have robbed my foe—
then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
let him trample my life to the ground
and make me sleep in the dust.[3. Psalm 7:3-5 NIV]
Such words are the token of confidence that faith in the love and mercy of God can bestow. For Christians, death is not an enemy to be feared, but culminates in the justification and vindication of the righteous. In the face of this, the prayer for the repose of the deceased is not a time of mourning but a time of faith.
Sitivit anima mea occurs in the Third Nocturne, which is said on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It immediately follows another antiphon, Sana, Domine, which is “Heal my soul, O Lord, for I have sinned against thee.” I find this incredibly powerful, both narrative-ly and theologically. The Psalmist has asked for mercy, has asked for healing, and not from sickness or bodily disease, but from sin itself. There is no generalization of some kind of ‘sin’ that floats in the void and compels one to commit it; rather, we can sense the very personal sense in which for the Psalmist (and the person now praying this psalm) this is truly “my sin.” In the depths of that confession is found the fathomless mercy and forgiveness of God, in which healing is discovered.
Once forgiveness is attained and healing is wrought, now the soul can truly begin to ‘thirst for God.’ Before the soul was as if senseless, unaware of its need and wandering in a waterless desert. Now that it has tasted of the well of God’s love, the thirst arises and grows, as if a no oasis could quench this desire. Now the soul is not wandering aimlessly- it is searching, seeking, grasping, groping, trying with all its might to find not just any drink, not just any stream or brook, but the fountain, the source itself. St. Augustine says this:
Let us burn together with thirst; let us run together to the fountain of understanding. Let us long rather for it as a hart yearns for a spring, let us long for the wellspring of which Scripture says, “With you is the fountain of life.” Long for the fountains of water. With God is the fountain of life, a fountain that can never dry up. God has everything that will refresh you. He is able to fill anyone who comes to him. This is what I am thirsting for, to reach him and to appear before him. I am thirsty on my pilgrimage, parched in my running, but I will totally satisfied when I arrive.[4. St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42]
The fact that sitivit anima mea occurs in the Matins of the Dead tells us one more thing: death is not the end of the longing, for the fountain will never run dry. As love that is found beckons one to love deeper and to seek out its depths, so the love for God that has begun in life and been consummated in death will never run out, the soul will always continue its chase as the hart continues its climb to the summit. As St. Augustine says:
In the “house of God” there is a never-ending festival: for there it is not an occasion celebrated once, and then to pass away. The angelic choir makes an eternal “holiday:” the presence of God’s face, joy that never fails. This is a “holiday” of such a kind, as never to be opened by any dawn, nor terminated by any evening. From that ever-lasting perpetual festivity, a certain sweet and melodious strain strikes on the ears of the heart, provided only the world do not drown the sounds. As he walks in this tabernacle, and contemplates God’s wonderful works for the redemption of the faithful, the sound of that festivity charms his ears, and bears the “hart” away to the “water-brooks.”[5. St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 42]