Saturday, March 28, 2015

Still here

Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the great operas of the twentieth century.  Francois Poulenc, who composed it in the early 1950’s, used an adaptation of a book by Georges Bernanos that was based on a real event during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.  A convent of Carmelite nuns just outside of Paris was condemned by the Committee for Public Safety for remaining faithful to Christ and their monastic practices, and guillotined one by one before a large mob in a public square.

The opera ends with this dramatic martyrdom, and for more than twenty years I had heard about that amazing scene.  Just this month, I finally had the opportunity to see the opera at the Kennedy Center.   Leading up to the breathtaking finale, we encounter in song the lives of the various women in the Carmel as they grapple with their vocations, community life, and the growing threat just outside their walls.  It is an amazing exploration of human nature and divine faith. 

Mid twentieth-century music, particularly opera, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  This masterwork of art was presented with skill and sincerity in an even more modern, somewhat deconstructed twenty-first century production, in a venue and a culture that has grown immune to, or outright rejected, the Christian faith that underlies so much of the great art that routinely is presented there.  For several reasons, it spoke a truth that could not be ignored by even the most sophisticated, self-obsessed, or secular member of cosmopolitan postmodern arts and intellectual community.
One reason is that Poulenc himself knew what would penetrate the bubble that isolates just such a community, because he himself had been a leading member of France’s intellectual and artistic, and therefore atheistic, avant-garde.  His conversion to Christ came in a remarkably unsophisticated, even tawdry way: a visit to a remote medieval Marian shrine while grappling with the sudden death in a car accident of one of his friends.  He wrote marvelous music for litanies and liturgies, but this dramatization of a historical reality reaches where such devotion cannot.
Another reason is the powerful witness of authentic martyrs.  Bernanos and Poulenc portrayed these holy women wholly, not as plaster statue saints filled with only pious virtue, but rather, real women working out heroism and fear, fidelity and selfishness.  The recognizable reality of human nature made remarkable by real faith in a real, historical act of sacrifice is powerful indeed.
A most compelling reason was the timing.   The Washington Opera launched this production of Dialogues of the Carmelites just days after the Coptic Christians were beheaded on that Libyan beach.  This simple, inescapable fact made it impossible to “bracket” it or buffer oneself against what it portrayed by thinking it was just another over-dramatized fiction, remote and unreal.
I was glad my friend and I attended the opera that evening in our priestly garb.  It was our chance to say, in the context of that heroic act of witness so beautifully portrayed, We are still here!  We, who are Christians; we, who believe; we, who are eager to give witness; we, who are seeing our brothers and sisters murdered for their faith; we are still here.
As we, who believe, unite this weekend to witness Christ’s passion and death on the Cross, Saint Augustine would explain in this way what we recognize and respond to:  Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.”  This is a prayer we can all say.  This is not my prayer, but that of the whole body of Christ.  Rather, it is said in the name of his body.  When Christ was on earth he prayed in his human nature, and prayed to the Father in the name of his body, and when he prayed drops of blood flowed from his whole body.  So it is written in the Gospel: Jesus prayed with earnest prayer, and sweated blood.  What is this blood streaming from his whole body but the martyrdom of the whole Church?

Monsignor Smith

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