Dialogues of the Carmelites

(E) You usually go to the Opera to have an entertaining and social evening with your spouse, family, or friends. But what about going to the Opera to listen to a religious and sad story? That is what a few opera lovers did this year by attending the performance of the “Dialogues of the Carmelites” from the San Francisco Opera. I attended the performance, and I believe that was one of the first times, that I saw on a Saturday night so many empty seats.

Dialogues of the Carmelites” is the true story of sixteen Carmelites in Compiegne, France who were asked to close their convent after the first French Revolution of 1789 in a period called “La Terreur” from 1792 to 1795.

The Opera is from Francis Poulenc, and was first performed in Milan in 1957.

During the Revolution, Maximillien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, proclaimed “liberty, equality, and fraternity” to the people of France. But while the French Revolution brought a wave of changes that give more freedom to the country, it also destroyed the lives of those who were the humble servants of the Catholic Church.

The nuns of Compiegne believed that they should also be able to live to the fullest their faiths in full harmony with the values of the French Revolution “liberty, equality, and fraternity”.

They preferred to dye together, building on their fraternity, each true to each other, respecting their equality, and renouncing to living in order to fulfill their commitments to God, and so expressing their desire to dye in order to keep alive their own freedom.

The performance of the San Francisco Opera is a pure chef d’oeuvre.

Some of the religious songs are magnificently sung by the sixteen opera singers who play the nuns.

And the various stages of the opera, designed by Olivier Py, such as the inside of the convent, the gardens of the convent, the jail, the earth, the sky are built with black and white lights. Nothing else.

To better learn from the inspiring story of the Carmelites of Compiegne, here is a text by the Rt Rev. Dr. Marc Handley Andrus from the Episcopal Diocese of California:

Overflowing Love: Faith in Dialogues of the Carmelites

We in the Bay Area live in one of the least religious regions of the United States (and the world, for that matter). Well over 90% of us don’t attend church, mosque, synagogue, or temple regularly. And if we look at people in the under-30 category, that percentage of non-participation in religion goes even higher. Given who we are, what does Dialogues of the Carmelites, an opera about the deaths of a group of Roman Catholic nuns in late 18th-century France, have to say to us? I believe this important opera continues to direct our hearts towards love and sacrifice, as it did when first created, and has expanded to reflect our world today—one we know as deeply interconnected and still with need for the miraculous. This commentary explores the dynamic, wherein the Beloved Community is healed through love.

The religious landscape of the 1950s was far different, even in San Francisco, than it is today. When Dialogues of the Carmelites had its U.S. premiere in 1957, you could still use religious terms like “Main Line Christians” and it would have some currency in conversation. Religious language and practice cropped up in schools and other formally secular spaces with regularity. 

The cultural shock waves of the 1960s, however, were just around the corner. Georges Bernanos, who wrote the play on which the libretto for Dialogues is based, may have been anticipating these upsets, with doomed nuns standing in for a whole religious and cultural complex that would be changed almost beyond recognition in the years and decades to come. 

The content of Dialogues of the Carmelites is essentially theological and spiritual and expressive of a religion-steeped culture that was passing. Within that mid-century religious structure, fading as it was, were two potent realities that have grown and evolved since then: The idea of a world interconnected by love (then called the Communion of Saints), and a path for healing wounded souls by means of sacrifice for the other. 

While both spiritual concepts are expressed in Dialogues in terms of strict Christian doctrine, they can now be seen in a broader context. The Communion of Saints has evolved to a new incarnation as the Beloved Community—a community that embraces all of life, not only the saints of the Catholic Church. Awakened hearts within the Beloved Community have the power to heal by the offering of their own life force for the sake of the wounded; not only can saintly nuns mystically heal the fearful and broken, all have this capability. 

The Communion of Saints at the time of Dialogues was likened to a body, all the parts connected to all others. The breath and blood of this sacred and immense body was a particular kind of love: agape, a Greek word that is often translated as “unconditional love,” “sacrificial love,” or, as I translate it, “overflowing love.” Agape love is now seen to be a universal, a cosmic force, at work everywhere, and with everyone.

The second spiritual concept found in Dialogues is even more striking and more fearsome than that of the Beloved Community. While I might wish to be a healer, if I have even a glimmer of awareness, I see that healing isn’t something objective but is costly, requiring an outpouring of my love, my life. Dialogues presents this idea through the figures of two nuns, one historical and one fictional. The fictional sister, Blanche de la Force, is presented as a timid person, who hopes to escape the Terror in Revolutionary France by taking refuge in the Carmelite convent. To our surprise, however, Blanche goes to her death calmly, courageously, full of faith. 

The Mother Superior, Mme de Croissy, a historical figure, is almost the opposite character from that of the novice Blanche. The Mother Superior is self-assured and grounded; she is a leader to be looked to and trusted. Yet, contrary to our expectations, she goes to her death racked with fear. What has happened to account for these surprising reversals? Bernanos, suggests a bold spiritual equation: The Mother Superior has already died Blanche’s death. Or, put another way, she has taken on Blanche’s fear, healed her of this fear so that Blanche could die a good death. 

While not taking away from the cost that self-sacrifice entails, it is crucial to say that loss and pain do not have the last word. Agape may be best understood as not only sacrificial love but overflowing love because this kind of love originates in the Divine and pours forth eternally from the Divine. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Corinthians, “Love never ends.” 

Dialogues was not the first work of fiction to articulate this bold idea of healing by sacrificial substitution. Almost a decade before, Charles Williams—a fairly obscure editor of Oxford University Press—began to explore the idea of substitutionary love in a series of highly imaginative fantasy novels. Williams was part of a group of writers that came to be known as “The Inklings,” which included C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In Williams’ hands, substitutionary love is already not the property of any one faith or religion. In the novel Descent into Hell, Pauline is a modern young woman, not particularly religious with respect to external practices, but a person with a purity of heart and a disposition towards compassion. Her sacrificial, overflowing love works to ease the death of one of her ancestors, who died a fiery martyr’s death hundreds of years before Pauline’s time.

That agape love has the power to heal across time and space may seem a dubious concept. Clergyman and activist A.J. Muste, who put his life on the line many times during protests for workers in the early 20th century, witnessed to the power of agape in this way:

If the ultimate expression of violence is killing the opponent, the ‘aggressor,’ the ultimate expression of nonviolence or soul force is quite as obviously the willingness and ability to die … [on behalf of another]. The pacifist must be ready to pay that price … The suffering need not be sought. Indeed it must not be. Martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom is suicide by exhibitionism, not redemptive [sacrifice]. But we may not seek to evade suffering. It must be voluntarily accepted. The model for accepting such sacrifice is passion and death … Then God has entered into history and its course has been forever changed. Here is released the power which in the political and social realm is the counterpart of the fission of the atom and the release of atomic energy in its realm [emphasis mine].  

Dialogues has an urgent message for us today, a message that takes the two themes of the Communion of Saints (the Beloved Community) and substitutionary love as they have been transformed in the decades since the San Francisco premiere, and offers them to us, to apply to wounds of the world and of our own lives. 

Healing and being healed is vividly before us today. We witness healthcare providers working tirelessly in COVID wards before vaccines afforded protection, firefighters literally jumping ahead of flames, and countless voices calling for change when those on the margins become scapegoats—all these are moments of choice when we can be agents of compassion or recipients of healing, drawing on overflowing love. It is likely that most of these courageous people don’t consciously intend to be healers, and almost certainly they don’t imagine that they might be agents of spiritual transformation as presented in Dialogues and Descent into Hell, yet the opera has shown us that the possibility is there.

There are so many reasons to attend the opera. One reason is to nurture our own imaginations, to expand our own sense of what is possible. Let me close with this quotation attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven, and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if, when you awoke, you had that flower in your hand? Ay, what then?”

Let me suggest that two flowers we might pick from the heavenly garden that is Dialogues of the Carmelites are an understanding of the Beloved Community, the community of all life held together by overflowing love, and the possibility of healing within the world by means of our willingness to accept the burdens of others. When we leave the opera, carrying these flowers, “Ay, what then?””

Note: The picture above is from the San Francisco Opera.

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