Coda: Grace Notes
Grace under pressure: Blanche (Patricia Racette) and Madame de Croissy (Felicity Palmer)
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
I first encountered Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites as a happy and unapologetic atheist. It was November 1983, at a Metropolitan Opera revival of the elegantly austere John Dexter production that had its premiere in 1977 and had already attained classic status. It was a seminal moment in my theatergoing life; few works have taken hold of me quite so powerfully as Carmélites did. Many of the nuances of the sisters' conversations escaped me, but this was not a bad thing: like a great novel, Carmélites left me hungry to achieve a deeper understanding of what it was all about.
In particular, I was mystified by the notion of grace — the central idea that Poulenc examines throughout the opera. The quest for grace is a concept that touches all of the principal characters in Carmélites, but it positively haunts Blanche, who, when we meet her in the first scene, is a study in anxiety. "There is something eating away at the very core of her soul," says her brother, and later in the same scene, Blanche admits that she feels that "every night of one's life is like the night of the Agony of Christ." She announces her plan to enter the Carmelite order to find "a cure for this dreadful weakness" that plagues her. At the scene's end, she announces melodramatically, "I give my life to Him, I abandon all, I renounce all, so that He may restore me to grace."
Once Blanche enters the convent, however, she is disabused of this idea. When she tells the ailing Prioress, Madame de Croissy, that she desires a life of detachment, the older woman points out, "But what does it avail a nun to be freed from everything if she is not also set free from herself — that is to say, from her own detachment?" She warns Blanche that "it is not the purpose of our Order to mortify the soul, nor do we propose to safeguard human virtue. We are only a house of prayer!" Like Sister Luke, the protagonist in Fred Zinnemann's superb 1959 film The Nun's Story, Blanche must learn to put aside her own struggles and ambitions — her most basic sense of herself — if she is to adapt to religious life.
As I said, I was unprepared at that time to grasp what these ideas meant. I grew up in a family that was quite vocal in its distrust of any organized religion. Once, when I was going on a Sunday fishing trip with my father, we passed the local community church, where it seemed every car in town (except ours) was in the parking lot. Since this particular church, in the name of high-mindedness, always led the charge in firing the local school principal, my father said, "Well, it looks like it's Kick Somebody in the Ass Day." Once I moved to New York, I had a knack for befriending jaundiced types who wore T-shirts that read "I SURVIVED CATHOLIC SCHOOL," one of whom observed that he might like Dialogues des Carmélites better if the nuns were beheaded at the beginning and the rest of the opera was done as a flashback.
But as time went by, and my love for Carmélites only grew stronger, the idea of achieving grace began to make some dim sense to me. My own personal definition is a kind of throwing off of armor, of resistance that we may not even know we have — a quieting of the soul that may make us receptive to life-altering change within us. The Catholic Church once taught the concept of "sanctifying grace," a term I think is not used as much as it once was — an invitation for us to remain in that state of openness habitually, or as habitually as possible.
In Poulenc's opera, does the dying Madame de Croissy's denunciation of God mean that she has fallen out of a state of grace? Probably not. I think we are meant to believe that her physical torments simply overpower her momentarily. Of all the characters in the opera, Sister Constance may be the most in tune with the idea of grace, since she intuits that Madame de Croissy has died a death that is too "small for her," and that a person of lesser substance will be amazed by how easily she meets death. Constance also exhibits great selflessness in taking the rap for Blanche's vote against the vow of martyrdom. If there is anyone in the convent whom grace seems to elude, it may be Mother Marie, the aristocrat who is resentful that she has been passed over as the new Prioress in favor of the peasant woman Madame Lidoine. Mother Marie also exhibits a chillingly by-the-book attitude toward Croissy in her hour of greatest need; she is for me the opera's thorniest character.
When I turned fifty, I became a Catholic, something that stunned several friends and family members. They continue to ask me how I can support an organization marked by scandal; how I can square my adamantly pro-choice views with church doctrine; how I can accept the church's views on gay marriage. I can only answer that my faith is not rooted in church hierarchy but in something I still don't and may never fully grasp. A friend wisely said, "Catholicism isn't supposed to be easy." For me, it isn't. Perhaps because I do not find getting older a place of refuge or peace, I still view the promise of grace, even as I may consistently fail to achieve it, as an immensely powerful idea.
Next month's Met revival of Carmélites will mark the first time I have attended the opera as a Catholic. Will this make any difference in how I respond to it? I think that's overreaching, not unlike Blanche in her quest for heroism. In Parsifal, Gurnemanz says, "Fools are we to seek for remedies, where salvation alone heals." Some believe that a great work of art is supposed to enlarge your view of the world; I think it's enough that I am grateful to Dialogues des Carmélites for doing just that.
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