- Dialogues of the Carmelites as WitnessPatterns of Christian Martyrdom in Scripture, History, and the Arts
On ne meurt pas chacun pour soi, mais les uns pour les autres, ou même les uns à la place des autres, qui sait?
One doesn’t die only for oneself but for each other, or even in place of each other. Who knows?sr. constance, act two, dialogues of the carmelites
Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc and Georges Bernanos is considered by many to be the greatest opera of the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a work of deeply Catholic Christian spirituality.1 As the women in the Carmelite community struggle with understanding their individual and collective vocations, and move toward the ultimate gift of self against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror, they evoke many of the classic themes and paradoxes in Christian martyrdom. Based on the actual events that befell the Carmelite sisters of Compiègne in the early 1790s, the story focuses on Blanche, an unstable young aristocratic woman who romanticizes the cloistered life of prayer and service as an escape from the world. Her fantasies are sharply corrected by the prioress, Madame de Croissy. When the prioress becomes ill and [End Page 40] undergoes a horrific death, the sisters of the monastery are baffled and awestruck, though Sr. Blanche’s girlish companion, Sr. Constance speculates that her death has a significance yet to be revealed in their lives. As a new prioress arrives to lead the community, the upheavals of the revolution disrupt not only the social and political order outside the cloister walls, but invade the monastery and ultimately force the women to choose between melting into the godless new revolutionary society or giving up their lives in witness to their vows. At first, Sr. Blanche runs away from this conflict, hoping to retreat to the world of her youth, though it, too, has been turned upside down with the death of her father and the usurpation of his house where she is now marginalized as a drudge. Mother Marie, a senior nun of the monastery, seeks her out and lets her know that her sisters have made the choice to die under the guillotine. Blanche is now faced with the terrifying opportunity to make authentic her commitments.
The chilling, slicing drop of the guillotine at the end of Dialogues of the Carmelites, and the way the last few notes drop off into silence rather than swell into an ecstatic crescendo—these indicate the true spiritual grandeur of this work. The fact that the opera presents Blanche as uncertain, even neurotic, that Madame de Croissy dismisses Blanche’s yearning for a heroic religious life, and that Mother Marie, who galvanized the sisters into taking the martyr’s vow, is not herself a martyr—all these mark this work with a kind of austere modernity and suggest that Bernanos and Poulenc wanted to challenge any sentimental notions of martyrdom we may bring to the opera. The women are all certainly martyrs, for they make a deliberate decision to “take the name” of Lord Christ and accept public martyrdom rather than renounce their vocations in Christ. In doing so they follow in a tradition absolutely essential to the Christian faith, a tradition whose patterns go back to the beginning of the Church.
In order to deepen our apprehension of this opera as spiritual art, this article offers a broad overview of Christian martyrdom [End Page 41] as religious witness and aesthetic representation. It first examines the fundamental modalities of Christian and non-Christian martyrdom, beginning with Biblical passages that view Jesus as witness or martyr in his death, and those that provide the basis for his followers to present themselves for martyrdom in imitation of Christ and as witness to Christ’s saving power. In particular, the article looks at the scriptural themes of atonement and substitution as they unfold in the opera’s libretto and musical expression. The article also considers the role that stories of early Christian martyrs have played in constructing identities, exemplary strategies, and theological understandings for later Christians who accept the path of the...