Happy Songs for Sad Times
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 14, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4; John 1:9-14
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” — John 1:10-11
I returned from Paris yesterday afternoon, and so the memories evoked by that marvelous city are fresh in my mind. Today those memories are not so much of the lovely elegance of its boulevards and buildings but of the great events of its history, especially the event of the guillotining of sixteen nuns of the Compiegne Carmelite convent, situated fifty miles north east of Paris, during the Revolutionary Reign of Terror from July 1793 to July 1794.
As they were approaching the place of execution on the Place de la Revolution, now known as the Place de la Concord, the nuns could be heard over the snarling of the mob, especially the sounds of the “September Mothers,” a gang of screeching hags whose weird noise incensed the crowd, singing the Salve, Regina and the Veni Creator Spiritus, and the Regina Coeli Laetare, hymns to the Virgin and to the Holy Spirit. They continued to sing from the scaffold itself, and every time the guillotine fell the sound of song became fainter, until there was only one voice singing, which stopped abruptly with the thump of the blade; but in that moment of silence the Veni Creator Spiritus began again, pure and clear from the very maw of the September Mothers, a little voice, strange and unnerving. Then the mothers found Blance de la Force, and trampled her to death.
“He came to his own home and his own people received him not.”
This story is told in Francis Poulenc’s opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a novel by the French writer Georges Bernanos, based in turn on a short German novel by Gertrud von Le Fort, published in 1931, on the eve of the Hitlerian reign of terror, and called, The Song at the Scaffold.
Why do I give you all this literary and musical history? One, because I want you to experience one of the great moments of all Western art, Poulenc’s music for the mass execution in the last act of his opera, and two, because I want to sound again my usual Christmas theme, which is the power of weakness.
Blanche de la Force is a noblewoman who joins the convent as a girl. She finds that she cannot live the demanding life of the Carmelite order and leaves the convent in some disgrace and more self-disgust. The cause of this failure is her overwhelming fear. She clearly had mental problems that we currently would call paranoia, bi-polar disorder, or something else, but she believed that she had been chosen to share the fear of Jesus, which he suffered because he bore the dark horror of all human sin. Hers was an acute case of sharing the sufferings of Christ.
“But to all who received him he gave power to become the children of God.”
Blanche received him at the most difficult level of his being and became his child, and in the end her fear bore witness to her faithfulness.
So let me at last deliver the Christmas message. Our access to God is proportionate to our vulnerability. We must be open to God and to others, and that means being willing to suffer with or for others, to be dependent on others and therefore to be vulnerable to them. Yes, vulnerable even to their fears. Only in vulnerability to others will we become strong in ourselves, because it is the other who gives structure to my one; The phenomenon of one alone is less than one, while the phenomenon of one vulnerable to the other becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and it turns fear into fortitude.
Blanche’s name de la Force means “from strength,” which in the light of her behavior of abject fear seems to be a cruel irony, until we discover that she had more fortitude than most, being able to inhabit the agony of Christ and to witness in a way that exposed the pathetic weakness of the power of the guillotine. She showed the force of vulnerability, the power of openness and risk, and the true meaning of that much-misused word “love.”
God took the risk of love when he laid himself in our human arms as a defenseless baby. Many of us hand him back, or refuse to take the baby in the first place, but those who do take him become the children of God. They accept the Son of God become the doers of love, accept responsibility for the other in openness and vulnerability, and thus become the strong few by whose fortitude in the face of love’s risk and the pain of rejection, help us fear-ridden fortresses survive, not fully human to be sure, but not utterly bereft of love either.
Dear friends, as usual we have not done more than scratch the surface of the Christmas truth, but rejoice nevertheless, because love is making yet another appeal and another offer; take me in your arms and care for me, and you will discover love, which is simply the description of how much we need each other just to be who we are. We cannot carry the key to our own identity in our selves; someone else has to carry it. Ultimately this baby carries it, so take him.
” He was in the world and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” John 1:10, 14.).