Recently, I became aware of a fantastic closing scene from a French opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc. This is a YouTube video of the final scene. It speaks for itself.
It’s based on a real-life story of a group of nuns sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Here’s an article about the particular event that inspired the opera, and a more realistic portrayal how the scene may have played out. It’s remarkable in that time and place a cloistered group of women dedicated to prayer would be seen as enemies of the state deserving capital punishment. However, all women’s religious communities in that time were persecuted: the properties of the convents were confiscated, and the women ordered to disperse. Those who refused were sent to the guillotine.
A minor point could be made the religious persecution doesn’t come exclusively from believers directed toward nonbelievers. The experiences of the 20th century in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Communist countries of Asia are about the non-tolerance and strict control of religion by the State. However, that’s not something most of us need to keep in the forefront of our spiritual lives.
The major point for me is about the nature of Faith. The nuns in this scene believe Faith and their Community are more important than Life itself: they gave their lives for others and what they believed. They are no different from early Christians who willingly gave their lives rather than give in to the Roman Empire. There is one challenge I take from stories such as this: am I willing to die for my Faith? Do I give in to a standard that presents itself as superior to my Faith?
One could say it’s not Faith if you’re not willing to die for it. Part of the definition of Faith could easily be that it’s more important than Life itself. This isn’t a question of reason or logic, but of personal identity in view of the greater Reality. Given the choice, no real martyr wants to die. In ancient times there were overzealous Christians that harassed Roman governors hoping for martyrdom; one governor replied if they were so willing to commit suicide there was a cliff nearby they could jump off. The real nature of martyrdom is not a desire to live in Paradise, but a willingness to lay down one’s life for the sake of others.
In Western Culture, there are almost no circumstances where classic martyrdom happens today, however, there are still loyalties presenting themselves as more important than Faith. As I look at my life, I ask myself what I am willing to die for, and that helps me understand which parts of my life are about Faith and which are not. I offer this to you as a challenge as well. You probably don’t literally live and die by your favorite athletic team, your bridge club, or the group you may meet for coffee on a Saturday morning; you wouldn’t gladly walk to your death because you couldn’t give up your alma mater’s team. It’s who and what we’re willing to die for that matter most in our lives, and a good starting place for discerning where our Faith truly is.
Laying down one’s life as the nuns did is about bearing witness to a greater reality. They laid down their lives not only for the sake of their Faith, but for each other, and those who might witness it. We make no greater statement to the world about who we truly are than what we are willing to die for.