Today I showed the finale of Dialogues of the Carmelites in a lesson on the French Revolution. This opera is so extraordinary from a dramatic standpoint because the characters are drawn so sharply. When each Carmelite goes to the guillotine you know that it comes from an unshakability that has been seen in different manifestations over the course of the opera.
The devotion displayed in this opera can be really unfamiliar to a modern audience. Viewers might imagine that their martyrdom is accepted out of some vague allegiance to an institution, but I think it goes deeper than love of the Church. I found myself wondering why we don’t see such firm stances today.
But don’t we? In politics and civic life everyone is hung up on their opinion, and we all seem deeply committed to our beliefs to the point of unreasonableness. Even in religion people are desperate to be right. I can’t decide if we live in a world where no one is willing to take a stand or where everyone stands too firmly.
I remember a vocal coach once telling me “Be sure, don’t be right”, warning me against the ridiculous pursuit of correctness over conviction. Correctness in many cases is fluid, integrity is not.
Today the Carmelites called to mind four very different martyrs, the churchwomen in El Salvador. They were able to remain peacefully in a dangerous situation because they knew who they were, and they knew that staying is what issued from the deepest recesses of their hearts. I imagine the Carmelites did not want to avoid the guillotine by sacrificing who they were. Their identity didn’t lead them to say “I’m right and you’re wrong”, but “I’m sure, and I’m me”.
After work today I had Charles Ives’ 114 Songs waiting on the doorstep. I settled into the couch to flip through it and came upon a piece with the text “How can I turn from any fire, or any man’s hearthstone? I know the longing and desire that went to build my own.” This is from a longer poem by Kipling titled “Tolerance”, a word which has long been irksome to me. But I like Kipling’s vision of an acceptance of other people’s religious faith because of the value we place on our own. We can be sure without being hung up on others being wrong.
I have not yet been given any evidence that I am called to martyrdom, but I am called to discover and shape my own identity. I don’t think I can truly know others until I understand myself, and I don’t think any of us can undertake acts of great devotion without knowing to what we are devoted and having the integrity to follow that path.