This week is tech week for the New England premiere of Dead Man Walking, which I am in with Boston Opera Collaborative. Because this is where my heart and time are being spent this week, I decided am running a series of posts about the faith and justice issues in the opera. Today I’m writing about Sister Helen’s Act 1 aria “This Journey to Christ” and what that journey looks like in the character’s life and in our own.
Near the beginning of Act 1 in Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking there is a striking aria sung by Sister Helen titled “This Journey to Christ”. I’ll be the first to admit that the word journey has become somewhat overused (it seems like every reality show involves the invocation of that particular trope. Your journey to the Mirrorball Trophy? Really?), but I’ve tried to see past its hackneyed status to think about what a journey to Christ means, and what we can learn about it from the example of Sister Helen’s character in the opera.
I think the characteristic of Helen that Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally choose to highlight is her willingness to go beyond herself and into the lives of others. Let’s face it, becoming a companion of someone on death row is not an easy choice. Leading a broken person through a terrible truth is not an easy choice. Being with a mother whose son has done a terrible thing is not an easy choice. Trying to talk to the parents of two murdered children is not an easy choice. Even the choice she has made long before the opera begins, to join the sisters and devote a life to God and others and not an easy choice.
At many points along the path Helen can say “nope, I’ve had enough” and we see her contemplate that a handful of times throughout the opera. But for whatever reason – inner strength, stubbornness, moral conviction – she remains determined to stay open to loving and serving people. Is this the journey to Christ?
In the aria she sings of many journeys: This journey. This journey to Christ. This journey to my God. This journey to myself. To my Jesus. To this man. This journey. This journey to the truth. But perhaps they are all one journey? Can we go to Christ without passing through ourselves, others, and the truth?
Make me strong, make me wise, make me human, amen.
I know many of my readers have committed themselves in one way or another to a journey to Christ. What does this mean for you? Can you see any of your struggles in Helen’s?
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