(The Metropolitan Opera)

To begin with, there really were sixteen Carmelites, the martyrs of Compiègne. They really did vow martyrdom as an act of reparation on behalf of France, and they really were executed in July 1794. All this would be fictionalized first as a novel, then as a play, then as a movie, and finally, famously, as an opera: Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera for a brief three-night run.

For Poulenc, composing Dialogues was an emotionally intense experience, one which began with a manic spree of activity that would give way to depression and hospitalization. By the time he finished the opera, Poulenc himself was on stable ground, but his lover, Lucien Roubert, was dying of cancer. If his ex-lover Raymond was “the secret” of his previous work, Poulenc wrote to the baritone Pierre Bernac, then Lucien was the secret of Dialogues des Carmélites. Poulenc even entrusted Lucien to his “sixteen blessed Carmelites: may they protect his final hours.” (Lucien would die soon after Poulenc wrote this letter.)

Poulenc’s relationship with Lucien had not been a smooth one. Poulenc had alternately blown hot and cold in his relationship with the younger man, jealously possessive yet wary of losing his own freedom. A year before, Bernac had written Poulenc a pointed letter telling him that he had “worn down the affection of this loyal but not very interesting boy.… You are neither the first nor last to suffer a broken heart.” But the end of Poulenc’s artistic suffering coincided with Lucien’s own sharp decline. In the same letter in which he calls Lucien “the secret” of his opera, Poulenc also tells Bernac, “I am haunted by Bernanos’s phrase: ‘We do not die for ourselves alone…but for, or instead of, each other.’” Was Lucien dying on behalf of Poulenc?

Dialogues tells the story of the (fictional) Blanche de la Force, an intensely fearful French aristocrat who joins a Carmelite community as a way of hiding from the world. The prioress who permits Blanche to enter dies shortly afterward in a state of despair, convinced God has abandoned the community. But despite this, life within the convent goes on: a new prioress is elected, and the Carmelites are largely unaware of the revolution happening outside their doors until they are expelled from their monastery. Mother Marie of the Incarnation, the sub-prioress, convinces all the nuns to take a vow of martyrdom, from which Blanche recoils and then flees. This vow is fulfilled when the sisters (except, painfully, Marie) are caught by the police secretly meeting together. Blanche returns at the eleventh hour, joining her sisters as they go singing to the guillotine.

Like Poulenc himself, Dialogues is the product of a particular French Catholicism, one that spiritualized suffering and emphasized the possibility of suffering in someone else’s place. What it means to suffer or to be spared suffering, to be granted or refused martyrdom, is at the heart of the drama of Dialogues. The martyrdom of the sixteen Carmelites has always existed as an act of spiritual and political significance. So, too, does its artistic legacy.

For their own production of Dialogues, the Met chose to revive an older, minimalist staging by John Dexter from 1977—one of Dexter’s first attempts to show opera didn’t need to be, in his words, “grandiose beyond the limits of Cecil B. DeMille.” Dexter’s stage is, for the most part, bare of props or scenery, and what is there tends to be more suggestive than definite (for instance, the convent is sometimes represented only by a grille). The sparse setting—which, in its own way, works as an illustration of Carmelite spirituality—means that one’s eye is truly drawn to a few objects on stage and to the conflicts, spiritual and political, taking place. This decision also means that there are moments when the set design can quietly support the opera’s own theology of suffering: as each nun walks toward the guillotine singing “Salve Regina,” they exit through the space where the altar of their chapel had seemed to be.

Dialogues suggests, both overtly through its libretto and in the coincidences of its plot, a mystical mortification and substitution that happens in the kinds of suffering we face up to in our lives. There is the actual martyrdom on behalf of France, “to give our lives for the glory of Carmel and the salvation of our land,” in which the nuns hope to absorb some of the divine anger they feel to be focused on their country. But there are smaller moments, too. In the Met’s staging, many of the nuns comfort each other on the way to their deaths, but the very last—Sister Constance, Blanche’s fellow novice and friend—breaks down, tries to flee, and is rescued from her own fear by Blanche’s appearance. Earlier in the opera, Constance votes against communal martyrdom because she thinks Blanche will, too, and doesn’t want her to be alone in that refusal. They mutually save one another from their own fears.

These moments revolve around the decisions of individuals, but they never happen alone. Fearful Blanche, when she joins the Carmelites, requests the title “Blanche of the Agony of Christ.” Initially, this request felt grandiose to me. But in reality Blanche is starting to join her fear with the suffering of Christ, a process that takes place falteringly, but unmistakably. Blanche is timid but wants to be free from her fear, a process that involves not only conquering it (and, as another character suggests, conquering her fear of fear), but ceasing to be alone even in the decisions she makes in isolation. Her suffering is Christ’s, the burden of her fear shared. The nuns who die do so not only for France, but for her.

Yet in some ways the most compelling emotional moment in the opera is not Blanche’s. It is instead Mother Marie’s, who has been so eager for martyrdom, and now faces the brutal fact that she will not die. Marie’s absence from the execution leads her to grapple with what it might mean for God to will her to live, but it also, in a sense, provides the dramatic space for Blanche to appear as number sixteen.

Why does Blanche, who never even vowed martyrdom, get to embrace it while Marie is forced to live? While Blanche fears most to die—enough that she is, for a time, willing to endure humiliation rather than face death—living, too, can be its own form of martyrdom. Marie’s thirst for public martyrdom is quietly rebuked throughout the opera. She must suffer in her own way, and part of that suffering involves knowing that the reason she must go on living will be obscured to most of those around her.


It is hard to believe we really can suffer on behalf of others. Yet it is true that we can—spiritually and materially.

The story of the martyrs of Compiègne was revived, initially, by a German novelist named Gertrud von le Fort. In 1931, she published Die Letzte am Schafott, in which the story of Blanche de la Force first began. Observing the rise of the Nazis, she wanted to remind fellow Catholics of the duty to accept martyrdom—a calling some would accept and others refuse.

The novel, in turn, would be loosely adapted into a play by Georges Bernanos, who had by then fled France and was residing in Tunisia, but didn’t have his copy of the book. What he wrote was more of an improvisation on what he remembered than the actual text. Bernanos infused the story with his own beliefs about vicarious suffering; that’s what Poulenc found compelling about it. Watching the opera, I wondered: What is this call to martyrdom and suffering saying to people—the people in the audience—now? Martyrdom in its most literal sense still exists—one need only look at the recent deaths in Sri Lanka. But most people going to the opera, if they are Christians at all, do not live under the possibility of really dying for something they might or might not believe in. Still, this doesn’t mean that the  commitment to suffering expressed in the opera leaves them untouched; one does not need to die in order to suffer for another person.

Vicarious suffering is not the easiest sell. For one thing, it is not really easy to believe that one person can suffer for—not with, not over—another person. And its potential pathologies have been well explored, including the reasons they can form a large part of women’s spirituality. Suffering, self-denial, and self-excoriation are presented to women as their own particular burden to bring through the world, and in that way are naturalized. But just as posthumous diagnoses of anorexia are not a sufficient way of understanding saints like Catherine of Siena, so, too, the pathological aspects of embracing suffering are not a sufficient way to understand this spiritual practice; even when they are present they are not, by themselves, an explanation.

A refusal to accept the burden of suffering, or a refusal to acknowledge that our lives are not lived for ourselves and contain a meaning we cannot understand, is more of a cultural problem today than the kind of fetishization of suffering that might lead a person to refuse medical care. (The latter, of course, can remain an individual problem without being widely adopted—the solution to one error is not to adopt its opposite error.) Vicarious suffering, much like prayer, is one way of seeing how people are mystically and tangibly connected to one another. It is a rebuke to self-protective fear, to self-preservation, to anything that distinguishes between those we suffer for and those we suffer from.

Much political evil at this time involves refusing to acknowledge this interconnection—between the rich and the poor, between wars and migration. Afraid, not of suffering, but of discomfort, people move toward safety. Fearful and loving parents do not vaccinate their children; fearful and loving citizens support punitive measures toward immigrants. Christians, increasingly fearful that some kind of societal reckoning is coming for them, have in many cases cast their lot in with a strongman who they think can be relied on to protect them.

Christianity is in that sense apolitical, even antipolitical; it does demand the end of such enmity. There can be no division between those the strongman protects and those he defends against. There are many things it might be reasonable to value and protect, but nonetheless, one is not allowed to value or protect them. You must be ready to renounce your family; give anyone the shirt off your back; pray for those who hate you (and for those who, presumably, you hate). There is no person God loves less than myself, and no person God loves more. This belief can be both a comfort and hard to understand. But for a Christian no person is a number and no person is disposable. No person can be first of all, or only, an enemy.

But Christianity is also political—not only in the sense that it demands particular social stances, but because it emphasizes the obligations we all hold toward one another. The rich and the poor cannot be separated from each other. The sort of loyalties, political and otherwise, that seem natural to us may be things God asks us to mortify. Living against our fears, choosing to love and live in self-sacrifice, may be what God asks of us.

When I think about the promise that vicarious suffering makes, I think of another French Catholic, Élisabeth Leseur, who wrote privately in a notebook that

I believe that there is flowing through us—those on earth, those in purgatory, and those who have reached true life—a great, unending stream made up of the sufferings, merits, and love of everyone, and that our least sorrow, our slightest efforts, can through grace reach others, whether near or far, and bring them light, peace, and holiness.

This is both ever-present and very far. It is hard to believe we really can suffer on behalf of others. Yet it is true that we can—spiritually and materially. God promises to us that nothing we do is meaningless or in vain. We really can help one another if we have the courage to do so. This can be a frightening promise. But encouraging, too.

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

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Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: View Contents
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