Last Saturday night I had the good fortune to be at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of The Dialogue of the Carmelites. Its unlikely subject is the Carmelite order of nuns. The story is based on a historical event–during the Reign of Terror (several years into the French Revolution), the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, France was ordered by the civil government to close and the nuns to cease their religious carryings-on. They refused, and 16 were accused of treason and eventually executed by guillotine in Paris.
The last scene of the opera is one of the most electrifying finales I have seen of anything, ever. The imprisoned nuns, surrounded by a crowd baying for their heads, sing together in soul-rending yet grateful prayer. Then, one by one, they slowly walk off stage, each exit followed by a terrifying shriek of the fall of the guillotine blade. The sound of prayer gradually softens as the remaining group of nuns diminishes. When the last one goes off to her death, the crowd disperses, silently. Finis.
Here is the final scene. It is worth nine minutes of your life, I promise.
I hadn’t seen the opera in about 25 years, but well remembered the finale. What I did not recall was the end of the first act, which this time was just as jolting. The Mother Superior of the convent is not out of Central Casting–wise, loving, maybe a little bossy. This Prioress is skeptical and scalding. She is dealing not only with the French Revolution, but also the end of her own life. From her bed she sings, wretchedly:
God has become a shadow…. Alas! I have been a nun for thirty years, and Prioress for twelve. I have been thinking of death each day of my life, and now it does not help me at all.
In her final moments one nun tells her she need now only concern herself with God. The Prioress shrieks:
Who am I, wretched as I am at this moment, to concern myself with Him! Let Him first concern Himself with me!
The other nuns are not allowed to hear this blasphemy. They are devoted to her. The youngest novitiate sings to her friend:
If I could save the life of our dear Mother, I would gladly surrender my poor little life, such as it is. Yes, on my word, I would offer my life… But really, when one is 59, is it not high time to die?
This was the signal moment for me. It has only been a matter of months since I watched my mother’s final struggle in her bed. She did not have the Prioress’s ferocity because she did not feel betrayed (by God, or anyone). But she did not go gentle into that good night.
I happen to be 59, the Prioress’s age, and the novitiate nailed middle age for me: Had I been living 220 years ago, it would now be high time to die; instead I may be granted, as my mother was, up to perhaps 25 extra years. My last years will still be ‘last years.’ The dividend is dropped somewhere in the middle. No one knows exactly where, which is why no one knows just when middle age begins and ends, and no one is comfortable with the idea of either entering or exiting it. Small wonder, then, that there is no libretto, especially in matters of love.
One thing is for certain, though. This is perhaps the least needy period of life, and small kindnesses go a long way. In the opera, charity is offered reluctantly, and at great cost. In our lives, charity costs little; why not offer it, and see what happens?