“That last note was a bit flat,” my voice teacher mused. “One more time.”
I sighed, drew a deep breath, and dutifully sang a musical scale, my eyes fixed on the bookcase behind my teacher’s piano. Perched on one shelf, in front of scores and playbills, was a strange photograph: a framed image of a guillotine.
“Is that a motivational tool?” I laughed nervously.
He grinned. “Actually, that’s a stage prop from an opera I was in — Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc.”
Taking a break from the music lesson, we talked about Poulenc’s magnificent tribute to the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne — 16 nuns who were guillotined on July 17, 1794 during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
And while Poulenc took a few dramatic liberties, the story of the martyrs’ execution remains intact. Dressed in their habits, the nuns chanted hymns on their way to the scaffold. One by one, they renewed their vows before the prioress; one by one, they laid their necks under the blade of the guillotine. Only with the beheading of the prioress, the last to die, did their worship cease.
In the final scene of Poulenc’s opera, each nun sings until a chilling sound effect — the “dull and heavy” thud of the guillotine — silences her in mid-note. For the martyrs, there is no graceful flourish to their lines, no chance to sustain their tones. They must sing with all their hearts, knowing that their melody will be incomplete.
How strange and beautiful a lesson for those who are left behind. So often we think that the fullness of joy is ours to claim in this life — especially if we seek to serve the Lord. “God, I believe in you,” we pray. “I know you will grant me a spouse” — or a child, or a physical healing, or a just verdict against an offender.
And when the answer is silence, or even the opposite of what we’d asked, we can turn on (rather than to) God: “I trusted you, Lord — why did the cancer return?”
When he seemingly refuses our requests, God isn’t being capricious or cruel. “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” Jesus asked. “If you, then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11, 13)
Instead, the Lord’s mysterious plan embraces all time, all space, all things. And while God is indeed “able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), to him alone belongs the right to decide when and how he will do so.
That divine sovereignty can rankle the believer who hails from a nation founded on a “can-do” attitude. Our faith is mixed with elbow grease and tied up in bootstraps. We storm heaven with our strategic plan, expecting the Lord to meet our milestones for success: a happy marriage, a brilliant career, a secure retirement in good health.
St. Paul had no illusions that his faith would provide such immediate satisfaction. “If for this life only we have hope in Christ,” he wrote, “we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Rather, the “apostle to the Gentiles” sang the melody of his earthly years full-throated, knowing that its final and sweetest notes lay beyond the realm of human hearing: “Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14).
Only this authentic a Gospel could speak to the millions for whom life’s music is too often a lament — the destitute, the disenfranchised, the despised. And only the reality of Christ’s love makes this moment worth living, and eternity worth seeking.
Reflecting on our culture’s impatient search for constant pleasure, Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., observes that “here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
Yet, like the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne, we are called to lift our voices and our hearts, even through tears, until the greatest of all composers leads us in the song without end.