I just read Georges Bernanos’ screen play, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which was also his last work. It is a fictional account of the lives of the Martyrs of Compiegne in the years and months leading up to their execution during the Reign of Terror. The characters are very loosely based on the actual nuns. I found it to be well written and enjoyed it very much. Francis Poulenc later adapted the screen play into the better known opera, and it has got me thinking about marriage and divorce, which may seem an odd connection to make. Thus this post.
The protagonist is Blanche De La Force, the young daughter of a French nobleman whose wife died giving birth to her. Blanche seeks the Lord, but has a serious flaw in her temperament: she is afraid of the world and its dangers to a marked degree. She takes the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, a foreshadowing of the particular nature of her suffering. Blanche wishes that the cup of martyrdom pass her by, like Christ asked that his own cup pass him by during his Agony in the Garden. It is Blanche’s mission in life to share in this agony of fear and doubt.
The theme of the story is that Blanche, on her own, is not strong enough to pass the test. It takes the sacrifice of three other of her fellow sisters to give her the strength to make the walk to the scaffold. First, the Prioress who accepts her entrance into the convent suffers an unexpectedly painful and emotionally turbulent death. Next, her best friend, Sister Constance, allows herself to be publicly humiliated to conceal Blanche’s cowardice from the other nuns. Finally, the subprioress, Marie de L’Incarnacion is separated from her sisters while searching for Blanche (who has fled the convent) and misses out on their martyrdom, which causes her great spiritual suffering.
Bernanos’ argument is that we are witnessing a mysterious performance of a communion of Saints in the making. These three sisters who had been gifted with greater strength of character have taken on a portion of Blanche’s fear, humiliation, and shame. By doing this, they allow Blanche to respond to the Lord’s call to martyrdom with courage and a song at the scaffold of the guillotine.
This particular operation of the Communion of Saints is described as “vicarious representation and substitution” by Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his analysis of Bernanos’ life and works. Blanche is not solely a beneficiary however, as her own natural weakness and the corresponding suffering is a ransom paid for other members of the Body of Christ.
So it is that Blanche is carried over the threshold by the willingness of these three nuns to take her place… However, none of this should make us forget that all these works of willing, vicarious substitution have found their foundation in Blanche’s weakness and derive their efficacy and power precisely from the way Blanche herself represents the essential weakness of all men before the ultimate challenge: Blanche drinks the cup of fear to the dregs both for herself and in substitution for all others.
“Communion of saints” happens when every member of the Body surrenders his whole being and opens it to becoming but a part of the whole, when he allows his integrity to suffer wounds that make possible the passage through him of the Blood circulating throughout the whole.
Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1996).
The Carmelite nuns who were martyred had intentionally offered their lives to God in atonement for the Terror and for the restoration of peace to France. The Reign of Terror did end ten days after their executions, and even secular historians have acknowledged that their great courage and docility made an impression on the public.
Turning to marriage, I once read a post by a religious describing how marriage is truly a martyrdom on its own. It often is “for worse”, but we like to forget that. We all know of or have experienced (or are experiencing?) marriages that seem to be cursed by the world: poverty, health problems, infertility, difficult in-laws, etc. Some of these marriages fail, and we might ask, why did God allow it to be so hard for that couple? Some particularly good and strong couples endure hardship after hardship. If we find ourselves in a difficult marriage, we might be inclined to give up. What does it matter anyway we might say.
And yet, the data suggests that divorce is contagious. If your friends and neighbors get divorced, its more likely you will too. In his Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos wrote that a communion of sinners exists side by side with a communion of saints. Might our sins against marriage make it harder for others to persevere? By withdrawing, do we prevent the Blood of Christ from circulating to all members of his Body? But if that is so, then our obedience might in some way help others endure, like Blanche’s sisters helped her to stay true to Christ to the very end.
If you are in a marriage that is hard, seems pointless, or is burdened by great hardships, one way to find meaning is to accept that you may be going through it for someone else in the Mystical Body of Christ. Like the Martyrs of Compiegne, you can offer up your suffering for other married couples, like Sister Blanche, who might not have a natural disposition towards strength and endurance of hardship. If you seem to gifted with great reservoirs of strength, like Blanche’s sisters, it may be to bear the burdens of others, even if you will never meet them in this life.