Monday 19 November 2012

We are Lost and Found Together

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

John Cava, The Communion of Saints

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure 

When we feel passionate about something, it’s hard not to judge those who fall short in passion or conviction; it’s a human tendency. Even a culture that enshrines tolerance as its only absolute emits a certain moralism about its own various canons. In an age of moral relativism, the temptation for people of faith to be moralistic rises too. Yet this is not really what holiness is about. Rather, each of us must personally come to terms with our own need for mercy and forgiveness—this is an absolute non-negotiable of the Christian life.

Literature proves itself to be an exceptionally rich source of theological insight in this regard. In Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, for example, the theme of universal sinfulness and mercy run deep. The play begins when the Duke of Vienna makes known he intends to leave the city for a trip, and will leave its governance in the hands of his cousin, the austerely moralistic Angelo. The latter wastes no time in committing the hapless Claudio to prison to be executed for the crime of fornication with his unofficially-married love Juliet. At the time, Church and society would have considered the couple married, but due to lack of money, they had not published the banns and were not yet legal.

Claudio’s sister Isabella is about to enter a convent of the Poor Clares, a cloistered order, which she only wishes could have an even “more strict restraint.” Before taking vows she hastens to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, arguing passionately for mercy with a shock of insight (the only overtly religious reference in the play):
Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are?
But to no avail. In fact, Angelo begins to lust for Isabella and tells her he will free her brother only if she consents to sleep with him. Shocked and repelled, she visits her brother in prison to convey the bad news. Claudio is disconsolate and urges her to accommodate Angelo. Now doubly distraught, but fearing for her brother’s life, she arranges for Angelo’s actual betrothed, whom Angelo had rejected when her dowry had been lost, to impersonate Isabella and go to him at night. The next day, Angelo believes he has slept with Isabella, but goes back on his word and refuses to pardon her brother. And so it goes. Characters sink deeper into pride, deception, and hypocrisy. Meanwhile the Duke, who had never left the city, and is disguised as a Franciscan friar, observes it all.

At the end of the play, the Duke reveals himself and metes out justice. A conscience-stricken Angelo begs for death for his flagrant sins, but is instead ordered to marry his betrothed: “Angelo, your evil quits you well: Look that you love your wife; her worth worth yours.” Perhaps surprisingly the Duke asks Isabella to marry him (convent life maybe being not the best vocation for the moral rigorist): “Give me your hand and say you will be mine.” Thus do justice and mercy meet, as the Duke declares to the assembled crowd: “I find an apt remission in myself.” There is a sense that the mercy can be given once the sinners have seen their sin for what it was.

The message that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23) is also present in Mozart’s comic opera Cosi Fan Tutte. Two soldiers hold a wager over whether their ardent betrotheds would be faithful in their absence, and pretend to leave for war, while disguising themselves as suitors who attempt to seduce them. When their lady-loves show themselves to be less than infallible during their “absence”, they feel righteous indignation. At the opera’s end, however, their anger is tempered and forgiveness is given all around. All have been humbled. It’s a beautiful moment, a profoundly Christian moment.

All people have their particular areas of surrender to the mercy of God. This is shown poignantly in one last piece of literature, Gertrud von le Fort’s short story, The Song at the Scaffold—which was also turned into a play by Bernanos, and a hauntingly beautiful opera by Francis Poulenc called The Dialogue of the Carmelites. The pathologically timid Blanche has entered the convent to retreat from the world. As the terrors of the French Revolution threaten, the sisters have to come to terms with the prospect of martyrdom, personally and communally. Blanche has a moment of panic and flees the monastery, but finds that her aristocratic father has already been guillotined. Mother Marie, her superior, who had celebrated her convent’s decision to embrace martyrdom, goes out to find her. While she is absent, the community is arrested and condemned. Counselled by a priest, Mother Marie realizes she is not meant to die gloriously after all, a blow perhaps to her pride, and certainly to her expectations. Blanche, however, is drawn to the scene of execution, and sees the nuns slowly mount the scaffold, singing the Veni Creator Spiritus, the hymn that is traditionally sung when offering one’s life to God. One by one, the voices go out, until only one voice is left to finish the hymn. It is Blanche’s, from the crowd.

In the end, all is grace. Its action sometimes takes surprising forms, and usually involves an illumination about ourselves. It shines a light on the hidden areas of the heart, where we cling to control, or fear, or ideology, or a false image of self. Holiness is not about being more “morally upright” than our neighbour, but knowing how profoundly indebted we are to God’s mercy and wrapped in his love. Then we can bask in the freedom that this brings. It means accepting that somehow we share in both the sinfulness and saintliness of all humanity. And when we fall, as it seems we do, we know that the Lord loves us then, as completely as when we remain virtuous. For in the falling and arising, we know the mercy, and in knowing the mercy, discover who we really are: beloved children of the most high God.


  1. Wow, John, this is a fantastic article! Brilliant and clear. I love all the literary examples as well. Much love from your proud sister :)

  2. Thanks, Liz! There's a great quote from von Balthasar on why literature -theatre in particular- can be such a potent spiritual source of insight:

    "The theater has the power to place man in acute, inescapable situations that strip him naked and confront him with the unavoidable question: what is man really, this being that exists in a terrible finitude? His situation in the world is dramatic; try as he might to hide it from himself, the theater reveals it". (Hans Urs von Balthasar)

  3. A very good reflection, John. Thank you. You have given me much to think about.

    I am going from memory here, but I thought the sisters sang Salve Regina at the end of Poulenc's opera.

  4. That's great! It reminds of good old Dostoevsky and why his work is so brilliant.

  5. Thanks Craig. In the Bernanos play and historical accounts, the sisters sing the Salve Regina then the Veni Creator as they mount the scaffold. In the opera the finale is a Salve Regina, but Blanche sings the last verse of the Veni Creator: "Deo Patri sit gloria/et Filio qui a mortuis/Surrexit ac Paraclito/in saeculorum saecula" You might enjoy this version (Blanche sings at 5:38):

    By the way, there was also a film made for French TV in the 1980s; here's a clip of the ending: