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Books blog: The awe-inspiring fortitude of the Martyrs of Compiegne

A detail from a stain glass window at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Norfolk

Bastille Day, commemorating the start of the French Revolution, is on July 14. I would not have thought anything of it if popular blogger, Fr Ray Blake, had not blogged about it. Actually, he did not waste words: under the title “Happy Bastille Day” he embedded a YouTube clip of the final, heartrending scene of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmelites. Watching it makes you realise why the blog title is so deeply ironic: there was nothing “happy” about the French Revolution. As is characteristic of violent political upheavals, it quickly morphed into the Reign of Terror, in which thousands of innocent people were summarily executed.

Included among the victims were 16 members of the Carmel of Compiegne, who were all guillotined on July 17, 1794. What has caught the imagination of composers and writers in succeeding centuries was the nuns’ behaviour at the scaffold; they all renewed their vows and then began the chant of the Veni Creator Spiritus. The novice of the community, Sister Constance, was the first to die. The last was the Prioress, Mother Teresa of St Augustine, who watched over her daughters to the end.

The Community had taken a vow to offer their lives in sacrifice for France and for an end to the Terror. In the event, it did collapse shortly afterwards, with the execution on July 28 of Robespierre, one of its architects, the “sea green Incorruptible” as Thomas Carlyle memorably described him, a man whose personal life of rigid rectitude only made his merciless behaviour on the Revolutionary Tribunal more terrifying.

Poulenc’s opera of 1956, with its heart-stopping finale, was created from a play of the same name by the French author, Georges Bernanos, in 1947. He in turn had been influenced by a novella of 1931, The Song at the Scaffold, by the German writer, Gertrud von le Fort. The book, which I have just finished reading, in an edition of 2001 published by Sophia Press, brings its author’s own imaginative contribution to the actual historical event: she invents a young nun, Blanche de la Force, who is terrified at the thought of such a death and who leaves the convent when its community is in danger – only to return at the final moment and join her Sisters in faith as they ascend the scaffold. Hers is the last voice we hear singing before an abrupt silence descends. Von le Fort emphasises the weakness and timidity of Blanche to make the deeper point, one that all her writings reflect: that we can do nothing on our own; yet by acknowledging this nothingness and not vainly attempting to rely on our own efforts, the more God can achieve through us.

As well as watching Fr Ray Blake’s film clip, I also watched part of the interview with Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Dr Deborah Nucatola, concerning what happens to the organs of aborted babies, on this, now notorious YouTube clip. There has been some discussion about the legality or illegality of what Dr Nucatola is describing: whether it is legal to “harvest” such organs if you are not “profiting” from them and so on. Somehow these legal niceties seem irrelevant. What was being discussed was the execution of thousands of innocent human beings – and the further exploitation of their tiny bodies.

But there is a difference between watching the violent last scene of Poulenc’s opera and the interview with Dr Nucatola: the first was transformed by the Carmelites’ conscious self-offering and thus, despite the horror, awe-inspiring; the second was simply a heartrending glimpse into the mouth of hell.