The Song at the Scaffold. Gertrud von le Fort. Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2011; original German edition 1931), pp 104.
One of my favorite operas is a little jewel by Francis Poulenc, first performed in 1957, Dialogues of the Carmelites (Dialogues des carmélites). It is based on the true story of a community of Carmelite nuns that was guillotined during the French Revolution. In the opera, they sing a well-know Catholic hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, as they mount the scaffold – one voice after another stilled by the fall of the guillotine blade until only one is left.
I never paid much attention to the origin of the story – though it probably was printed in the playbills. The libretto is based on a German novella written by Catholic convert Gertrud von Le Fort in the early 1930s. Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold), titled in English Song at the Scaffold), is richer even than the opera it inspired, which is saying a good deal.
There is, for example particular insight into the “religious fear” of the novice Blanche de la Force whose professed name – not by any accident – is Jesus au Jardin de l’Agonie, Jesus in Agony in the Garden. About to be dismissed by her Prioress, Blanche is pushed to answer the question:
“Am I or am I not doing you an injustice by sending you back into the world?”
“Yes, you are doing me an injustice,” she finally admits.
The Prioress sees in Blanche’s face “a single expression of endless depths. A series of quite unconnected images suddenly floated before her: little dying birds, wounded soldiers on the battlefield, criminals at the gallows. She seemed not to see Blanche’s fear alone but all the fear in the world.” This timid girl, she realizes, was not merely prey to the natural fears of an overworked imagination but a sort of victim soul plunged into agonizing compassion that mirrored Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. (p. 59)
The book explores the theme of sacrificial love in great depth. The novice mistress, for example, who feels Blanche is entirely unsuited to the life at Carmel, begs God to accept her as a sacrifice for Blanche so that, “by extraordinary acts of love and atonement,” admission to the community will not endanger Blanche in any way. (p. 36) Events unfold such that the novice mistress’ noble enthusiasm, expressed in so many ways, is humbled, matured, and blessed.
And this is perhaps the story’s most remarkable accomplishment that, in following the author into the spiritual depths of each character, we are brought to understand strengths that, in God, can be built on human weakness. Genuine piety isn’t cheap or easy. At such an historically chaotic and unrepentant time, life in the Carmelite convent mirrored and suffered along with the outside world…and helped it to hear God’s redemptive voice.
One other theme concerns the crisis that may strike a person whose faith is childish and superstitiously supposes that God’s will is the same as one’s own. The convent is fond of turning to Hymn of St. Teresa of Avila, which is also used as a sort of dedication before the story is launched:
I am Thine, I was born for Thee,
What is Thy will with me?
Let me be rich or beggared,
Exulting or repining,
And comforted or lonely!
O Life – O Sunlight shining
In stainless purity!
Since I am Thine, Thine only,
What is Thy will with me?
These words take on stunning layers of meaning as individuals and then, at last, the entire community, is forced to come to terms with their last moments.
Gertrud von le Fort was a Bavarian convert to Catholicism in 1926. Writing in the years before Hitler gained ascendency in Germany, her words about the novel are prophetically striking: “The point of departure for my creation was not primarily the destiny of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne but the figure of the young Blanche. In a historic sense she never lived, but she received the breath of life from my internal spirit, and she cannot be detached from the origin, which is hers. Born in the profound horror of a time darkened by the signs of destiny, this figure arose before me in some way as the embodiment of the mortal agony of an era going totally to its ruin.”
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the editor of the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.