Yesterday I watched François Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, with a libretto by Georges Bernanos, at the Met, and was utterly entranced and destroyed. The opera follows a young woman in the 1700’s with a severe anxiety disorder, Blanche de la Force. Despite her last name meaning “strength,” she feels unable to deal with a world that is constantly triggering her anxiety and so retreats to a convent. She relates her suffering to the agony of Jesus from the fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the Mother Superior warns her that the convent is not a refuge.
The Mother Superior, unable to help Blanche in life due to her own physical illness, offers her death to the younger woman, voluntarily and mystically taking on Blanche’s anxiety during her own death. She dies in fear, unable to connect to God. But this will have important consequences for Blanche later. Blanche’s friend Sister Constance suggests the Mother Superior got someone else’s death “by mistake.” It wasn’t a mistake. The Mother Superior respects Blanche’s decision to take the name “of the Agony of Christ,” which she herself wanted originally, but she also fears for her and wants to help her, because as she was told as a young woman, whoever enters the agony never leaves.
In the second half, the convent faces closure due to the French Revolution and martyrdom seems on the way. The new Mother Superior, Madame Lidoine, suggests that such an honor is not for these “humble women” and like servant girl called to the throne by a king, they had better pretend they didn’t here. Of course, in the story of Christianity, if Mary had ignored the call of God to an unexpected honor, the redemption of the world wouldn’t have happened! By contrast, Mother Marie, another nun, errs on the opposite side, wanting everyone to take a vow of martyrdom, hoping their deaths will save France. This expectation leads Blanche to flee. Even though she had recently confronted her brother demanding respect as an adult and a comrade in battle, that was when the convent was still a refuge from anxiety, a place where she could feel safe even when she was not physically safe. Now the convent is another site of anxiety.
Mother Marie, despite her mistake, is ultimately the only person besides the original Mother Superior who treats Blanche as an adult and an equal. Finding her working as a servant and feeling herself contemptible, she tells Blanche that the important thing is not to despise oneself. As she had previously said, the only way to conquer pride is to rise above it. Pride is an important safeguard from doing contemptible things, but it too must be overcome, not by becoming contemptible, but by no longer having contempt for weakness. It’s Blanche’s weakness, the original Mother Superior said, that God wants, her agony. God is in her anxiety, even as her anxiety rules her life and keeps her from her faith.
Blanche is finally able to accompany her sisters to their martyrdom, even though Mother Marie, the most enthusiastic to become a martyr, is by chance spared. As the martyrs sing “Salve Regina,” they become like Mary, finding a balance between Mother Marie’s eagerness and Mother Lidoine’s hesitancy in being called to a great honor. Blanche, the last to go, sings “Veni creator,” a hymn to the Holy Spirit—because her illness is an illness of the spirit, I believe. But she does not die experiencing anxiety. The original Mother Superior’s death spares her that, and she dies calmly.