Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Take On: The Song at the Scaffold: A Novel of Holiness and Horror in the Reign of Terror by Gertrude von Le Fort

Amid the chaos and horror of the French Revolution, Blanche de la Force, daughter of a smug unbeliever, enters a Carmelite convent. Blanche is so timorous that she seems unsuited to the rigors of religious life even at the best of times - and horribly misplaced as the Reign of Terror begins to stain France with the blood of a new generation of Christian martyrs.
Sister Marie, one of the leading nuns in the convent, receives with joy the death threats of a ham-handed revolutionary: the sisters are going to be awarded the crown of Christian martyrdom! Sister Marie prepares the other nuns for this fearsome sacrifice, all the while harboring doubts about Blanche's ability and willingness to join them in giving up their lives for Christ.
Blanche's life thereafter and the story of the nuns take more than one unexpected twist, leaving you not only with the inspiring, true example of their martyrdom, but also with a penetrating insight into the nature of holiness. The spiritual acuity and deep compassion of author Gertrud von Le Fort make The Song at the Scaffold a unique meditation - as well as a powerfully moving novel, written with unusual dramatic force. It will make your soul surge with renewed and fervent love for God!
It took me awhile to get around to reading this book. Partly because of the format, a series of letters written  by a witness to the horror, and partly because of the subject; that of martyrdom. It's a rather odd phenomenon that I wasn't sure I understood. I have a hard time understanding martyrs. I love GOD, but to die rather than denounce Him? I'm not sure I have the courage, and I didn't really want  to think about what I would choose if it came down to that; my life or the eternal love of God. To actually step back and look at yourself like that, to ask yourself how far you'd go, it's not easy and it's not comfortable. However, it's by looking inward and asking the uncomfortable questions that we grow.
But I digress.

This story is about Blanche de La Force, a ferociously fearful girl who had no trust in the world around her and, literally, saw death around every corner, yet the main part of the narrative focused on Sister Marie, the exact opposite of Blanche. She was fearless and brazen and even looked forward to the chance of becoming a martyr. Through the contrast of these two characters I learned to appreciate and better understand martyrdom. It is not, as Sister Marie saw it, something to strive for, it's a sacrifice that you choose to make, if and when the moment of hardship comes, for the love of God. A statement that embodies the life Blanche lived every day by embracing the her unfathomable fear.
As for the book itself, the format, which I had formerly been so unsure of, made it feel as though I were a part of the story, like the letters were written to me. It wasn't the best writing I've ever seen, that's for certain, but it was impactful. When a twist in the plot would arise, I would fear for the characters as if they were real, though this could be because, in some sense, they were. This novel is essentially a work of fiction, yet it tells a true story at the same time. Religious men and women were persecuted during the French Revolution. They were put to death. And by telling the story through Blanche, something more than the story was told; the people's fear and the very atmosphere of fear that permeated that era are told.

During the story, Blanche struggles with her fear; praying for courage, attempting to hide it from those around her, until, finally, she comes to embraces it wholeheartedly. Her superiors, due to her fearfulness and the political atmosphere, struggle with the decision of whether to let her stay on at the convent or send her home to where thy believe she will be safest.
During one such discussion with the Prioress of the convent, Blanche reveals her feelings concerning her fear:
"Look at me," [the Prioress] commanded. Blanche dropped her hands from her small, tortured face that held only a single expression of endless depth. The Prioress hardly recognized her. A series of quite unconnected images suddenly floated before her; little dying birds, wounded soldiers on the battlefield, criminals at the gallows. She seemed to see not Blanche's fear alone, but all the fear in the world.
"My child," she said brokenly, "You cannot possibly harbor within yourself the fear of the whole universe --" She stopped.
The was a brief silence. Then Madame Lidoine said almost shyly, "You believe then that your fear -- is religious?" Blanche sighed deeply. "O Reverend Mother," she breathed, "consider the secret of my name!"
Some of the Carmelite sisters had names that referred to the life of Jesus. Sister Marie's full name, for instance, was Sister Marie de l'Incarnation, and their names pointed toward how the Spirit would embody Itself in their lives. Blanche was named after the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. She truly believed that her fear was of Divine birth and that it was hers to bear as penance for the world1. It was interesting to think of it that way, and it added yet another layer to the story and my understanding of that period of history and of those brave women. They embrace what ever challenge may arise and offer it up at the foot of the Cross for the salvation of the world.

So, in conclusion! Not only did it take me a while to start reading this book, it also took me some time to digest it, as well. Only after having pondered over it for a good deal of time have I come to any sort of conclusion as to what I think about it and how I feel. The synopsis does say that it makes for unique meditation, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. One thing I've been sure of from the get go, though, is that by the end of this triumphant yet heartbreaking book, I was singing right along with the sisters as they mounted the steps.
I give Song at the Scaffold...
...Three zombies.
A little book with a lot going on. I'd recommend this for anyone wishing to further their understanding of (a) the Revolution or (b) martyrdom. And if you do read it, take the time to mull it over.

Happy reading!
1 Carmelite nuns live penatential lives for the entire world as apposed to doing penance for just themselves. It's a beautiful sacrifice that these real women make, and I only wish that more people were aware of it.
NOTE: I received this book from Sophia Press Institue, free of charge, for review. The views expressed above are my own.


M.A.D. said...

ZG - Thank you for posting such an articulate and well-thought out review! That was honestly well done, my crumbling comrade :D

I've never really understood the *ecstasy of martyrdom/saints* - although I believe it to be quite real. Furthermore, being so ignorant of historical events, I always mentally equated the French Revolution as purely a revolt againt the elite of that time, without any religious persecution at hand.

I think what I least understand (& abhor to the point of wishing to completely disavow myself with any connection to my own species lol) is man's unmitigated cruelty towards man.

To this very day the media is rife with such examples. Maybe I simply lack the courage for such a thing, but it strikes me as distastefully primitive/barbaric. As well as sad beyond measure :(

All that said LOL, you wrote an amazing review, so my hat is off to you (only for the moment! ;D)and I will definitely give this book a read if I can find it!!!

PS - I haven't had much time today as we're jumping on an impromptu yard sale for tomorrow (oh no!)& when I get off of here, gotta price stuff, etc etc.
BUT your ideas are 100% Perfect, and I can't wait to see your button! Just tell me what I'm supposed to do and I'm with ya all the way :D

Pss - your *ah-dor-ing* public idea is TRES MAGNIFIQUE!

M.A.D. said...

OMG - hahahahhahahaha ROTFLMBO

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the button! Seriously, I almost choked on my diet dew when I happened to *glance* over to the right sidebar and saw your *waving arms madly* ... that is SO FUNNY!!

I'm getting it now :D

M.A.D. said...

@ZG - got'er :D
Lookin' good, Vern!!!!

Blank Spaces Have Great Potential...