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 G 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! OD, 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.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.
"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!"
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.