This summer, a lot of things hit me in a way that only God could have coordinated.
This summer, I went to Europe for the first time ever. In the small northern town of Arona, Italy (right on Laggo Maggiore), I had one of the most profound musical experiences of my life thus far. First of all, this beautiful town was just so overwhelming because everything felt new and different. The sites, the food, the language, the people, the air. I think I fell in love with that town the second I looked out over the lake and just took in how amazing the world can be, how beautiful God’s creation truly is.
As if that weren’t enough, I was also tackling an opera role that I’d never listened to before. I didn’t even really think I’d ever sing this role, but I’m so happy I did. My opera program was doing a concert version of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and I was going to sing Angelica. I didn’t really know anything about it, because Puccini just isn’t my cup of tea (it’s an unpopular opinion, I know). But I knew it was going to be a challenge for me, so I began learning and listening a few months before I arrived. I couldn’t listen to this opera, let alone sing through it, without crying. The story was so moving, so tragic, and so real. I followed her journey and felt so connected to her. It was daunting-how was I going to deliver a portrayal of this woman’s life without letting it consume me?
If you don’t know the story of Suor Angelica, here’s a brief summary. At a convent in Italy, a group of young novices and nuns socialize in the garden sharing prayer, gossip, and daily life. Sister Angelica is the convent’s apothecary and usually keeps to herself, giving help to whoever needs it, praying daily, living piously. The other young nuns see her as an outsider and give in to gossiping about her life before the convent–rumor has it she is a royal princess who was shunned to the convent years ago and hasn’t heard from her family in seven years. The nuns discuss their hopes and dreams, even if those hopes may not be rooted in piety. When Angelica’s one advocate, Sister Genevieve, asks her what she desires, Angelica says she doesn’t have any hopes or wishes. Immediately the other girls gossip and say she’s lying–clearly she’s been waiting for a letter or a visitor from her family. Of course, in good operatic fashion, the visitor bell suddenly rings through the courtyard creating excitement among the girls and anxiety for Angelica. One of the head nuns soon appears and calls Angelica to the visitation room, informing her that her Aunt, the Princess, has come to see her. Angelica is overwhelmed and cries out to the Virgin Mary, asking for help–she has waited for this moment for seven years. What should she say? What should she do? Can reconciliation be reached? Can her life of service be enough to prove she is redeemed? When her aunt appears, she is cold and distant, almost ignoring Angelica’s presence. She informs Angelica that her younger sister is getting married and she needs Angelica to sign over her inheritance. Angelica is happy to hear her sister is grown and engaged, but finally confesses to her aunt that all she wants…is to know how her son is doing. And so it is revealed that Angelica’s sentence to the convent was because she became pregnant outside of marriage and brought disgrace on her family. Her aunt at first refuses to answer her question, but Angelica’s final plea has her show a glimmer of mercy. Her son, two years prior, became very ill and died. Angelica immediately collapses, overcome with shock, grief, and disbelief. She signs her inheritance away and her aunt leaves her to process this news alone. In her grief, Angelica asks when will she be allowed to leave this earth, when her pain will end, and when she will be reunited with her son. In her grief, she believes she hears her son, from heaven, calling her home to be with him. And so she makes herself a potion of poisonous flowers, drinks it, and hears a heavenly choir tell her that soon she will be reunited. As soon as the vision dies away, Angelica realizes she has committed suicide–the “unforgivable sin.” Soon, the music gives way to hysteria, and Angelica cries out for mercy, asking for forgiveness. She only did what she did to reunite with her son, who she felt she had abandoned (even though he was taken from her). Out of her desperate cries, the Heavenly choir returns once more singing of her forgiveness and salvation, and as Angelica succumbs to the poison, she sees her son in heaven walking towards her.
I think that this story, this woman, resonated with me so much because haven’t we all been in her shoes in some way? She made a mistake, and the world punished her for it. Her family could not love her or forgive her. They claimed to be a pious and religious family. And so the only option was to shun her and hide her away and tell her she had to live a life of service to atone for her wrongs. Angelica has a reputation with the nuns as always following the rules, always serving others, always in prayer. I truly believe she had herself wrapped up in the belief that if she worked hard enough, she would earn her forgiveness. And I’m not even sure if it was forgiveness from God or from her family–perhaps for her, they were one and the same because of how she’d been raised and because of how she’d been abandoned and punished. She has waited and waited for seven years, hoping that her waiting would not be in vain. Her prayers to the Virgin Mary are so sincere, and perhaps she even sees a bit of herself in Mary–a mother who has a son taken from her.
When her aunt visits, she hopes beyond all reason that her aunt has come to forgive her, maybe even bring her home. It’s quickly seen that her aunt wants nothing to do with her–all she sees is Angelica’s sin, and sin is contagious. When it’s revealed that her son died two years ago, there is so much that goes through her mind. If her son died, then what was it all for? She let him be taken from her after his birth, she accepted her sentence of the convent, and she believed if she lived a life of service and prayers, maybe it would all be worth it. Because at least her son was living a full life, having everything he deserved. But now…two years and no word to her until now? He’s been gone for two years, and she’s lived her life believing he was growing, learning, living. Two years of her service and humble acceptance…for nothing? Two years have passed, and if her sister wasn’t getting married and her aunt needed her signature, would she have ever been told he was dead? If she gave up her son, and he died, then what kind of mother was she? What was all this waiting for?
I think in some ways, she believes she’s abandoned her son. That she wasn’t ever a good mother to him…in her aria Sensa mamma, she says her son is without a mother, that she only got to kiss him once, hold him once. When she decides to join her son in heaven, I don’t believe that God asked that of her–she is so overcome with grief and in her delirium, cannot imagine another day in this world if her son isn’t in it. When we feel we’ve done wrong, we want to do everything we can to make it right. When we are overcome with grief, we want the grief to end.
When she realizes she has taken her life by drinking poison, the gravity of that choice overwhelms her. Once again, she’s made a mistake. The last mistake she made, the people who she thought loved her, the people who represented God to her, rejected her. They shunned her, guilted her, and punished her. Now, she’s committed the unforgivable sin–suicide. Now, she won’t be reunited with her son. Seven years of working towards forgiveness and she wasted it all in a moment of grief.
And here’s the beautiful juxtaposition of Suor Angelica: she makes this choice to end her life, fears that once again she will be rejected and condemned even though she is asking for forgiveness (just like she did when she got pregnant), and God does not do what the world did to her–He does not condemn her or punish her. He hears her plea for forgiveness, He sees in her heart that she is truly sorry for what she has done, and He forgives her and brings her home to her son in Heaven.
I think that there are many of us in this world who believe that if we work hard enough, make enough penance for our wrongs, that we can make a dent in the list of mistakes and wrongs we’ve committed. Because that’s how the world works, right? If we do wrong, and want reconciliation and forgiveness, we must complete actions that show we are truly sorry. That’s how humanity operates. But the beautiful news is that that’s not how God works. In Psalm 130, the Psalmist declares, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Ps. 130:3-4). Angelica’s family kept a record of her wrongs, and they held it over her. But God does not do this–he sees her brokenness and desire to be whole in Him, and brings her home. Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew declares in his Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Now, this is just one part of an entire message, and context is everything, but the hope found here is immense: we no longer live under the burden of the law. The Law God sets out in the Old Testament is still valid and we should still abide by it in service to God, but Jesus came and fulfilled the Law, he took on our sins (all sins, past, present, and future) and paid the price for them once and for all. What this means for Angelica is that God did what was True and Good, and the world did what was filled with bitter cruelty. God convicts us so that we see our need for Him, so that He can love us fiercely. Angelica realizes her sin–the act of taking her life out of grief–and immediately pleads for forgiveness. The beauty is, God had already forgiven her.
She waited for seven years. I believe she would have waited for so many more. Early on in the opera, her first true line of independent thought is where she tells the other nuns that flowers are allowed to bloom and fade, much like humans, and isn’t death the most beautiful part of life? It’s clear from the beginning that this poor young woman is burdened by her past, she is most likely suffering from depression. And no one really sees it, except perhaps her friend Genevieve. She is balancing on a high wire, pinning her existence on maybe one day finally hearing news of her son, of her family. What do we do when we are waiting for reconciliation? How do we not live in a self-imposed purgatory? How do we go on living life and not waiting for something to happen? In this kind of waiting, are we perhaps living life too much in the past?
The Israelites in the Old Testament live in the desert for 40 years. God provides for them during this time, even though they don’t really deserve it, and at one point, they complain and say “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3). They didn’t like the unknown, they didn’t like feeling helpless or vulnerable. Why not just long for the past, where, even in slavery and captivity, at least they understood their enemy, they understood their day to day existence. In our waiting, do we long for the past because it’s “safe” and “what’s known”? In periods of waiting, we too can feel like we are in a desert.
And then, God gives us this:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
In your time of waiting, in what can seem like a desert, do not forget that God will do a NEW thing. He will carve out a stream, he will fill it with clean, fresh water. He will provide. What he has started he will complete. Because it’s what he promises, and God doesn’t break a promise. Even if that promise is fulfilled according to His timeline, and not ours.
Perhaps these conclusions are quite deep and overwhelming to draw from one musical experience. But I believe God gives us what we need when we need it most (even if we don’t know we need it). He knew that role was something I needed, a character I could attach myself to and live into. Because if we don’t breathe life into our art, how can we proclaim the human condition and point back to Christ? So, to Suor Angelica–you beautiful, broken, humble soul–you changed me. You helped me see what it is to wait, to see how waiting for earthly forgiveness and reconciliation can be a desert, but that true forgiveness and reconciliation comes from God making a stream.