Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, on July 17, 1794, 16 Carmelite nuns were executed in Paris during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and the crusade to rid France of Catholicism. These martyrs chose the guillotine over renouncing their vows. I first learned of them at a performance of Francis Poulenc’s modern opera, Dialogues des Carmélites. As I watched the story of these brave 18th-century women unfold on stage, I felt their strength under pressure pulse through me. It was noon on a Saturday in May 2019 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but on stage it is 1789, the start of the French Revolution. Frightened by an angry mob, Blanche, the daughter of an aristocratic family, flees to a convent in Compiègne, France, where she struggles to accept a calling to religious life. Revolutionaries eventually close the convent and strip the nuns of their habits. But a group of them continue observing their religious life in secret. They are discovered, imprisoned, swiftly found guilty on trumped-up charges of hiding arms and are sentenced to death.
In the final scene—set on July 17, 1794—they proceed single file up a cross-shaped ramp, hands clasped in prayer, unwavering, singing the “Salve Regina” until the sound of the guillotine’s blade removes their voices from the chorus one by one. Blanche, who has been burdened by her fear of death and of making a full commitment to her life’s calling, steps out of the shadows and joins her sisters.
While composing the opera, Poulenc became so obsessed with the story that he felt he had actually known these women. In them he had also found a mirror to his own experience in the accidental death of a friend who had been decapitated.
The nuns’ decision to remain steadfast to their vows called to mind my determination not to turn my back on mine.
The opera triggered an uncanny feeling of kinship in me, too—not that my hardships could ever equate with those of the nuns or the composer. Still, we tend to filter the tragedy of others through our personal experience. It is what enables us to identify with them and cultivate compassion.
Crying softly in my seat, I recalled a day 14 years before in a Brooklyn courtroom. The nuns’ decision to remain steadfast to their vows called to mind my determination not to turn my back on mine.
In 2003 my husband sued me for divorce and custody of our children. He was having an affair. New York State had not yet adopted no-fault divorce, so he had to prove I had committed some legal wrong. Given his affair, I had the grounds, not he. But I could not imagine suing my own husband, and I wanted to save my marriage and family. My husband sued me instead.
For years, judges and lawyers pressured me to accept the divorce, warning me they held my future in their hands.
Every time I was called to court, I struggled to be strong and silently recited Psalm 23 over and over.
For two and a half years judges and lawyers had been trying to silence me, wear me down so I would accept the divorce without a murmur.
On June 6, 2005, I was summoned to the witness stand, raised my right hand and was sworn in. I had been given many opportunities to retreat, right down to the morning of trial, when the lawyers scurried in and out of the judge’s chambers, exchanging settlement proposals. For two and a half years judges and lawyers had been trying to silence me, wear me down so I would accept the divorce without a murmur. One judge even encouraged me to move on with the next partner, as my husband had done. “No,” I told my lawyer as we entered the courtroom that day.
By then I had probably been in a dozen different courtrooms. They all looked pretty much the same, but it was the first time I had noticed the small black placard on the wall behind the judge’s bench. It read, “In God We Trust.”
“Please state your name for the record,” the court clerk said. And so it began, the call to remain faithful to my own vows in a moment of deepest foreboding. It would be years before I converted to Catholicism. I had been raised Southern Baptist; and my grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister, had united me and my husband, a nonpracticing Jewish man, in holy matrimony. I’d gone on to study Buddhism for a decade, eventually joining a nearby Episcopal Church with my children. None of these faiths considered marriage to be a sacrament the way the Catholic Church did, and yet I had intuitively always believed marriage to be a sacred undertaking and a lifelong commitment. The trials I faced during my marriage had provided many occasions for me to run, but I had remained.
Some say I have brought suffering on myself by standing up for the promises I made at the altar. In a sense that is true.
I had heard my grandfather preach from the pulpit about the love between Christ and his church, the bridegroom and the bride, and the New Testament’s comparison of the human union to the celestial one. My grandfather pronounced us husband and wife, but God had joined us.
A year after my testimony, the judge dismissed my husband’s petition for divorce. I had stood my ground and won. But my husband simply moved to New Jersey where the law permitted no-fault divorce, that is, divorce without my consent. We eventually divorced.
At the outset, my attorney had warned me that family courts were not marriage- or family-friendly. Their purpose was to effectuate the dismantling of marriages, he said, not to offer support or try to save them. I would not listen. Opposing their agenda came at a considerable financial and emotional cost.
Since then, I have written about divorce and advocated for reform. I have met many other women—and men—who have had similar experiences. We have been shamed and ridiculed, called out in the press and in private. “Idiot,” “psycho” and “insane” are just some of the names I have been called. One reader criticized my work as an attempt to “legislate morality,” comparing my view to that of “the Catholic Church circa 1732.” Some say I have brought suffering on myself by standing up for the promises I made at the altar. In a sense that is true. But the alternative would have been to betray myself.
When did “martyr” become such a dirty word in our culture anyway? And isn’t there a difference between inviting pain for the thrill of it and the willingness to take it on for a greater purpose? The Carmelites embraced it and paid the supreme price for doing so. Ten days after they were executed, the Reign of Terror ended.
Two hundred and twenty-five years later their legacy lives on in every woman—and man—who has ever opposed injustice. By setting the barometer at the highest level, these women have inspired those coming after them to drink from their own well of fortitude. In turn, when they stand, when we stand, we continue paving the road for those who come after us. We may never know whose lives we touch or the fruits of our efforts, but we must nonetheless leave our mark in whatever way we can.