Since the Western World has come under the sway of Jungian archetypes, symbols have, over the last 10 or so years, steadily come back into fashion. There is something rather ironic in all this. Prior to the Liturgical reforms enacted in the wake of Vatican II, the Catholic Church was a wonderfully symbolic and evocative Church. This magnificent Church was then pulverized by the reformers, or rebels (it is difficult to know which) and everyone was overwhelmed by wordiness and explanations. I remember attending an ordination in the New Rite back in 1984, which was quite comprehensible, but like everything in the New Rite somewhat clean and puritanical, and the bishop gave a running commentary on what was going on. In the Old Rite, the symbols would have explained at a deep level what was going on, even though the majority of the congregation would not have understood Latin. Sadly there is a vast amount of words at every level of society, and nowhere more so than in the media, and we have become a society of observers, as opposed to a society of participants. Even worse it seems that with the aid of T.V. and the internet we have become voyeurs, and we live our lives vicariously through soap opera personalities from such dreary series such as East Enders, Coronation Street, and Emmerdale, which I am subjected to once in a blue moon, and am amazed at the sordidness and silliness of it all. One is confronted by adverts about one's "Food Heroes", and one wonders what is heroic about cooking. Admittely chefs have to put up with a lot of heat, but one would not define them as heroes because of conditions in the kitchen and the needs of the importunate clientele. The heroes and heroines are those parents who try to feed their children in famine stricken countries. Sadly superficiality, banality, and sensuality dominate the media, and thus enter the bloodstream of society. People have to invent myths, usually of the science ficition variety, when they had perfectly good ones from the Ancient World. So we end up with people quite happy to believe in aliens from outer space, but cannot believe in devils, and think the story of Adam and Eve are a myth! Such is the stupidity of Western Man.
However I wish to tell you about a wonderful modern myth and fairy tale, namely the wonderful story that is told in Richard Strauss's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" an Opera with the libretto by that great Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The two great men who had given the musical world Der Rosenkavalier as Strauss' equivalent of The Marriage of Figaro, decided to do the same with The Magic flute, and came up with Die Frau ohne Schatten, which translates as The Woman without a Shadow. It is vastly more interesting as a plot than The Magic Flute, but Strauss is no Mozart. Whereas Mozart elevates the bizarre Gnosticism of Freemasonry into a sublime tale of love and heroism, Strauss rises to the occasion and illuminates the wonderful libretto of von Hofmannsthal, which deals with the very ordinary and absolute truth that marriage is ultimately about having children. At the time of writing this great Opera, which was overshadowed by The First World War,most marriages in the West were still arranged by parents, and romantic marriages for many were not the top priority; that does not mean the marriages were forced on the children, but that there was by the parents a judicious and arranging quality, which would mean that the marriage was not either of the couple's first love. What could be more disastrous than if the marriage was a thing of adolescent passion. St. Paul wisely advises marriage rather than fornication, for the former can save, the latter can only damn.
Von Hofmannsthal conceives this wonderful fairy tale around two themes, firstly that marriage is about sacrificial love, and secondly that it is in having children that a man and a woman sacrifice themselves, and in the past how many mothers literally gave their lives to have a child. Child bearing is still a dangerous thing.
There are five main characters, The Emperor, The Empress, the dyer, Barak, and the Dyer's Wife, and the Nurse, who has the care of the Empress. The Nurse is dangerously protective of the Empress whom she is obsessed with. Only two characters have a name, Barak, and Keikobad who is the father of the Empress, and is a god like figure like Sarastro in The Magic Flute. He is never seen but he is constantly referred to throughout the Opera.
The story is essentially a very simple one. The Emperor was out hunting one day and was stalking a deer. His falcon attacked the animal, and as the Emperor was about to slay it, it was transformed into a beautiful being, part woman and part spirit. The Emperor fell in love with her and they were married. The Opera opens on the roof of the Emperor's palace. The malevolent nurse is found on the roof guarding the Imperial couple as they sleep when suddenly the Spirit Messenger of Keikobad suddenly appears and asks why the Empress casts no shadow, which is the symbol of motherhood. The Nurse is then told that "The woman casts no shadow, the Emperor must turn to stone" and the Empress will be given only three days to get a shadow and thus save the Emperor's life. The messenger disappears, and the Emperor comes from the bedroom in order to go hunting for three days to recover his falcon. He leaves the palace just as dawn breaks. The Empress then appears. She has been informed by the Falcon of her husbands fate,and that a shadow can only be found among the world of Men. She induces the Nurse to take her down into the world of Men from which the Emperor has tried to keep her, so that she might get a shadow. The Nurse tries to prevent this by saying that human beings are terrible, whose purity is like congealed blood and old corpses. The Empress will not be deterred.
The scene changes and we find ourselves in the Dyer's house, and the Dyer's wife is trying to cope with her husband's three boisterous brothers, one who is a hunchback, the second who is one-armed, and the third who is one eyed. The poor woman is beside herself with their demands. The problem is not alleviated with the appearance of Barak, her husband, whose sheer goodness does not help either her or the situation of his unruly brothers. He is older than her and patience and kindness personified. Barak finds his shrewish wife hard to understand. He longs for children, she does not, and so after singing a beautiful aria in which he longs for children he gets ready to go to market accompanied by one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, which encapsulates the goodness and kindness of the man. After his departure the Nurse and the Empress appear from nowhere disguised as servants. The Dyer's wife is quite taken aback and wonders whether the Nurse is joking, when she extols her beauty as being beyond compare, and asks the poor woman where her entourage is; then conjuring from the air a diadem of pearls and precious stones, she hands her a mirror, as slave girls extol the Dyer's wife as "Oh Lady sweet ruler". To crown this vision of delights, the Nurse produces a vision of a young man, who the Dyer's wife saw one day, almost in passing and never forgotten, and he sings of his love for her. It is truly a demonic illusion. The Nurse has divined the Dyer's wife's unhappiness and her romantic daydreams. For all these wonderful things that the Nurse has shown the Dyer's wife, she asks only one thing, that the Dyer's wife relinquishes her shadow. The Dyer's wife is informed that she must not sleep with her husband for three days. She is quite content with this bargain, and cuts the bed in two, but is unnerved when she hears voices from the fish being fried in the pan. They cry out "Mother, Mother let us come home. The door is locked. We can't find our way in. We are in the dark and we are frightened. Oh Mother."These are the voices of the unborn children. Then Barak appears from his visit to the market (he has spared the donkey from carrying his dyed cloth) and finds to his surprise that his wife has somehow acquired two servants and has altered the sleeping arrangements. He is informed by his wife that they will not be sleeping together. Resignedly Barak accepts the situation, and hears the voices of the night watchmen exhorting married couples to love one another; "All you spouses in your houses in the town, love one another more than your lives. And know this, not for the sake of your lives is this abundance of life put into your care, but rather for the sake of your love alone."
Barak asks his wife "Do you hear the watchmen child and their calling?" , obviously she does not, and so Act I is brought to a hauntingly beautiful conclusion with the watchmen singing "You spouses who love to live in each other's arms, blessed is the work of your love."
Act II which does not need to be described in detail moves between the Empress's nights in the Falcon House, and her days in the Dyer's House serving the Dyer's wife with the Nurse. In the Barak household we see a more and more restless Dyer's wife who wants to throw of the restraints of her life of drudgery. The Emperor in the strange half spirit world in which he lives is convinced that the Empress has betrayed him for he smells people around the Falcon House. The Nurse is determined to get the shadow for her mistress and the Empress' view of human beings is undergoing a radical conversion, for in Barak she sees goodness and humility. When the Empress is sleeping in the Falcon House, she sees terrible visions of the Emperor turned to stone, with only his eyes remaining open and alive. As the tension builds in the Dyer's house suddenly the Dyer's Wife launches a tirade against Barak, and informs him that she has been receiving lovers when he is out selling his wares, and that she has sold her shadow. Barak shocked cries out "You're crazy" and to his brothers he says,"Light a fire so I can see her face" This they do, and say "She casts no shadow". The Nurse now tells the Empress to take the shadow, but by now the scene is one of mayhem. Barak is determined to kill his wife by drowning her, but a sword appears in the air. He attempts to seize it, but his arm is frozen in mid air.The Empress is aghast and says "I don't wnat the shadow, there's blood on it.", and the Dyer's wife in an ecstatic aria in a moment of pure illumination realizes she does indeed love her husband.
Barak I didn't do it,
I haven't done it.
Listen to me Barak,
My mouth would be a traitor,
before my soul would do it.
Oh You who I have never seen before,
Oh mighty Barak,
You strict judge,
You higher spouse,
Barak kill me quick.
With that there is an earthquake, water floods into the house, and the Nurse says to the Empress "Greater powers are in play; come to me." and hauls her mistress to safety.
Act III is dominated by the great trial that the Empress has to undergo. By the time that the Empress accompanied by the Nurse arrives by boat at the Hall of Keikobad, where she will undergo her terrible test, she has come to the realization that men are not bad and that the Nurse is. She lands by boat at the jetty outside the great Judgement Hall, and banishes the Nurse forever from her presence. The Empress disappears into the Judgement Hall, but the Nurse is not left alone for long as the Spirit Messenger appears and tells her that her punishment is to be sent to live with human beings whom she hates so much. Screaming the enraged Nurse is sent by the boat in which she arrived with the Empress to the world of Men.
Meanwhile the Empress comes before her father, Keikobad, who remains invisible. The guardian of the threshold then appears and bids the Empress to drink of the fountain there, and then the Dyer's wife's shadow will be hers. She hears the voices of Barak and his wife, who are trapped in vaults beneath (They opened Act III with a love duet in the caverns beneath the Judgement Hall). No sooner has the Empress heard the voices of the Barak and his wife than she sees before her in a niche in the wall of the Judgement Hall the Emperor who has indeed turned to stone, and only his eyes are alive. However not only love for her husband must triumph but truth and justice also, and so the Empress wrenches the words out of her mouth "I will not", and in that heroic decision the Emperor is saved and mercy triumps. Suddenly the atmosphere is suffused with joy, the Emperor rises from his throne. The Empress showing true disinterested love has passed the test. The scene changes into a wonderful landscape with a golden waterfall and a rainbow where the two couples meet, and the voices of the unborn children greet their respective parents. The Opera ends with such stupendous and glorious music that recalls the most grand moments of Mahler's Symphony Number 8, "The Symphony of A Thousand".
However "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" is not simply about beautiful music, or costumes and sets that evoke "A Thousand and One Nights", it is about the love of husband and wife being fruitful and sacrificial, that husbands and wives are there to have children, and the children, so to speak, are almost queueing up to be born; something that the Western contraceptive mentality cannot understand, and does not want to. The Dyer's wife is symptomatic of this approach. It is the desire of the modern liberated woman to do whatever she wants. The Emperor is typical of the man who wants to have fun and excitement. At one point at the very beginning of the Opera the Nurse sardonically remarks "His days are her nights, and her nights are his days." The Emperor,is the hunter who wants excitement, and not doubt he has given into blood lust. And it is left to Barak, the real hero of the story to show the way, the way of sacrificial love, the way of service, the way of laying down his life for his friends, but he too almost fails, as we all so often do, and nearly kills his wife. Then from the shadows, so to speak, emerges the Empress, who has lived in a closed world where she has been cossetted and loved, but has not been faced with reality. Seeing Barak's patience, the Dyer's wife temperamental and resentful behaviour coupled with her own Nurse's dishonesty and manipulative behaviour, she is faced with the reality of what married life entails; namely patience and true heroism. To her is given to heal the harm that others have done by their selfishness, which in the case of the Dyer's wife has almost made Barak, her husband a murderer. The Empress, by being less than honest with the Emperor, has trusted the Nurse rather than him, and so has unwittiingly tempted him to murder her. Everyone, then, is made to realize that married love enobles only when the spouses are ready to die for one another. Married love is the utter antithesis of selfish love, and in some ways it is, if not opposed to erotic love, aware of its dangerous potency and intrinsic pull towards purely sensual gratification.
It is sobering to think that the World Premier of "Die Frau ohne Schatten" took place in 1919 in Vienna After the carnage of World War I. That terrible war which was precipitated by the Austro Hungarian Empire making war on Serbia, in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Quite what the Viennese made of this exotic opera, which recalls all the exotic world of the Arabian nights with the profound moral and religious insights of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, would be hard to know; especially when by this time they had no Emperor, and no Empire. However in just over ten years from the premier of the opera, the Lambeth Conference of The Church of England would say that it was quite alright for married couples to use contraception, and so began the great betrayal by so many Christian Churches throughout the World, which saw no problem with the sensual and the selfish being the dominant partners in marriage. It reminds me of something I heard 40 years ago, when I was a 19 year old liberal Catholic just about to go up to University, but even I was struck by the crassness of it all. A girl, several years older than myself who was working with me at Harrods, said that her fairly wealthy parents had said to her that they would have liked to have more children than just herself and her brother, but then they would not have been able to give her and her brother a lovely home with a swimming pool. The sheer depressing nature of such a materialistic utterance 40 years ago has now become the norm, for not so many years ago, good friends of mine, a married couple, and good Catholics, shocked Italians at Mass one Sunday in Italy because they had three children! The mind simply boggles that three children could have been seen as too many. Again and again the absence of children and young people in our Churches in the West is not simply about them not going, or lapsing, they simply do not exist.
What matters for modern men and women is that they have a life without suffering, a life without the Cross, a life with few children and many things, and a life that is grey, sad, and leading them towards damnation. Like the Emperor they are turning to stone, like the Dyer's wife they are consumed with bitterness because life is hard and not exciting enough, even when their spouse adores them; the spiritual does not matter at all, all that mattes is materialism, the sensual, the sensuous, and the inebriation of the senses. They think that they can swim in this luxriance of sensual delights, but what in reality happens is that they begin to drown in it. How many entertainers, especially singers in the Pop and Rock industry start off as talented, if somewhat naive people and are ruined by applause, adulation, drugs and drink. In this orgy of the senses purity is easily lost, and the great witness of sacrificial love is lost, sometimes forever. It is interesting that Whitney Houston started off as a devout Baptist girl and dies supposedly of the effects of a combination of drugs and drink, while Donna Summer, having started off as the rather risque Queen of Disco music, rediscovered her Christianity married, and had children, and faced her end with dignity and courage. It is so easy for all of us to be seduced by fame and applause, which are pathetic substitutes for true love. However in our unbelievably sexualized world, the concept of true love is almost beyond comprehension, because Western Man and Western Woman do not want to suffer. If they will not suffer for another they will never know what love is or happiness, and they like the Emperor will turn to Stone.
The softness of Western Society is turning people into stone, destroying a real love of life, real love for one another, and worst of all destroying a real love of God. In the sanitized societies of Scandinavia, where the suicide levels seem rather high; this is certainly true of Sweden, and in Britain where children born out of wedlock far outstrips that of any other country, and that would include America. One wonders is there any hope? Of course there is great hope, but that will only come when all seems lost, and hope is fast disappearing, as despair darkens the Earth. That time is most probably perilously near, but it is at such moments when great men and great women appea,r and more to the point great saints. And so, if we are to be truly people of the gospel we must say, when faced with the choice to do the evil offered us, rather than the painful good required of us, "I will not" whatever the cost, just as the Empress says when faced with making another woman barren so that she can have children, and her husband can be saved. The reason why the West has so little to offer in art, culture, politics, and even sadly in religion, is because it has given into pride and selfishness, and in the secular sphere this is masked by such remarks as "Because your'e worth it!"
and "I've got to look after No. 1". In the realm of Christian spirituality, whatever that means these days, we are called on to value our gifts, and affirm each other, and then laughably, we encouraged to understand "The spirituality of authentic self-esteem". There is no place here for the absolute awfulness of sin and its tragic effects.
Somewhere I read the following and noted it down, for it seems in one sense to sum up the message of "Die Frau ohne Schatten" and obviously it shows up the failure of so many contemporary Western Christians; " For reasons which are still obscure, the modern Western psyche cannot endure the thought of being under judgement, of having all one'sthoughts and actions definitively summed up by the Supreme Judge. To maintain what they regard as healthy self-esteem, modern Christians excuse most transgressions, define sin in terms lie "failure to grow", and shut out even the possibility of Divine punishment."
So when people seem oblvious to hearing the Gospel again, and when their jaundiced view of Christianity has blinded them to the truth and Divinity of Christ, God will use any ruse to draw them back to his love, and I wonder if this great opera is not one of those ruses, a way back to heroism, a way back to love, and a way back to God.