An analysis of the first act of “Saint Francois d’Assise”

In the first scene of Olivier Messiaen’s opera “Saint Francois d’Assise”, father Francis and brother Leo are walking near some steps, when Brother Leo utters the line ‘j’ai peur’ –  he is afraid. It’s important to know that Brother Leo says this line in almost every scene he appears in, and therefore this line should not be seen as an event – “brother Leo gets scared, which is a thing that’s happening”, or a situation – “brother Leo is scared, which is going on right now” but instead as a defining feature of Brother Leo. Like in so many operas, characters have Leitmotifs, and Brother Leo’s is this line that he sings.

Saint Francis replies that even if one were to restore vision to the blind, or hearing to the deaf, or cure all the sick, that would still not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo repeats his line, and Saint Francois says that even if one were to know all the secrets of the universe, be able to read minds, and speak the language of angels, that still would not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo repeats his line again, and Francis says that even if we were to convert every being on the planet and be an example of virtue, that would not be the perfect joy. Brother Leo then says: “But father, this is the third time you interrupted me, telling me of all kinds of accomplishments that still don’t bring us the perfect joy. But then, where is the perfect joy?”

“Brother Leo, my little sheep, sit down and listen to what I will tell you”, Francis says, and starts a parable: When it starts to rain, and the men have to walk for hours until they arrive at their convent – soaked, hungry, cold and exhausted – but once there, the doorman doesn’t recognise them and refuses to let them in, so they are left outside with no other option than to knock on the door again, after which the same doorman starts yelling at them, calling them thieves, and still won’t let them in, so once again they have no choice but to try a third time, to which the doorman reacts by taking a big stick and beating them senseless –

If they endure all that, while thinking of the suffering of Christ on the cross, therein lies the perfect joy. The message, distilled to its fundamentals, seems to be: ‘Joy is found in suffering’.

I was never raised in a Christian way. My grandparents on both sides were Christian (Catholic on my father’s side, protestant on my mother’s) but my parents themselves weren’t. For this reason, I can’t help but see this message from an outsider’s perspective. And when seen in that way, intuitively it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Why is joy found in suffering? Aren’t joy and suffering antonyms of each other? Don’t we get joy from good things and suffering from bad things? 

My rationalist brain will then look desperately for ways that this seemingly contradictory statement can be understood, and it came up with 3 possible explanations.

Explanation 1: The ability to endure suffering proves that a person possesses the virtue of resilience. Since resilience is a good quality, we can feel good about ourselves for having it and for displaying it. Since suffering gives us a chance to show this resilience and feel this pride, we can find joy through suffering.

Explanation 2: If we never suffered, we would not know what it’s like to feel real joy. If we hadn’t walked in the rain for 3 hours, the hot shower we take afterwards wouldn’t have felt as gratifying. Only after having suffered, can we appreciate the good things in life. In this way, suffering can bring us joy.

Explanation 3: By enduring the suffering we have to endure on earth, we show devotion to God, and we will be rewarded for it when we die by getting into heaven. The perfect joy is in Heaven – therefore through suffering we reach the perfect joy.

All of these explanations sound as if they make some sort of sense to me. Whether or not you believe that the presented ideas of virtues and of heaven are true, you would (hopefully) agree that the logic used to connect them is sound. And since these ideas, even though they might be debatable, are things that many people believe in, you can understand that these explanations are at least grounded in something, that they’re not pulled from thin air. The problem is that from the perspective of Messiaen, and of Saint Francis as he is portrayed in this work, not only are they all wrong – they are blasphemy

Why? Well, the simple reason is that while all these explanations make sense, they are still based on the non-religious understanding of joy and suffering as being opposites. In these explanations, because we can’t imagine suffering as something that brings joy, instead we make it function as something that will bring joy later, whether it is through a sense of pride, or through enabling/enhancing the joy we find in good things later on, or through some prize God gives us. But this is not the way things work, and it’s morally wrong to think so (according to Messiaen). Because if you suffer purely for the reason that you know you’ll get something good out of it later, you are only doing it to serve yourself. Suffering does not bring us joy later, the joy lies in the suffering. They are not antonyms, but one is part of the other. 

The proper Christian explanation, as explained by Messiaen and my Catholic grandmother, who I had a talk with, is as follows. We are children of God, made so through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but we also have a human self. When we endure suffering, we are not serving ourselves, because our individual ‘self’ doesn’t like to suffer. Therefore, when we endure suffering without the prospect of receiving some form of joy later, without expecting any reward whatsoever, we lose our self and purely exist in relation to God. The perfect joy is to let our sense of self go and be close to God. 

I don’t want to pretend that I think this is a good idea necessarily. I personally like my individuality, and though I understand that there can be something noble in devoting yourself to a greater cause, even without religion getting into it – if you’re a communist, for example, you could translate a similar sentiment into “it is glorious to die for the revolution” – I don’t think that is always the right choice. 

However, what I find most interesting about this idea is the fact that it proves that in the interpretation of a text, we cannot rely solely on our own sense of logic or rationality, no matter how objective or unbiased we perceive that to be. If you want to analyse what a text is really saying, and how to interpret that, you need to be able to empathise with another person’s way of thinking, and accept that something that does not sound logical at all to you will make complete sense to a different human being. In analysis of art, there isn’t an objective truth. There are interpretations, and the validity of an interpretation doesn’t come from whether it adheres to objective fact, but is more related to the question of whether or not we can imagine that the logic of it will make sense if you’re a certain kind of person. The Christian interpretation of Saint Francois does not make sense if you’re an atheist with no context of Christianity, but it does make sense if you are a Catholic who regularly goes to church and reads texts, like Messiaen. This does not mean that you cannot criticise the text from your own perspective or state your disagreement with it, as I did earlier. But that criticism also does not come from some objective logic, but from the logic of your person, someone who had the experiences that you had. And it will be judged not on the basis of some neutral standpoint, but on the basis of what the people who hear your criticism find agreeable and acceptable. That’s simply the reality of interpreting art.

Messiaen has admitted to not being a great writer, but here his lack of subtlety works for the opera in an interesting way. In short, this first scene has given the opera a thesis statement, which Messiaen will defend throughout. In the scene that follows, Francis tells God of the thing he hates most. It’s the sight and smell of a leper. He then prays that he might meet a leper and learn to love him. Francis knows that he will suffer from this sight, in the sense that we all suffer when we are forced to see something that we hate. But he recognises this hate as part of his self, not something from God, and he knows that by suffering (forcing himself to look at the leper), he can lose his self (the hate) and become closer to God (by learning to love – God is love, after all). 

In the third scene, not only does Francis’ wish come true, we also see things from the leper’s perspective – he starts with a solo, complaining about all his illnesses. Francis then appears, recoils twice from the stench, and eventually greets the leper before telling him to repent. The leper just laughs sarcastically: why should he repent for a God that made his life suck so much? From my rationalist atheist perspective, I can’t help but think he’s right, because his position just makes so much sense. If God gives you lepra, why should you want to confess your sins to him and ask for forgiveness? But for Francis, this works differently – by offering his wrongs, the leper can show that he too can endure the suffering without complaining, and in doing so let go of his earthly self to become closer to God. The leper isn’t convinced, but then an angel appears and says: “leper, your heart accuses you, but God is bigger than your heart”. 

I can’t pretend I know exactly what this means, but it convinces the leper who asks forgiveness for always complaining, even to people who try to help him. Francis also does penance: He regrets that he has not loved the man enough. The two men kiss, which is dangerous if one is a leper, but then a miracle happens: The leper is cured! This is one of the major moments for St. Francis. Noteworthy is the fact that Messiaen sees the transformation St. Francis makes – from hating the sight and sound of lepers, to loving the leper and only regretting that he has not loved him enough – as equally important as the transformation the leper makes. Both souls are saved in this moment. A touching part in the scene hints at this, where the leper cries: “I am not worthy of being cured” and Francis replies: “Don’t worry, my son, me neither”. 

(I might continue this analysis later and talk about the second act. While the first act of the opera is very ‘earthly’ and focused on suffering, the second act is definitely more ‘heavenly’ and focuses more on the joys of the divine).

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