Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Lurked Behind the Smile

          Like many of my Baby Boomer generation, I fondly remember the French folk song “Dominique”, as sung by “Soeur Sourire”—Sister Smile.  She was popularly known in English as “the Singing Nun”, and her story was immortalized, if in a fictitious way, by Debbie Reynolds in the 1966 movie “the Singing Nun”.  Soeur Sourire was a Belgian Nun, Sister Luc Gabriel, (born Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers), and she lived in a Dominican convent in Belgium.  Though unable to understand the words of the song (I was, and remain, tragically unilingual, despite being born the son of my French Canadian father), I was enchanted by the song, drawn in by its musical joy and the crystal clear voice of its singer.  The music spoke to me of joy and freedom and exultation of spirit.  I scarcely knew, or cared, who this “Dominique” was.  (He was, of course, the founder of the nun’s Dominican order.)  The song became immensely popular, as one might gather from the fact that a Hollywood musical was created based upon the life of the singer.  (Make that “loosely based”:  “Soeur Sourire” herself denounced the film as “fiction”.)
The song now remains in my heart as a cautionary tale.  Despite its breathing a spirit of joy and liberation, the Dominican Catholicism which it celebrated was anything but joyful and liberating.  The pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church specialized in control through guilt.  My father told me stories of how he was told by his church that all Protestants were going to hell, and that it was a sin to enter a Protestant church.  The music band Great Big Sea even now speaks of the joy of losing their “catholic conscience” and of not wanting to “feel guilty all the time”.  (It must be stressed that I am here describing the spirituality of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, not its present state.)
Even the smile worn by Soeur Sourire faded after a while.  She became increasingly critical of the Catholic church of her upbringing and profession, and even recorded a song, under her own name of Luc Dominique, praising artificial birth control, entitled “Glory be to God for the Golden Pill”.  It was, Wikipedia tells us, a commercial failure.  Quelle surprise.  And for Soeur Sourire, there was more sadness to come.  The Belgian government claimed that she owed $63,000 in back taxes, payment for the royalties from her hit song.  She countered that the royalties were given to her agent and her convent, and that she had no money to give them, but she had no receipts to prove her donations to the convent.  After trying in vain to jump-start her singing career with a disco synthesizer version of her hit song to pay for her debts, Sister Smile committed suicide along with her female companion of ten years in 1985, leaving a note citing her financial difficulties.  She was 51.  
As I said, Soeur Sourire and her song remain in my heart as a cautionary tale.  True joy and freedom cannot arise from guilt.  One can sing with a crystal clear voice, strumming a folk guitar in full monastic habit, telling the world that a controlling and regimented community can produce joy, and exultation and smiles.  But it is not so.  True joy only comes from the freedom bestowed by Christ, in which guilt is not used as a mechanism of control, but is recognized as an enemy to be overcome.  This is the authentic Gospel.  And I imagine that even St. Dominic knew this.  

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