La Bohème | Notes on Living

Alfred Pages, La Vie de Bohème | 1885, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Alfred Pages, La Vie de Bohème | 1885, oil on canvas, Private Collection


Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows’
Isaiah 53.4

Art is common, and so is death. But the combination of the two tells us something different about life each time, for it moves us to ponder the realities of human fragility more deeply, and to contemplate the possibility that fragility is the portal of strength of a different nature.

Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the crowning works of the operatic repertoire. Unlike the stream of parallel narratives of jealousy, betrayal, revenge and murder that pervade most of the classics, La Bohème is atypically moving because it is infused with the return to the eternity of truth.

Having been away, a pilgrim on the ways of love, Mimì returns a dying woman to the base of the stairwell of Rodolfo’s home. Knowing this is the end of her life, she comes to the threshold of the one who has guarded the preciousness of their love. The winter is passed, and spring returns. It is as if the difficult part of her life is passing conversely with the chilling darkness of what lies ahead.

She lies there, in the grips of a final sickness, reminiscing the origins of this innocent love. The paradox is palpable. Their life of hardship and privation becomes the prequel to peace. All the poverty, the jealousy, the search of love, is brought together in a profound moment of sincerity that transcends the human and aspires to eternity. If human love is the veiled glimpse of divinity, then the elements are all here, and in the right order: supplication, discovery, total trust, fruitful generosity, agony, and peace.

Mimì makes a kind of final confession

Have they gone? I pretended
to sleep because I wanted to be
left alone with you.
I have many things I want
to tell you, well only one,
but it’s huge as the ocean,
as deep and infinite as the sea…

She remembers the first encounter with Rodolfo, and how then he held her cold stiff hands. All jealousy vanishes, and initial innocence returns center stage.

Musetta, who is cast as Mimì’s rival in life and love, stands on the side and gives away her earrings to pay a doctor, to buy Mimi a fur cuff to warm her hands at this final hour.

Rodolfo sings in piercing disbelief that death might come to claim Mimi. He holds her frigid body, and weeps as she sings back his first words to her. Paradoxically, he sings of sunrise.

And then we hear the angelic last words from one who reminds them all of the eternity of love, and that perfection of friendship we call charity — that desire of the another’s happiness

You are crying? I am fine…
Why are you crying like this?

As this epic veiled commentary on eternity unfolds, even the self-assured cry for help. Musetta sets aside her flamboyant ways to pray as perhaps she never has before

Blessed Madonna,
Please have mercy on
this poor little soul,
so she does not have to die…
…and that she will recover.
Holy Virgin, I am
unworthy of forgiveness,
while instead Mimì is an
angel from heaven.

In the helpless waste of life — that existential and material poverty that seems to surround her death, Mimì is provided for. They place the muff on her hands, the fire is still burning, and warmth covers her as though for the first time. She sighs in peace.

I am fine.

And yet, she dies.

So no, she was not fine — in the purely physical sense of ‘fine’. But that is not the full story.

The power of innocence, if preserved and effectively communicated in artistic expression, gives us lessons from death beds that are unlike many others. For one, the reality of death is bilateral: it is an experience divided between torment and peace, or united when there is peace in torment. No clearer is this than in those closing lyrics uttered with shrill beauty by one of opera’s great leading women, who moves us to to see that death is not an end, but the departure from veiled images to the truth of things.

But it is clear that however masterfully rendered the human drama might be, it is grace that plays the leading role here. When all seems to be lost, intercession wins over jealousy, generosity over poverty, grace over despair, innocence over the darkness of human agony — and love deepens as truth is revealed.

None of the brutality of death disappears; it is all as harsh as ever, and there is no saccharine pretension of peace. But the sting of death is consumed in the warmth of that final moment. Light begins to shine through the window, flooding the misery of that place with radiance, as Mimì’s soul departs the world. It is the purity of that light that betrays the final purity of that soul — of hope’s victory in that soul.

Only as he sees the piercing ray and thinks her asleep, does Rodolfo turn around to realize her death. In this order, the luminosity of hope precedes the searing agony of Rodolfo’s grief. The shadows lift and the light blazes. The strength of eternal beatitude, and its claim on death, remains undefeated.

We are left transfixed, because the horror of so visceral a parting is stunningly beautiful.

And we ask how, just how can this be?

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows’
Isaiah 53.4

The prophetic words of Isaiah leave nothing to the imagination or to chance. There is infirmity. And there is sorrow. Wrenching infirmity, and agonizing sorrow. And yet there is also One who as God came in the flesh to bear it, so that our human fragility is elevated beyond incapacity, and beyond despair.

The parting pains are indeed unbearable, and the varied forms of human suffering — the daily deaths and the final ones — steal life away. But not all of it. Should we begin to live with this expectant hope, then, like St, Paul, we would live true to that expectation of beatitude — ‘We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (cf. Romans 8.23)’.

The paradox of hope is not that it magically makes us immune to our fragility — sparing us pain — but rather, that hope makes infirmity bearable, and agony livable. We suffer from a saccharine trivialization of hope that does not stand the test of real agony, and so often self-destructs. Real hope is rooted in the strength of the One Isaiah prophesied — The Christ, who, unlike us, has power over life, and over death.

It is this hope that asks permission to enter the modern tormented heart — this hope that fuses torment to peace, even as death nears. And it is Christ who prepares us for a greater love — prepares us for the final act of the opera of our lives. His grace prepares us to die — and not just to die, but to die as He did, victorious. Because a death we are not prepared for, a death that is apart from the hope of life, is not worth dying.

Should we receive this hope, we might hear uttered that shattering cry, that salvific prophesy as the curtain falls

You are fine…
Why are you crying like this?

And others might turn to see a stunning peace.

And seeing, perhaps believe.

And believing, live.

Because if He bears our sorrows not, who could? Who could!
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