“Baba O’Riley” is my favorite song by The Who, but “Who Are You?” is a close second, mainly because of the drums. It came on the radio recently and I turned up the volume. “Listen to this,” I told my son, an aspiring drummer. “Keith Moon is amazing.”
And he was, a great drummer and a great performer…when he was sober. Unfortunately, he was frequently under the influence of various substances, and Moon literally passed out on stage on more than one occasion.
Such was the case on November 20, 1973, when The Who appeared at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Moon actually passed out twice that night, and after the second time, guitarist Pete Townshend, utterly exasperated, turned to the assembled crowd for help. “Can anybody play the drums?” he pleaded. “I mean somebody good.”
Scot Halpin was a drummer and present at the concert.He’d just moved to California from Iowa and had gone to see The Who with his buddy, Mike. The two of them ended up at the side of the stage near the event’s promoter, Bill Graham, who was trying to salvage the concert after Moon’s exit. Here’s how Halpin described what happened next in an NPR interview:
My friend, Mike Deniseph, basically was pushing me forward to do this, and really interfacing with Bill Graham once he got there, nose to nose. And so he looks to me square in the eye and says, Can you do it? And I said yes, straight out.
“Yes, straight out.” That’s so great. Here’s a kid from Muscatine, Iowa, barely out of high school, and he’s put on the spot to back up one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Without hesitation, without it seems even a second thought, Halpin rose to the occasion. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that came suddenly and out of the blue, yet he took it on and, the story goes, acquitted himself pretty well.
The bare outline of Halpin’s story gives us a clue. First, he practiced – not because he thought he’d be a big star someday, but because he wanted to get better at what he loved. Second, he had people around him – Mike in particular – who believed in him, even more than he believed in himself.
And finally, Halpin found the courage to say “yes, straight out” at a critical juncture, despite the lack of warning or preparation. The key there is the word “found,” for it doesn’t appear to be the case that Scot was spectacularly courageous by nature. Still, at an historic moment, a now-or-never crossroads, he found enough courage – reckless courage, some would say – and he followed through.
Playing drums in a rock concert is one thing; martyrdom is quite another.But I think there are some parallels with how ordinary people manage to hang on to their faith when thrust into the most trying circumstances. Like the Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne whose feast we celebrate today.
Flash back to 1794 and the French Revolution in full swing. The Carmelites of Compiègne in northern France were feeling the brunt of the Reign of Terror, having been deprived of their habits and dispersed by the government two years before. Still, they’d made adjustments, donning simple attire and living together in several groups. Despite the open persecution and social disintegration, the eleven nuns and their five lay associates were attempting to maintain their communal life of prayer as best they could.
These were women who’d entered religious life with an expectation of an orderly rhythm of quiet prayer and piety. They weren’t escaping the world, nor were they insulating a refined way of life against the hoi polloi – most of them came from working class families, and only one had upper class connections. Nevertheless, they hadn’t signed up to be heroes, and the only martyrdom they had anticipated was the ordinary day-to-day martyrdom associated with celibacy and the cloister.
Here’s the deal with heroism though: Once you throw in your lot with ordinary heroics, you open yourself up for the most extreme forms, which is what we Christians ought to expect in any case.
Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves…. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name (Mt. 10.16, 21-22).
We fall in love with Jesus and embrace the Cross because we want to be like him and follow him as closely as possible; we receive the Sacraments, pray, and carry out our daily responsibilities; we strive to avoid sin and to grow in holiness. Is that the end of it? Do we get to coast then all the way to heaven?
The Compiègne Carmelites found out otherwise. The authorities had convicted the 16 women on trumped up charges and transferred them to Paris. On July 17, 1794, the women, now back in their religious garb, were paraded through the streets and brought to the place of execution. At first accompanied by the assembled crowd’s jeers and cheers, the women sang hymns as they were beheaded one by one – a horror captured so movingly in François Poulenc’s opera Le Dialogue des Carmélites (The Dialogue of the Carmelites). The dignity and bravery of the nuns and their companions was such that the raucous crowd was silenced – a silence and sobriety that persisted beyond the events of that day and that some believe contributed to the sudden termination of the Reign of Terror a short time later.
All of these women could have avoided the scaffold by renouncing their faith, but they didn’t. So how is it that a group of women given over to prayer and a quiet life hidden from the world could rise to such a height of fortitude and heroism. I think it’s the same pattern on display in Scot Halpin’s little brush with history – a pattern we do well to emulate as well.
- Regular practice: It’s funny to talk about “practicing” our faith the way Halpin practiced the drums, but that’s exactly what we do – because we never are quite finished polishing our skills. In fact, the Catechism directly associates the word “practice” with the idea of “heroic virtue” (CCC 828), which implies that the kind of heroism the Compiègne martyrs demonstrated is rooted in the ordinary heroics we perform every day.The Carmelites practiced through prayer and penance in the cloister, but we’re called to practice in a similar way out in the world, which includes carrying out the duties associated with our state in life – single, married with family, whatever. Such matters might not seem like the stuff of sainthood, but God can create saints out of very little – as the Carmelite St. Thérèse of Lisieux observed in her writing about the “little way.” We measure bigness on a different scale than God does.
- Communal support: Heroes, in real life, are not loners, and they always have people rooting for them from the sidelines. That’s true for martyrs as well, and we see it at work even in the brief records we have of what happened in Compiègne. Although the sisters had anticipated the guillotine, it was undoubtedly a shock to find themselves actually facing execution as an imminent reality.In their case, it was one of their own that provided the fortifying support, their youngest member who started off the singing, giving courage to the rest of her community. Plus, the silenced crowd gave an almost implicit form of support, and, of course, the sisters were surrounded by an invisible “cloud of witnesses” as the Scriptures attest (Heb. 12.1). We must not forget, as we go about our days, that we’re surrounded by that cloud as well.
- Reckless courage: On this point, we have the words of two Pope Benedicts to guide us. In the 18th century, Benedict XIV wrote that heroic virtue enables one “to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning.” Certainly that was the case with the Carmelite martyrs who, as one body, gave themselves over to their fate with confidence and a song on their lips.But what of us? How do we live out reckless courage in our humdrum lives with no guillotines on the horizon? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pointed the way when he said that “heroic virtue does not mean that the saint performs a type of ‘gymnastics’ of holiness, something that normal people do not dare to do. It means rather that in the life of a person God’s presence is revealed….”
Practice of our faith. Mutual support and encouragement. Reckless courage in the ordinary activities of life. This is how people like you and me become saints. This is how we become martyrs when it comes down to it.
In other words, saying yes, straight out, on the scaffold means that we’ve together been saying yes, straight out, over and over and over again every day. And if we haven’t, it’s never too late to start.