THE ROLE OF SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION IN POPE JOAN
by Christopher Moore
During the last few years, I have been asked many times why I wrote POPE JOAN. I have found that my answer has evolved over time. Initially, my answer tended to be that I wrote it because it's a really interesting story. This may seem to be a facetious answer, but I think any dramatist is always intrigued primarily at the outset by the inherent possibilities of a dramatic situation. Will he or won't he get the girl/guy/inheritence/conviction? There are, of course, lots of highfalutin' responses one can proffer to the above question, but I have found that any time I express such "profound" intentions ("I am writing about the role of women in today's Church," "It is a metaphor for spiritual decline," etc.), I am giving responses that sound "writerly," as opposed to the obvious "It's a cool story."
That said, I have also discovered that the reason I invest four or five years in a piece is that I don't know what the "moral" or the "message" is when I start. Stories that abound with secrets, contradictions, great loves and great hurts captivate me, because in the course of the writing, I discover for myself what the underlying emotional "pull" for me is. And to write music, there must always be an emotional pull. We do not "sing" morals. We sing to express our deepest and most frightening desires.
I have been, for some time, engaged in a rewrite of the play. The objectives were very technical, and all about enhancing the play from a "craft" point of view. But what I have discovered is that, by doing so, I am really clarifying the ideas and images that are important to me.
It is possible, to be sure, to conceive and produce POPE JOAN as a theatrical period piece with those interesting "Catholic things" as exotic "flavor." On a sheerly technical level, that is what the setting and situation provide. However, I see more clearly now that writing this piece was very much a spiritual exercise for me. I wrote this play to understand the role that my faith, both in spirit and form, has played and continues to play in my life.
For point of reference, I was baptized Catholic, but had no active participation in the Church until I was about twelve. During my adolescence and teen years, I steeped myself in the mysticism and amazing lore of the Catholic Church. Like many others, I reached a point where I had to divorce myself from the institution because I could not support its stance on many issues -- women in the church, homosexuality, abortion, etc. I know that I, like so many others who left, have felt the ache of this loss for many years. I believe that the birth of the so-called New Age movement in the late '80s was a direct result of the longing so many of us felt to redefine spirituality -- i.e., our relationship to God -- in a way more in keeping with the very personal religious experience we had as young adults.
So what does all this mean? I think it means that one cannot approach the issues and images raised in POPE JOAN without acknowledging and confronting in some way one's own relationship to spirituality. Whether one believes in God -- or even the rites and rituals of the Church -- it is clear that all the characters in the play do. The central image of the play occurs when Joan, newly crowed as Pope, celebrates Mass and initiates the act of transubstantiation. (One of the central tenets of the Faith, transubstantiation is the act of transformation of the bread and wine into the literal -- not symbolic -- body and blood of Christ.) It is the belief in the reality of this mystical transformation which unites Catholics over and above whatever quarrels they may have with specific pieces of dogma. Men and women have died for the privilege of participating in this act, unchanged for centuries. So long denied to women, the visual presentation of Joan performing the most sacred rite of the Church is not designed to be inflammatory or satirical, but deeply spiritual and deeply sacred. Joan becomes all of us, trying so desperately to "come home" to our faith and joining again with God. That it is revolutionary is not at all and entirely the point.
I used to feel a bit "cool" saying that I didn't believe in transubstantiation, but what I have discovered in this process is that I really do. This was the act that taught me that miracles are a reality, and that they happen every day, approached and asked for with reverence and humility. I could never have become the person I have become without the intervention of God in my life, and personally, I'm not very interested in living in a world without miracles.
The world of my play is contrasts -- sacred and profane, light and dark, male and female, pagan and religious -- which is the struggle each of us wage every day to make some sense of our lives. Whether we acknowledge it or not, that struggle is the essence of spirituality. While I am always grateful for any positive response to the play, be it from Catholics or non-Catholics, the most fulfilling reactions for me have been from those who either still actively participate in the Church as priests, nuns, or lay servers, and from those who, like me, chose to leave. To experience in their words and eyes that moment of coming home again was, as it turned out, the reason I wrote this play. This is expressed most clearly in my song "A Thousand Years From Now," in which Joan visualizes a future where we all are one in faith, giving and receiving the best from each other without judgment or recrimination. I wrote this play hoping against hope that all of us can "come home" again.
Peace be with you.
Mr. Moore may be contacted at email@example.com
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