Susan Boyle and the Communion of Saints

By: Christopher West

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If you don’t yet know who Susan Boyle is, type her name into YouTube and watch her April 11 appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.   At the time this article is being posted, this performance has been watched almost 200,000,000 times collectively (between the different video accounts posted on YouTube).   A few days after the show, her performance had already been viewed over 3 million times.   Less than two weeks later, it was close to 50 million.  Let me briefly paint the picture.   A middle aged “frumpy” woman walks out on stage to the glaringly cynical response of the audience and the judges.   Simon Cowell, well known in the U.S. for his merciless treatment of American Idol contestants, asks her:

“What’s the dream?”

Susan: I’m trying to be a professional singer.

Simon: (cynically) And why hasn’t it worked out so far, Susan?

Susan: I’ve never been given the chance before.   But here’s hoping it’ll change.

Simon: Okay, and who would you like to be as successful as?

Susan: Elaine Paige or somebody like that.

As Robert Canfield, a professor of anthropology at Washington University, wrote on his blog: “It was easy to regard this woman as tragically unaware of her own limitations, with aspirations that surpassed her ability. And she was now on stage, on TV. Before a huge audience. Here was a disaster in the making. This would be difficult to watch. …[But] her first note changed everything. The audience was electrified.”

So why am I writing about this in an article pertaining to the Theology of the Body?   First, reading her “body language” — her unkempt look, her double chin, her frizzy graying hair, her strange hip swinging dance in response to Simon Cowell — is precisely what made people so dubious.   We were definitely reading this book by its cover.   But I also think John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) shines a light on why millions around the world have been moved to tears by her performance.   When this seemingly unappealing “book” opened up and the audience saw how beautiful the inner story really was, we all experienced a little foretaste of heaven.

A Foretaste of Heaven

Paraphrasing some dense teaching from his TOB, John Paul taught that in the afterlife we will be totally liberated from all that weighed us down in this life.   All the fears and insecurities, all the wounds and all the shame that kept us in “hiding” here on earth will be completely wiped away.   In total freedom and confidence, we will emerge from our shells, sharing the unique gift we are with each and everyone else.  Somehow, we will all have our “moment on stage,” so to speak — just like Susan Boyle.   And all those gathered in the heavenly banquet will see us — truly see  us shining in the totally unique way God made each of us to shine.   And we will marvel at the beauty, the unique and unrepeatable beauty, of each and everyone for all eternity.  When you watch (or rewatch) the clip on YouTube, pay attention to the facial expressions of the judges throughout her performance — they tell the whole story.   Towards the end, we even catch a glimpse of Simon Cowell’s “inner beauty” as his face spontaneously lights up and he sighs in a kind of dazzled wonder.   Priceless.

Countless bloggers and commentators have tried to explain why these seven minutes on YouTube move us so profoundly.   Again, I think Robert Canfield expresses it well: “Buried within the human psyche are feelings, yearnings, anxieties too deep for words, usually. Only sometimes do we see it in ourselves. Always it is something outside ourselves that touches us, somehow, where we feel most deeply. At such moments we remember that we are humans —   not mere living creatures, but human beings, profoundly and deeply shaped by a moral sensibility so powerful that it breaks through our inhibitions; it can burst out, explode into public view, to our own astonishment. And sometimes that objective form — a person, an event, an object, a song —   embodies deeply felt sensibilities for a lot of us at once, so that we discover how much we share in our private worlds, worlds otherwise inaccessible to anyone else. It becomes a social event, so we can all rejoice, and weep, together.”   Yep.   That’s it.  In Catholic-speak it’s called the communion of saints.   A little foretaste of heaven.

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