If you are one of the very few people left who has not viewed the video of Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain‘s Got Talent, then you must do so immediately, or nothing I have to say will stick to your soul. If you are one of the tens of millions who have already sat aghast as her voice broke through from heaven, then you’d best do it again so you are freshly stunned.
In referring to heaven, I am not engaging in literary exaggeration. Boyle’s appearance caused an international sensation precisely because the sensations one experiences in watching her are otherworldly. We are getting a foretaste of heaven. Literally.
The first thing that came to my mind after viewing her was Dante’s Paradiso. One of the complaints of literary types is that hell is more interesting than heaven. I remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again and again when I was young. The Inferno fascinates, the Purgatorio educates, but the Paradiso? Well, as many a commentator noted, heaven is boring. Just a lot of flitting around and about as they spiral upward singing, continual images of light, and endless but uninspiring talk about love.
But Dante was right after all, and if I should ever be driven to teach again, I would have the class view Boyle’s performance so they could get some inkling of what Dante was trying to portray — indeed, what Mother Church holds out before us. In heaven, each person is immediately, deeply, and completely enchanted by, and enchanting to, every other. There is no envy, no pride, no thought of the self as opposed to another. Only an outpouring of love.
Sound tedious? Unrealistic? Watch the video again. When Boyle began to sing, the entire audience immediately felt that most peculiar sensation of being absolutely thrilled, filled with joy to the point of overflowing tears, that this very ordinary woman existed, and that out of so earthen a vessel, such ethereal sound could pour. Every heart was entirely directed to her, as if she were a living miracle. No one was bored.
It isn’t just that her voice is so astoundingly beautiful. The strange effect on the audience is that so profoundly beautiful a voice was bursting forth from a woman of no account in the world, a late-40s, frumpy heap of disappointment, all too easy a target of mockery for barbed comments and sibilant snickering. Boyle embodied all that is dross for our society, and yet the whimsy of God carefully hid within her a great pearl, slowly built up over almost half a century.
When she began to sing, no one wanted her to look any differently; the rejoicing was in her, about her, just as she was. Within a very few seconds, a very few notes, the entire audience was completely upended, and swirling around her like flitting souls in Dante’s Paradiso, entranced by the beauty of a new soul entering heaven. Never again wonder why there is singing in paradise, or whether the human voice transcended and transformed, made unearthly by attachment to a divine tether, has the power to draw everyone within its compass upward and suspend each, shimmering with joy, above all the worries, gray agitation, pettiness, and grit of a spoiled world.
Such was the state of the souls surprised by Boyle, souls for a few moments taken outside themselves — the original meaning of ecstasy. Such is the permanent state of the redeemed in paradise. They are supremely happy that others exist.
Let me be properly understood, for this is the most important point. We are each called to such a moment, a moment that will last forever, where we enter heaven and are surrounded by a countless audience of souls, rushing at us in giddy anticipation of the beauty that has been hidden within — hidden amidst the trials, the disappointments, the dismal ordinariness of our lives, all of which served to form the pearl of great price.
Surpassing beauty spun from the ordinary. That we loved our spouses in the most difficult times, that we loved our children when we had no strength left, that we tried to treat others as if they were passionately loved by God, that we submitted to the divine purgation, the fire that burns away all that we have done, said, and failed to do that is not beautiful — all that will be our song.
But it won’t really just be our song. As with song on earth, beauty is compounded by harmony, and rising above and all around, will be a voice of Redeeming Beauty. If we can be nearly broken to tears by the beauty a mere woman’s voice on earth, what will it mean to hear a Voice so beautiful that, like the heat and light of the sun, it cannot be borne directly by the senses without bringing complete destruction? And yet, we shall hear it and live. Forever.