|Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini|
For her first post Voice single she's chosen to cover Madonna's Like a Virgin. An odd choice: sure. A nun sings Like a Virgin? Sounds more like a Saturday Night Live skit. Scandalous? It's easy to think so.
Until you listen to it, and better yet watch the video.
In this off kilter song selection Sr. Cristina pulls off a bit of holy subversiveness. As Madonna indulges in hyper sexualizing the sacred (do you remember Like a Prayer?), Sr. Cristina has taken an ode to lust and turned it into a hymn to agape. In the original video Madonna struts, writhes and wiggles her way through the canals of Venice seducing the camera as she goes. It's a one note performance, in more ways than one (I forgot how much she sounded like Minnie Mouse in those early years). Here, Sr. Christina conquers the same canals, but with a gaze focused somewhere else, as she sings of making it through the wilderness to reach a love that is rejuvenating and eternal. Rather than Venice serving as an amorous backdrop for the singer, it is itself a "character," whose natural beauty and architectural wonders help lift the mind to something higher, something spiritual, something pure. When she does look into the camera directly it's with a sly, Mona Lisa smile, that says, "Yeah, I went there." It also says, "Scoff if you will, but I know what love is, and it's so much more than most of us think."
Sr. Cristina's turns the tables on the Queen of Pop, and redeems an otherwise disposable dance number.
She also pulls off something very rare: she produces a cover that's actually better than the original.
Because of the slowed down arraignment, free of the original's overdone synthesizers and drums machines, we actually hear the lyrics. It turns out that they are rather tender and speak to the redeeming, renewing quality of love. The stanzas are wisely emphasized, with the chorus handled more subtly, so as to avoid what could have become an unintended parody. While the original stays pretty much on the same tempo and key, this new version lingers, swells, crashes and rises again, showing tones and colors Madonna never even thought of. Sister may not have a powerful voice, but it is expressive, pointing to a different experience of love then we usually hear in your average pop song. This version can be taken on a romantic level for sure, but also on a far deeper plain of two people whose hearts are united in a spiritual, unconditional embrace.
We can even go further and see the union of the soul with God.
From the Song of Songs to John of the Cross romantic, even erotic, imagery has been employed to describe the the human soul united with God in contemplative prayer. This is brought our clearly in Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, where the saint is depicted, well, in ecstasy as the angel pierces her heart with the arrows of God's love. St. John Paul II in his writings hinted that in the resurrection our whole being, body and soul, will be united with God in a nuptial embrace. Christopher West, the popularizer of the saint's Theology of the Body in the English language, has warned against over literalizing this concept, but the idea that the sexual union of man and woman is a foreshadowing, or imaging, of the heavenly reality to come is not so far fetched, and has it's roots in Christian mysticism.
Putting all the high minded theology aside, how do I explain Sr. Cristina's appeal? Beyond the novelty of it all, there is a beauty to innocence that only the most cynical can resist. It was the same with Susan Boyle: a practicing Catholic from a small town who always wanted to sing but never got the chance because the world cares more about the flesh than the spirit; appearances more than what lies beneath. When she did get the chance the public responded on a gut level and embraced beauty.
As for Sr. Cristina, who recently renewed her temporary vows, I pray for her. There are many temptations to pride and egoism in the entertainment industry that she's now entered. I hope she keeps her head about her, and uses this opening as an evangelizing tool, and when the bubble bursts, as it does eventually for everyone in that business, she has the humility to return to the "ordinary" life of her community. But until them, I'm hoping to see some more holy subversion out of her in near future.