The Spiritual Heresy of Maria Von Trapp: Existential Musings on The Sound of Music, Part Two
As we pick up the story of Maria in The Sound of Music from where we left off in Part One, The Reverend Mother sends Maria against her wishes to the estate of the widower Captain Von Trapp. She is to be Governess of his seven children. Maria is hesitant. Here, she must come up against her own idea of what she thought her life was supposed to be and submit to something different. Yet, even in the face of the unknown, she sings:
What will this day be like, I wonder?
What will my future be, I wonder?
I purposefully place emphasis on “I wonder.” Wonder has become a staple to contemporary existentialism (Schneider, 2009). It implies curiosity and openness. It suggests a state that is, once again, non-fixed, in-between, willing to bow to the unknown: the Hermetic. This is a state of being that inherently drops paradigms and moves into the malleable quality of dissolution of fixed ego states that make us feel safe. Paradigms ultimately do that for us, and this has its utility.
However, imposed paradigms, even the paradigms we impose upon ourselves unconsciously, can reduce our view from a grand and expansive panoramic of direct beholding to a framed replica of something we once viewed that is usually behind us, or an unreal version of something we falsely believe to be ahead of us. Paradigms often take us away from the “here and now.” Adversely, wonder brings us closer to the here and now, ergo our direct experience. Direct experience brings us closer to greater consciousness that results in improved self awareness, more rich encounter, and greater discernment in the choices we make concerning our own lives.
Maria enters into her first encounter with Captain Von Trapp and his children. The Captain is rigid and militant. We see his cold and harsh interaction with his children who we learn have tortured 12 previous Governesses to gain their father’s attention, albeit unsuccessfully. Maria observes, and yet begins her relationship to Captain Von Trapp with a firm defiance that cements her own dignity into place, as well as a respect for the children. She refuses to be called by a ship’s whistle, admonishing that whistles may be OK for dogs and cats, but not for children or herself. The Captain asks Maria if she was this much trouble at the Abbey, and she easily answers “Oh, much worse, Captain.” Here, we see a man who is imposing a very strong paradigm of being onto his family and attempting to do the same to Maria, and we later learn this is a defense against the feeling of loss the Captain has when reminded of his late wife and her joyfulness. Regardless, Maria persists in her pursuits, asking for material for play clothes for the children. The maid answers “The Von Trapp children don’t play: They march.” In response to her refusal of material for play clothes, Maria uses the material from the old drapes that used to hang in her bedroom instead.
Maria takes the Von Trapp children into the hills for the play they have been deprived of for so long. Here, once again, we have “play.” This is as critical as wonder in the sense that play promotes embodiment and unfettered exploration. Play is far more active than passive, and often there is an element of discovery with play. Play is an enchanted state of being. Converse to thought, play just “is.”
During play on the mountain, Maria discovers that the Von Trapp children do not know how to sing. She teaches them to sing for their father with the intention of helping them gain his attention in a more positive manner. Maria brings vitality back to the children, and following a lively and rebellious confrontation with Captain Von Trapp regarding how his overly authoritarian style alienates him from his children, Maria is dismissed.
Just as she is dismissed, the Captain hears his children singing. It is in this moment that he descends into what he has avoided for so long, and it is as if an entirely different aspect of self is resurrected. He joins his children in song and embraces them, his own more estranged voice freed. Suddenly, we see the Captain actually submit to Maria, humbly admitting “You’re right. I don’t know my children. I want you to stay. I ask you to stay.” Respect and dignity is won, love is born, and it is clear that Maria has discovered the utility of her gifts that were not well-suited to the Abbey. In re-discovering his own humanity, the Captain is able to acknowledge the humanity of Maria and his children. First, however, the Captain has to directly feel something. In this case, music was the catalyst.
There is so much more that happens in this film, but what I want to point out is the shift of meaning that occurs for Maria and the Captain. Maria seems to break paradigms through simply being who she is from the very beginning of this film, and exemplifies a spirituality that is best expressed via direct sensing, awe, and wonder versus extrapolation on concepts that, although at first glance seem to bring one closer to God, in actuality perpetuate splits with our most spiritual state of grace. Maria, when singing on the mountain, is heaven on earth. Still, Maria is unclear, and somewhat unaware of her own gifts. She seems to feel that she is failing God. Fortunately, with the loving encouragement and guidance of a Reverend Mother who is wise enough to recognize that Maria has a calling just as important as anything a nun could manifest, Maria persists in the face of her fears and discovers that she is meant to breathe life back into a family that has been dispirited by grief and loss. In regard to the Reverend Mother and her views, I also want to acknowledge that this is the Christian Existentialism that has always intrigued me: not rigid and dogmatic, but rather receptive and open.
Captain Von Trapp is also faced with not only his rebellion against a militant and fanatical political cause that he recognizes to be stripping his homeland of its humanity, but also the rigid and frightened structure of himself in its protection against grief, sadness, and longing for something that I suspect he does not believe can happen again. It is through his own submission to experience and humility that he comes to life again, more whole and complete, his vital spirit restored. He comes to this via the more direct being and encounter that Maria has stubbornly thrust upon him by simply insisting upon her own and his children’s humanity.
So here it is: Maria Von Trapp is a heretic. I would call her an accidental heretic. She resisted, and then persisted against a faith structure that seemed to only hamper the boundless sense of joy and thrill that exemplified her spirit. Whether “somewhat” fictional or not, Maria’s character is a worthy example of existential spirituality at its best. The problem wasn’t Maria. The problem was the paradigm. Once Maria dared step out, the problem was solved. In fact, Maria was the solution when she found the right place to be: when she found her soul.
I often invite my clients to “notice” when they are feeling good. What is the context? What do they sense? Can they be there for a while without allowing their judgments (i.e., mini-paradigms) to hold them hostage? Can they even notice their judgments? Most importantly, I invite my clients to notice what brings them vitality because I believe that there are answers in our vibrancy that mere thought cannot provide. To me, no matter what a person’s upbringing or current belief system (spiritual or secular), this way of being is inspiriting. I invite you to notice. What helps you? Is it song? Is it a walk in the woods? Maybe it is growing a garden or preparing a wonderful meal. Maybe it is playing basketball, knitting a sweater, or solving a mathematical equation. The possibilities are endless, and that is the point. However, we must learn to notice and be there in our most inspirited selves. This is where we find liberation. This is where we find our lives. Sometimes it is heresy, and heresy can be pretty simple in a world that is so full of busy, we don’t have time to pause. Sometimes it is not heresy at all. It could be as simple as being “alive” as the hills Maria sings of. What makes you feel “alive?” What is your heaven on earth?
Argyle Enterprises, Inc. (Producers), & Wise, R. (Director). (1965). The Sound of Music [Motion picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.
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Nietzsche, F. (1967). The birth of tragedy. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Schneider, K. J. (2009). Awakening to awe: Personal storied of profound transformation. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
-- Candice Hershman