From Ashes to Immortal Diamond: The Cinderella Ballet in Lent

After Mass and brunch this Sunday, I was in a lobby filled with little girls in princess dresses. An insightful homily on how Satan seeks to destroy our souls was still echoing in my ears when it was joined by strains of Prokofiev. My wife and I attended the Kansas City Ballet’s performance of “Cinderella” with world premiere choreography by KC Ballet’s own Devon Carney.

As we drove home, in an afterglow of amazement at the sheer beauty of this production, I couldn’t stop thinking that this was somehow fitting for the first Sunday of Lent. “Cinderella,” after all, is, as her name tells us, “ash girl.” She lives with an evil step-mother and unkind step-sisters in a house where she is treated as a servant. As in many performances of this ballet, the stepsisters are portrayed by men, lending comic relief and a subtle lesson about unkindness as a reversal of nature. We are created by love and for love, and selfish pettiness, perfectly parodied by the stepsisters, makes our lives unnaturally unattractive.

We all begin in this fallen state, exiled from our true homeland, cut off from redemption. We all struggle with evil as a stepmother of sorts, and obey its whims, reduced to lonely servitude.

The season of Lent reminds us that we have an invitation from the Prince. He is seeking a bride, and we are invited to the Ball. Yet in our present state, we cannot attend. We need transformation, we need spiritual allies. In Prokofiev’s version, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother comes after Cinderella dances, almost prayerfully clutching an image of her true and departed mother, and as a direct result of an act of mercy to a beggar woman. Prayer and almsgiving, amid the sacrifices of our day, open our souls to the grace of transformation.

A Dress Maker, a Jeweler, and a Dance Master are not able to give more than a superficial enhancement to the stepsisters, -mere cosmetic enhancement is a mockery of true inner beauty,- but Cinderella is brought to a glade where each season of the year, a fairy symbolizing each one, bestows a gift upon her. She is ready to attend the Ball, but is reminded that she has a curfew. Even when our inner beauty shines through, there is always a requirement of obedience. We cannot let our own spiritual beauty become an idol.

The ball is a stunning scene indeed. Ballet is such a collaborative artform, where thousands of man-hours of preparation and rehearsal go into each production, on top of the sweat equity needed to become a virtuoso of dance, or as a member of the orchestra, or as a set designer, lighting designer, costume designer. Any world class production is a multifaceted diamond of excellence.

Our Church, too, warts and all, is a collaboration with grace involving a myriad of different gifts, and different giftedness. We can only become our true saintly selves as part of a community.

And when, through disobedience, we miss the mark, and wake up back in the ashes of our stepmother’s hearth, we too, like Cinderella, can be tempted to think it is all a dream. The Prince could not really be looking for us, can He? (Who is man, anyway, that You, God, should care for him?)

But He comes down from his throne to our littleness, to our suffering, to our insecurity, because there is a piece of us that fits perfectly into his heart, and that no one else can fill. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but that is not all that we are. We were not created for dust. We are created to rise from the ashes and to embrace the Prince of Heaven who has come to make us adopted members of the Royal Family of the universe.

That is what our soul longs for. In a world of confused and fragmented identities, it remains the deepest truth of who we are. Every little girl in that lobby knows that she is truly a princess. And any father who truly loves her will never tell her that it is only a fairytale.

This journey of Lent is the journey of transformation in Christ Incarnate, Suffering and Crucified. It is the journey of Love that comes to seek and find us, sinful, sad and weak, and to bring us to fulness as members of his Royal Spouse, the Church.

Prokofiev’s triumphant music tells the tale of our soul, whether he knew it our not. Devon Carney’s whimsical and sublime choreography does as well. The story of a soul is a Cinderella story.

As Cinderella swirled with effortless elegance in the Prince’s arms, I could not stop mouthing to myself these words from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“… Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”

Image: Rawpixel, public domain.

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.