Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Filling Our Father’s House among other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Japan.
I know… this could be the corniest post of all time, but stick with me and it could be one that challenges you to pursue nothing but holy perfection in your life.
The last thing I thought I would want to write about was Celine Dion’s hit, “My Heart Will Go On”, also known as the “Love Theme from Titanic”. No doubt, you’ve heard the song. Perhaps hundreds or even thousands of times since it was released on Dec. 8, 1997. The song was a megahit, distancing itself from nearly every single ever as the bestselling and most-replayed single of the 1990s, and the best of all time since Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. It won Academy Awards, Grammys, Golden Globes, and survived as the #1 single for months in numerous countries. By Feb. 1998, the song had been heard 120,000,000 times by radio listeners, and millions more on television and the big screen.
The accolades are unquestionable. To me, though, there’s a special lesson in the story behind the song, which I learned a while back. Though she was already tremendously popular, the song made her entire career. It’s likely true that more people know the melody and lyrics today than those who even know what happened on April 15, 1912. But few know that prior to recording, she never wanted to sing it. Ever. She hated it: the melody, the lyrics, the circumstances, nearly everything about it. Her reason was simple, and perhaps it will inspire you as well.
During the production of the movie Titanic, rumors were circulating that director, writer, and producer James Cameron was already over budget, and the film was supposed to flop. The last thing Cameron wanted was a “single” in his movie. James Horner (who died in 2015), was the legendary film composer hired to write the score and for months had been working on the side for a possible single to present to Cameron. James Horner, if you didn’t know, was one of the most prolific and influential musical composers of all time, and he knew what he was doing (as history shows).
Horner, believing he’s got a potential hit on the horizon, took the idea to Rene Angelil, who was Celine’s manager and husband (died in 2016). Rene trusted Horner, and understood that he didn’t want to present it to Cameron until he had a good sample, which meant they had to convince Celine Dion to sing it. She listened to a demonstration from James Horner. In her own humorous recollection, she says, “James Horner is a wonderful writer, but he is probably not the best singer out there.” She immediately refused.
Rene, though, pursued her once more, and convinced her to sing her own sample on a musical track created by Horner, even though she still protested the idea silently. Protest, silent consent, etc., whatever it was, Dion gave it her best shot.
James Horner waited until James Cameron was in the right mood and asked him “to listen to something.”
What happened? The version you’ve heard countless times, the version heard all over the world, is the only version she ever recorded. Ever. It was a demo, a sample, and it became the one of the most powerful and beautiful songs of all time. She said years later, “So I go over there and I sing the song and they kept the demo. The actual real record, the one you hear, is the demo. I never re-sung the song. I’ve sung the song many, many times, I’m still singing it. I’m glad it did it. I was wrong. I didn’t want to do it. I’m glad they didn’t listen to me.”
There’s numerous lessons I learned when I read about this. First of all, it’s okay to be wrong. People who do great things didn’t do it by waiting for perfect opportunities; successful people fail, a lot. What makes them different is what they do when they fail. Eventually, they get better at whatever they’re going for and they win, sometimes big. Christians have to have this “never quit” philosophy imprinted on their mind, because we’re all going to fall short of God (Romans 3:23). When we work out our salvation with endurance (Philippians 2:12), we win.
We’re all going to fall short sometimes, but we’re all called to be perfect. There is something so rare, honorable, and dare I say righteous about doing something to the best of our abilities, even if we don’t want to. That’s what Celine Dion did. She allowed herself to be talked into doing something she didn’t want to do, and gave it everything she had despite her personal feelings and interests. We should follow suit and give everything our best shot. Better yet, we shall strive for perfection. Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) He said this right after issuing the ridiculously difficult command of loving enemies, and praying for persecutors, two things that are contrary to nearly every sensual impulse we have. We are called to strive for perfection in love, yes, but we are called to be perfecting in anything that is good. As Thomas Aquinas points out, God is the perfection of goodness, any goodness we have is because of Him, and any goodness we strive for is a pursuit of Him (see Summa Theologiae, I, Q2,4,6, and 108). So, be perfect.
There’s another really cool thing to learn about Celine Dion’s decision to sing “My Heart Will Go On”, and that is the very fact that she did it. She protested, and didn’t see much personal gain in the song, but after seeing how much she could impact an important movie and demonstrate trust in her husband, she didn’t refuse. Saint Francis de Sales always said, “Ask for nothing, refuse nothing.” This event captures the sage wisdom of St. Francis de Sales because we are called to service others unilaterally, with no hope or expectation of gain or benefit. We help and do as we are asked because we should, and because we know that we believe in a savior who did everything for us, without protest. This is a big issue in spiritual maturity, because many people rate their value by how much power they have to get what they demand. That’s the basic definition of power. But how many times have we done so much for other people and gotten nothing in return? How often are we okay with that? We are called as Christians to toss away our crowns of power (Revelations 4:10), and even though we are heavenly royalty (1 Peter 2:9), our power and rule is hidden in the service of others (John 13:34).
I know, it’s probably really corny, but my appreciation of Mrs. Dion grew tremendously after seeing her humility in telling that story, admitting she was wrong, doing her best anyways, and doing it just because she was asked. Corny again, but I listen to the song differently now. I don’t know much about the spiritual life of the superstar, but I hope that my actions are reflective of that sort of character: I’ll do it because you asked, and I’ll do it as perfectly as I can.