The Story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compeigne
In a day where anti-religious feeling is prevalent in society, we can begin to see how this danger can take on more brutal forms. In a culture like ours today that promotes “tolerance” of every person and ideals, isn’t it odd that we are to tolerate every ideal and thought except religion and faith in God? Religious freedom is one of the main principles that our forefathers were seeking in this new land of freedom and yet, as of this writing, some leaders of our nation seek to severely limit if not abolish this most essential human right. It used to be more subtle but it is now increasingly becoming more outright and acceptable.
This intolerance builds up over time and anger and even hate develops. It has always been profoundly difficult for me to understand how a human can hate so deeply as to commit the most atrocious brutality to other humans. How does this hate grow to such proportions? I remember in my youth an experience of walking down the street with a friend. I was not yet a Sister. We were casually strolling and talking as we were approached by two “skinheads”, members of the Arian movement. The looks of hatred they showed to my friend and then to me were unbelievable and unforgettable. My friend was African American. These skinheads were MY age…how could they possibly hate like that? In my ignorance and naiveté, I wanted to dialogue with them and try to understand them so as to enlighten them. My friend just pulled at me to continue going on our way. Where does a young person at 18 or 19 get that type of anger or hate to another human, a stranger no less? Yet, in the course of our human history, beginning with Cain and Abel and continuing through the barbaric wars and persecutions into today 21st century, we see racial or religious intolerance leading to anger and deepening anger leading to human brutality. In assessing these situations, two questions to ask are always:
1. What does the Lord want me to learn from this?
2. What is He calling me to do?
Generally, question one is interior and very unique for each person and question two is often easier to answer. My experience has been that the answer is love. Love always builds, heals, and transforms individuals and societies. He is calling me to love everyone in my daily activities and encounters in the way that He loves them. I need to see and act and desire as He does. St. Therese teaches us through the example of her own life that everything done with love for Love takes on a supernatural meaning and merit. St. Paul teaches us that the greatest gifts, the greatest acts, done without love are meaningless. So our small ordinary acts made with love are most pleasing to the Father. He sees the image of His Son in us.
This takes faith. We can only love deeply because we believe, we have faith, in the Person.
In the letter of Diognetus, written in the first or second century, the author describes Christians to a Pagan friend of his. He writes, “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world isheld together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things. Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”
This was written almost 2000 years ago and the poetry of the author captures our hearts with its beauty yet also captures the truth of our call to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ and His plan of salvation. We live today our ordinary lives as Christians because of our faith that we are called to be citizens of heaven.
There is an amazing witness to this divine call of the Christian, a story of transforming a society through love in the heroic oblation and then martyrdom of 16 Carmelites during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. These brave women living in a time of anti-religious sentiment that erupted into full religious persecution offered their lives as a holocaust for their nation and within 10 days of their sacrifice, the revolution abruptly ended. What is their story?
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Mother Anne of Jesus, spiritual daughter of St. Teresa of Avila, founded and became the prioress of the first monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in France. From this monastery, additional foundations were made throughout France including in 1641, a foundation at Compeigne. For almost 1300 years, there reigned in France the “most Christian” kings, held by some as the most venerable Christian kingdom in Western Europe. The fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 marked the beginning of the New Order. What began was the annihilation of all Christian values and virtue, places of worship were destroyed and turned into offices of the New Order, priests and religious were no longer to live out their vocations, monasteries and convents were seized along with all their property. This lead to the brutal and sadistic killing of all those who would not follow the ideals of the New Order. Christians were seen to be enemies of the state and most died at the “humane” fall of the blade, the new instrument of execution called the guillotine. The New Order’s principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity were grossly misunderstood and certainly not applied to every individual. The Revolution was to be the crowning of a century of human enlightenment thinking and would end the outdated, regressive Judeo-Christian beliefs of its citizens.
Such was the time in which lived our 19 Carmelites in Compeigne. They were expelled from their monastery in September 14, 1792. This was and still is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The nuns understood well the significance of this feast. It is not known exactly when the community committed to the communal offering of their lives for the people of France but it was in October that the first written documentation began. The prioress, Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine, had for some years began to understand the call her community would be invited to participate. How it would be completed and who would participate was unknown until the events began to unfold.
In the first Christmas following their expulsion from their convent, Bl. Teresa composed a Christmas carol that incorporated her calling to the communal oblation she received from Our Lord. We can see from the text the image of this nun looking upon the Christ child and understanding the oblation He would offer for all of humanity. She plunged deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and the role of the Christ to liberate all mankind from the chains of sin and death. Her response now is clear and she begins to pray unceasingly on the manner Our Lord wants her to move the community.
As the days and months unfold, the nuns became more and more committed in their offering as they witness the destruction of the Church in France and the horrendous slaughter of its “enemies”. The nuns were living in four separate apartments trying to live their Carmelite life as best as possible. When they were expelled from the monastery, they had to find lay clothing to wear. They each had one set of clothing besides their habits which they were not permitted to wear by law. As they no longer could wear a veil, they wore little white caps.
On June 20, 1794, the Revolutionary Surveillance Committee with their armed guards, entered their apartments and began a search for any documents or other evidence that would show they were continuing to live the religious life and committing treason against the state. Thus finding “highly incriminating correspondence” and a photo of the now beheaded king, on June 22, they were arrested and taken to the former convent of the Visitation which was converted to a jail. Three of the Sisters were not in residence at that time and therefore only 16 were arrested. In the jail, they met English Benedictine Sisters from Stanbrook Abbey who have given us much information about their time in jail and relics from the martyrs. The Carmelites spent 21 days in the jail in Compeigne before being sent to Paris for their trial and execution. Interestingly, on the day the mayor received the orders to transfer them to Paris, the nuns were washing their one change of clothing and were wearing their habits with their little caps. As they had to leave immediately for their journey, their clothing was given to the Benedictine Sisters, who after their deportation by to England, kept the clothing and many years later sent back these holy relics to the Carmel in St. Denis and Compeigne after they were rebuilt.
In Paris, they were sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal, who immediately wrote up the formal accusation, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, 1794. They were headed for the guillotine the next day. Eyewitnesses attest to the nuns in their brown habit and white mantles being led in trumbels through the streets on the way to the Place du Trone. They prayed the Divine Office, they sung hymns and were seen to be serene and joyous. They were prepared to meet their Bridegroom.
In the days prior to this, those who were headed to the guillotine were viciously maligned and publicly harassed. Yet, as the nuns passed by, a strange quiet and peace moved over the crowds. As they approached the place of execution, the streets ran red from the daily executions. The stench was unbearable. As they beheld their destiny, the prioress began the Te Deum, the ancient hymn in praise of God. This was unprecedented. They also renewed their vows according to Carmelite custom to prepare for death. Each knelt before the prioress asking permission to die, kissing a very small statue of Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus and walking up the steps to the guillotine. The novice, Sister Constance, who for five years had been unable to pronounce her vows, now pronouncing her vows with the rest of the community, was the first to mount the scaffold. She intoned the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes and the community continued singing this until the last nun, Blessed Teresa, approaches with gratitude. She just witnessed her faithful daughters “cross the threshold of the bridal chamber”. She too must follow them.
It is in these moments that God’s limitless mercy is unleashed. Not only within 10 days of this offering will the Reign of Terror end, but the seed of the blood of martyrs raises up again the life of the Church. Never will a Christian monarchy be inaugurated again in France but the Church will once again flourish and grow. Over the next 200 years, many French Saints will live and witness again their faith in Christ and His Church. Just as in the early centuries, French Catholics will set their sights to heaven.
Now the question, what are we to learn from this presents many answers but we know we can walk our own journey with faith that God’s mercy is always present to us. We can believe that no matter what happens on a civic or national setting, whatever persecutions may come, whatever rights may be taken from us, they cannot touch our souls. No one can ever take away our faith, take away our relationship with God, take away the truths we know and believe. We know, too, the Lord will always bring forth good from evil.
What is He calling me to do? This, too, is unique but it seems that living our Christian lives as authentically and ordinarily as we can gives witness to the truth these women were willing to die for. And, of course, this means living each day with love for all those we encounter. Yes, in the words of our mother, Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine, nothing can fill this longing, nothing can satisfy our hearts but belonging to Him and becoming martyrs of His love.
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