Nineteen years after the death of Saint Paul of the Cross, 16 cloistered Carmelite nuns of Compiegne displayed the fullness of his teaching regarding the total commitment to the Cross, by a corporate act of martyrdom during the French Revolution. One by one they perished on the guillotine in Paris. They were joined in this act of courage by their handyman, M Mulot de la Mendariere. They are mentioned here because of the place their story has played in the formation of countless Passionist men and women throughout the world. Novice directors and formation leaders have pointed to them because the call to Christ is the call to the Cross. Furthermore, the “Tale of the Sixteen” is characterized by the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. It is at once full of an anguish which will not be satisfied until consummation.
Constant reference to them over the past century is found in contemporary Catholic art and literature. Perhaps the most famous of these is Francois Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. This masterpiece is based upon Georges Benanos’ play of the same name. This in turn flows from the novella of Gertrude von le Fort, entitled Song of the Scaffold.
Several years ago I attended a magnificent performance of the opera at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Although we had known each other for years, sitting next to me, quite by chance, was Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., founder of the Fransiscan Friars of the Reform. As we exited the building we overheard two middle-aged couples referring to the martyrs as a group of deranged women intent on collective suicide. The four clergy who were immediately behind were absolutely astonished to realize that these people had totally missed the real point of the production, which is that the essence of religious consecration in Christ means that when God wants it all, he takes it all.
This conundrum is obvious in Gertrude von le Fort’s masterpiece. Not so long ago William Bush, an Orthodox Christian, produced an excellent hermeneutic on the topic entitled To Quell the Terror. Apart from the brief mystical life of Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), the story of Compiegne remains a high point of modern Carmelite history and is frequently cited by spiritual directors.
The making of the narrative goes back to the days of Saint Teresa of Avila herself. She died in the arms of a certain Sister (later Blessed)Anne of Saint Bartholomew (Ana Garcia). The place was Borgos, Spain; the year was 1582. At the time Sister Anne was a lay sister and a nurse. By the turn of the 17th Century, she was mandated by her superiors to become a choir nun and thus to lead the Spanish nuns across the frontier into France. She was reluctant to do both, but achieved great success. She died in Antwerp, Belgium in 1626, having made several foundations.
Among others, Mother Anne was invited by Madame Barbe Acarie. This holy woman was a widow with children. Like Anne of Saint Bartholomew, she began her religious life as a kitchen sister, taking the name of Marie of the Incarnation. She too is now Blessed. Barbe Acarie was also compelled to become a choir nun. She became Prioress of her Carmel and was responsible for several more foundations in France. One of these was the Carmel of Saint Denis in Paris.
An outstanding member of the Saint Denis Community was the youngest daughter of King Louis XV, the Princess Louise Marie, known in history as Mme Louise. She entered the Carmel in 1770, selecting the convent with the strictest interpretation of the Carmelite Constitutions. On entrance she was quoted as saying: “She was not interested in any royal spouse… She did not want any other husband but Jesus Christ.” Later, when a fellow religious referred to her in an exaggerated manner as the daughter of the French King, she replied: “I am also a daughter of God.” From that she derived her dignity. She escaped the French Revolution by one year, but the 19th Century Popes declared her Venerable.
Mme Louise took as her religious name Therese of Saint Augustine. The influence of her total personality fell upon another French aristocrat, the Lady Marie Madeliene-Claudine Lidoine. She assumed the same religious name. This woman was destined to become the Prioress of Compiegne. It was she who led the other fifteen to die on the scaffold. She always claimed that her spiritual model was Madame Louise.
When the French Revolution reached them in 1790, the nuns at Compiegne were put upon by the chaos of the crowds. They were immediately driven into a state of agitation and confusion. One of the lines in all of the Compiegne literature states: “Do not actively seek to enter the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus… You will not find yourself able to get out.” Confused, they took the oath to the Revolution under the pressure of the terrorists. When they discovered that they had compromised themselves before the Church, they immediately abjured. They paid with their blood on the day after the Feast of Carmel. This is a two-century-long drama of French Carmelite life. William Bush summed it up: “The idealist had forgotten, however, that some concepts do not die with the majority vote of a progressive government, and that the resistance of these concepts can be amazingly tenacious. Where the deepest and most glorious identity of a whole people is concerned.”
This existential crisis of confusion and anxiety has plagued Christians since the preaching of Christ and the inception of the Church.
Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.