The Mantle of Elijah:
The Martyrs of Compiègne as Prophets of Modern Age
Terrye Newkirk, OCDS
In mid-July, 1794, in the closing days of Robespierre s Directoire, sixteen Carmelite nuns were guillotined at the Barrière de Vincennes in Paris, convicted of crimes against the state. They were buried in a common grave in a makeshift cemetery, where a single cross today marks the remains of 1,306 victims of the guillotine.1 They were a mere handful of the Revolution s victims; they should have earned at most a footnote in history books. Instead, they have commanded the attention of historians, hagiographers, authors, playwrights, composers, and librettists for two hundred years. In our century the Martyrs of Compiègne have been the subject of at least one massive scholarly history, a German novella, a French play, a film, and an opera. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII declared the nuns Venerable, the first step toward canonization. They were later beatified by Pius X in May, 1906: Carmelites celebrate the memory of the prioress, Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine (Lidoine), and her fifteen companions on July 17, and Catholics may adopt them as patrons. As the bicentenary of their death is observed, many are petitioning for their canonization.
Within the church, the influence of the Martyrs of Compiègne has been profound, beginning with their fellow prisoners, the English Benedictine community of Cambrai. Catholic religious orders were still forbidden in England, and these exiles had sought a haven in France. But the nuns were imprisoned by the Revolution in October of 1793, and they welcomed the Compiègnoises" when they, too, became inmates of the same house of detention in June, 1794. Learning that the Carmelites were daily offering themselves as victims to divine justice for the restoration of peace to France and the church, the Benedictines regarded them as saintly; when the Reign of Terror ended only days after their martyrdom, the English nuns credited the Carmelites with stopping the Revolution s bloodbath and with saving their own community from annihilation. The nuns of Cambrai preserved with devotion relics of the martyrs the secular clothes they were required to wear before their arrest, and which the jailer forced on the English nuns after the Carmelites had been killed.2 Indeed, the Benedictines were still wearing them when on May 2, 1795, they were at last allowed to return to England, where they became the community of Stanbrook Abbey.3 The Abbess of Stanbrook, on the centenary of the martyrdom, wrote to the Prioress at Compiègne:
We hold these things in high honor, as twofold relics; relics of the martyrs, and relics of our own Mothers, who were almost martyrs. How happy we are to have kept this sandal for so many years! It seems to invite us to follow in the footsteps of those who, in the person of our [Carmelite] Mothers, bade us farewell so tenderly, before getting into the cart to reach the throne of glory by way of Paris and the guillotine.4
Other religious communities have also drawn inspiration from Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine and her companions. As a young woman, Saint Julie Billiart, who would one day found the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, often visited the nuns of Compiègne, whose conversation fostered her desire for prayer and sacrifice. Later, in her instructions to her Sisters, the foundress held the martyrs up as models of fidelity and courage under persecution. Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was born five years after the executions and seems to have shared a devotion to the Carmelite martyrs; Father Lamarche, who, at the risk of his life, served the Martyrs as chaplain during the Reign of Terror, was the spiritual director of both Saint Julie and Saint Madeleine Sophie.5
One of the best-known devotees of the Compiègne Carmelites was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She kept at least three images of these martyrs in her books, and joined enthusiastically in the 1894 celebrations for the centenary of their martyrdom, the year before her own famous Act of Oblation to Merciful Love." 6 In turn, Thérèse s act has become one of the most renowned prayers in the modern church, serving as a model for countless prayers of self-offering. Among them is O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore" by Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite mystical writer who died in 1906, the year the Martyrs of Compiègne were beatified.7 That Elizabeth was also directly inspired by the martyrs is shown in her letters:
How beautiful the [beatification] ceremony of our Blesseds [of Compiègne] must have been, and how you must have given thanks to God, who has led me onto this mountain of Carmel, in this Order made famous by so many saints and martyrs. Oh! how happy I would be if my Master also wanted me to pour out my blood for Him! But what I ask of Him especially is that martyrdom of love which consumed my holy Mother Teresa, whom the Church proclaims a victim of charity." 8
One can understand the interest of religious people in the nuns; but why should enlightened moderns find these obscure French women so fascinating? Why has a version of their story, Poulenc s opera Dialogues des Carmélites, become perhaps the most widely loved modern opera, even among non-Christians and nonbelievers? How does the skeptic empathize with these stubbornly pious women, vowed to remain forever behind monastery walls, devoting themselves to mental prayer and corporal penance and who died rather than abandon their way of life? The opera s compelling image of the sixteen nuns, chanting the Salve Regina as one by one they mount the scaffold, challenges most of modernity s assumptions, after all.9 Juxtaposed with eighteenth-century philosophy, it forms an eloquent critique of the Enlightenment. It is an unspoken Yes, but " that haunts every claim of scientific advance, political emancipation, and intellectual triumph in the post- Cartesian era. The nuns Revolutionary contemporaries understood this. But for us to understand why the nuns of Compiègne were considered dangerous enemies of the new French republic, we must glance at the historical background of the Carmelites in France and into French religious history of preceding two centuries.
The Discalced Carmelites arrived in France at the beginning of the seventeenth century, having overcome formidable political and cultural obstacles to their immigration. Among the Spanish sisters who came to France were several who had been close companions of Saint Teresa of Jesus herself, including Anne of Jesus and Anne of Saint Bartholomew. They were also formed in the spiritual life by Saint John of the Cross. They thus transplanted the very flower of Spanish Golden Age culture, with all its Baroque and militantly Counter-Reformation conventions, to a France which was already a hotbed of pietism. It was a meeting of two drastically different cultures. The French novices are said to have been astonished when Mother Anne of Jesus danced in the choir. 10
The first foundation of nuns at Paris was the project of Barbe Acarie, a brilliant and beautiful mother of six who became one of the principal spiritual lights of her age. A mystic who worked tirelessly to relieve the spiritual and material poverty that surrounded her, Madame Acarie attracted to herself the leading religious figures of the day. Among those who frequented her Paris salon were Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Vincent de Paul, André Duval (Regius Professor of Theology at the Sorbonne and Barbe s first biographer), Jacques Gallement, and her young cousin Pierre (later Cardinal) Bérulle, founder of the French Oratory. 11 Of Barbe Acarie s wide contemporary influence, French historian Henri Brémond writes:
The activity of this woman, an invalid and ecstatic, who died at fifty-two, was miraculous. To her is due the introduction into France of the Carmelite Order founded by S. Teresa, which at her death already numbered seventeen houses on French soil; as much and even more than Mme de Sainte- Beuve, she laboured to develop the Ursulines; the reform of the Benedictine Abbeys owes her much, and countless other works also occupied her; lastly, she knew, grouped, stimulated and directed wellnigh all the leading religious spirits of her day. It is not too much to say that, of all the spiritual hearths kindled in the reign of Henri IV, none burned more brightly or equalled the intensity of that of the Hôtel Acarie.12
Madame Acarie was deeply influenced by Spanish mysticism (she later entered the Carmel at Pontoise); but, strange to say, the most profound impact on her spiritual life may have been made by an Englishman, a convert and Capuchin friar, Benet of Canfield (or Benoît de Canfeld). His small book, Règle de Perfection réduite au seul point de la volonté divine, served as a manual to two or three generations of mystics." 13 Brémond writes further:
Completely forgotten today, it is somewhat difficult to realize the importance of his influence; nevertheless, all that his panegyrists say of him falls short of the truth . Master of the masters themselves, of Bérulle, Madame Acarie, Marie de Beauvillier and many others, he, in my opinion, more than anyone else gave our [French] religious renaissance this clearly mystical character which we see already stamping it and which was to last for the next fifty years.14
Like all authentic Christian mystics, Canfield was neither anti-intellectual nor lacking in aesthetic sensibility. On the contrary, he was a subtle theologian," possessed of the imagination of a poet," whose writing style is marred precisely because he was constantly oscillating between English, French, and Latin." 15 According to Canfield, the mystic annihilates" images even while meditating on them, is detached from ascetical practices even while performing them . Though we have the representation of a crucifix the immensity of faith absorbs and annihilates it." 16 Nonetheless, Canfield, like all genuine contemplatives, aimed for balance and wholeness, avoiding extremes and distortions (such as the exaggerated passivity of some later Quietists). Though sometimes identified with the abstract school" of mysticism, his is an Incarnational spirituality, integrating body, mind, and spirit. On many points, one is struck by a surprising correspondence with St. John of the Cross, though Canfield cannot have known him." 17
The connection of English Counter-Reformation theology (such as Canfield s) to Spanish mysticism and Protestant poetics has been carefully drawn by Malcolm Mackenzie Ross in Poetry and Dogma:
If [the Anglican poet] George Herbert [1593 1633], dismayed by the secularizing tendencies of his day, is driven to an interior and otherworldly piety, how much greater must have been the pull of a pure and detached spirituality on the will of the hated and persecuted [English] Catholic! Certainly, Catholic poets from [St. Robert] Southwell [1561 1595] to [Richard] Crashaw [1613 1649] proclaim a contempt for the world which seems to be just as antihistorical as the note of the disenchanted spiritual Anglican .
[However,] Southwell s yearning for martyrdom, for an exodus from the historical, is preeminently a yearning, by way of the addition of the merit of his own sacrifice to the corporate treasury of merit, to strengthen the practical life of the visible church, the church which Southwell believes to be a leaven in the world and therefore fully involved in history. His own death, while a personal release from history, is an oblation intended to further the action of the church in history. Here, then, is contempt for the world in the interests of redemption of the world. This is the central paradox of a fully Catholic spirituality . In St. Teresa, withdrawal is an act of renewal; it is a moment in the rhythm of fulfillment, a coiling up of hidden powers which soon will spring into actualization, into history just as in St. John of the Cross detachment from the images of the created order is a high strategy to repossess them, as they really are.18
With the coming of the Discalced Carmelites into France, the movement Brémond calls the Mystical Invasion" culminated:
All that generation, great and small alike, resembled these two [Francis de Sales and Barbe Acarie] more or less. After them, and during the first half of the seventeenth century, the movement continued to extend and develop, but also to grow complicated until the time when we seem to see in the very complication symptoms or menaces of approaching dissolution .19
As with any great popular movement, there were inevitably abuses and excesses which provoked a reaction. By the end of the seventeenth century, mysticism had become an object of derision in France. By the time of the French Revolution, contemplative life had receded to its customary and, some would say, proper obscurity. The cloistered nuns of Compiègne maintained some ties with prominent persons: several noble families had been the benefactors of the sisters, who depended entirely upon alms for their sustenance. Since the days of Louis XIV, when one of his former mistresses entered another Carmel as a penitent, the monastery (not far from one of the royal residences) had enjoyed the crown s favor; indeed, the first historian of the martyrs, Mother Marie of the Incarnation, was apparently the natural daughter of the Prince de Conti.20 Mother Henriette of Jesus was the grand-niece of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, chief advisor to Louis XIV. But, for the most part, the nuns avoided political entanglements, asking only to be left unmolested to live their vocation to prayer. Far from being aristocrats themselves, their fathers were shoemakers, stockbrokers, cabinetmakers, laborers little blue blood, a great deal of red." 21
It was, however, the nuns supposed sympathy for anti-revolutionists that led to their arrest. Within the monastery, authorities found a portrait of the king and images of the Sacred Heart similar to those used by reactionary groups. The religious were accused of halting the progress of public spirit." 22 In reality, however, political factors figured little in the nuns condemnation to the guillotine. Something more threatening, something less well defined, provoked that retribution by civil authorities.
Throughout the events of the Revolution, the nuns of Compiègne, like most religious communities, obeyed the civil law insofar as possible. Doubtless, they prayed for those in authority over them, as all Christians are counseled to do. It is likely that they kept the royal portrait as a memento of a family which had been kind to them. The Canticle to the Sacred Heart of Jesus" (see Appendix, pp. 37 40), written by a Parisian priest and used as incriminating evidence in the nuns trial because a copy was found in their monastery, bespeaks a longing for peace and order brought about by divine love as any reasonable person shocked by the escalating butchery might have felt. It looks forward to a time when the King will be free," but makes no special mention of his restoration to power. Indeed, in the context this could refer as easily to a heavenly as an earthly king. Yet the state found that grounds existed for executing the sixteen nuns. Why?
In the Assemblée Nationale on February 13, 1790, M. Garat- l Aine expressed the sentiments of many revolutionaries against religious orders:
The rights of man will they thus be won? This is the real question. Religious orders are the most scandalous violation of them. In a moment of fleeting fervor, a young adolescent pronounces an oath to recognize henceforth neither father nor family, never to be a spouse, never a citizen; he submits his will to the will of another, his soul to the soul of another; he renounces all liberty at an age when he could not relinquish the most modest possessions; his oath is a civil suicide.23
Religious life, especially religious obedience, simply makes no sense to the enlightened." Active orders might be tolerated because they provide education or medical care; contemplative orders are, to the rationalist, a mere absurdity. Perceptively, Georges Bernanos places these words in the mouth of the former prioress of the Compiègne Carmelites, Mother Henriette of Jesus:
We are not an enterprise for mortification or the preservation of the virtues, we are houses of prayer; whoever does not believe in prayer cannot but take us for impostors or parasites.24
If not impostors or parasites, the poor sisters must, at least, be deluded
or intimidated, the revolutionaries believed. When monastic vows were suppressed
by order of the Assemblée, city authorities came to the monastery
to interrogate each sister as to the motives of her vocation and to offer
freedom to any who wished it. When none chose to leave, the officials returned
with armed guards that they posted as sentinels within the cloister: they
believed that the sisters were afraid to speak for fear of being overheard.
One by one the nuns were brought to be examined. When Mother Henriette s
turn came, she handed them a written response and asked them to read it aloud
How false are the judgments
that the world makes of us!
Its profound ignorance
disapproves of our promises,
all that it adorns itself with
is but pure vanity.
Its only reality
is the sorrow that devours it.
I despise its pride,
I consider its hatred an honor;
and I prefer my chains
to its spurious freedom.
O day of eternal celebration,
O day forever holy,
when, vowing myself to Carmel
I won the heart of God.
O beloved and precious bonds
I strengthen you each day;
all that the earth can offer me
is worthless in my eyes;
your sarcasm, worldlings,
compared to my joy
is a dead giveaway:
that joy outweighs all the cares
to which your soul is prey.25
It is crucially significant not only that the former prioress elected to reply in verse, but that her answer, while perhaps not a great poem, is both competent poetry and a well- constructed argument. An even more striking example of reasoned rhetoric turned against the nuns would-be liberators occurred when, in 1790, Mother Nathalie of Jesus (Grenelle) addressed the Assemblée Nationale on behalf of French Discalced Carmelites:
The most complete liberty governs our vows; the most perfect equality reigns in our houses; here we know neither the rich nor the noble and we depend only on the Law . In the world they like to broadcast that monasteries contain only victims slowly consumed by regrets; but we proclaim before God that if there is on earth a true happiness, we possess it in the dimness of the sanctuary and that, if we had to choose again between the world and the cloister, there is not one of us who would not ratify with greater joy her first decision. After having solemnly declared that man is free, would you oblige us to think that we no longer are?26
Such pleas availed little; religious houses were ordered dispersed, and it was even forbidden to meet for common prayer and to wear the habit. The nuns of Compiègne were forced to leave their Carmel on September 14, 1792 the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the day on which the long penitential season in Carmel began.27 Sometime shortly before, the women had pledged themselves to a course of action their persecutors would have found even more incomprehensible than monastic life: through a communal act of consecration, they offered their lives for the sake of peace.
Between June and September 1792, Mme Lidoine [Teresa of St. Augustine] avowed to her daughters that having made her meditation on the subject, the thought had come to her to make an act of consecration by which the Community would offer itself as a holocaust to appease the wrath of God, and in order that the divine peace which his dear Son had come to bring into the world would be bestowed on the church and the state.28
Like generations of Carmelites, the sisters had made dramatic representations of martyrdom part of their recreation; these were imaginative rehearsals for the real thing, always regarded as a possibility. Yet they knew that seeking martyrdom too actively could be sinful, a temptation of pride. For almost two years after first making their act of consecration, the nuns, in quiet defiance of the law, lived apart in small groups, dressing as laywomen but meeting for common prayer. Eventually, in mid-June, 1794, they were arrested and tried before the Assemblée Nationale, without attorney or witnesses.29 In the following dialogue the irrational" mystic, Teresa of St. Augustine (Lidoine), answers the charges of the enlightened" president of the tribunal:
If then you require a victim, here I am; it is I alone whom you should strike, my Sisters are innocent." The President: They are your accomplices." If you judge," said Mother, that they are my accomplices, of what can you accuse our two extern sisters?" Of what? Have they not been messengers for carrying your letters to the post?" But they were ignorant of the content of the letters and did not know the address where I sent them; besides, their position as women in service obliges them to do what they are told." Shut up," answered the President, their duty was to inform the Nation of it." 30
Testimony was halted there; the nuns were sentenced to the guillotine. An ironic sidelight: the one nun of royal blood, Marie of the Incarnation, happened to be away at the time of the arrest and thus escaped execution; one of only three survivors of her community, she became the martyrs first historian, collecting eyewitness accounts of the nuns deaths.30 Reverend Mother Émilienne, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, wrote in a letter:
I learned from a person who was a witness to their martyrdom that the youngest of these good Carmelites was called first and that she went to kneel before her venerable Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die. She then mounted the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. She then went to place herself beneath the blade allowing the executioner to touch her. All the others did the same. The Venerable Mother was the last sacrificed. During the whole time, there was not a single drum-roll; but there reigned a profound silence.32
Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, seventy-eight and an invalid, having been thrown roughly to the pavement from the tumbrel, was heard to speak words of forgiveness and encouragement to her tormentor.33 Sister Julie had an extreme horror of the guillotine; yet she refused to leave her sisters even when her family sent for her, saying, We are victims of the age, and we must sacrifice ourselves for its reconciliation with God." 34 Another witness said of the nuns, They looked like they were going to their weddings." 35
Throughout France a vaunted new age of spiritual maturity, free from the bonds of sectarian religion, was underway. On June 20, 1794, a Feast of the Supreme Being" was celebrated in Compiègne. 36 In November of the previous year, the worship of Reason was officially proclaimed: the church of Saint-Jacques in Compiégne became the Temple of Reason. The church of Saint- Antoine became a public meeting hall and fodder storehouse. In December, the Mayor of Paris had announced in the Temple of Reason that the Declaration of the Rights of Man would henceforth be the catechism of the French, and that the Constitution would be their Gospel.37 The prevailing mood of the times is reflected in a letter of July 17, 1794, from municipal officials of Compiègne to the Comité du Sureté Nationale:
The citizens of the Commune of Compiègne and of the District celebrated a civic festival on the 26 of this month (Messidor) in memory of the taking of the Bastille and in rejoicing for the recent victories of our armies. The minutes of the Municipalites attest that everywhere people were animated by the same spirit. The festival was concluded with dances and patriotic banquets.38
Yet there must have been a growing public unease not evident in this letter. Something in the sight of the nuns being executed seems to have affected even the hardened Parisian crowd, accustomed to cheering loudly each fall of the guillotine blade. Within ten days, by July 27, 1794, Robespierre and the provisional revolutionary government were finished.39
The double dimension, mystical and prophetic" is the essence of the Carmelite charism: according to ancient tradition, the order traces its origins to a community of hermits gathered near the fount of Elijah on the slopes of Mount Carmel, forever linked in Scripture with the memory of the great prophet. It was only natural, then, that from the beginning Carmelites should see themselves as the spiritual heirs of Elijah, living in his power and spirit; the feastday of Saint Elijah is still celebrated with solemnity in Carmelite monasteries throughout the world. It is certain that since Elijah, carried off like a flaming whirlwind in a chariot with fiery horses, a prophetic spirit has not ceased to breathe on the family of Carmel." 40
But in what sense are the Martyrs of Compiègne prophets? It may help to recall that the role of the Old Testament prophet was not to predict the future, except incidentally, but to summon the people of Israel to return to their former fidelity: their function was a radically conservative one, in the best sense of both words. The martyrs point backward to something lost; as well as forward to the inevitable consequences of that loss. In the brutal execution of these cloistered religious by a democratic" state founded ostensibly on human reason, we find a metaphor, perhaps, for our own condition, for T.S. Eliot s famous dissociation of sensibility" that has violently subjugated our intuitive, reflective, contemplative selves to rationalism, materialism, and pragmatism.
In his influential 1954 study, The Poetry of Meditation, Louis L. Martz argues persuasively for the direct connection between religious meditation, especially the Ignatian kind, and the form and content of Metaphysical poetry.41 Approaching the subject from another direction, Father William McNamara, OCD, has speculated on the relationship between what he terms the secular contemplative" and the religious contemplative," asserting that the cognitive and psychological processes for the artist and the mystic are essentially the same.42 Similar conclusions have been reached by researchers Claudio Naranjo and Robert E. Ornstein, among others.43 Still others, such as Carl Jung and Evelyn Underhill, have posited some connection between art and religion, or, more properly, between artistic creation and mystical consciousness. The linkage of poetry with madness and religious ecstasy, indeed, is ancient and common to all cultures. The parallel apparently goes back to the time when the poet, the prophet, and the priest were one and the same and when madmen were considered the special children of the gods, invested with prophetic and magical powers." 44 This relationship may help to explain the perennial fascination with the Martyrs of Compiègne why, for example, a guest fundraiser on public radio recently described hearing Poulenc s opera based on their story, Dialogues des Carmélites, as the most profoundly moving experience of my life."
Ultimately, however, studies that limit themselves to exploring phenomena common to mysticism and art provoke more questions than they answer. Of course, the connection exists and is well documented. Among the Carmelites of Compiègne alone, for example, the prioress, Teresa of St. Augustine, was a poet and artist two of her pastels have been preserved. 45 Mother Henriette, as we have seen, was a talented poet; Marie of the Incarnation was brilliantly educated" and a gifted scholar.46 But none pursued art for art s sake. Historically, the origin of art, especially of poetry, was in religion; for the mystic, it still is.
Needless to say, with few exceptions, religion is at best wholly irrelevant to modern artists; at worst, it is a subject for derision or desecration. Even many artists who profess themselves Christian are horrified at the thought of mixing aesthetics with theology; didactic" has become a dirty word.
When did this radical separation occur? Why have literature, the fine arts, music to some extent, culture itself been abandoned to the secular realm? Louis Martz, like other critics, locates the divorce in the seventeenth century and explains that:
the fundamental reason [for the earlier harmonious integration of art and religion] surely lies in sacramental doctrine, in the emphasis on Incarnation which Catholic doctrine involves, and in the consequent sanctification of the sensory which flows from this. It was the doctrine of the real presence" that made possible that delicate sense of presence" which characterizes Catholic meditation on the life of Christ. The reverse, we may suppose, would tend to happen in the mind of one who denied the real presence." 47
The Anglican critic Malcolm Mackenzie Ross extended this argument in his still-provocative study, Poetry and Dogma. It was, he says, the Reformation theologians tampering with dogma, particularly eucharistic doctrines, that led to imprecision in language and the abdication of the Christian artist what he calls the unfleshing of the Word."
The fixed star at the centre of the Christian firmament of symbol is the dogma of the Incarnation . The Christian artist, when he knows what he is about, respects his medium, respects his material fact and the historical event, respects the practical, objective limits of forms. He cannot be, as Shelley was, the poet of an unbodied joy." 48
The analogical sense of Christian symbol is perpetuated by the Eucharistic insistence on the validity of the material and temporal order.
It is precisely this analogical esteem for things which falters in the seventeenth century.49
The loss of the sense of the presence of God in his creation through the sacraments, Ross claims, underlies the slow dissociation of spirit and matter that occurs over the next four centuries. Matter, unsanctified by the ongoing sacrifice of Christ, becomes an obstacle to, not a means of, reconciliation with God.
...The decline of the medieval order of faith may be traced in a growing disharmony between the dogmatic, conceptual, and rhetorical levels of Eucharistic symbol and act. In other words, one can observe in the dissolution of the Christian culture a process of dissociation between faith, thought, and art . [T]he firmament within which Christian poetry had moved during the Ages of Faith was compounded of nature and grace, action and contemplation, matter and spirit. The tension between opposing principles, the structural stress of this firmament, issued from the Eucharistic mystery itself, and is most fully articulated in the Thomist doctrine of analogy.
The disintegration of this firmament is characterized by a loss of tension, by a springing apart of grace and nature, action and contemplation, matter and spirit.50
Ross observes that in the poetry of Milton and the Anglicans:
time is never understood to be in any way contained by the Presence of Christ. In the [Anglican] prayer book, as well as in Presbyterian and sectarian theology, the sacrifice of Christ is understood as pinned to a receding point in time. Now if the sacrifice is confined to a moment within history, it cannot be conceived of as encompassing history, nor can history, in any degree, fulfill an event from which history must ever move farther away.51
Puritan iconoclasts, while trying to save Christians from idolatry, end by surrendering the world to it, according to Ross:
Paradoxically enough, Calvin aids and abets the antireligious impulse of the hated Renaissance. He abandons to the world what the world is willing and able to have and to hold. In this way the Reformation connives with the Renaissance in the secularization of the arts. To the severe Calvinist cast of mind, art is at best a distraction, not only from formal worship, but also from the serious duties of every day. At worst, art is the occasion of sin. In any case, the artist is invited to go his own way. It should not be surprising that this invitation is extended by a theology which confines the Incarnation to a pinpoint in time and separates the spiritual and ethical values of the Eucharist from the species of the temporal and physical. 52
Is it simplistic to draw a parallel between the iconoclasm of some figures of the Reformation and that of French revolutionaries? The most radical reformers suppressed monastic life, desecrated sacred places, destroyed religious art, and rejected ornament and nuance in language. So did the revolutionaries. Can it be that contemplation, and the meditative arts it produces, are the enemies of any absolutist movement, political, religious, or literary? If so, what could be more dangerous than a community of women dedicated to prayer centered on the Eucharist, to study, to religious art?
In its fullest intention the Eucharist is clearly eschatological, lifting the whole body of the faithful out of history and into that ultimate relation with God for which man was created . In discovering and experiencing the end for which he was created (an end beyond history), man also discovers that he must fulfill himself within history. He is called eternally to redeem the time . In this fruitful tension which dogma proclaims between eternity and time there is no support either for an idealistic otherworldliness or for a materialistic immersion in the natural and historical processes. There is room neither for an easy utopianism nor for a stoic despair.53
It is no wonder that the sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiègne were killed. Like the Hebrew prophets, they were living witnesses to the former integration of faith, thought, and art." 54 And they pointed to the inevitable consequences of its loss. In living lives wholly focused on the one thing necessary" the contemplation of the Incarnation of God mystics of all ages call into question any less compelling vocation. By their very existence, they force us to reflect on our own lives, our own values a scrutiny that extremists of any kind can scarcely stand.
Is it only coincidence that Song at the Scaffold, Gertrud von Le Fort s novella about the Martyrs of Compiègne, was first published in Germany in 1931 as Adolph Hitler s National Socialist party was gaining phenomenal power? Or again that the Carmelites Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, who herself wrote admiringly of the Compiègne nuns55) and Blessed Titus Brandsma were among the martyrs of Nazi inhumanity? Like the Martyrs of Compiègne, they embodied timeless spiritual ideals and held to them in the face of torture and death. In Song at the Scaffold, which formed the basis for Georges Bernanos s Dialogues des Carmélites and Poulenc s opera of the same name, von Le Fort s protagonist is a Blanche de la Force (Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ). Unlike other characters in the novella, Blanche is entirely fictional. Throughout her life, she is plagued by overwhelming fear of the
Revolution, of change, of death, even fear of her own cowardice. Faced with arrest and certain execution, she flees while the rest of her community is imprisoned. Ultimately, through the prayers and example of the other nuns, Blanche gains courage and, at the last moment, joins her sisters in martyrdom. Blanche, I think, stands for all of us who hesitate to confront evil out of fear not only great evils, when speaking the truth can mean pain or death; but the everyday evils, when truthfulness brings only unpleasantness or embarrassment. Like Blanche, we too are the beneficiaries of the prayer and witness of all contemplatives.
Reformers, reactionaries, or revolutionists any who attempt to separate spirit from matter, faith from works, words from their meanings are right to fear such people. Robespierre s avowed purpose was to implement concretely the romantic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France s public life; HitlerÕs diabolical vision apparently derived in part from Friedrich Nietzsche s doctrine of the superman," together with a literal reading of theosophical and other occult texts. Such theories, promulgated without regard for objective truth, cannot withstand the light either of reason or of faith. Contemplatives bring both to bear.
The twentieth century has seen the death of more martyrs for the Christian faith than all preceding centuries combined. In the final scene of Poulenc s opera, the Martyrs of Compiègne file serenely to their deaths, as if they were processing from choir to the refectory, singing the Salve Regina to the horrifying cadence of the guillotine s fall. One by one, their voices cease, until the last voice that of Blanche is abruptly silenced by the crash of the blade. It is a stunning moment. One feels suddenly the profound absence of these prayerful spirits.
As I write these last paragraphs, I am listening to an audio tape of songs sung throughout the year in the Carmel of the Trinity, San Diego. Since the tape was recorded, three nuns of that community have been called home to the Lord. As we mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the Martyrs, let us pray that the contemplative voices in the world will not die out, one by one. Through their prayers, may we all have the courage, like Blanche, to join our voices with theirs, to deepen the life of prayer in the church. Now, more than ever, we need the example and intercession of Blessed Teresa of St. Augustine and her fifteen companions.
The main article from the pamphlet by the same name, copyright 1995 by ICS
Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this
copyright notice is included.
The main article from the pamphlet by the same name, copyright 1995 by ICS Publications.
Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby
granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included.
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