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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Holy Martyrs of Compiègne of the French Revolution

Did the sacrifice of the Carmelite martyrs
 end the Reign of Terror?
Last night I finished reading The Song at the Scaffold, the novella by Gertrud von Le Fort which tells the story of the fourteen Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne during the French Revolution. I always wonder when I'm reading historical fiction how accurate the story is. Le Fort focuses on the youngest member of the congregation, a timid and fear-filled novice, the daughter of a skeptic who supported the ideals of the revolution.

[Spoiler alert!]


Blanche, terrified of the impending persecution, flees the convent and returns to her father only to see him killed by the revolutionaries. She is scooped up by the draconian women of Paris and carried about almost as a trophy. When the rest of the sisters are arrested and go to the guillotine singing, she picks up the hymn as the last and joins them on the scaffold. The little one, terrified of martyrdom, becomes the last to embrace the guillotine. Ironically, the nun who lives to tell the story is the very one who longed for martyrdom and urged her fellow sisters to consecrate themselves to that purpose.

Well, it appears this truly is a fiction, although an inspiring one. According to history the last to die at the guillotine was the prioress who, like the mother of the seven sons in the Old Testament, saw all her daughters die before her.

In our troubled times, this story has particular relevance. Most of us will never be called to a bloody martyrdom, although many around the world face it like the Christians murdered by ISIS. But we all experience small pricks and stabs by ridicule and contempt. This crucifixion by thumbtack is not insignificant. Rather it is the "little way" to sainthood. Think of how particularly painful it is when the pricks come from within our own families. Accepting and embracing the pain as God's will and offering it in atonement is a holy sacrifice.

At the funeral I attended yesterday for Malia Wells, the priest talked about visiting two terminally ill patients in the hospital. One was a woman in her late 60's who had no faith and was bitter and angry about her impending death. When Father entered her room, she cursed God and demanded he leave at once. In the next room, he visited a young mother in her 30's was also dying, but what a difference! She was smiling and cheerful and told Father she was leaving her children in the hands of Mary who would be a much better mother to her children than she could ever be. Despair vs. faith.

The story of the Carmelites of Compiègne doesn't end at the scaffold. Their offering of their martyrdom for their beloved country was accepted by God and ten days later Robespierre fell, following their very footsteps to the guillotine. The Reign of Terror ended.

I believe this story is important for our own time. So I'm ordering a history to balance the fiction.
To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne Guillotined July 17, 1794 by William Bush. These courageous discalced Carmelites teach us how to respond in times of great evil and chaos, something we need desperately in our own violent and chaotic times.

2 comments:

Roe Antinore said...

Thank you for this post Mary Ann. I am a Lay Carmelite as I've mentioned to you previously although not of the discalced order. I am going to order this book and read it. Thank you again.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I'm ordering the history. I'll do a review of it after I've read it. Their story is so inspiring. Le Fort's novella reminds me of the writing style of Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest. I liked the book very much and it's an easy read. I'm putting it on my favorites shelf to read again.