For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 7)

One remarkable aspect of exploring the life of St. Joan of Arc through this novena is all the characters I have discovered; folks who helped her to achieve her mission or who played a role in letting the world know about it. I’ve met Yolande of Aquitaine, a royal dynamo who was among the first to believe Joan’s visions were divine, and Étienne de Vignolles , the crude knight she convinced to join her cause and whose heart she converted.

Just last night I met Venetian-born poet, mother, widow and nun Christine de Pisan, (above) who challenged the prevalent misogyny of medieval times and was its most prolific female writer. Hers is the only record of St. Joan of Arc that exists outside of court documents of her trial.

Born into an educated family 47 years before St. Joan, Christine de Pisan was married at age 15 and widowed with three children by the time she was 25.  She turned to writing to support her children. Her patrons were members of the French nobility. She began by writing love ballads but quickly expanded into other genres.

“Her writings in prose and verse soon gained her great renown. Her contemporaries compared her eloquence with that of Cicero and her wisdom with that of Cato. Prompted by necessity she wrote incessantly. She declares herself that “in the short space of six years, between 1397 and 1403, she wrote fifteen important books, without mentioning minor essays, which, compiled, make seventy large copy-books.”  In her mid-fifties, Christine of Pisan  entered a Dominican convent where her daughter was a nun. Sher wrote her final work, The Tale of Saint Joan,  at the convent while St. Joan led successful military campaigns. Here is an excerpt.

XXIV

When I reflect upon your state,
The youthful maiden that you are,
To whom God gives the force and strength
To be the champion and the one
To suckle France upon her milk
Of peace, the sweetest nourishment,
To overthrow the rebel host:
The wonder passes Nature’s work!

XXVI

But as for us, we’ve never heard
About a marvel quite so great,
For all the heroes who have lived
In history can’t measure up
In bravery against the Maid,
Who strives to rout our enemies.
It’s God does that, who’s guiding her
Whose courage passes that of men.

XXVIII

And Esther, Judith, Deborah,
Those ladies of enormous worth,
Through them it was that God restored
His people, who were sorely pressed;
Of many others I have learned,
Courageous ladies, valiant all,
Through whom God worked his miracles.
But through the Maid He’s done much more.

Glorious St. Joan of Arc, filled with compassion for those who invoke you, with love for those who suffer, heavily laden with the weight of my troubles, I kneel at your feet and humbly beg you to take my present need under your special protection…(mention here).

Vouchsafe to recommend it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lay it before the throne of Jesus. Cease not to intercede for me until my request is granted. Above all, obtain for me the grace to one day meet God face to face and with you and Mary and all the angels and saints praise Him through all eternity.

O most powerful Saint Joan, do not let me lose my soul, but obtain for me the grace of winning my way to heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 6)

St. Joan of Arc is both a saint and a warrior. As a military leader, she is best known for marshaling French troops during the Siege of Orléans (1428 to 1429), breaking 80 years of English dominance during the Hundred Years’ War between the two nations. She was 17 years old at the time.

Orléans is a city on the Loire River in north-central France and had major significance to both the French and English during the Hundred Years’ War. This siege was the high-water mark  of English power during the long conflict.

At the time,  Orléans was the northernmost city in France that remained loyal to the French monarchy. England already had invaded and controlled much of northern France. Many believed that if the English would maintain their siege, eventually they would conquer all of France. Nine days after St. Joan of Arc showed up, the siege collapsed. Before that time, the French had only tried one assault to repel the English during the siege, and that had resulted in a crushing, demoralizing, defeat.

St. Joan, in following God’s commands, served her countrymen who had been oppressed by the English. Her cause lead her into battle where she continued to honor God by encouraging purity and morality from her fellow soldiers.

St. Joan fulfilled God’s mission through justice–the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor; establishing harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. 

She, by honoring God’s commandments, fulfills his foremost law: love. 

Saint Joan, Your my example both by word and life; Let God Be First Served, I pray that in my own life this will also be the example of my life in service to God.

Saint Joan, Patriot in the service to your God and country; Pray for me.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 5)

To some who are not Catholic, and heck to some who are, novenas seems like superstition, a relic of folk religion. Novenas are not incantations; they do not offer us magic if only we say certain words or do certain things. Alas, some Catholics are misguided about novenas. Have you ever attended a Mass where someone had stuck a copy of a novena to St. Jude in a pew? The flier says that if you go to church for nine days and leave a copy of the prayer behind, your request will be granted. This is a misuse of the Catholic treasure of a novena.

Father William P. Saunders, refers to this practice as “dispensing—machine Catholicism; just as a person puts the coin in the vending machine and presses the button to get the desired soda, here a person says the prayer, goes to Church, and is supposedly guaranteed that the request will be granted. So much for God’s will. What is really sad these days is that the person simply Xeroxes the letter; one would think they could at least hand-write it.” So what is a novena, exactly?

We set aside a time over nine days, and ask a certain saint to pray for us. Right now, I am praying my very first novena and perhaps some of you are praying along with me. I am meditating and learning about the life of Saint Joan of Arc, and asking her to pray for a special intention of mine.

I prefer to pray the same prayer to Saint Joan every day; it helps keep me disciplined and stick to the novena. But you can pray whatever you like. You can simply say “Saint Joan, pray for me in my time of trouble.” Novenas are not quid pro quo arrangements. It’s not as if I want X and if I pray a novena, Christ will grant me X. Perhaps at the nine days’ end, I will discern that X isn’t what Christ wants for me anyway. Perhaps I will find out that peace and joy come when I don’t receive what I think I need.

Having never prayed a novena before, I am discovering some of its benefits. Because I am praying the novena each morning, it  shapes to my days. I am praying, with Saint Joan near me as a heavenly companion. That helps keep me focused on Christ throughout my day. I feel Saint Joan’s  presence beside me.

For those of you who prefer variety in your novena prayers, here is another Novena to Saint Joan I found. This one focuses on soldiers everywhere.

O Joan, holy liberator of France, the powerful holy force in the days of old, as you yourself said, “Peace would be found only at the point of a lance,” who used the weapons of war when no other means were able to obtain a just Peace, take care and help today those who do not want to do viol
ence and patiently try to employ all possible peaceful means of resolution, but now allow the violence of war.

Heroine of Orleans, transmit to our leaders, your talent to inspire your soldiers to accomplish great deeds of valor, in order that our soldiers’ efforts will come to a rapid and successful end.

Triumphant One of Reims, prepare for us the just peace under the shield of a force that will be henceforth vigilant! Martyr of Rouen, be near to all the soldiers who fall in battle, in order to support, console, and help them and those dear ones that they leave behind.

Saint of the Country, excite in all souls, in every home of the world, the zeal to contribute to the salvation of the world and the return of peace, works which you crave, the rediscovery of a more Christian life, through holy thoughts and actions, forgiveness and persistent prayer, that as you yourself once said, “God must be served first.” Amen.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 4)

Ever wonder how an illiterate peasant girl was able to successfully command the French army? A girl who never had left her hometown, knew nothing of politics, military history or geography? One gift St. Joan had was a “seeing eye,” which meant she could discern the souls of others.

Take, for example, her bold decision to recruit the knight Étienne de Vignolles, a crude, profane military leader, to work with her during the Hundred Years’ War campaigns of 1429. ( His nickname was La Hire, which means “The Ire” in Old French. The knave’s face on the Jack of Heart is modeled after his.) Her comrades were appalled by this decision.  But St. Joan had the foresight to understand what an asset he would be to her troops. Indeed, he came to believe her mission was prophetic.

As recounted in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, at Saint Joan’s first meeting with La Hire, she told him that, as commander of the army camp, he was to restore order and discipline. “Loose women must pack out of the place at once..the rough carousing must stop, drinking must be brought within proper and defined limits, and discipline must take the place of disorder.”

Her final instruction to him was the most difficult: all soldiers must go to confession and then attend Mass daily. “The soldier sighed and said he would advertise the Mass, but said he doubted there was a man in the camp that was any more likely to go to it than he was himself.”

And then St. Joan pulled all her punches: La Hire himself would go to Mass.

“Well, he really went. It was hardly believable but there he was, striding along, holding himself grimly to his duty, and looking as pious as he could but growling and cursing like a fiend.” The two spent three days together in that camp, with Joan praying and pleading with him. At the end of those three days, La Hire prayed.

Here is how Noel Rainguesson, a character in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc describes Saint Joan’s gift of bringing others to Christ.

“The common eye only sees the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outsider didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind of eye couldn’t detect.” Do we have the faith to see beyond outward appearances? Do we believe the human heart can change?

Glorious St. Joan of Arc, filled with compassion for those who invoke you, with love for those who suffer, heavily laden with the weight of my troubles, I kneel at your feet and humbly beg you to take my present need under your special protection…(mention here).

Vouchsafe to recommend it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lay it before the throne of Jesus. Cease not to intercede for me until my request is granted. Above all, obtain for me the grace to one day meet God face to face and with you and Mary and all the angels and saints praise Him through all eternity.

O most powerful Saint Joan, do not let me lose my soul, but obtain for me the grace of winning my way to heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 3)

Joan of Arc’s public ministry began and ended the year she was 17. She had grown up in a loving family who provided her with concrete examples of Christian charity. Historical records describe the D’Arc family as “willing to open their home to strangers and to share what they could with them.

People remembered how Joan would willingly give up her bed to these strangers while she herself slept by the hearth.” To leave her childhood home (pictured above, with the village church beside it) and follow her destiny, St. Joan left home without telling them her true destination and goal: fight the English at Orleans and have the Dauphin crowned king.

Her Uncle Durand asked her parents’ permission to take Joan to his home so that she could help his wife with the housework and to help her with the delivery of her child. While Joan was there, she convinced her uncle of her mission. In the end, her parents supported her; they walked to Reims to see the Dauphin crowned King Charles VII of France. Clearly, St. Joan and her family understood what St. Paul told the church in Corinth.

“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many.

What risks are we taking to fulfill God’s plan for our lives? Are we willing to face the people and circumstances Christ places in front of us?

Glorious St. Joan of Arc, filled with compassion for those who invoke you, with love for those who suffer, heavily laden with the weight of my troubles, I kneel at your feet and humbly beg you to take my present need under your special protection…(mention here).

Vouchsafe to recommend it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lay it before the throne of Jesus. Cease not to intercede for me until my request is granted. Above all, obtain for me the grace to one day meet God face to face and with you and Mary and all the angels and saints praise Him through all eternity.

O most powerful Saint Joan, do not let me lose my soul, but obtain for me the grace of winning my way to heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena (Day 2)

Centuries ago, the unlikely transformation of an illiterate peasant girl into a brave military leader and a defender of the faith began in her father’s garden. “When I was thirteen years old, I had a Voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And the first time I was very fearful. And came this Voice, about the hour of noon, in the summer-time, in my father’s garden; I had not fasted on the eve preceding that day.” Four years later, Joan of Arc was commanding the French military in its war against English invaders.


Skeptics have considered this girl’s voices were merely symptomatic of schizophrenia. That was my conclusion when I first heard about Joan of Arc in my high school church youth group. But this summer, as I have studied the details of her life, this diagnosis seems most improbable.

Joan’s behavior did not deteriorate over the next four years, as one would expect from an unmedicated schizophrenic. On the contrary: she was able to accomplish the improbable and with a great sense of purpose. Also contradicting the idea St. Joan was schizophrenic is the fact that throughout her brief life, she showed tremendous empathy for others.

Because we are Christians, we believe in the miracle of Christ’s birth and resurrection. Can we not then believe that Joan of Arc’s voices were divine? To accept the transcendent is to accept the possibility. As C. S. Lewis put it: “Many people think one can decide whether a miracle occurred in the past by examining the evidence ‘according to the ordinary rules of historical inquiry.’ But the ordinary rules cannot be worked until we have decided whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probable they are.

Glorious St. Joan of Arc, filled with compassion for those who invoke you, with love for those who suffer, heavily laden with the weight of my troubles, I kneel at your feet and humbly beg you to take my present need under your special protection…(mention here).

Vouchsafe to recommend it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lay it before the throne of Jesus. Cease not to intercede for me until my request is granted. Above all, obtain for me the grace to one day meet God face to face and with you and Mary and all the angels and saints praise Him through all eternity.

O most powerful Saint Joan, do not let me lose my soul, but obtain for me the grace of winning my way to heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

For the Love of St. Joan of Arc: A Novena

Given my recent enthusiasm for St. Joan of Arc, Frank suggested I pray a novena to her, asking her to intercede for my private intentions. Who better to ask to pray for us than St. Joan? She was a courageous warrior for Christ, country and family during a tumultuous time in her native land. Filled with the Holy Spirit, this peasant girl from the French countryside never stopped believing that the voices and visions that began coming to her when she was 13 were messages from God. This novena will end August 28, the feast day of Saint Augustine, who lived 1,000 years before St. Joan and “established anew the ancient faith.”

Even though I’m a lifelong Catholic, I did not know what a novena was until a few years ago. So in case you were as poorly cathecized as I, let me share what I found out:  a novena, which comes from the Latin word “novem”  for nine, is a series of prayers said over nine days to obtain special graces.  “They’ve been prayed since the very beginning of the Church — and before its official beginning: Mary and the Apostles prayed from His Ascension until Pentecost, a period of nine days (Acts 1). Also, a nine-day period of supplication was a pagan Roman and Eastern practice, so novenas were easily accepted by the earliest converts in these lands.”

Both Webster and Frank have shared their novenas with you. And so for the next nine days I invite all of you  who seek the intervention of this remarkable saint to pray along with me. Following this prayer, say an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be.

Glorious St. Joan of Arc, filled with compassion for those who invoke you, with love for those who suffer, heavily laden with the weight of my troubles, I kneel at your feet and humbly beg you to take my present need under your special protection…(mention here).

Vouchsafe to recommend it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lay it before the throne of Jesus. Cease not to intercede for me until my request is granted. Above all, obtain for me the grace to one day meet God face to face and with you and Mary and all the angels and saints praise Him through all eternity.

O most powerful Saint Joan, do not let me lose my soul, but obtain for me the grace of winning my way to heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

Thanks to Pink Floyd (Music for Mondays)

I’m warning you early—this edition of MfM will eat up your entire lunch hour. And if you don’t like rock n’ roll, get out now while there is still time.

Wait a second, I take that back. Stay. Because maybe, just maybe, everything you heard about Pink Floyd, is wrong. That is how it was for me and the Catholic Church for a long time, see? I was listening to people’s opinions instead of checking out the facts for myself. You all know where that led, as this blogs marquee proclaims. Besides, who else will show you Roger Waters, David Gilmore & Co. like this?

So what is it about these drug-crazed hippies that I think you should find appealing? You may be thinking to yourself, Obviously Frank…can’t you tell a bunch of sinners when you see them? [Read more...]

For All the Saints: The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

Guest post by William “Mac” McCarthy

Blogging makes surprising connections. Back in the day when I was a lapsed Episcopalian and he was the rare Catholic at our New England school, Mac lived down the hall from me. Forty years later, now an attorney in Bakersfield, California, he read YIM Catholic and quickly promised me a write-up on an extraordinary group of Catholic martyrs, whom we honor on July 17.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

During the French Revolution’s Reign of terror, on the evening of July 17, 1794, in Paris’s Place de la Nation, a hardened crowd waited at the guillotine for the carts carrying that day’s “batch” from the Palais de Justice. A heavy stench from the putrefying blood in the pit below the scaffold hung over the plaza. During the five weeks the guillotine had stood in the Place de la Nation, a thousand severed heads had fallen into the blood-stiffened leather bag of Sanson, the Paris executioner. The blood pit had been enlarged once already but had quickly filled up again.

Usually, raucous jeers from where Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine emptied into the plaza would signal the approach of the tumbrels carrying the condemned. Not this night. A strange hush spread into the plaza. Then there was something else. Singing. Serene, female voices intoning a cool, effortless chant of verse after verse of the Te Deum.

When the tumbrels rolled up to the scaffold, the crowd grew silent. The singers were sixteen sisters from the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Compiegne. They wore long white choir mantles (cloaks) over brown robes similar to nuns’ habits. Such attire had long since been outlawed in the new order. But these women were not of the new order. Their religious clothing and singing in Latin embodied the lost time before the storming of the Bastille and the start of the revolution on July 14, 1789. Also, while plenty of priests and some nuns had been executed individually, never had an entire religious community been carted up to the guillotine. Their radiant, happy faces were wrong for this place. They should have looked sad. They were about to die. They looked joyous. The other twenty-four condemned prisoners with them looked unhappy.

The reason for the Carmelites’ happiness was their belief that the guillotine was the answer to their prayers. Every day for almost two years, since about the time of the September 1792 massacres, the sisters had made a daily act of consecration in which they offered their own lives to God as a sacrifice to restore peace, help France, and stop the killing. For Christ, their heavenly Spouse, to actually accept their offer of themselves in holocaust and grant them their martyrdom gave them great joy.

Three hours earlier at the Palais de Justice, the sisters had been condemned to death. A show trial proved them “enemies of the people.” The blatantly false charges included “hiding weapons in your convent.” In answer, the 41-year old prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, lifted her crucifix from her bosom and held it up to the presiding judge saying, “The only weapon we’ve ever had in our convent is this. You cannot prove we have ever had any others.” They had no convent anyway. The revolutionary government had confiscated it and ejected them in September 1792. Carmel Compiegne and everything in it had been sold to finance the revolution.

A fellow prisoner who saw them return from hearing their death sentences reported their faces were “beaming with joy.” A Parisian working class woman who watched the Carmelites pass by on the tumbrels had shouted, “What good souls! Just look at them! Tell me if you don’t think they look just like angels! I tell you, if these women don’t go straight to paradise, then we’ll just have to believe it doesn’t exist!”

At the scaffold, the sisters performed devotions normal for dying Carmelites. The nuns renewed their monastic vows of poverty chastity and obedience. They sang the Veni Creator Spiritus:

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
and in our hearts take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heav’nly aid,
To fill the hearts which Thou hast made. …

One sister, was heard to cry out, “Only too happy, O my God, if this little sacrifice can calm your wrath and reduce the number of victims.”

Then Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine walked over to the foot of the scaffold steps and turned to face her spiritual daughters. In the palm of her hand, the prioress held a tiny terracotta image of the Virgin and Child, a last relic saved from Carmel Compiegne. She summoned Sister Constance, the youngest sister, who approached.

This was 29-year-old Sister Contance’s first act of obedience as a professed Carmelite. Moments before, as her sisters were renewing their vows, she was pronouncing her vows for the first time. In 1789, at the start of the Revolution, just before she completed her novice year, the revolutionary government prohibited the taking of religious vows. So, after six years as a novice, she finally made her profession in extremis. Previously, she had expressed a terrible fear of the guillotine. She would show no fear this night.

At the steps, Sister Constance knelt at her prioress’s feet and received a blessing. She kissed the clay Madonna and Child cupped in her prioress’ hand. Finally, bowing her head, she asked:

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Sister Constance rose from her knees. A witness described her as radiant as “a queen going to her receive her diadem.“ As she began her climb up to the scaffold, she spontaneously intoned the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, the 117th Psalm. That psalm was sung by the Discalced Carmelite Order’s mother-foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, at the foundation of every new Carmel in 16th-century Spain. Hearing Sister Constance, her sisters immediately took up the chant:

Praise the Lord, all ye nations!
Praise Him all ye people!
For his mercy is confirmed upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endureth forever!
Praise the Lord!

At the top of scaffold steps, still joined in chant with her sisters, Sister Constance waved aside the executioner and his valet. She walked on her own to the vertical balance-plank; was strapped to it; and then lowered into horizontal position. With a swoosh and a thud, the guillotine had cut the number of voices to 15. The remaining voices rose in defiance. Even before her falling head reached Sanson’s leather bag, Sister Constance was in the arms of her heavenly Spouse in the Kingdom of the Lamb.

The exact order in which the other 15 sisters climbed the scaffold has not come down to us. We know only the last two sisters. What is known is that the guillotine mob remained silent the whole time, an almost impossible–or one could say miraculous–occurrence. The bumps, clicks, swooshes and thuds of the death apparatus told of the deadly business. But the calm, austere chant of the Laudate Dominum never stopped.

About every two minutes, one voice would fall away from the others, to be heard no more by mortal ears. Each sister, when her time came, went to her Mother and knelt; received a blessing; and kissed the Madonna and Child statuette.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Here are the names of the other sisters:

Sister Jesus Crucified, choir sister, age 78. She and Sister Charlotte had celebrated their jubilee of 50 years of profession.

Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, choir sister, age 78. The martyrs arrived at the Paris Concierge (jail) from Compiegne on July 13 after a two-day journey in open carts. Sister Charlotte was unable to rise and step out of the cart with her sisters. She could only walk with a crutch, but her hands were tied behind her back. Exhausted, she sat alone in the tumbrel in the soiled straw. An angry guard jumped up and tossed her out onto the cobblestones. After lying still for a while, Sister Charlotte lifted her bloodied head and gently thanked the brutal guard for not killing her. She wanted to live long enough to make her witness with her sisters.

Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception, choir sister, age 58

Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, choir sister, age 52. Sister Julie Louise of Jesus entered Carmel as an aristocratic young widow. Well educated and musically talented, she composed a song or poem every year for the community’s July 16 patronal festival, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This year, at the Concierge in Paris, since writing materials were forbidden in jail, she managed to obtain scraps of charcoal. She composed a long five stanza song about a happy martyrdom and set it to the tune of the bloodthirsty La Marseillaise. One line went, “Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high!” The day before they went to the guillotine, all the sisters gaily sang Sister Julie Louise’s feast day song. Their only disappointment was they would not die on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Sister Teresa of the Heart of Mary, choir sister, age 52

Sister Saint Martha, lay sister, age 52

Sister Catherine, extern, age 52

Sister Marie of the Holy Spirit, lay sister, age 51

Sister Teresa of Saint Ignatius, choir sister, age 51

Mother Henriette of Jesus, past prioress and novice mistress, choir sister, age 49

Sister Teresa, extern, age 46

Sister Saint Louis, subprioress, choir sister, age 42

Sister Saint Francis Xavier, lay sister, age 30

Sister Henriette of the Divine Providence, choir sister, age 34. This sister was the second to last to die. She was a fiery beauty, whose nine adult bothers and sisters included two priests and five nuns. Fearing her natural beauty would be a distraction, she had withdrawn from the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, a public nursing order and sought out the hidden life in the cloister at Carmel. One of her sisters became the Superior General of all the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. (This was the order of St Bernadette of Lourdes.)

In the courtroom at the Revolutionary Tribunal on the day of her martyrdom, she boldly challenged the Tribunal’s notorious public prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, to define what he meant by calling her community “fanatic.” In response to her repeated demands that he stop avoiding her question and answer it, the prosecutor finally said their “attachment to their religion” made them criminals and dangers to public freedom. At the guillotine, since she was the Carmel’s infirmarian, she took a place by the steps and helped her older, weaker sisters up the scaffold steps.

The psalm chant stopped only when the last Carmelite, the prioress—Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine, age 41, had climbed the scaffold steps and followed her daughters. She was the only child of an employee of the Paris Observatory. Since she was not from a wealthy family, the generous young Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette, had paid her dowry for Carmel. The prioress was well educated and artistic. Some of her paintings still hang on the walls of French Carmels. She was only 34 when she was first elected prioress. She is believed to be the first nun to have felt the call to community martyrdom.

Before beginning her walk up the steps, the prioress made the sign of the cross and paused. A pious woman in the crowd, who saw the hesitation, understood and moved up to discreetly take the tiny terracotta Virgin and Child statuette from the hand of the great prioress of Carmel Compiegne. The statuette was kept safe and has come down to us.

Ten days after the Carmelites of Compiegne fulfilled their vow and offered themselves up in sacrifice to stop the bloodshed, Robespierre fell from power. A bloody revolutionary, he was a key architect of the Reign of Terror. The next day, July 28, 1794, he was guillotined and the Reign of Terror soon faded.

That the martyrs were able to wear parts of their forbidden habits at the guillotine, like their white choir mantles, was due to unusual coincidences or, more likely, the hand of God. After their expulsion from Carmel Compiegne, they had been forbidden to wear their habits. With no money to buy clothes, they had to accept worn out, cast-off, immodest clothing. They draped scarves over their shoulders and necks to protect their modesty.

But, on July 12, 1794, in the jail in Compiegne (a confiscated convent) they had donned what remained of their habits in order to wash their single outfits of civilian clothing. At the same time, the mayor received an order from the Paris Committee of Public Safety ordering the martyrs’ immediate transport to Paris for “trial.” The secular clothes were soaking in wash tubs. Delaying the execution of the Paris order was unthinkable (and too risky) for the Compiegne officials. Therefore, the martyrs went to Paris in what they had left of their forbidden habits. Perhaps, when their Lord decided to accept their offer of martyrdom, He also granted the martyrs the tender mercy of dying in their beloved, long, white choir mantles.

The worn-out, immodest civilian clothes left soaking in the tubs at Compiegne had yet another role in God’s plan. Confined in the Compiegne jail with the Carmelites had been 17 English Benedictine sisters. Four others had already died in jail. They had been arrested as foreigners in 1792 at their monastery in Cambrai. A granddaughter of St. Thomas More had founded the monastery when Catholic religious orders were forbidden in England. Though kept apart, Benedictines learned of the Carmelites’ daily consecration to sacrifice themselves to restore peace and free prisoners.

After the Carmelites were taken to Paris, the Compiegne jailers made the Benedictines wear the Carmelites’ abandoned civilian clothes. The Benedictines were still wearing them when they were finally allowed to sail for England in 1795. That community eventually founded England’s famous Stanbrook Abbey. Today, Benedictines at Stanbrook still honor the Carmelites as martyrs whose deaths somehow stopped the killing and saved the jailed Benedictine sisters from the guillotine. In 1895, Stanbrook Abbey returned many of the “wash tub” clothes as venerated relics to the newly reestablished Carmel Compiegne.

The martyrs were beatified by St. Pius X on May 13, 1906. Their memory is celebrated on July 17 by both branches of the Carmelites and the archdiocese of Paris.

Several successful literary and artistic works have helped spread the martyrs’ story around the world. They include Gertrude von De Fort’s famous 1931 novella, Song at the Scaffold, which in turn inspired Georges Bernanos’ Les Dialogues des Carmelites (1949), as well as Francis Poulenc’s opera (1957) and an Italian-French film (1959), both also named Les Dialogues des Carmelites.

Almost all the historical facts used in this post come from William Bush’s outstanding book, To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne Guillotined July 17, 1794, ICS Publications (1999). The same goes for a lot of the wording and observations in this posting. Bush has spent many years studying the martyrs. His book has a picture of the terracotta statuette and photos of art work by the martyrs, including a beautiful pastel of Christ on the Cross by Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine. Any errors, misstatements, or unclear writing here in this post are this writer’s fault.

For a short, brilliant essay on the martyrs, Catholicism, and modern times, read “The Mantle of Elijah: The Martyrs of Compiegne as Prophets of the Modern Age” by Terrye Newkirk, OCDS. It is only 11 pages and easily downloaded from the ICS website.

“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”

Because of Catholics Like Raymond Lull

For the longest time, I just knew that I was too smart to be a Catholic. I mean, I wasn’t a cradle Catholic, born into the Church or anything. I just figured that being born into the Church was really the only way that anyone would become a Catholic. Surely not via God-given free will, because no one with a brain would willingly submit to the Church and all those wacky “man-made” doctrines and such.

Ahem, we all know how that turned out for me; I swam the Tiber. [Read more...]


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