Scene: The Carmelites of Compiègne Go to the Guillotine
Background: The French Revolution
The period in which this event took place is…unusually rich in examples of Christian martyrdom. Never had the constellation of martyrs for Jesus Christ so suddenly expanded in France as during the early years of the Revolution. Thousands of Christians perished, not only by the guillotine, but also by mass deportations, drownings, imprisonments, shootings, mob violence, and sheer butchery.
It would be surprising had it been otherwise. The ancient pact between France’s kings and Christianity’s triune God had been overthrown. This ancient pact stretched back to the marriage of the Frankish king, Clovis, to the Christian, Clothilde. On Christmas Day in 496 Clovis had accepted baptism and sacramental anointing as a Christian king by St. Remi, Bishop of Rheims, thereby inaugurating a twelve-hundred-and-ninety-six-year reign in France of “most Christian” kings. It was to prove the most venerable kingdom in western Europe.
The fall of the Christian monarchy on August 10, 1792, thus marked the beginning of a new order… Thanks to the philosophers, France had now attained a more advanced stage of civilization in which Christianity’s fanatical insistence on a personal relationship with its resurrected God, Jesus Christ, was to be allowed no quarter… the anti-Christian government sought to impose its new, non-superstitious order of human enlightenment through its daily public effusions of blood on the guillotine….
Should it surprise us, then, that in 1794… 16 Carmelite nuns, consecrated to the Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ, and daily offering themselves in holocaust to restore peace to France and to her Christian church, found themselves condemned to death on July 17 as “enemies of the people” for “annihilating public freedom”?
The execution of Sister Constance, the first to die
Sister Constance, in a panic so shortly before for not having finished her office, is summoned by the prioress and confidently approaches. Reports are that all panic was suddenly gone. Fully conscious that her vows had at last been pronounced and that she was indeed dying as a professed Carmelite, she seems transfigured by the life-giving Spirit just invoked. She kneels at her prioress’s feet, her first and last act of submission as a professed Carmelite. A final maternal blessing is given and the tiny clay image of the Virgin and Child, cupped in the prioress’s palm, is proferred to this youngest daughter for a last kiss.
Head humbly bowed, Sister Constance, asks in a clear, young voice:
“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter!”
It is reported that it was after rising from her knees to face the machine, and as she started up the steps of the scaffold, that Sister Constance intoned the first line of the psalm, Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. It was the psalm sung by Saint Teresa of Avila at the foundation of a new Carmel… Now, 190 years later, in that same city where Christian civilization seemed to be in its death throes as the old order collapsed, the familiar verses, spontaneously begun by Sister Constance at the foot of the guillotine, were taken up by the surprised nuns “with greater fervor than harmony.” They would continue throughout the community’s immolation, punctuated by the recurring fatal thud cutting short voive after voice. As the Teresian psalm of foundation paradoxically announced the end of the original, earthly foundation of Compiegne’s Carmel, it mystically signalled the inauguration of its eternal foundation in the Kingdom of the Lamb. There, in the constellation of those who shed their blood for the Lamb, it would shine forever. Had he himself not said, ‘those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost” (Jn 17:12)?
- these passages (minus the headings) excerpted from To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne, Guillotined July 17, 1794, William Bush, ICS Publications, 1999
Terrye Newkirk, OCDS: The Mantle of Elijah: The Martyrs of Compiègne as Prophets of Modern Age
Catholic Online: Carmelite Nuns of Compiegne
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira: The Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne
John Horvat II: Moving God, Moving History: A Review of To Quell the Terror
Roman Christendom: Veni Creator Spiritus:the holy and Royal Carmelites of Compiègne
Theme: France – The Prodigal Daughter