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The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne
(entered heaven on this day in 1794)
Having news of you has truly warmed my heart. I have been praying for you in a special way, hoping that your first weeks in consecrated life would prove joyful and fruitful, in spite of your family’s opposition to your departure (don’t worry, I’m keeping them in my prayers too). So you can imagine how encouraged I was by your last email. Thanks be to God that he still calls young women like yourself to show the world that he is the great King! And thank God that he gave you the spiritual sensitivity to hear his quiet invitation, and the spiritual strength to accept it. A decision like yours in a society like ours takes almost as much courage as it did back in the years of the French Revolution, when today’s amazing Brides of Christ offered their lives as a sacrifice for peace.
These sixteen martyrs, including two convent servants, three lay sisters, and eleven professed religious of all ages, were first approached by the Revolutionary authorities in 1790. Representatives of the National Assembly had come to their convent in Compiegne (just north of Paris) in order to invite each of the sisters to abandon their vocation and come live as citizens in the New France. But the sisters wanted to continue living as nuns. This the Assembly couldn’t understand. They sent another delegation to speak with each sister, one-on-one, thinking that peer pressure was keeping the nuns from coming to their senses. But still, they all wished to continue with their Carmelite way of life, their daily prayers and penances, shut off from the busy and exciting world of pleasure and power.
The Assembly couldn’t tolerate such a counter-witness to their Enlightenment creed. They convent was dispersed (along with all other religious houses in France). The nuns were forbidden to live in community or to wear a habit. They took lay clothes and lived separately, in small groups. But somehow they still managed to come together for prayer. Soon they decided to formally offer themselves to God as sacrifices for peace. He took them up on it.
Since they continued their religious practices, they were arrested, imprisoned and then put on trial. It was towards the end of the Reign of Terror, and their ridiculous trial could have been considered surreal if its tragic consequences hadn’t been so palpable. The entire community was condemned to the guillotine.
They were loaded onto a cart and brought to the Place de la Nation. One by one each sister mounted the gallows, laid her head on in the block without any executioner having to touch her, and poured out her blood to God for the salvation of her fellow citizens. As they drove to the place of their martyrdom they were singing the Veni Creator, the same ancient hymn that is sung whenever a young woman makes her vows in the Carmelite Order; they were renewing their consecration to God by means of their voluntary acceptance of this Providential fate. The youngest was the first to climb the scaffold. The oldest was thrown abusively to the ground before she was killed, and, smilingly, spoke words of encouragement and forgiveness to her executioner. As the sixteen martyrs sealed their love for Christ with their blood, the usually frenzied crowd of onlookers was utterly silent. The only sound to be heard was the sisters’ singing to Mary, their spiritual Mother – the dulcet, revered tones of the Salve Regina. Their mortal remains were thrown in a common grave with 1300 other victims of this modern revolution.
Two days afterwards, however, the Reign of Terror came to an end. Their offering, so it would seem, had been accepted. And I am sure yours will be too. God knows how much this suffering world – in so many ways the sad result of the extremism of that same Revolution – needs your prayers, your penance, and your testimony. Thank you, and may God continue to bless you.
Your loving uncle,