The martyrs are a valiant minority. They are not the crowd. They will never be. However they always had and will always have an incredible effect on the mind and heart of Christians. After all, the first Christian martyr is none other than Jesus Christ himself.
We all know that the French Revolution was one of the central events in Western civilization. The cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” dominated the streets. The old regime was destroyed. However, the revolution soon spun out of control and began to murder itself. During one voracious stretch of senseless revolutionary paranoia, 1,376 individuals were guillotined in only 47 days! Among them sixteen Carmelite nuns. They were buried in a common grave in a makeshift cemetery.
Their lives should have been buried in the earth of oblivion and yet somehow they did not. Thérèse of Lisieux 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 German Gertrud von Le Fort wrote a beautiful novel, with the enchanting title ‘Song at the Scaffold’ in 1931, just when Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist party was gaining unprecedented power. George Bernanos, one of the most original writers of the Catholic Church of his time, wrote a sscreenplay about these sisters, entitled ‘The Dialogues of the Carmelites’, which was the basis of an opera of Francis Poulenc. It was first performed in 1957 at La Scala in Milan.
There is a touching portrait of the illiterate lay sister, Sister Francis Xavier, last to make her profession in the community in 1789. Warned by the prioress of the dangers of becoming a religious at this time of turmoil, she replied, “Oh, my dear good Mother! You can rest easy about me, for as long as I’ve got the happiness of getting consecrated to my God, that’s all I wants [sic]! So don’t go upsetting yourself about me, my dear good Mother, because … come on now … the dear Lord himself is going to take care of all that!”
The question that needs to be answered is obviously why were sixteen simple women, who spent their lives praying and doing penance for others, killed. The official reason was because the gendarmerie found within the monastery a portrait of the king and images of the Sacred Heart similar to those used by reactionary groups.
The prosecutor accused them of “halting the progress of public spirit” and of being “fanatics”. Mother Henriette de Jesus, renowned for her great beauty and strong personality, stood up and asked what ‘fanatics’ mean! The irritated judge vomited a torrent of offenses against her, and then said: “It is your attachment to your Religion and the King.” Hearing these words, she replied, “I thank you for the explanation.” Then, addressing her companion Carmelites, she said: “My dear Mother and my Sisters, we must rejoice and give thanks to God for we die for our Religion, our Faith, and for being members of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”
Four years before, in 1790, in a diatribe in front of the Assemblée Nationale, one of the leaders of the revolutionaries M. Garat- l Aine expressed himself thus, “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 vow 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 vow is a civil suicide. 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.
Two years before, the Sisters had pledged in a communal liturgy to offer their lives for the sake of peace. God must have accepted their offering.
Mother Prioress, Teresa of St. Augustine tried her best to avoid the others from being guillotined. “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.” That was it. The nuns were sentenced to the guillotine.
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. “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 Praise the Lord all you nations. 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.”
Another witness said of the nuns, “They looked like they were going to their weddings.”
Within ten days, by July 27, 1794, Robespierre and the provisional revolutionary government were finished.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.