Gertrud von le Fort: Martyrs of the Guillotine
(original: Die Letzte am Schafott, 1931)

English translation by Richard Byrn, 2009
For convenience of file-size this story is divided into three parts:
Opening Middle Ending
 

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I do not know whether similar measures were also taken against other monasteries at that time, and whether they were linked to final ceremonies for the novitiate. But soon after Blanche’s acceptance to the novitiate a Commission arrived in Compiègne with the task of enquiring into the number, age and frame of mind of the nuns. They were already planning to urge members of Religious Orders to return to the world, i.e. to annul their vows, in the naïve expectation that the majority would throw themselves jubilantly into the arms of the Revolution.

Before the Commission began interviewing the nuns individually, they went through the whole convent. From the reports I have before me, I get the impression they suspected that somebody was being concealed from them. Since the appearance of Diderot’s famous story, our free-thinkers are obsessed by the notion of incarcerated nuns.

They went from cell to cell, accompanied by Sister Marie de l’Incarnation on orders from Mother Prioress. Now these men were probably not being especially noisy, indeed they may have been somewhat unsure of themselves as the bearers of a new order tend to be in the presence of an ancient civilisation. But they walked after the manner of men (just imagine, my dear, these corridors so used to women’s silent sandals!) and they probably behaved as people do who have no wish to show any particular reverence. (It is worth mentioning that the canonesses were forced to raise their veils.) The commissioners’ faces probably also showed this lack of reverence, and yet it is unlikely that they were particularly threatening — indeed, at that time their object was still to resolve matters peaceably with the Religious Orders. Marie de l’Incarnation told me that even the most suspect of all the Commission members, a short, saucy-tongued fellow — plainly a junior clerk — was in reality far more comical than frightening as he dashed ahead of the commissioners, red cap on greasy head, throwing open the cell doors. I feel certain he was shamelessly enjoying the experience of violating a convent’s enclosure. But, as said, none of this made him frightening — rather, despicable and bizarre. And yet his effect on Blanche was to provoke terror. The moment he opened her door and pushed his grinning face through the gap, she uttered a bone-chilling scream. (Sister Marie de l’Incarnation told me that even in the bloodiest days of the Revolution to follow she never heard its like.) At the same instant she pressed back against the rear wall of the cell, hands stretched out before her, agonised, and there she remained standing as if expecting death.

The Commission for its part also remained standing, at first speechless, then evidently showing interest — they imagined they had at last found the prisoner they were looking for. At any rate, the commissioners’ leader started to speak with uncommon gentleness to Blanche, telling her she should have no fear, she could trust him.

She was so horrified that she was unable to say a word. Only when, spurred on to even greater civility by her silence, he suggested that maybe she might wish to leave this convent, an even greater terror replaced her initial horror and she burst into a flood of tears.

The commissioner was enchanted at the prospect of rescuing a victim of religion and pressed eagerly to fulfil his duty. He said she could regard herself as released from her vows, that the new laws permitted no new religious professions. He wanted to take her hand with a paternal gesture but at this instant Sister Marie de l’Incarnation stepped between them. She turned her lovely eyes firmly and yet burningly upon him and said with unparalleled majesty: “Monsieur, you are exceeding your mandate. To the best of my information, the law you are speaking of has not yet been passed.”

I do not know what the commissioner would have answered if Blanche, who was still speechless, had not fled to the refuge of the Novice-Mistress’s arms and thus given him the clearest possible answer. He saw that he was in the wrong and blushed like a jilted suitor.

Meanwhile the rest of the nuns had assembled around the Prioress in front of the chapter house. If the Prioress had been of larger build, one would have been tempted to say that she resembled a hen with her chicks, but Madame Lidoine was as good as swallowed up by her daughters.

The canonesses were summoned singly into the chapter house; soldiers were posted in front of the doors in order to give the action greater weight. Before each of the nuns entered, she took leave of their Mother Prioress, and the latter urged her to answer as briefly and gently as possible — Monsignor Rigaud had advised her to impress this on her daughters. There can be no doubt about how they answered. In general, everything passed off without problems — only during Sister Marie de l’Incarnation’s interrogation a small incident occurred.

To my mind, this confrontation would have happened even without the preceding scene involving poor Blanche. Just picture this great, aristocratic woman of France’s Royal Blood faced by those plebeians! You have only to think of this nun — filled by a mystical vocation to share in the Lord’s work of Redemption — standing before those dull notaries and raggle-taggle rationalists, and the scene is set for a collision even if one had not already been made inevitable by the contretemps which preceded. For a collision is what it was. It is psychologically quite possible that the commissioners’ leader blamed the nun for the discomfiture he had experienced earlier. From the very first words he addressed to her he clearly betrayed a desire to humiliate her, because he asked mockingly if she and Blanche de la Force had recovered from their terror.

Now Marie de l’Incarnation knew that she herself was not subject to terror, but at this moment she felt both a maternal and a sisterly obligation to cover the weakness of her poor young novice vis-à-vis outsiders. There is not the slightest doubt that, at that moment, she was completely filled with the desire to stand up for the honour of her house, the Order, and her protégée. This explains her extraordinary bravery confronting the Commission.

“What do you mean by the word ‘terror’, Monsieur?” she asked. “What could we possibly be scared of other than the thought that we might be falling short in our service to Christ — and we thank you for doing us the honour of giving us the opportunity to confess Him publicly here.”

Now, this reply was of course bound to exacerbate the commissar’s barely concealed anger. (Small people, indeed, have the greatest difficulty listening to professions of faith from strangers.) He overstepped the mark for a second time.

“You are wrong, citizeness,” he replied, “we are not here to do you the honour of listening to your fanatical testimony, but to ask you in the name of the Nation if you desire to leave this house of superstition or not. But be assured: the Representatives of the Nation possess powers which are quite able to inspire the sort of fear which you’ve just been foolish enough to dismiss.” Ah, the man was so blind that he didn’t realise his obvious antagonism would not have the effect of intimidating this Carmelite nun but of egging her on! (My dear, persecution is what inspires Christian discipleship like nothing else — it can transform the nastiest of brutalities so completely that they seem like crass stupidity.)

Marie de l’Incarnation sensed the threat which, a minute later, she was to embrace as an honour.

“My testimony,” she replied fearlessly, “also provides my answer to that question. But as to the powers possessed by the Representatives of the Nation: in so far as they affect us, they are no more than what God permits you. Not one jot more! Let me inform you of that, Monsieur!”

Now, these words were understandably the last straw. “Good,” said the commissioner. “I will note this reply.” The movement we are part of is not yet finished. I hope the day will come when the monasteries and churches are stormed just like the Bastille was a short while ago, but their inmates — you recall what happened to the Commandant of the Bastille, citizeness?” (He was referring to de Launy’s bloody head which the crowd carried through the streets on the end of a pike.)

For a moment she paused, motionless and wordless. — Doubtless the commissioner was already enjoying the satisfaction of having scared her to death. — Then a deep, joyful blush spread across her face.

“I do recall,” she replied in a very soft voice. “I do recall, oh I recall it very well!” — It was as if her voice were prostrating itself, overcome by a strange joy. She laid her arms across her chest.

And at this point, my dear, we must pause to remind ourselves of the nature of Carmelite spirituality which neither of us is especially familiar with. So bound up is it with the idea of substitutionary sacrifice that Carmelite belief in Christian Redemption through the Cross reaches its highest point in nothing less than a religious love for suffering and persecution. I know that, for the non-Christian world (for the whole world in fact), this idea is hard to understand, indeed it is considered quite unhealthy. And yet I beseech you, dear friend, suppress your own values for a moment and simply accept the fact that this idea is essential to an understanding of what was happening here. (In reality, though, it is essential for the whole of Christianity.)

“When I left the Chapter House,” Marie de l’Incarnation said to me, “it felt as if someone had lit a tall, solemn Requiem Candle within me whose light consumed all my exterior, as it seemed, or as if I had become wholly transfigured.”

The Mother Prioress even said the moment she saw her: “But you’re glowing like an angel, my daughter! What has happened to you?”

Her voice smothered by emotion, but not so much as to suppress her inward rejoicing, she replied, “Oh, my Mother, congratulate me and us! Congratulate this country and its throne! His Majesty permits us to be an agency of expiation which we had not dreamed possible: they have threatened me with martyrdom!”

To her surprise Madame Lidoine did not immediately agree, but asked somewhat soberly how such a confrontation could have arisen.

Sister Marie de l’Incarnation understood and immediately knelt down, accusing herself of having failed to abide by the Prioress’s instruction to speak gently and briefly, for, as she said to me: “In those days I tried hard enough to curb my natural high-handedness, only I hadn’t yet recognised where it lay.” (My dear, the shortcomings of these great souls lay far deeper than any normal imperfection.) The Prioress replied immediately — and I don’t believe it was only because of the guards’ presence — “It was not a command, my daughter, only advice.”

Meanwhile poor Blanche’s condition continued, and if we call it a nervous breakdown it probably wouldn’t be far off the mark. During this time Marie de l’Incarnation remained by the young novice’s side, caring for and counselling her. Now, I imagine that this great nun’s support only took the form of gentle suggestions, but I reckon it achieved its objective all the more readily for the fact that Blanche looked up to her Novice Mistress with all the admiration that a weaker character is capable of. At all events, after a few days she reappeared amongst her sisters, making a clear effort to compensate for the bad impression created by her contretemps with the commissioner as she spoke up during meal-times, accusing herself of weakness and asking for her sisters’ prayers. It was impossible not to marvel that so much humility and good will did not bear greater fruit later on.

Now, an outsider might well say that it would be hardly surprising if a young, relatively delicate nun displayed a certain dismay during the circumstances that immediately followed. I at least still recall quite clearly that monasteries were plundered in those days in every corner of the country — an obvious reaction by the mob to the National Assembly’s anti-Church decisions. So Blanche had good cause to be agitated, and agitated she indeed was. She did not show it consciously, but unconsciously it was all the clearer. Indeed, when I run my eye over the entirety of events, I would almost say it was as if, relating back to her admirable upbringing by Madame de Chalais, she now re-opened a part of herself that had been carefully wrapped away, or in other words, the Little Mouse who had vanished returned now, behaving exactly as she had many years previously. As a child she was heard repeatedly asking if the stairway wouldn’t ‘slip under their feet’ and if people weren’t going to turn wicked; nowadays during recreation she was heard suddenly asking in a strangely agitated little voice if there hadn’t been some new instances of plunder, or whether members of Religious Orders really would be permitted to remain in their monasteries, and so on.

“I am not the slightest bit afraid,” she said with a pathetically defiant gesture (ah, nowadays nobody gave any credence at all to her little moments of boasting): “no, I’m really not afraid at all! What, after all, is there to be afraid of? Since the King of France is such a powerful monarch, how much more …” She was involuntarily repeating something that Madame de Chalais used to say. But suddenly she paused, evidently recalling how miserably the King had been treated recently when the mob transported him from Versailles to Paris as if he were their prisoner. — The strains of the Carmagnole and the Ça ira were wafting across from the streets to their garden ever more frequently, causing her anxiety. She would then suddenly ask Mother Prioress’s permission to fetch a book she had forgotten in the house (again exactly like her childhood self). One had the impression that she wanted to hide somewhere out of hearing of those songs.

“Dear little sister Blanche: didn’t we want to make fools of the National Assembly and live ’til we were 100?” asked naïve young novice Constance de St Denis of her fellow-nun. “We were going to outlive all these bad new religious laws! How can you let such fear make you turn your back on that?” And on another occasion: “Aren’t we Brides of Christ?” But then aged Sister Jeanne de l’Enfance de Jésus (and she really was almost 100 years old) said: “Aren’t we servants of Le petit Roi de Gloire, and won’t He ensure that we are given strength under all circumstances?” (The Carmelites did not say ‘Le petit Roi de Gloire will protect us’ as Madame de Chalais used to say, but ‘He will give us strength’.)

In those days most of them were filled with the same enthusiastic readiness as Marie de l’Incarnation. The latter, it seems, redoubled her acts of self-denial and prayer for Blanche at that time. (You recall, my friend, she had taken it upon herself to do that in advance of the young novice’s somewhat precipitate profession.) I had not mentioned these personal sacrifices again in order not to rob them of their unique beauty, i.e. their perfect secrecy. Apart from Madame Lidoine, probably no-one in Compiègne had any idea they were happening. Marie de l’Incarnation went to great lengths to ensure that Blanche herself knew nothing about them. (My dear, we keep meeting new religious depths in this astonishing nun. She never tried to exercise any psychological influence over the young novice in her care, rather — exactly as she did vis-à-vis the world — she desired to exercise influence solely by means of personal sacrifices and prayers, solely through God Himself, before whom she raised them both. In this respect everything she undertook was of the highest quality.)

In those days her influence within the community must have been extraordinary. I do not understand, indeed, I cannot believe that it would have been possible for this woman to prevent the transfer of her own fiery readiness for martyrdom onto those around her, even if she had desired it. But she couldn’t possibly have desired it! Just consider, my friend, the special obligation of her Order: do you recall how, before the Revolution, people argued about whether Christianity, under appropriate circumstances, was still capable of bringing forth martyrs? The truth, as we learned later, is that this Order was very much ready for it.

‘France will not be saved by the industry of its politicians but by the prayers and sacrifices of those of its daughters and sons who are ready to make sacrifices: today is the hour of Carmel!’ — Such was the tone struck by all those quiet women of Compiègne: they were consciously preparing for martyrdom.

“But will we need such provisions?” asked naïve little Constance de Saint Denis on one occasion when the Mother Prioress enquired in passing whether the winter vegetables they would need had been brought in from the garden.

“But why shouldn’t we still need such provisions, my child?” replied Madame Lidoine. Nowadays it happened with great frequency that she heard — or, rather, chose not to hear —the question ‘But will we still need that?’ It was no secret amongst the nuns that she behaved remarkably coolly towards her daughters’ preparations for heroism. ‘The convent is playing with glass beads’ she writes in her journal regarding these preparations, and elsewhere: ‘My daughters are once again playing at being martyrs.’

Now, dearest friend, it is not my intention in any way to minimise the heroic attitude of these pious women, and yet at this point we have to raise an objection: things generally had not reached the point where people were ready to believe that martyrdom might be facing Compiègne. Threats uttered by a single commissioner were just an aberration, as were the mob’s excesses. The Order certainly faced the probability of restrictions and difficulties, possibly even temporary dissolution, but certainly not its end. And would we not be completely misrepresenting our enlightened, humane age if we were to accuse it of bloodlust? And isn’t it really somewhat laughable to suggest that people were motivated by a monstrous hatred for God, when in practice what drove them was philosophical generalities and the pressing nature of the State’s financial deficits? We too, my dear, had not yet begun to imagine such eventualities. Seen thus, Heroic Courage — permit me the liberty — was bound to be regarded as a phantasm no less than Fear. And yet we would be making a mistake if we implied that Madame Lidoine’s resistance to her daughters was linked to such considerations!

You know, dear friend, that the edict which Monsignor had foreseen did not take long to materialise. It forbade not only the acceptance of new novices but also the profession of ‘perpetual vows’ by those already accepted. (Can you guess how much pain this latter decree imposed on a young nun? — It condemned her to remaining a novice for the rest of her life.) At the convent in Compiègne Constance de Saint Denis was the person most affected, besides Blanche, since she was on the point of taking those vows.

Marie de l’Incarnation argued strongly at the time that she should be permitted to take her vows in complete secrecy, as if in the catacombs of Rome, much as they had earlier accepted Blanche into the novitiate.

“What are we risking, my Mother,” she said urgently to the Prioress, “what are we risking even if the matter is discovered? The sooner the world causes us to feel its hatred, the better it will be for the world!” (Do you sense here, dear friend, a slight change of attitude in her from one of readiness for martyrdom to an actual wish for it? So now, my dear, I believe you will also understand Madame Lidoine’s resistance to her daughters’ ardour.)

She then surprised Marie de l’Incarnation by taking one of her first independent decisions when she turned down Marie’s suggestion, and the reason she gave was the somewhat depressing one that, in Blanche’s case they had been dealing with a law not yet in force — unlike in the present instance — and that she did not regard it as appropriate to arouse the anger of their opponents unnecessarily.

This was hardly, of course, a profound reason. But, my dear friend, I feel I must describe here the solemn ceremony at which Madame Lidoine conveyed the painful news of that decree to the two novices. This occasion saw the veil of diffidence lift from this woman’s personality — she who was externally so sober. (“Then it was,” Marie de l’Incarnation told me, “that she stepped up as Prioress for the first time and” — adding quietly — “in opposition to myself.”) Before reading the decree, she prayed with her assembled daughters the famous hymn of the Order’s patron saint, the great Teresa of Avila:

“I am Thine, born for Thee:
at Thy disposal — what is Thy will for me?
Give me riches or poverty,
Give me comfort or despair.
Give me joyfulness or grief,
a life of sweetness, or burning sunshine;
since I have given myself up wholly:
at Thy disposal — what is Thy will for me?

Then she read out the decree. “My daughters,” she said to the two novices, “because of this cruel decree you will have to demonstrate your vows of perpetual loyalty to His Majesty by abandoning your joyful expectation of declaring them in public. For it is not our aim” — and at this the Prioress cast her clear eyes over the line of choir sisters — “to fulfil our own purposes, however sublime they may be, but God’s will. Therefore do not be outraged by this law, my dear novices, but equally, do not force yourselves to suppress your pain. Rather, embrace your justified disappointment in perfect love towards God, and you will thus fulfil the spirit of our Order. You will then be Carmelites in the fullest sense, precisely when the world forbids you to be so!”

Now, my friend, you can deduce much from this speech, and even more from the prayer which preceded it, and from the most varied points of view. The only question is: was it understood?

If it was understood by Blanche — and it seemed to Madame Lidoine that she was listening with special diligence — then her understanding of it bore no fruit. Indeed, it has to be said that it was from that time on that she started to find things vexatious.

The season of Advent had begun, and aged Sister Jeanne de l’Enfance de Jésus was sewing a new shirt for Le petit Roi de Gloire. Her work wasn’t always very neat, because her eyes were almost 100 years old, but she wasn’t prepared to let anyone else do the job.

“Dear little Sister Blanche, soon our little King will be brought to you,” she said to the young novice. “Won’t that make you feel stronger?” (My friend, you should know that on Christmas Eve Le petit Roi de Gloire is carried into every Carmelite’s cell. As a new postulant Blanche would be experiencing the ceremony for the first time.)

Unhappily, a few days before the feast an injunction arrived from the National Assembly confiscating the church’s property, thus robbing Le petit Roi of his crown and sceptre. On Christmas Eve Madame Lidoine carried him from cell to cell clothed only in his crooked new shirt.
“Now our little King is poor again, the way he was in Bethlehem,” said the Carmelites happily. Those good and gentle women were tireless in their ability to turn every vexation into a source of joy.

Blanche was devastated. Her face said it all. There were tears in her eyes: two great drops fell onto the little wax statue placed in her arms.

“Oh, so small and so weak,” she breathed.

“No, so small and so powerful,” whispered Marie de l’Incarnation who was standing beside her. Whether Blanche heard her is not clear. She bent forward to kiss Le petit Roi, and at that moment she evidently realised that his crown was missing. At the same moment the wild strains of the Carmagnole wafted up from the street. Blanche started back suddenly. Le petit Roi fell from her hands and clattered head first onto the tiled floor — his head broke off. She screamed, and in that instant she had the face of a woman stigmatised. “Oh, Le petit Roi is dead,” she cried out, “now we have only the Agnus Dei.”

Later that night Blanche must have experienced another major crisis, and a few days later, when they were celebrating the Feast of the Holy Innocents — on this day of Misrule in our convents, as you know, the sceptre is traditionally handed to the youngest novice — she had to concede that honour to Constance de St Denis who was two years older. But worst of all (and this was the real source of vexation) people now suddenly started to get the impression that Blanche was no longer fighting to survive the way she used to. Previously they had been able to draw comfort from her intense effort to be more brave, but now it was hard to avoid the impression that her resistance was waning, indeed that she was giving up. Marie de l’Incarnation became convinced that she had now somehow started accepting her situation.

This, it seems, was the reason why the members of the convent now began to consider recommending the young novice to return to the world — after all, the point of the novitiate is that it poses a question which can also be answered with a “no”.

‘My “great” sister’ wrote Madame Lidoine at that time, ‘had greater insight than I in this case; it will be necessary to make good a false step as quickly as possible.’ And she adds: ‘Poor Sister Marie de l’Incarnation! She had sacrificed herself fully for this poor child, but it has not pleased His Majesty to accept her sacrifice.’

She summoned Blanche in order to inform her herself what was required.

Blanche entered. The Prioress got the impression that her face had grown even smaller than before, even a little bit older — in so far as one can speak of growing old in the case of so young a person. As a result the dominant features of her face, i.e. their somewhat petty, pinched quality, were more accentuated. She seemed to sense why she had been summoned. Her manner had something of the child about to be punished and yet at the same time an apparent confidence, as if she had somehow gained some final certainty and a readiness to comply.

Looking at her, the Prioress felt quietly moved. “My dear child,” she said gently, “I have some painful news to give you. Let us start by together seeking strength from God.” She invited Blanche to kneel down with her. Then she again prayed aloud the song of Saint Teresa and commanded the novice to repeat it. A strange thing now happened. Blanche obeyed the Prioress’s order. In her small, somewhat pained voice, almost breathless, she repeated the words given to her as far as:

“Give me riches or poverty,
Give me comfort or despair.”

But then she continued:

“Give me safety, or the agony of death,
a life of sweetness, or burning sunshine;
at Thy disposal — what is Thy will for me?”

She spoke very quickly, almost mechanically, like somebody who has used those same words a long time — obviously she did not notice that she had made her own change to the words. But not the Prioress. For an instant she was about to correct Blanche, but again as before she felt strangely moved and held back. Without referring to Blanche’s prayer, she started in on her task.

“My child, I assume you know why I have asked to see you.”

Blanche said nothing.

Madame Lidoine had not expected this silence. She continued: “I have always valued your humility very highly, and I am counting on you to make this difficult moment easier for me, for truly, our parting is no less painful for me, your mother, than it is for you, my child.” She embraced Blanche. The latter still said nothing.

Madame Lidoine felt a slight embarrassment. “Or do you think I am doing you an injustice?” she asked a little clumsily.

Blanche said nothing.

Suddenly the Prioress said, with unusual hastiness: “I command you to speak, sister Blanche. Am I doing you an injustice by sending you back into the world?”

Blanche knelt before her, covering her face with her hands. “You command me to speak, my Mother,” she said quietly, “so, yes: you are doing me an injustice.”

“In that case your Novice Mistress is wrong — you are still hoping to overcome your weakness?” “No, my Mother.” Her voice sounded hopeless, and yet that strange confidence was in it again.

The Prioress suddenly felt all her certainties being shaken. “Look me in the face!” she commanded abruptly. Blanche took her hands from her small, pinched face. It was expressionless, or rather, all its capacity for expression was concentrated on one thing, and yet, strangely, this one thing seemed terrifyingly distant. The Prioress hardly recognised her. Suddenly there passed before her inward eye a series of completely dislocated images — small dying birds, wounded warriors on a battlefield, criminals facing execution. What she felt she was witnessing was not so much Blanche’s fear as Fear itself.

“My child,” she said helplessly, “You cannot possibly take on the agony of the whole world —”, she broke off.

There was a brief moment of silence. Then Madame Lidoine said almost shyly: “Do you believe your fear is religiously inspired?”

Blanche sighed deeply. “Oh, my Mother: think of the secret of my name.”

Dearest friend, I will not try to offer any exposition of this highly unusual exchange, rather, let Madame Lidoine’s journal now speak. Her entries are generally very matter of fact, but you have earlier observed them rising to the heights of one extraordinary religious statement; at this point they reach the heights of sublime mysticism. Right from the start of the relevant entries they are quite different in tone. Instead of a simple date-entry, there is the heading ‘A soul calls to God.’ What follows is entirely in the form of a prayer:
‘O my God: infinite, immeasurable, unfathomable Wisdom! Illuminate Thy servant in the office Thou hast entrusted to her. O my God: Thou knowest that I am ready to fulfil all Thy commands immediately, as soon as Thou dost me the honour to make them known to me. The only risk is that I might not recognise them properly. My God, I open my understanding to Thee like a book. Cross out anything in it that does not please Thee and underline all that corresponds to Thy will. O my God, can it be true that Thou, who dost strengthen Man’s virtues beyond their natural ability, art honouring one of our natural weaknesses in the same way? Is Thy compassion so great that Thou wilt follow one poor soul unable to master her own weakness down into the depths of that weakness in order to be united with her there in Thy love?’

These lines undoubtedly refer to Blanche as the link immediately becomes even clearer:
‘Was it Thy will, O my Jesus, to choose this poor child’s timid nature so that, when others were joyously preparing to share in Thy death, she should remain beside Thee during Thine own agony at Gethsemane?
Was this the homage Thou didst require of us, and was I about to rob Thee of it?’

The next sides are devoted to this one question. Then:
‘O my God, I have appealed to Thee in an act of total self-dedication — of my will, of my understanding and all my strength: show me clearly the right decision to take so that I need have no fear of being wrong. O my God, Thou keepest silence, and that means Thou dost demand silence from me too.’

I believe I am not wrong to identify Madame Lidoine’s decision in this final sentence, i.e. her decision to hand over to God the question of a possible religious explanation for Blanche’s fear. The refusal to arrive at a judgment here would also correspond to the Church’s practice in most cases of mysticism.

So Blanche remained for the time being in the convent of Compiègne but now under Madame Lidoine’s direction. She summarily relieved Marie de l’Incarnation of her office as Novice Mistress, taking it upon herself.

This moment launched the struggle between Marie de l’Incarnation and Prioress Lidoine.

There was of course no question of deliberate mutiny: this experienced nun’s soul would never permit her to act openly against her Prioress. She submitted to the removal of her office in exemplary fashion. There can also be no suggestion that her personal defeat damaged her relationship with the young novice. Occasionally of course she would give vent to remarks like: ‘Ah, this timid little creature — I do believe she’d run from a mouse’, but she would say that sort of thing without any hurt, and it remains a fact that she never once ceased praying for Blanche. The struggle we are speaking of can only be understood as a struggle against Madame Lidoine if we consider that solemn Act of Dedication prompted by the ban on perpetual vows, and initially it showed itself only in her apparently justified concerns about Blanche remaining in the convent. For it was now that the truly dangerous times began.

But as usual, the former Novice Mistress’s attitudes were very quickly adopted throughout the convent.

My dear, I do not intend to list here all the major public events that occurred: you will guess, however, that we are entering the period when the civil status of the clergy became a major issue, i.e. thanks to the requirement that they take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution, and the Revolution began to persecute the Church directly. In light of this, the decision taken by the convent of Compiègne with regard to Blanche is not so hard to understand.

“We can’t be doing with anybody now who spoils our joy for us,” said even gentle Jeanne de l’Enfance de Jésus. “Just think: maybe even by next Christmas we shall be celebrating with Le petit Roi in heaven.”

And naïve little Constance de St Denis added solemnly: “If things really do get to the point that we’re persecuted, will we be able to say with a clear conscience that we’ll all be strong enough?”

“No, my child, we certainly won’t be able to say that,” replied Madame Lidoine sonorously as she happened to walk past just then. “But happily there’s more to it than that: when the persecution begins, His Majesty will need to support not just the strong ones amongst us but also the weak ones.”

“But still mainly the weak ones?” said little Constance uncertainly after Madame Lidoine had walked on. She gave voice to what everyone was thinking, and consequently nobody answered her, but of course everybody looked at Blanche.

It is a little difficult to portray what she was like in those days. Madame Lidoine has left no psychological profile, and her papers on the mystical aspects of the case are completely closed. Amongst her notes we find only practical suggestions like: I have advised the poor child to seek peace within Fear itself, since God, for the time being anyway, evidently does not intend to relieve her of it.

‘Being comforted within Fear’, ‘Taking refuge within Fear’, ‘Submitting oneself to Fear’, ‘Bearing the Cross of Fear’ — such are the constantly recurring ideas that Madame Lidoine noted; indeed, she even gives the advice: ‘Remain true to Fear’. I emphasise this last point because, so far as I can judge, it settled Blanche’s mind. Apart from that, we learn that under the Prioress’s guidance she developed a special devotion for the Eucharist, for ‘God in His Defencelessness’ as Madame Lidoine puts it. (She made this observation on the occasion of the first blasphemy demonstrations which suddenly appeared in Catholic France, mocking Church processions and other ceremonies related to the Christian Faith.)

Now, there is no doubt that — even for an outsider — there was something startling about the coincidence which saw Rome, in the selfsame spring that these grim anti-Church demonstrations occurred, carry out the beatification of the great French Carmelite, Madame Acarie. (You will recall, my friend, it was by her grave that Marie de l’Incarnation received her call to the religious life.) Obviously the Catholics of France, above all the members of the Carmelite monasteries, saw in this event a final, solemn summons to rescue their nation’s religious heritage. In Compiègne, too, this was the spirit in which they prepared to celebrate the new saint. My dear, banish all thoughts of solemn pontifical Masses or fireworks displays which normally accompany any new beatification. People were happy just to have a faithful, i.e. non-state-sponsored priest to celebrate Mass quietly. Apart from that, because of the sequestration of church property it wasn’t even possible to get a worthy portrait of the newly beatified saint. Nonetheless people drew comfort from the originator and exemplar of all Carmelite nuns — it was May, and on the chapel altar stood the person of God’s Mother with Le petit Roi in her arms. His head had been restored, though the break round his neck was painfully visible and his crown, of course, was missing; aged Jeanne de l’Enfance de Jésus had replaced it with a little garland of flowers. Now, what could be more certain than that, for Marie de l’Incarnation (since this ceremony was of such special concern to her), these modest preparations would not suffice?

The evening before the ceremony a messenger appeared at the visitors’ window and handed in a letter containing the words: ‘Tomorrow, reverend Sisters, pray to your new Saint in particular for the man whose much-beleaguered crown is also fighting for your own little King’s crown.’ The letter was written by Madame Elizabeth of France and referred to the King’s resistance to the plan to subject the clergy to the secular authority. (My friend, you are aware how much this issue contributed to the destruction of the monarchy.) It’s hardly necessary to say that, in Compiègne, the letter made its deepest impression on Marie de l’Incarnation. We recall again that it was beside Madame Acarie’s grave that she believed she received her religious call to expiate the sins of the Court, to which she knew the conception of her own life was owed. Madame Elisabeth’s words were bound to affect her as an appeal both to her royal blood and also to her most personal mission. At this instant she resolved not only to prepare herself and her convent for martyrdom, but to dedicate it to that very purpose.

“The Kingdom of France, which has so often failed to acknowledge its solemn mission, has grasped the banner of Christ”, she said at that time to Madame Lidoine. “My Mother, permit us to offer in return, as he struggles for the rights of the church, the same assistance that God has placed in our weak hands, and let us add another incomparable splendour to tomorrow’s ceremony for our saint by offering up our own lives to God’s Majesty on behalf of that of his beleaguered church in France.”

Now, my dear, I don’t believe I need to assure you that such acts of dedication conform entirely to the spirit of the Carmelite Order and — let’s make no mistake about this — when it comes to the bit, this robustness of mind and spirit are Christianity’s ultimate battle resource. (What can any persecution of Christians mean unless it is that Christ’s sacrificial death, which was voluntary, is being repeated in the members of his spiritual body? — Thus understood, no Christian Martyr ever dies a violent death.)

And yet Madame Lidoine would not give her approval. My dear, she did not refuse just in order to deny herself and her daughters the opportunity for sacrifice — we need only recall the solemn ceremony following the proscription of perpetual vows. (‘At Thy disposal — what is Thy will for me?’) For her, this proposed sacrifice was not yet ‘willed’. Her refusal to permit it, she argued, was because of the possibility of weak members within the community.

Marie de l’Incarnation had understood that there was only one weak person in the convent at Compiègne. “O my Mother,” she burst out with sudden passion — at such moments the fine veins on her forehead swelled up like France’s rivers in a storm — “O my Mother, why do you subject the heroism of your daughters to the weakness of that poor child? Her name is de la Force, but truly she should have been called de la Faiblesse!”

“Her name is Jesus of the Garden of Gethsemane,” replied Madame Lidoine simply. Ah, the tragedy of this woman vis-à-vis her ‘great’ daughter is that even during the latter’s most sublime moments she never showed emotion.

Pain was etched on Marie de l’Incarnation’s ascetically pale cheeks: France’s royal blood could almost be heard pounding through the veins of her forehead. “I understand,” she said with incomparably noble demeanour, “my Mother, you do not wish that God should dispose of heroism in his daughters but …” She paused suddenly on the word ‘dispose’.

“Why not of heroism too?” Madame Lidoine asked in return. To Marie de l’Incarnation her words seemed intolerably prosaic. Undoubtedly at this moment it was particularly fateful that she always underestimated Prioress Lidoine, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Now, dear heart, it’s not my purpose to pick away at the imperfections of a great soul. Creeping plants are seldom struck by lightning; shallow waters rarely flood whole regions; fleecy clouds don’t suddenly spawn a storm. The devil — to borrow an expression from the diction of my heroines — can sometimes be a great witness, for truly, he rarely deals in petty souls! Who can hold it against him if he chooses to dwell in the tents of the high and mighty? Let’s be honest: the Revolution, too, was just such a tent. My dear, did not you and I welcome this new dawn of mankind — and how great was our disappointment! For truly terrible things do not occur when disordered passions lead to disordered circumstances, when misguided thoughts unleash passions and crimes: no, the real tragedy of human life is that even its most noble ideals (and were not Freedom and Brotherhood such?) can turn sour, capable of mutating into their polar opposites. This does not of course mean that all our ideals were false — just, my dear, that such ideals are not enough.

And now this terrible reversal! Before the outbreak of any catastrophe there is always an oddly solemn moment when every participant suddenly becomes aware of what is destined to happen. Do you remember those windless August days immediately preceding the fall of the monarchy? (Ah, my dear, even a weak King remains an incomparable bulwark, for the tree’s strength lies not in its branches but in its roots.) Whence came this sudden outbreak of satanic evil, this terrible creeping-up of unspeakable darkness? Who had summoned it? Who guaranteed its inevitability? Who obliged Humanity, so sure of its victory, to capitulate before it? Was it not as if every leaf in France were trembling alongside us? For indeed, everyone, without exception, was trembling — those who wanted terror and those who desperately strove against it. Unité — we finally got it in the terrible form of horror for everyone. But it is impossible to depict such a time; one has to have lived through it, quaking.

Monsignor Rigaud informed Madame Lidoine that he desired her to confer with him at this time. Do not be surprised by her journey, my dear. In those days, of course, complete conventual enclosure was out of the question; before long we shall find it abolished. People sensed that the day would soon come when the religious would be driven out of their monasteries. Indeed, even monastic clothing — that ultimate, most personal enclosure, symbolising rejection of the world — had already been forbidden. Required by the Revolutionary Government to desist from wearing it, the Religious Orders, which were now without any independent means, asked their members to obtain civilian clothing from their families.

So Madame Lidoine hastened to Paris at that time in order to receive final orders from her superior before the time of testing that lay ahead. She left Marie de l’Incarnation behind as her representative. At first sight, this arrangement may come as a surprise; I choose to understand it as an appeal for trust to Marie who had resisted her and perhaps also as an appeal to the power of her office as Prioress.

The outcome must appear all the more tragic.

A short while ago we were discussing how a common fate affects us all. There was, however, one person in Paris to whom this did not apply. This person was Madame de Chalais who came to Compiègne at that time in order to deliver civilian clothing to her former protégée, in response to Blanche’s request to her father.

Madame de Chalais had changed little. The assurance of her character and her convictions survived the difficult times as splendidly as her rather too tight bodice survived the new fashion for loose waistbands. It was entirely comforting to hear how firmly she held the view that the exemplary piety of so good a King of France as the present King could not possibly fail to be rewarded; that, if they were really challenged, the good Christian nobility and Swiss Guards assembled in the Tuileries were bound to be victorious over a coarse and godless mob, and that Providence simply would not permit faithful and truly worthy priests to be threatened.

I assume that Madame de Chalais also voiced these or similar opinions in Compiègne. We do not possess the detail of her conversations with Blanche, but they’re unlikely to be of much consequence. Suffice to say: Madame de Chalais was seeing her former tutee for the first time after a long interval and, indeed, bearing no veil — for they were of course trying out civilian clothes. Now, I mentioned earlier that it is a little difficult to depict Blanche at that time, and yet there must have been something quite distinctive about her and, above all, wholly different from what Madame de Chalais had expected. I am inclined to believe that some interchange occurred between them similar to their erstwhile exchanges regarding the stairway. At all events, it was a very agitated Madame de Chalais who emerged from the parlour.

“Do people here really believe they can no longer put their trust in God?” she said to the Guest Mistress, beside herself with indignation. “Is that really what people think in a Carmelite convent? It’s outrageous!” She immediately collapsed. They wanted to fetch Blanche, but she absolutely forbade it. A chair was pushed towards her and smelling-salts held under her nose, whereupon she slowly recovered. She burst into tears — nobody could recall ever having known her do that.

“O my God!” she sobbed. “O my God! They’ll storm the Tuileries and hunt out the King! They’ll force him to abdicate!” (Note: she said ‘they will’, not ‘they’ll try to’.) “They’ll kill him — the best and most pious of kings!” (‘the most pious of kings’!) “They’ll kill the loyal priests” (–‘the loyal ones’!); “they’ll murder those honest Swiss Guards” (‘honest’!) “Everything’s in a terrible chaos! We’re heading for the most terrible anarchy, and it’s the best who’ll perish!” (‘the best’!)

With such and similar wails Madame de Chalais babbled on, sparing the unfortunate sisters no details of the terrible situation everyone was in — things that, up to that point, Madame Lidoine had evidently concealed from them.

In order to calm her down they showed her a picture of Le petit Roi, but she hardly looked at it. “Ah!” she cried, “Le petit Roi is dead!” But she did not add as she had done for Blanche on that earlier Christmas Eve:
‘There’s nothing left for us now but the Agnus Dei’; rather it seemed as if all her piety had now suddenly been exhausted. Even her appearance was quite different and frightening. Her tight corset was unbuttoned; the fish-bones all snapped when she fell into the chair and they now stuck out miserably through the torn silk stays. Her handsome coiffure looked like a bird’s nest with a cat in it. From time to time she grabbed her scrawny neck as if to reassure herself it was still there between her shoulders. Then she would express a desire to travel to Switzerland, to Germany, Spain, Belgium — in sum, she crossed every national border only to find herself still desperately back home. However, we can’t spend more time on this sad old woman; suffice to say, they eventually managed to persuade her to get into her coach, pointing out that if she really wanted to flee the country, she had no time to lose. (I heard later that she reached the border safely, and that three days afterwards in Brussels she died.)

And now back to the Carmelite Convent of Compiègne: just consider, my dear, what state the sisters were in when Madame de Chalais spoke as she did; just consider the fact that Marie de l’Incarnation was acting in lieu of the absent Prioress. There is no doubt that her office gave her the opportunity to embark on a course which, admittedly, Madame Lidoine had recently refused to sanction but had certainly not forbidden under any circumstances in the future (my dear, we shall never encounter Marie de l’Incarnation acting with patent disobedience, only within narrowly defined limits). You can guess what she had in mind: one final, precious moment in which to undertake a heroic act of sacrificial self-dedication to save France.

It seems that some of the nuns were indeed alarmed by Marie de l’Incarnation’s proposal. My heavens! But this was no time to be ‘playing with glass beads’ (to borrow Madame Lidoine’s phrase) — the guillotine was already in position on the Place de Grève! Even so the convent was brave enough to assent, albeit somewhat pale-facedly. Only naïve little Constance de Saint Denis said half in tears that she would feel very afraid if she were the last one onto the scaffold.

Marie de l’Incarnation suddenly sensed possible frustration. “But in Religious Communities it’s the eldest, not the youngest who goes last!” she said, “and anyway, you’re not the youngest at all, the youngest …” and only now did her eye fall on Blanche to whom, in her excitement, she hadn’t given a thought. ‘At this moment’ wrote Madame Lidoine later, ‘her heroic path was crossed by, as it were, the shadow of Christ’s own terror, but she failed to recognise it.’ This is that noble soul’s great excuse, but admittedly it is also her greatest indictment.

And yet, Marie de l’Incarnation did sense something of that shadow: Blanche’s face filled her with a peculiar anxiety, just as it had Madame de Chalais. But it wasn’t the fear of undertaking the sacrifice — it was the fear of her own sacrifice being thwarted. And now we have arrived at the point where, for her, the issue was not just: ‘we can no longer wait’, but also: ‘we need to be clear about our willingness’. For of course, the decision to undertake their planned Act of Dedication implied a readiness to carry it out.

“I do not force anybody to undertake this vow,” she said quickly. “If there is anybody unable to offer their life freely to Christ, if anybody does not share this unspeakable joy, they must not hesitate to step aside.” Undoubtedly she believed Blanche would take advantage of this dispensation, and, let’s be honest, she wanted it. For ‘stepping aside’ under these circumstances meant excluding oneself from the community, i.e. the first step to leaving. Only, Blanche did not exclude herself and she did not step aside.

Let us remind ourselves briefly how such Acts of Dedication take place. The usual way is for private vows to be spoken inwardly during Mass, immediately after the Eucharistic Prayer. The celebrant is usually informed and, in his personal prayer, he intimates the vow and then distributes Communion and performs the Blessing.

Once again I refer to Madame Lidoine’s Journal. This faithful, maternal woman did everything possible after her return to establish the state of mind of her poor child before and during the taking of that terrible vow. It appears that the convent spent the night together in preparation. Now, my dear, we would be seriously underestimating Marie de l’Incarnation’s power over souls if we doubted that they were anything other than content next morning — apart, of course, from Blanche. Before they went to Mass Marie de l’Incarnation made one more attempt to dissuade her; from the words she used in addressing her we can sense the terrible state the young novice was in.

“My child,” she said to her, “you do understand that nobody is forcing you to undertake this sacrifice. Do you really want to appear before our Saviour in this state of terror?”

Blanche replied to her: “My Mother, I do not want to be untrue.” (Let us recall, dearest friend, the observation in Mother Lidoine’s Journal which I drew attention to earlier: ‘Remain true to Fear’.)

So Blanche certainly entered the chapel along with the others. Little Constance de Saint Denis who walked beside her remembers it clearly. “But,” she said, “I did not dare look into her face, because we were all in a strangely affecting and joyous state that morning, which made us all very vulnerable.”

And now the Act of Dedication itself. My dear: before my eyes I see a small chapel bereft of all decoration, thanks to the State, its altars naked and bare as on Good Friday. I see a choir-space with no chairs — in Carmelite convents prayer is offered without any regard to comfort. I see a crowd of women kneeling on the wooden floor-boards, sharing a silent Mass, disturbed only by the distant sound of the Ça ira rising up from the street. The faces of these women are wonderfully transfigured; in them can be seen the beatitude of complete submission, an ultimate, exalted, unconditional self-dedication which, as it were, has already passed beyond life and death. Only one of these women — ah my dear, I feel as Constance de Saint Denis did: I dare not imagine it; I cannot bear the sight of this sweat-covered, pinched little face, crushed by its own terror — no, the terror of all France — no, the terror of Eternal Love itself. Constance de Saint Denis goes on to tell us that, during the Eucharistic Prayer, i.e. when they were performing the Act of Dedication, Blanche was kneeling beside her. Only when they went forward to the grille to receive Communion did she notice that Blanche was missing. (Ah: she was to receive a different Communion.)

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