More than half of the saints in the Catholic Church are comprised of martyrs. That being said, before I understood the beauty of shedding one’s own blood for Christ – thus resembling Him – martyrdom never (and I mean never) appealed to me. “Sign me up for the good old-fashioned white martyrdom”, I would say; “daily death” is enough for me and is just about all I can handle! After all, Our Lord had told Saint Catherine of Siena,
The sufferings of the body don’t even compare to that of the soul.
Our Lady can attest to this, and while Our Lord’s words are absolutely correct, He intentionally by design allowed a book to fall into my hands about a group of martyred Carmelite nuns who forever changed my view on the priceless gift of “red” martyrdom; and I did use the word gift. In fact, I have come across a number of saints who prayed to God for this great “grace”- a radical gift of self! There are saints who wept tears when they discovered God was not calling them to give their life for Him in THAT particular way. Whenever I would read how a saint begged God for the grace of martyrdom, I was completely baffled thinking, “who on earth prays for that?” I couldn’t get over it. I mean, REALLY – who does that?
To this day, whenever I hear of the gruesome details of how some of the early Church saints were martyred, I cannot help but shudder every time. Stories of saints being burned at the stake, chopped into pieces, being thrown into furnaces – and sometimes surviving! Saint Lawrence was quite literally barbecued alive; his memorable quote while being burned was “Turn me over, I am done on this side”. All of these recountings are quite disturbing, and one might so rightly ask…how did they do it? Remember the two words I said above? One of them was “grace”, ALL is a grace. I recall once hearing that if we were to know in what way we were to die in advance, especially in a cruel manner such as being beheaded or crucified, there is no way one could avoid having a sense of fear and dread.
Just imagine how Our Lord and His Mother felt; They both were well aware of all Their future sufferings in advance. The great Doctor of the Church Saint Alphonsus Ligouri said that during the Prophecy of Simeon, Our Lady knew in minute-detail all that was to befall Her Beloved Son – and all Her joy turned to sorrow. Thus, Her “daily” martyrdom began that fateful day. She had thirty-plus years to anticipate and agonize over the future death of Her greatest Treasure. But, for most of us God does not give such grace in advance because it is reserved for the future. It is saved for the very instant, the very second that we need it, to carry out His will one step at a time -“grace grows on nature”, as we so often hear. Such a phrase of course, doesn’t apply to the Immaculate Conception (the Dispenser and Mediatrix of all grace- She is grace itself) or the Son of God. The more intense a death predestined by Our Lord, the greater the grace He has in store for that soul.
Let me get back to that book I spoke of earlier that came into my possession…When I entered the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and during my seven-month postulancy, the season of Lent was approaching. Every year during those forty days each sister would randomly draw from a stack of cards (a list of saints) and from whatever card was pulled, she was expected to give a presentation to the other nuns, discussing how the chosen saint’s life resembled Christ-Crucified. At first I was disappointed in the card I pulled; I had never heard of this woman, this “Blessed”; “Great, I have some nobody” I thought. I could not have been more wrong, as my novice mistress was quite envious and said
Blessed Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine is one of the sixteen Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne!
“Who?” (I still repeated to myself). Soon thereafter, Mother put the book entitled “To Quell the Terror” in my hands. The book cover in itself was somewhat striking: a large red cross and in its shadow a number of Carmelite nuns laying face down with their arms outstretched, also in the form of a cross. Hundreds of Catholic lives were sacrificed by the guillotine during the unforgettable French Revolution, but what made Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine and her community of martyred nuns so different? I began reading the book and immediately their powerful story unfolded. One of Mother Teresa’s nuns had found a document in the monastery archives of a vision that was written down by a sister who had lived in that very convent with other nuns during an earlier time. If I recall, the discovered document was fifty to one-hundred years old, written long before Mother Teresa and her daughters had established themselves in that very same building.
The vision described was of something I will never forget; a sister saw a future community of nuns being chosen to follow the Lamb(representing Our Lord) to slaughter. The nun described how not all would be called to this particular martyrdom, that some were seen following the Lamb while others were seen taking another path. It wasn’t clear why the Lamb was giving this “gift” to follow Him in such a radical way to only some of the community, not all. The Carmelite who found this document was moved and immediately showed it to her prioress – Teresa of Saint Augustine. It is very probable that this vision is what inspired Mother Teresa to create a “community offering” with her nuns. This presentation to God was none other than an act of oblation, recited as a community everyday for two years before their deaths. These nuns offered themselves as “victims of holocaust” to appease God’s justice and end the bloody reign of terror in their native France. They begged God to use their gift of selves with their “blood” in union with the blood of “the Lamb” to wash clean their nation and restore peace.
Was that vision indeed preserved for them? Saint Therese of the Child Jesus (and of the Holy Face) was so inspired by these martyrs that she kept a picture of them in her breviary and was then drawn to make her own individual offering as “victim of holocaust to merciful love” after hearing the story of this fearless community. When Blessed Teresa of Saint Augustine was called before the presidential tribunal to hear her death sentence she so boldly said:
If then you require a victim, here I am; it is I alone whom you should strike, my sisters are innocent.
Mother Teresa watched as each one of her Carmelite daughters were beheaded before her; she was the last to be executed by the guillotine. According to witnesses it was nothing but utter chaos throughout the “blood bath”, but when the sixteen Carmelites moved up in the line to face their own fate there was not a single drum-roll; there reigned a profound silence. All that could be heard were the sounds of singing as the nuns began chanting hymns like the Te Deum (an ancient Latin hymn of thanksgiving recited daily in the Divine Office) and the Salve Regina. The last voice to be heard was that of Mother Teresa’s as one by one she lost members of her “choir” until there remained only her own solo voice. The story of the youngest novice Sister Constance, was one I couldn’t shake. Since the nuns were assembled in order of their seniority, the youngest member had gone first. It is custom in Carmel to receive permission from the Mother Prioress for every single act – even “permission to die”. Sister Constance was very fearful of martyrdom (much like myself), but after receiving her “blessing” (infused grace) from Mother Teresa to depart this life, this young woman wearing her glorious Carmelite habit made her way to the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (psalm 116). Witnesses say she approached death like a queen going to receive her crown; a bride going to meet her Betrothed, all her former fear gone.
How can one NOT be moved by that? I, who never saw the appeal to martyrdom, for the first time recognized the beauty of such an act! Each and every one of us is called to make a perfect and complete gift of self in some shape or form. God demands this offering. When I saw how nothing but pure love of Our Lord made this community give their lives for Christ, I truly saw in a new light how love and love alone makes this act possible – love and of course, grace. Just like Our Lord Who offered Himself on our behalf to the Father, so these nuns wanted to make that same oblation to the Father in union with the Lamb. Sister Julie Louise of Jesus was said to have stated before her heroic death:
We are victims of the age, and we must sacrifice ourselves for its reconciliation with God.
The part I will never forget was learning that the martyrdom of these sixteen nuns took place on the eve of their order’s Carmelite patron’s feast day: Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Equally striking was how just days following their deaths, the infamous “Reign of Terror” was ended. Had this holy community of nuns’ request to Our Lord been heard and accepted? Were they truly “victims” predestined by God to save France from the peril of revolution? These glorious martyrs had not only received permission by their Mother Prioress on earth to leave this world, but from their Heavenly Mother as well – the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of heaven and earth!
This inspirational and dramatic story has touched countless lives in and outside of the Catholic Church; plays, books and operas have been written and performed to honor such a total gift of self. Their sacrifice reminded me of the words of Saint Faustina written in her diary:
The Lord gave me to understand what unimaginable glory awaits the soul who resembles the suffering of Jesus here on earth. That soul will resemble Jesus in His glory. I see pure and innocent souls upon whom God has exercised His justice; these souls are the victims who sustain the world and who fill up what is lacking in the Passion of Jesus (Saint Paul touches on this). They are not many in number. I rejoice greatly that God has allowed me to know such souls.
To this day, I cannot imagine having drawn any other card from the stack of saints.
The names of the 16 Carmelite Martyrs in order of their roles:
Choir Nuns: Nuns who chant all the hours of the Divine Office
- Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, prioress (Madeleine-Claudine Ledoine) b. 1752
- Mother St. Louis, sub-prioress (Marie-Anne [or Antoinette] Brideau) b. 1752
- Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress (Marie-Françoise Gabrielle de Croissy) b. 1745
- Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified (Marie-Anne Piedcourt) b. 1715
- Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, ex-sub-prioress and sacristan (Anne-Marie-Madeleine Thouret) b. 1715
- Sister Euphrasia of the Immaculate Conception (Marie-Claude Cyprienne) b. 1736
- Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart of Mary (Marie-Antoniette Hanisset) b. 1740
- Sister Julie Louise of Jesus, widow (Rose-Chrétien de la Neuville) b. 1741
- Sister Teresa of St. Ignatius (Marie-Gabrielle Trézel) b. 1743
- Sister Mary-Henrietta of Providence (Anne Petras) b. 1760
- Sister Constance of St. Denis, novice (Marie-Geneviève Meunier) b. 1765
Lay Sisters: “the white veils” – nuns who do the manual labor, ie., cooking, caring for livestock, etc. They never take the black veil, even after completion of the novitiate
- Sister St. Martha (Marie Dufour) b. 1742
- Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit (Angélique Roussel) b. 1742
- Sister St. Francis Xavier (Julie Vérolot) b. 1764
Externs: Nuns – or third order Carmelites, who live outside of the enclosure and take care of the main chapel where they greet the public
- Catherine Soiron b. 1742
- Thérèse Soiron b. 1748
May God be pleased to choose “victims” in our own times for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary- where now- more than ever restoration of peace in the world is greatly needed! The 16 Carmelite martyrs of Compiegne (whose feast we celebrate today in the Carmelite Rite Breviary)…ora pro nobis!