Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The Martyrdom of the Carmelites
of Compiègne: Fortitude and Bravery Facing the Revolution
Saint of the Day, July 23, 1969
July 17 was the feast of the seventeen Carmelites of Compiègne who were guillotined on this day in 1794.
The Church often – but not always - celebrates the feast of martyrs on the day they died because it was the most glorious day of their life, and secondly, because on that day they were born to eternal life.
Sister Marie de L’Incarnation, the biographer of the holy martyrs, wrote about one of the Carmelites, Sister Marie Henriette de la Providence, who was 34 years old at the time of her martyrdom:
“Her unusual beauty made her run into dangers that alarmed her modesty. She wanted to renounce the world at once to put herself in safety. When she appeared before the court, she distinguished herself, without pretension, by an attitude of truly heroic firmness.
Having heard the public accuser call them fanatics and counter-revolutionaries, she claimed not to know the meaning of these words and asked him to please explain them. In fact, when the nuns entered the court, Sister Henriette, having heard the public accuser call them fanatics, deliberately questioned him:
‘Could you, citizen, tell us what you mean by that word fanatic.’
The judge, irritated, answered by vomiting a torrent of insults upon her and her companions. Our saint, not a little disconcerted, said to him, with dignity and firmness,
‘Citizen, it is your duty to honor a convict’s right to ask a question. I ask you, therefore, to answer us and tell us what you understand by the word fanatic.’
I understand it, replied Fouquier Tinville, as your attachment to your foolish religious practices.
After thanking him, Sister Henriette turned to the Mother Prioress and said:
‘My dear Mother, my sisters, you have just heard the accuser declare that it is because of our attachment to our holy religion that we are going to be put to death. We all desire this testimony and venerate it. Let immortal thanks be given to Him who first opened the way to Calvary for us. Oh, what happiness to die for our God!’
According to another version, Fouquier Tinville, the public accuser, responded:
Since you want to know, it is because of your attachment to your religion and to the king.
To which Sister Henriette is said to have responded,
Thank you, citizen, for this happy explanation.
And, turning to her companions, she said,
‘My dear Mother, my sisters: let us exult and rejoice in the joy of the Lord because we die for the sake of our holy religion, our faith, our confidence in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.’
Sister Henriette was the last to die before the Prioress and encouraged her companions until the end.
When a charitable person offered water to one of the nuns, as she was about to accept, Sister Henriette stopped her, saying:
‘In Heaven, in Heaven, my sister, we shall take long gulps.’
There is nothing more to say. We have already commented on the whole plot more than once.
For it to be recorded that they were martyrs--and it was also a consolation for them—the public accuser needed to say so, which was the reason for her question. The answer was that they were martyrs indeed as they were condemned because of the Catholic Church. So she was happy and communicated it to Mother superior and all sisters.
Of course, there are two versions, one of which is a little more counter-revolutionary. One version says that Fouquier Tinville did not mention the king but only God. Another version claims that he said they died because of the king as well. That is much more likely because he killed everybody due to their allegiance to God and to the king. But saying that they died because of the king runs counter the famous Ralliement, so they excluded the king from the course of events and only mentioned God our Lord, the essential thing.
Upon hearing his answer, she and all the nuns rejoiced. And she accompanied them all to their death.
Then came the episode of the glass of water, a real beauty. As you can see, a sister was very thirsty and naturally shaken from the nervous point of view by the trauma of feeling herself at death’s door—and tragic and violent death. She was accepting a glass of water that someone offered her. So Sister Henriette thought: [if she made a] small sacrifice, it would be one more pearl for the glory of God. Why drink water and have this little consolation when one can offer a little more sacrifice? So she had this magnificent expression: ‘In heaven, my sister, we will drink big gulps of water.’ Of course, there are the fountains of living water that Our Lord promised to His elect, the contemplation of God face to face. There, happiness is perpetual.
The other sister agreed. And when she received the crown of martyrdom, she had an extra star on that crown for all eternity because of that small sacrifice.
You can draw a contrast between this sister’s account and that famous figure of Blanche de la Force, the weak Carmelite you have also heard about. She was terrified by merely hearing about death and ended up running away. They even called her an apostate. When she heard that her Carmelite sisters were going to the gallows, she went there to watch. As all the sisters, delighted, went up singing the Salve Regina, she came out of the crowd and got in line too. And, singing the Salve Regina, she went up to the gallows and died.
These are God’s different ways for the various souls and the multiple wonders God works in the people He chooses. For some, He chooses that living act.
For others, through that act, He chooses Sister Henriette, who is the opposite of Blanche de la Force. She sees death from afar, faces it head-on and with joy. She faces the accuser, makes him state they are martyrs, then helps them all. And the only reason she does not die after the Prioress is that the hierarchical order called for the Prioress to die last. The captain is the last to leave the ship.
As you can see, it is another way that God guides and molds people’s souls.
But God is infinitely beautiful also in the unity and variety of this way because the saints are all diverse, and there are different spiritual schools within the Holy Catholic Church, each of which reflects a beauty of God. Through we understand something of Our Lord’s infinite beauty.
Thus you have an exact idea of what the beauty of Heaven can be. In Heaven, we not only contemplate God face to face but through the immeasurable beauty of each of the souls there, each angel and saint. And, above all, the One who comprises and ineffably surpasses the spiritual beauty of all angels and saints; the One whose Name I need not even mention.