Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Venerable Camille de Soyecourt,
a great example is much more than doing a great work
Saint of the Day, Tuesday, February 17, 1970
Venerable Camille de Soyecourt, a Carmelite from the highest nobility of France, sticks to her vocation when expelled from the convent by the French Revolution. She is obliged to beg for alms and to do prosaic jobs. She later recovers her family’s fortune, calls back the dispersed sisters, and restores the convent. She confronts Napoleon and dies at 92 after much suffering. An example of fortitude facing the Chinese river.
(Excerpt from G. Lenotre on the French Revolution.)
“On July 24, 1784, Mademoiselle Camille de Soyecourt, a daughter of the highest French nobility, received the Carmelite habit. Albeit young, she was frail and suffering; and her doctors said she had incurable heart disease. Everyone thought she would be unable to stay in the convent for more than six months. However, she not only survived many years but, with her remarkable personality, played an outstanding role in preserving the Carmel of Paris during the Revolution.
In 1792 her convent was invaded, and the nuns dispersed. Sister Camille, leading a group of them, settled in a house firmly determined to keep the Carmelite spirit alive. The small community was denounced, and the nuns arrested. When she was set free, Mademoiselle de Soyecourt took refuge in her family home but not for long, as her parents and two sisters were incarcerated. After many vicissitudes, she was employed on a farm. During all this time, she never failed to fulfill all the rules of the Carmel as rigorously as she could: fasting, reciting the office at the prescribed hours, and going to confession weekly, with great difficulty, with a refractory priest. One day she learned that all her relatives had been convicted and guillotined and that her sister had left a young son.
Despite her painful situation, Sister Camille took care of her nephew until her death. Expelled from the farm where she worked as her parents’ execution blew her cover, she begged for alms for a while. Then she ran into a sister from her convent and decided to restore her order. With alms money and aided by refractory priests, she got a hold of a seminary chapel and resumed religious services. After the Terror ended, Mademoiselle de Soyecourt, then a tall, pale, serious and gentle lady, decided to recover her parents’ fortune for her nephew and her convent. Lawyers and notaries public were amazed at that impoverished woman talking about millions in land sales and purchasing real estate. But she got everything she wanted and called back her scattered sisters.
She then reinstalled her community at the Carmelite convent in Paris, where she lived for over 45 years, though not without problems. For example, in January 1811, Fouche was informed that a Carmelite superior of the Carmel was actively copying and distributing the Bull of excommunication ... against the emperor himself. She was thus arrested in a place far away from the convent, which did not stop her from assisting her community. The nuns would visit her in disguise and safely pass by the guards. Te Restoration freed her from this exile. When her moral difficulties seemed to diminish, physical ones began. Her body had become almost diaphanous because of fasting and penance. At 85, she slept on a board, despite the most severe gout and stomach pain that did not allow her to rest. However, as always, she maintained her good humor and unchanging, proverbial boldness. Filled with pain, she died in 1849 at 92 years of age.”
This biography is all about the Chinese river, which I am sure all of you have heard of. I would like to comment on it, not from the standpoint of someone reading it but from the vantage point of the one who lived it. It is very different for us to read her life and say what a great woman Mademoiselle Camille de Soyecourt was! Something else is to imagine you in her shoes.
So one sees everything that happened to her as having fulfilled a defined vocation. She had a very welldefined goal and pursued it with all her might, and when you look at her life, it was a typical Chinese river. She became a Carmelite nun and could expect to lead a life like St. Therese the Great or St. Therese the Little Flower – a life entirely inside the Carmel, though with its own difficulties. For sure, she had had thousands of inspirations of grace in this regard.
Now, what actually happens? The French Revolution comes, and she is incarcerated. Let us suppose that she thought of becoming a martyr: ‘I will give my life and become a saint; I gladly accept it’: conformity. She is set free and hopes to live for God as a single person. Yet, she needs to raise her nephew. She was a rich girl and lost her fortune. Her parents are guillotined, and she becomes a housemaid.
She becomes a maid on a farm – a manual worker. Born a noble, she becomes a nun and ends up as a farmhand. Although her biography does not go into detail, it is possible that she had to clean stables, cows and do other very prosaic jobs, if not for the farm owners, perhaps more prosaic than taking care of cows. She moves forward. She is fired and becomes a beggar with her nephew.
She begs for alms from one place to another, and suddenly, the French Revolution ends. She becomes a businesswoman and begins to visit notaries public to recover the fortune she was entitled to. You see how all this is completely the opposite of what she wants. She always has the same goal: to be a Carmelite. She restores the Carmel and begins a normal life as a Carmelite. Then she is jailed in a faraway prison, a sort of internal exile, until the Bourbons come to power.
In other words, her Carmelite life is interrupted once again. Finally, the Bourbons restore the normal order of things, and she returns to the Carmel. One would say she would lead a tranquil life like a Carmelite back in her convent, where she restarts her prayer life. Yet another kind of trial begins. You would say: poor lady, this is her final phase; she will soon die and rest in God. No sir. No such thing! She will fight on earth till her last breath. After so many trials and illnesses and suffering from a bad back, she still lives to be 92 – an age one couldn’t even imagine she would attain – and always doing penance as a model nun.
So to people with a modern mentality, the question is, was her life successful or frustrated It was frustrating, for its fulfillment would have been for her to have entered the convent and had a regular religious life to the end. Since so many obstacles got in her way and obliged her to do a number of things she did not want to, she should, after all, have felt frustrated at least a hundred times and abandoned her vocation. And when she went back into the convent and became sick, she should have said: This is it, there’s no longer any solution, God has abandoned me. Now that I could lead a normal life as a Carmelite, I begin to live as a patient!
We, however, say that hers was a great, fully ‘accomplished’ life. It is impossible for you to have heard this story without feeling enormous admiration for her. So we ask ourselves, what is ‘accomplishment’? This is where modern man clashes with the Catholic spirit. According to the mentality of the world, her life was frustrated because she did not lead the life she wanted. She led an entirely different life from the one to which she directed all her efforts; she did not accomplish the work she had undertaken. In the final analysis, the notion of ‘accomplishment’ out there is for an individual to have led the life he wanted or to have made a lot of money (supposing this is what everybody wants). According to the spirit of the Church, she was accomplished. Here are the two concepts of accomplishment.
She did not make a lot of money, nor did she lead the life she wanted. But we cannot hear this story without seeing that she was accomplished. So what is the true meaning of the word ‘accomplishment’? It is something different than the modern mentality thinks. Accomplishment is, above all, self-accomplishment. I do not say above all in the sense of supreme, but in the sense of immediate: it is the accomplishment of oneself.
She fully developed a great personality. She was a person of great virtue who in the splendor of her virtue, also manifested a great number of natural qualities with which Providence had endowed her. This is what happened. In other words, she drew from herself all the potential she had. She took to perfection a thousand things that were in her only potential. She is like a seed that fully developed into a splendid tree. In this more immediate sense, accomplishment is to have attained one’s own perfection. This is the first notion.
Second notion: we see that she accomplished this perfection, not through a series of fiascos that ended in failure. Her life has continuity – not the plan she had but the plans God had for her. She fulfilled the will of God.
When we finish reading her life, we see that her great work for the glory of God among men was not so much to have founded a convent (an excellent work) but something much greater than founding a convent: having left a great example.
To have left a great example of perseverance, resolution, strength of soul, trust in Divine Providence, obedience to God’s designs in the most adverse circumstances of life.
Thus, because of her example, when her memory becomes known by men, people in difficult conditions will feel encouraged to face the hardships of life. As long as her memory lasts among men, she will be the strength of the weak and the light of those who find themselves in uncertainty and shadow. Why? Because of the great example she left. Leaving a great example is something far greater than accomplishing great work.
While founding a great convent is something splendid, without leaving a great example, it is utterly useless. After worshipping God, the best thing we can do is to edify souls with our example. Words and actions come second. Our example drags others. Words move but examples drag. She set an example of the strength of soul. We perceive how strong she always remained through all the uncertainties of her life. She never gave up but always moved forward, doing her duty according to the will of Providence and never straying from the unity of the work she was accomplishing. She understood that by doing her duty of the moment, she was doing the will of God.
In heaven, she sees the unity that God had willed. She is already Venerable, an extraordinary person who can eventually be canonized. Such is the life of a person who blindly moves ahead in the face of difficulties and keeps fighting and not letting them bother her. At the end comes the glory of having given a good example by obeying God. It seems to me that this is the great lesson of this Saint of the Day.
Summary: We have commented on her life from the standpoint of ‘accomplishment.’ According to today’s notion of accomplishment, her life was frustrating. According to the Catholic notion, it was fully accomplished.
The discrepancy is found in the very notion of accomplishment. Pagan concept: to do in life one’s own will, whatever one wants. Second concept: accomplishment is to rightly expand one’s own personality. Highest notion: it is to do the will of God. Of course, these two notions are related.
After looking at these concepts, we read her biography and saw how logical it is for a pagan to see her life as frustrated. She suffered all kinds of mishaps in a long, winding Chinese river.
Then we went on to make a careful analysis, more useful for our formation, showing how it is reasonable for a Catholic to consider her life as accomplished: She developed a great personality and a great virtue before God, and she completed a work. While there is no question that her convent is a great work, her example is worth even more than the convent; for after worshipping God and practicing virtue, the best thing one can do is to set an example.
The example she gave is one of fortitude, and it will serve when applied to our theses and spiritual life and to all men for as long as her memory is preserved.