Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ending the Terror: The Carmelites of Compiegne

From my article on the Carmelites of Compiegne of OSV's The Catholic Answer Magazine last year:

Their deaths were orderly, calm and holy. Each Carmelite paused before their prioress and asked permission to fulfill her vow.

They sang together, chanting the
Salve Regina, the Te Deum and Veni, Sancte Spiritus on their way to the guillotine, and then intoned the psalm Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes (“Praise the Lord, all peoples”); each stroke of the guillotine silenced another voice until at last the prioress walked up the steps to die. The usually cheering mob was unusually silent.

Read the rest here.

Last month, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London performed Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites and Tim Wong told the true story of the Carmelites on his blog for The Telegraph:

Forty people had their heads chopped off on 17 July 1794, 16 of whom were Carmelite nuns from the small city of Compiègne in Northern France. The Order of the Carmelites itself dates back to the 12th century, and has a strong tradition of Marian devotion. Their spiritual focus of the Order is contemplation.

Enlightenment intellectuals argued that such a passive activity as contemplation served no practical purpose for society. By the time of the French Revolution, both the monarchy and the Church came under attack – for their power and wealth in the face of a starving and angry nation.

It was a time of unprecedented upheaval in daily life, where all things Christian were swept away. The seven-day week was scrapped in favour of a ten-day one. A prostitute "Goddess of Reason" was installed in Notre Dame to perform lewd songs. The remains of past French Kings were dug up from the Royal Basilica at Saint-Denis and thrown into a common pit. In September 1792 alone 225 priests and bishops were slaughtered.

It’s perhaps no surprise, against this backdrop, that 16 Carmelite nuns were declared "enemies of the people". Poulenc’s opera broadly follows what actually happened – but there are some significant differences. . . .

Poulenc’s central character in Dialogues des Carmélites, the fictional Blanche de la Force, is modelled on Mother Marie – one of the two or three who escaped. Mother Marie resembles Blanche not only in age (she was in her thirties) but also in her aristocratic background: she was the illegitimate orphaned daughter of the Prince of Conti, who was considered to be a legitimate descendant of the monarch (a "prince du sang"). Both Blanche and Mother Marie's music is often cast in C major – forthright, pure, depicting innocence. Poulenc seems to imply that there's an unspoken affinity between these two characters.

Mother Marie was away when the sisters were arrested: William Bush informs us that she was in Paris sorting out a pension left by her father. Upon hearing the arrest she fled the capital with Madame Lidoine’s 78-year old mother and settled in Franche Comté for good. There was no record of her pleading with the chaplain to be allowed to join her sisters. Neither did her brother plead with her to return to the family – a key scene in the opera . It was in fact Sister Constance’s brother who turned up to ask the young nun to abandon her Order, which request she declined.

That was the climax of the Reign of Terror, for 10 days after the nun’s execution the regime was overthrown and Robespierre himself died on the guillotine. The sisters of Compiègne were beatified in 1906. Perhaps one day they will be declared saints. Certainly, in the eyes of many Catholics, they already are.

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