The Carmelites of Compiègne: Martyrs in the Age of Enlightenment

After her election as Carmelite prioress in 1786, thirty-four-year-old Mother Teresa of St. Augustine learned of a mysterious document in the monastery’s archive, dated from the previous century. It recorded the strange mystical dream of a partially paralyzed young woman who had lived at the Compiègne monastery for years as a paying guest. In 1694, this woman entered the monastery as a nun. In the dream, she saw herself and the Compiègne community receive the embrace of Christ and a special call to “follow the Lamb” who offered himself up in sacrifice for the good of others.

When Mother Teresa of St. Augustine discovered this record, she did not know it would eventually lead her community to offer their lives as a sacrifice to God to end the worst stage of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror. Yet, as she read it, her heart and her soul thrilled with the premonition of a great calling, a high vocation to “follow the Lamb” by resisting the spirit of the age. The document inspired in her the realization that Christ might be calling her community to a particularly dangerous kind of witness.

A few years after Mother Teresa of St. Augustine read this document, the National Assembly of Revolutionary France ordered all monasteries to close. This forced the nuns out in the streets. More than 140 Carmelite monasteries collapsed; many of the monks and nuns fled the country. The days of suffering had come, as prophesied.

“These Carmelites would keep to their way of living out God’s divine law revealed in their consciences. They would swim against the current." —Dr. Joseph Stuart on the Martyrs of Compiegne, from his book Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason.
This article is from Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason. Click to learn more.

Conflictual Enlightenment

The previous fusion of French culture and Christianity had ended, and the expulsion of these Carmelite women signaled a radical conflict of cultures. A new way of life had emerged in eighteenth-century France, inspired by what could be called the “Conflictual Enlightenment.” This was a powerful strand of the Enlightenment movement in conflict with basic Christian truth claims.

Though it did not constitute the whole story of the Enlightenment, this Conflictual Enlightenment attacked Christianity in direct and subtly seductive ways — not least by infiltration. Many well-intentioned priests and bishops deceived themselves about the seemingly benign spirit of the age. Some ended up marrying and forsaking their priesthood. Others took an oath agreeing that the French nation possessed authority over all religious matters, putting them in schism with Rome.

After confiscating Church property, making the Church dependent on government largesse, the authorities sought to remove the centuries of Christian influence woven into the culture. They eliminated the Christian calendar, replacing the seven-day week with a ten-day week called a “decade.” They based the year number on the birth of the Republic rather than on the birth of Christ. In Year II of the French Republic, the government closed churches or turned them into “temples of Reason.”

The Committee of Public Salvation, with masterful art and propaganda, organized huge festivals in honor of the Republic and of the Supreme Being — most notably on June 8, 1794, the old Christian feast of Pentecost and the birthday of the Christian church. A new, secular religion and its “church” of the state was emerging, and it strove mightily to efface Christ. Presided over by the revolutionary leader Robespierre, the new religion demanded daily blood sacrifice. For the sake of group advancement, it executed individuals deemed “public enemies” on the altar of the guillotine. Robespierre also popularized its new motto: Liberty, equality, fraternity.

The Catholic and Royal Army rose up to resist this new paganism in 1793. Within a year, they had fallen in defeat, and the government’s troops crushed them.

During these attacks, the Carmelites of Compiègne refused to leave their vocations or their mission. “We are victims of our century,” penned one of them, “and we must sacrifice ourselves that it be reconciled to God.” As the moon and the planets follow obediently the trajectories laid out for them by God’s laws of nature, so these Carmelites would keep to their way of living out God’s divine law revealed in their consciences. They would swim against the current.

Their story reveals the conflict between the holy logic of the Christian way of life and the worldly logic of the Enlightenment way of life.

Expulsion from the Monastery

After their expulsion from their monastery in 1792, the Carmelites lived secretly in four separate groups. They met together for Mass and for their daily act of consecration, offering themselves to Christ for peace in the Church and in France and for a lessening of the numbers going to the guillotine. They strove to maintain as best they could their rule of life, which derived from St. Teresa of Avila.

Mother Teresa of St. Augustine carefully guarded her community. The other nuns possessed the duty of obedience to her authority, but on her lay the responsibility to exercise her authority for the true spiritual and temporal good of her sisters. The bond of obedience would preserve the roots of faith in communal, participatory knowledge. Mother Teresa was also concerned that none of her sisters went to martyrdom against their will or the will of God.

She would not impose her private interpretation of the mystical dream on the others, as if it were inevitable. Rather, she would vigorously defend her community after their arrest against the false charges put forward by the Public Prosecutor.

Through the Silent Streets of Paris

It was on June 22, 1794, that local authorities arrested the Carmelites of Compiègne and sent them to Paris for trial with an explanatory letter. The Revolutionary Surveillance Committee had found evidence in their apartments that the nuns were still trying to live their Carmelite lives, which was illegal. “Always in pursuit of traitors, we constantly focus our attention on those perfidious persons who dare plot against the Repub­lic,” the letter read, “or who express wishes for freedom’s destruction.”

In Paris, Public Prosecutor Fouquier de Tinville dated the formal accusation against the nuns July 16, 1794 — which happened to be the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite order. In the “Courtroom of Liberty” the next day, he charged them with fa­naticism. One of the sisters challenged Fouquier de Tinville, asking him what he meant by labeling them “fanatics.” He replied that their attachment to their Christian religion qualified them as such. That made them enemies of the people. There was no doubt now they would suffer because of Christ.

Ironically, the three judges who presided sat beneath posters proclaiming human rights. Charged with conspiring against the Republic, officials loaded the nuns into the tumbrels (wagons) that would take them to the guillotine.

As they rode to the place of execution, faces radiant, they began to sing all together the Miserere — “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness.” Usually the crowds mocked and yelled at the condemned, but those who saw what happened that day testified to the silence of everyone. Historian William Bush speculated that perhaps for some of the spectators, the singing conjured up for them “holy memories” of their Christian past, now effaced for years by the new regime.

Through the silent streets of Paris, with crowds holding their breath, the Carmelites sang Vespers, Compline, the Office of the Dead, and the Salve Regina, sacred words welling up from their hearts as much as from the depths of Christian culture. Those words announced the transcendence of God against the arrogance of the age.

As the scaffold came into sight at the Place du Trône, on the road to Vincennes leading out of Paris, the nuns chanted the Te Deum — “It is Thee we praise, O God!” They probably did not know that as they moved along, they drew nearer the place where a deep tremor had once occurred beneath the surface of time, subtle but powerful, inside a human soul that changed the tone of the age.

Years before, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had fallen by the side of that very road — the road to Vincennes — in a kind of ecstatic vision. His moment of revelation had inspired the impassioned writing of his many books. Rousseau’s words helped fuel the engine of revolution that now bore down on the nuns.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Stuart’s latest book, Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason. It is available from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

image: Compiègne Martyrs on stained glass in the Eglise Saint Honore d’Eylau (Paris) by GFreihalter / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Joseph T. Stuart, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History and Fellow of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His research and publications concern the life and work of cultural historian Christopher Dawson, the cultural history of the Great War, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. His latest book is Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason.

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