July 17 is the feast of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne who were guillotined on this day in 1794 during the French Revolution.
The Church often, but not always, celebrates the feast of martyrs on the day they died because it is the most glorious day of their lives. They were born to eternal life on this day.
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 [Revolutionary] court, she distinguished herself, without pretension, by an attitude of truly heroic firmness.
Having heard the public prosecutor call them fanatics and counter-revolutionaries, she claimed not to know the meaning of these words and asked him to please explain them. When the nuns entered the courtroom, Sister Henriette deliberately questioned him:
‘Could you, citizen, tell us what you mean by that word fanatic.’
The irritated judge 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 we are going to be put to death because of our attachment to our holy religion. 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!’
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According to another version of the dialogue, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier Tinville, the public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal during the Reign of Terror, responded:
“Since you want to know, it is because of your attachment to your religion and 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 nun to die at the scaffold before the prioress. She encouraged her companions until the end.
When a charitable person offered water to one nun, Sister Henriette stopped her as she was about to accept, saying:
“In Heaven, in Heaven, my sister, we shall take long gulps.”
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She asked the reason for their death so that the public prosecutor might give testimony for the record that they were to be martyrs. His answer consoled them because it confirmed they were condemned because of the Catholic Church and, thus, to be martyrs. She was so happy with the news that she immediately communicated it to the Mother Superior and the other sisters.
There are two versions of the story, one of which is a little more Counter-Revolutionary than the other. One version says that Fouquier Tinville did not mention the king but only God. Another version claims that he said they also died because of the king. This latter is much more likely because he killed everybody because of a double allegiance to God and the king.
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However, attributing their deaths to the king runs counter to the famous Ralliement policy of Leo XIII that called upon Frenchman to support the Republic. Thus, later versions excluded the king from the course of events and only mentioned God Our Lord as the most essential element.
Upon hearing his answer, the account tells how she and all the nuns rejoiced. And she accompanied them all to their death.
The episode of the glass of water is very beautiful. One sister was very thirsty and naturally shaken due to the nervous trauma of being at death’s door—and a tragic and violent death. She was accepting a glass of water that someone offered her when 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 she can offer one more little sacrifice? So she conceived this magnificent expression: “In heaven, my sister, we will drink big gulps of water.”
Indeed, Our Lord promised fountains of living water to His elect, which consists of the contemplation of God face to face. In Heaven, happiness is perpetual.
The other sister agreed. When she received the crown of martyrdom, the crown had an extra star for all eternity because of that small sacrifice.
This sister’s account contrasts with the famous fictional character of Blanche de la Force found in the novel Song of the Scaffold by Gertrude Von Le Fort. This story imagined a weak Carmelite of the convent who was terrified by merely hearing about death and ran away. When she heard that her Carmelite sisters were going to the gallows, she went to the site to watch. As the joyful sisters went to death singing the “Veni Creator Spiritus,” she came out of the crowd and entered the line. Singing the hymn, she went up to the gallows and died.
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God works wonders in different ways according to each soul. For some, He chooses to give graces for the immediate act. For others, he provides graces that prepare them over time.
Thus, he worked wonder in the soul of Sister Henriette, who is the opposite of Blanche de la Force. She saw death from afar and faced it joyfully. She encountered her accuser, made him state they were martyrs and helped the other nuns die well. The only reason she died after the prioress is that the hierarchical order called for the prioress to die last. The captain is the last to leave the ship. God guides and molds people’s souls like this brave nun in many ways.
God is infinitely beautiful in both His unity and variety. This way of acting allows Him to form such diverse saints and different spiritual schools within the Holy Catholic Church. All these ways reflect God’s beauty and let the faithful understand something of Our Lord’s infinite beauty through them.
By contemplating sanctity here on earth, it is easier to imagine the beauty of Heaven. Souls in Heaven contemplate God face-to-face. However, they can also come to know God through the immeasurable beauty of all the souls, saints, and angels there. Above all, those in Heaven will know Our Lady, who comprises and ineffably surpasses the spiritual beauty of all angels and saints.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on July 23, 1969. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision.—Ed.