It is by means of the careful examination of thirteen depositions made by six prioresses and seven sisters from the Carmel in Amiens, where Blessed Mary entered religious life, and from the Carmel in Pontoise, where she lived for one year and four months and ended her "exile" on April 18th, at the age of 52, that I shall sketch Blessed Mary of the Incantation’s spiritual portrait.
In order to understand the full meaning of the mothers’ and sisters’ testimonies, as well as our Blessed’s religious life, I considered it necessary not only to place Barbe Avrillot’s birth in its historical context, but to also demonstrate how much all her spiritual ways as a lay person fully prepared her to enter the order she brought to France.
She was at once a wife, an educator of six children, her neighbour’s servant in all circumstances, a victim of her husband’s failure, since he had lost all his property and was forced to go into exile but she was also a real entrepreneur who had to organize the material life of her convents, and to be at the same time a spiritual guide.
Finally, we’ll see that she entered the religious life not by chance, but as the logical consequence of being rooted in a sincere religious practice lived with total confidence in God. We will also discover also how radiant her interior life was for her Carmelite sisters.
A PRELIMINARY SPIRITUAL PORTRAIT OF SISTER MARY OF THE INCARNATION
Conference by Blandine DELAHAYE
Reverend Mother Prioress Thérèse Maguerite, Mr. President of the Madame Acarie Association, Sisters, Reverend Fathers, ladies and gentlemen, it is something of a challenge to deliver a lecture in this place of contemplation which since April 13, 1610, has echoed with the fervent prayers, in silence or in song, offered in praise of God by the Carmelite Sisters.
In connection with the critical edition of the Oeuvres complètes du Cardinal de Berulle, inaugurated by Père Jean Dujardin, I have been involved for many years, as a researcher and member of the Berulle Committee, in preparing his Correspondance for publication. So I would have been able to present you with a portrait of Madame Acarie, who with Pierre de Berulle conceived and carried out the project of bringing the Teresian Carmel to France; but, following our discussions relating to work on the letters which took place on this very spot, the Monastery Archivist, Soeur Anne-Thérèse, asked me to work on Mary of the Incarnation’s process in specie or apostolic process (1630-1633) which was set up in view of her beatification. It was certainly a challenge! Should I accept it? Was I sufficiently capable? After repeated encouragement, I flung myself into the project with enthusiasm. So I must express my deepest gratitude to you, Reverend Mother, for having allowed me to pore over documents that are primary sources and so demonstrate my thesis in your presence today. The transcripts of the interrogations which took place during the beatification process allow us to form a clearer picture of certain aspects of Madame Acarie’s life in the world and in the cloister.
This can be done through a detailed study of thirteen depositions made by six Prioresses and seven Sisters, either from Amiens, where Blessed Mary entered religious life, or from Pontoise, where she lived for one year and four months and where she completed her ‘exile’, as she called this present life, on April 18, 1618, at the age of fifty-two years, two months and seventeen days.
I am going to put before you the outline of a spiritual portrait of Blessed Mary which emerges from the recollections of the nuns who gathered round her and stayed with her during her various illnesses, during the four short years of her religious life. Those memories have survived through the centuries. In order to remain faithful to the Sisters’ testimonies and to the facts of Blessed Mary’s life in religion, it seemed to me that it was necessary not only to situate the birth of Barbe Acarie in its historical context but to begin by looking at how the deepening of her interior life of faith as she practised her religion in the world, was a preparation for her entry into the Order which she had brought to France. Madame Acarie was a person of many parts; she was at one and the same time a wife, teacher of her six children, servant of her neighbours in every situation, as she suffered her husband’s disgrace when he was condemned to exile and financial ruin, and a person who showed an undoubted flair for business in the way she gave material and spiritual assistance to religious houses. We shall see further on that her new life was not the product of chance, but was firmly based on the sincere practice of her religion, carried out with complete trust in God. We shall see the radiance of her interior life shedding its brilliant light over the sisters in her community.
By way of introduction, I should make it clear that she lived in the transitional period between the Wars of Religion and the ‘Century of Saints’, when people’s minds were turned wholly to God. I should remind you that the massacre in Vassy on March1, 1562, marked the beginning of the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, wars that would last for almost thirty years. They would only come to an end in 1598, with the Edict of Nantes.
Barbe Avrillot, who was born four years after the Vassy Massacre, was well and truly a child of the civil war. Parisian by birth, she would spend her childhood and adolescence (the first thirty years of her life, in fact) at the very centre of this fratricidal conflict. She was six years old at the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. In 1582, when she was sixteen, she married the Counsel to the Treasury, Pierre Acarie, six years her senior. In 1588, aged twenty-two, she witnessed the Day of the Barricades in Paris, when Henry de Guise, leader of the Catholic party, was given a triumphant welcome, forcing King Henri III to flee the capital, with the political caution for which he was renowned. She was twenty-five when Pierre Acarie joined the ‘Group of Sixteen’, the section of the League which governed Paris and passed a secret death sentence on Barnabé Brisson, the first President of the Parliament of Paris, having him arrested and hanged in the Council Chamber on November 15 th, 1591. Following the accession of King Henri IV, she was sorely tried by the disgrace of her husband in 1594. Pierre Acarie was condemned to exile and financial ruin. At the age of twenty-eight, she went on to struggle with tremendous energy for the material survival of her family.
It is impossible to ignore the sociological phenomenon of the start of the Catholic Reformation in which Barbe Acarie was one of the key figures. The victory that had been achieved following +Henri IV’s conversion in 1594 led to a sudden and drastic reshaping of people’s consciences and behaviour. Individuals involved in the League had been driven by an immense desire for spirituality and moral standards, and this desire was now widespread. It was amongst the former members of the League – precisely the milieu to which Barbe Acarie belonged – that the tightly knit group of people responsible for the start of the Catholic Reformation came together. At the centre of the group was an elite core consisting essentially of members of the noblesse de robe, officials from the bourgeoisie and high-ranking civil servants, who by their training, the nature of their work and their cultural background would have been predisposed to serve the King unconditionally, if the renewal of their faith, at the time when the League was active, had not suggested new outlets for their endeavours. It included inter-related families such as the Acaries, the Berulles, the Marillacs, and the Seguiers.
All this shows clearly what an exceptional place Madame Acarie, Barbe Avrillot, Mary of the Incarnation in religion occupies, for more than one reason, in the history of seventeenth century attitudes and in the history of seventeenth century women. The spiritual formation and the mindset of this circle of League members, at the time when St. Teresa’s writings were being published, are clear to see in the case of Barbe Acarie.
Charles IX had been King of France for six years when Barbe Avrillot was born in Paris on Friday, February 1 st, 1566. Her father, Nicholas Avrillot, Seigneur of Champlatreux near Luzarches, was Financial Counsel to the Parliament of Paris and Chancellor to Queen Margaret of Navarre. He was an upright man and a very devout Catholic; this was his motive for joining the League, as it was for many others. He was financially ruined as a result and after the death of his wife he was ordained a priest. Her mother, née Marie Luillier, had already lost other children at a very early age; so when she became pregnant yet again she vowed that the child she was carrying should be dressed in white until she was seven years old.
Consecrated to God from the day of her birth, little Barbe was baptised on the feast of the Purification at St. Merry’s, their parish church. When she was seven, her mother took her, dressed in white as usual, to Notre Dame de Liesse in the Diocese of Laon, where she gave her white clothes to a poor orphan. From then her mother dressed her in coloured clothes.
She received a profoundly Christian education. When she was four years old, her mother took her to the public chapel of the Paris Charterhouse and she met Jacques Gallemant for the first time. She was already the recipient of special graces. She made her First Holy Communion in1578 and was confirmed at a very early age.
Like many young girls of her social standing at that time, she was very soon separated from her parents and educated by the Poor Clares at the Abbey in Longchamp, where she renewed her acquaintance with one of her aunts, Elizabeth Luillier, who was a nun in the community, She and the novice mistress, Jeanne de Mailly, taught her to meditate on the mysteries of the life of the Mother of God by reciting the Rosary and reading the Gospels. The good order and discipline prevailing in the Abbey helped her to take her devotional practices seriously and to serve God of her own free will. She discovered her own religious vocation through being in these surroundings. She began to put the following maxim into practice: ‘One should never show one’s feelings with regard to anything, unless it is for the glory of God.’
Around the year 1580, however, her mother brought her back to the family home. She asked her mother to give her permission to enter the Augustinian community at the Hotel Dieu, becoming a religious in order to care for the sick poor. But her mother was so fixed in her oposition and firm in her refusal that she was obliged to postpone the fulfilment of her heart’s desire. ‘Since my sins have made me unworthy of bearing the glorious title of spouse of Jesus Christ,’ she said, ‘I must be content to serve Him in an inferior state.’
It was aparent, nevertheless, that she disdained the things of the world,. She was exceedingly pious; this displeased her mother, who had in consequence no hesitation in describing her as ‘a big simpleton’ and forbidding her to come into her presence. To mention another incident, during the exceptionally cold winter of 1581-82 she prevented her daughter from going to warm herself at the fire, leaving her to get dressed near a door where she suffered from the piercing cold. The cure for the resulting frostbite in her feet was to remove some of the bones!
When she was sixteen, her parents decided that she should marry Pierre Acarie, Vicomte de Villemore, the son of one of the King’s counsellors, a man whose considerable wealth consisted mainly of estates in Champagne. Pierre was Counsel to he Treasury and an ardent suporter of the Catholic cause. In the collected depositions, especially, that of Mother Francoise of Jesus (Fleury) from the Carmel in Amiens, we learn that Monsieur Acarie, the only son of the family and sole heir to a large fortune, had had a pious upbringing. It was his great delight to associate with persons connected with the Church. He frequently attended church services and said the Divine Office. When sermons were being preached he would go along to hear them and he regularly received the Sacraments. He divided his time between his studies and good works. He showed great kindness to the poor English priests who were in exile. His assets and his life itself were devoted to the religious conflict. Their marriage took place on August 24 th 1582, the tenth anniversary of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
Pierre, however, was a member of the Catholic League’s ‘Group of Sixteen’, who established a reign of terror in Paris following the death of Henri III. Pierre Acarie’s zeal was such that he was nicknamed ‘The Lackey of the League’. Henri IV forced him to pay the price of his behaviour by sending him into exile. Barbe Acarie took charge of the family affairs and became a businesswoman.
Madame Acarie was an attentive and devoted wife. She was very obedient and respectful where her husband was concerned, and very dependant on his wishes. She cared for him when he was sick. If he wanted something that was not good for his health, she did not dare to refuse; she would invite someone who had influence over him to make him change his mind and realise that what he was asking for would do him more harm than good. Her dependence on her husband was so absolute that she would not have dared to leave the house without his permission. She would have given up receiving Communion and would have abandoned her devotional exercises in order to obey him. Madame Acarie observed innumerable pious practices; her husband thought it was good that she should do so, then he would change his mind and get angry about them, then he would want her to take them up again. He used to say that ‘Since his wife was to be a saint, it was up to him to mortify her thoroughly to help her become one.’ He clearly made this his duty, ‘She obeyed him with a completely even temper, demonstrating that, when it came to obedience, everything was a matter of indifference. She practised the virtue of obedience in all simplicity, recognizing the will of God in every situation and she conformed herself to it completely.
Madame Acarie’s obvious kindness towards and affection for her husband were undiminished by his continual oposition. In order to please him, she dressed with care, cutting a fine figure in society while remaining deeply religious.
She was to devote herself zealously to the upbringing of six children, born in the space of eight years. She showed a combination of austerity, strictness and piety so that they would progress as much in virtue as in learning. ‘I am raising my children in such a way that they may follow their vocation in any state to which Providence may call the’she used to say. Nicolas Nicolas was born on March 22, 1584. was educated at the colleges of Clermont, Calvi and Navarre. PierrePierre was born on March 14, 1587. became a penitentiary and official of the Archbishopric of Rouen. Jean Jean was born on February 6, 1589. took Holy Orders. She had three daughters. Marie Marie was born on July 5, 1585. She became Prioress of the monastery in Orleans and remained in office until her death in July 1642. (Marie of Jesus in religion) was in the Amiens Carmel when her mother was professed there in 1615. The following year, she was elected Sub-prioress and would remain in that office until July 1620. Marguerite Marguerite was born on March 6, 1590. Elected Sub-Prioress of Tours in 1615, she became Prioress in 1680. In 1620 she was sent to Bordeaux and in 1622 to Saintes. She became Prioress of the Carmel in Rue Chapon in 1624 and died there on May 24, 1660. (Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament in religion) entered the Carmel in Paris in 1605 and was professed there on March 18 th, 1607. Genevieve Genevieve was born on February 22, 1592. She founded the Carmel in Chartres in 1620 and remained there for twenty-three years. She was elected Prioress of Sens Carmel eighteen months before her death, which took place on September 12, 1644. (Genevieve of St. Bernard in religion) was clothed in Paris on June 24 th, 1607 and made her final profession on March 25 th, 1609. She would remain in the first French Carmel until 1617, when she became Sub-Prioress of the Carmel in the Rue Chapon.
Madame Acarie raised her daughters in the fear of God and the knowledge of the faith. The way she set out to form their characters was extremely demanding yet gentle. Everything was based on absolute respect for their mother’s authority. She gradually trained them never to tell lies, to be mortified and to keep the Sunday holy. She showed them how to receive Our Lord worthily in Holy Communion. (They received Communion on the principal feasts of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin.) We know from the depositions that at mealtimes she required that her children should never state their preferences or be difficult in any respect. On one occasion one of her daughters, who was only ten years old, showed her dislike of some food that had been set before her. Her mother had it served to her at every meal for fifteen days in succession. Her second daughter liked fruit and to teach her to mortify her desires her mother occasionally asked her to hand it back. If she saw they were gobbling their meals she had the food removed immediately. The children were dressed unostentatiously but in accordance with their state in life. She did not dress them in silk.
She was very strict in her requirement that they should be submissive. Her eldest daughter recounts in her testimony a rather mortifying incident which she herself took to be a salutary lesson: ‘She tested us thoroughly every time that she knew what we wanted, or suspected that she did.’ So it hapened that, while her father Pierre Acarie was in exile and they were living in the country, she decided one day to accompany her mother to a nearby town. ‘She had already told me what she intended to do and I made it clear that I wanted to go too. When she noticed this, she did not say anything, but when we were in the coach and the coachman was giving rein to the horses, she made me get out, saying that she did not want me to go. I went back to my room and took up my work, as if I was not giving it another thought; she then told me that she had changed her mind and that I should get back in the coach. I seem to remember that she made me get out a second time, to see if I showed any resentment or grief. If any of us had done so in the slightest way, we would have received a very strong reprimand. She wished us to practise indifference on every occasion.
She required her daughters to show respect for the domestic servants. She wished them to speak to the servants of both sexes with gentleness and humility, even if the person in question was only a lackey; so they would not have dared to say to him, ‘Do this or do that..’ but would say instead ‘Would you be so kind….’ or ‘If you please…’, otherwise they would be scolded for it, and the lackey had his orders not to obey them unless they used these polite expressions. She wanted no one in her household to call her daughters by anything other than their baptismal name, without the addition of ‘Mademoiselle’. To train them in humility, she would test their self-love by obliging them to perform household tasks. One of her daughters tells how ‘She tried to make me carry out tasks which I found repugnant, such as sweeping a staircase where people were constantly coming and going. She guessed that I wanted to do it when I was least likely to be seen and because of this I closed one of the doors; she took pains to mortify my desires and my feelings by making me sweep it in front of everyone.’
What was the daily routine of the little girls? Their mother began to mould them from their earliest years and instruct them in the practice of every kind of virtue. When they were slightly older she made them rise at seven, and then at six, ‘wishing that immediately after rising and while they were being dressed, they should recite the Seven Penitential Psalms with their maid. When they were older, she made them read some devotional book. When they were dressed she saw that they went to Mass; they had to hear it on their knees, from the eldest to the youngest, at least once they had turned seven. While the Mass was being celebrated, they were to say the Office of Our Lady. She made them continue this practice until she judged that they were capable of sustained reflection on the mysteries it contained and she herself showed them how to do this. Three hours after the midday meal she made them say Evening Prayer in the house. In the evening, after super, they were to read the lives of the saints. At nine o’clock they were to recite the litanies then, after their examination of conscience, retire to bed. They were to take great care that these spiritual exercises were not interrupted for any reason, seeing how they quickly accustomed the soul to the service of God.’ According to the testimonies recorded by André Duval it is fair to say that the Acarie girls were brought up in their home as if they were little nuns. It was their mother who set them on the road to religious life and to the Carmelite Order which they eventually entered and where Mother Marie of Jesus, Mother Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament and Mother Genevieve of St, Bernard would show that they had genuine and life long vocations.
She took great care that nothing that hapened in her household was contrary to the will of God and that domestic tasks should not divert her servants from their duty towards Him. They had to observe the Commandments of the Church to the letter. They had to go to Confession and Communion on the first Sunday of the month. She saw to it that gentleness and even-handed charity prevailed amongst them. If they were sick, she nursed them, bandaging their wounds and bringing them food even if they were suffering from the plague. She spoke to them of God so as to encourage them to be patient and to obey the doctor’s orders. There was in her service, until the first French Carmel was founded, a young woman called Andreé Levoix, who contributed to the spiritual progress of her mistress, for both women were devout by nature. Their life together was one of the continual practice ot the virtues and each was a model of holiness for the other. They spoke to each other about their interior life, the practice of he virtues and the lights God had granted them in prayer. Every evening, they confessed to each other the faults they had committed during the day. The union in which they lived was that of sisters, not mistress and servant. As Sister Andreé of All Saints, Andree Levoix practised all the virtues of religious life to perfection.
In her mansion on the Rue des Juifs (now Rue Ferdinand Duval) Barbe Acarie organised a salon where in what was ostensibly a fashionable gathering, piety, devotion and the search for God were the topics of conversation. This diverse group of people included society women, magistrates, and leading clerics. Among the society women one could mention the Marquise de Maignelay, the sister of the Bishop of Paris; Madame de Sainte Beuve; the Marquise de Bréauté, who became a Carmelite; and Mademoiselle d’Abra de Raconis, a convert. The magistrates were represented by Michel de Marillac, the future Chancellor and Keeper of the Seals,who would become leader of the ‘devout’ party; René Gaultier a lawyer with the High Council; Nicolas de Soulflour, who would join the Oratorians; and Nicolas Brulart de Sillery. Also present were the men who, in the Papal Bull of November 13, 1603, were designated Superiors of the Carmelite Sisters in France: Father André Duval, who in 1621 wrote the life of Madame Acarie; Father Jacques Gallemant, who had got to know Barbe Acarie as early as 1597, when he was preaching the Lenten sermons at St. Gervais; and Father Pierre de Bérulle, who brought the Carmelites to France and was the founder of the French Oratory. In addition to these clerics, there was the Minim Antoine Estienne, who translated the works of Tauler into French; the Capuchins Benet of Canfield, Pacifique de Souzy and Archange of Pembroke, who would be joined in 1602 by St. Francis de Sales and. in the following year, by the Jesuits Pierre Coton and Etienne Binet. It was in this salon that the project of making a Teresian Carmelite foundation in France took shape.
I should like to pay tribute to Catherine d’Orleans-Longueville Daughter of Leonor d’Orleans, Duc de Longueville and Marie de Bourbon, Duchesse d’Estouteville, Comtesse de Saint Pol, she was the sister of Henri I de Longueville who married Anne Genevieve de Bourbon-Condé. who was responsible for the juridical establishment of the Order in France. It was she who carried on the negotiations with Henri IV. This was a political, as well as a religious, process, since it was necessary to obtain the King’s consent. It is a fact that the reconciliation with Spain, brought about by the signing of the Treaty of 1597, was extremely fragile. Catherine played a key role, being able to convince the King in spite of his misgivings. She put her case with skill, stating that ‘these are poor nuns who will remain in the strictest enclosure’. She was the one person in France who could fulfil such a role. The Letters Patent were signed on January 18, 1602 and registered on October 12 of the same year. Pope Clement VIII’s Bull authorising the foundation was promulgated in Rome on November 13, 1603.
The enclosed Spanish religious order was brought to France by Barbe Acarie, a society woman, who had secured the trust of some eminent contemporaries and who had been helped by Catherine d’Orleans-Longueville, a noblewoman whose influence on Henri IV was a deciding factor. Following the reading of the ‘Way of Perfection’ written by Mother Teresa of Jesus (St. Teresa of Avila) and recently translated from the Spanish by Jean de Brétigny, Barbe Acarie had a vision, described by Father Coton as follows: ‘While she was at prayer, the Holy Mother apeared to her in visible form and told her that God wished her to devote herself to founding monasteries of her Order in France.’
Someone had to go for the Spanish nuns and bring them back to France; so a group of pious individuals, notably Jean de Brétigny and later Pierre de Berulle, accompanied by some Frenchwomen, made the journey to Spain, a most hazardous undertaking. Brétigny embarked at Nantes on September 19, 1603. He travelled to Burgos and Valladolid without achieving anything. On February 10, 1604, Berulle set out as a negotiator. On May 2, 1604, after protracted discussions, the Spanish Carmelite Friars authorised the departure of six sisters. At last, on October 15, 1604, the Spanish nuns, accompanied by the Princess de Longueville, Madame Acarie and Monsieur de Berulle, arrived in Paris. On October 17, they took possession of what was to become the first Carmel in France, the Carmel in the Faubourg Saint Jacques.
At the time of Madame Acarie’s death, there were twenty-four Carmels in France. Paradoxically, Barbe Acarie remained in the world. She had to wait ten years before fulfilling her promise and entering religious life. In the meantime, Monsieur Acarie had died, on November 17, 1613. His widow then entered the Order which she had brought to France. Her health had been uncertain since June 1596, when she had had a riding accident. Her humility was the source of her great patience, as Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Castellet) from Amiens Carmel, tells us. ‘Another admirable quality of hers was, that it seemed from the hapy expression on her face that the joy in her heart increased amidst her suffering.
I was aware that, after the Siege of Paris, Monsieur Acarie, her husband, went to a place of safety in the Chateau at Luzarches, which is only seven leagues from Paris and she often went to meet him, riding on a hackney Horse of middle size for ordinary riding (O.E.D.). One day, when she was on her way back to Paris, the horse stumbled and she was thrown to the ground. One of her feet was caught in the stirrup and the horse, which did not stop, dragged her some distance along the ground, breaking her hip and causing her unspeakable pain; at last her foot was freed from the stirrup and she lay on the ground for two hours, having been dragged onto a side road where there were no passers-by.
While she was lying there in this state, some country folk came along and she said to them, ‘I have a purse with me but Iam unable to give it to you; take it yourselves…’ This was in order for them to go to the next village and hire a cart filled with straw. They brought a winding-sheet to lift her up, otherwise they would not have been able to transfer her to the cart…Seeing that they were having great difficulty, she showed them herself how to hold the winding sheet so as to lift her, and she did this as peacefully and quietly as if she felt no pain whatsoever.
When they arrived in Paris, she put herself in the surgeon’s hands for them to do what they thought necessary. The surgeon who was going to operate on her was afraid that she would succumb to fever on account of the great pain he was about to inflict on her, since her injuries were so serious. He saw, however, that she was prepared to endure the violence of his remedies, so he made up his mind to spare her nothing; then using all his skill, he carried out extensive surgery on our blessed sister’s body. Seeing that she did not cry out or complain in the slightest, he was filled with astonishment and could not forebear saying to her, ‘Mademoiselle, what is the matter with you? I am causing you unbearable pain and no cry escapes your lips! Are you alive or dead?’ Her only response was to ask him to finish the operation, which lasted over two hours. Everyone was deeply edified by her outstanding patience.’
In 1597, when she was visiting her son at the College de Calvy she fell a second time on the stairs and broke her hip again. She was bedridden for more than three months and was lame for the rest of her life, being obliged to walk on crutches.
After Pierre Acarie’s death in 1614, she thought of entering Carmel. ’In order to test her resignation, God allowed the pain in her hip to increase and she was forced to stay in bed.’ She was distressed at having to defer her definitive entry into religious life. As she responded to her Carmelite vocation, her infirmities persisted, with an accompanying anguish that was both moral and physical. Would she be able to enter religious life? Would she be able to keep the Rule? Would she be able to undertake the heavy work of a lay sister? , for that was what she had chosen to be.
It is apropriate at this point to recall her painful mystical trial involving the stigmata which she experienced in 1593 and which would reoccur throughout her life. She suffered the pains of Christ’s Passion in her feet, her hands and her side, although invisibly. Only Father Canfield, Father Coton and Father de Bérulle knew about this. In a letter from Father Coton to Father de Bérulle, dated August 8, 1618, we read ‘I have written to Monsieur de Marillac with regard to Sister Mary of the Incarnation, whom I consider to be a great saint in the sight of God….There are three points for consideration, amongst others….The third is that she had the stigmata, invisible to others but which she could see herself and feel very acutely.’
Before she entered Amiens Carmel she commended her journey to St. Bernard in the church of the Feuillants in Paris. The infirmity from which she had suffered for twenty years obliged her to remain in bed. As a consequence, when she entered the fourth Carmel to be founded in France (founded on May 19, 1606) she was carried there on a stretcher; because of her physical condition she found any other form of transport intolerable.
Why did she enter Amiens? She chose this monastery out of humility, on account of its situation, far from Paris and the Court, far from society and city life. She thought that she would have fewer visitors there. It was a poor monastery, so there were additional mortifications to endure.
She entered Amiens on the First Sunday of Lent, 1614, having given her letters of admission from the Superiors, Fathers Bérulle, Duval and Gallement, to the Prioress, Mother Isabel of Jesus. She prostrated herself before Mother Isabel and knelt down in front of each sister. Through these exterior signs of submission she indicated that she felt totally unworthy of the grace to enter religious life.
This shrewd businesswoman who had brought the Order to France and to whom the French Carmelites owed everything, did not put herself first in any way. Her merits, her physical weakness and her desire to sing the Office indicated that she was called to the rank of choir sister. She remembered that during a visit to the Chapel of St. Nicolas de Port with her husband, our Holy Mother St. Teresa had apeared to her, telling her that she would enter the Carmelite Order and that God wished her to be a lay sister. Faithful to this command, she sought the lowest place, that of a lay sister, occupied with the most menial tasks. She asked to be sent to the kitchen, where she would cook the meals, wait at table and wash the dishes, without any privileges, even though she was only able to stand for short periods.
On April 7, 1614, she was clothed and her name was changed to ‘Sister Mary of the Incarnation’. She received the holy habit with deep feelings of devotion and gratitude for the grace God had given her and also with profound humility. She was completely prostrated on account of the flight of her spirit towards God (She would conceal her customary raptures by pretending to be asleep).
Once she had received the habit, God granted her an increase in fervour and a deep realization of the perfection of the religious state. Her feeling of unworthiness prevented her from taking the decision to be finally professed, for the virtues that are highly esteemed in the world are but shadows of the virtues practised in the religious life. She had been afraid to say ‘yes’ to Monsieur Duval, since she was unsure if she had ever, in the whole of her life, done anything for pure love of God.
During her noviciate, her practice of humility was unceasing, since she considered herself to be the least of all in the monastery. She showed great respect to all the sisters. She was of the opinion that there were three qualities necessary to a lay sister: profound humility, ardent charity and great diligence, ‘God knows quite well how to temper my pride!’ she used to say. During the acute illnesses that occurred throughout her religious life it was humiliating for her to see the other sisters waiting on her. To sum up, her great interior suffering with regard to her final profession was caused by the realization of her unworthiness and by the fear of not being able to fulfil her promises.
Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac) who came with her to Pontoise Carmel, describes Sister Marie of the Incarnation’s final profession in these words;’On the morning of the eighth day of April, the feast of St, Albert, in the year one thousand six hundred and fifteen, Blessed Mary made her final profession. Mother Prioress got them to wheel her bed gently up to the grille in the infirmary, because she was so ill that she could not be moved. The grille overlooks the main altar in the chapel. All the sisters had assembled, carrying candles with the same solemnity as at other ceremonies of profession. They gathered round her bed; she was also holding a candle on her hand. The Prioress, who was near her, began the ceremony and nothing was omitted. Sister Mary remained in bed and showed no signs of illness the whole time. Her expression was so gentle, her face so radiantly beautiful; her eyes were closed and her abundant tears flowed without ceasing, but so gently that the other sisters were moved to see her and their own eyes made that very clear. She was in such transports that when it was time to make her holy vows, she had great difficulty in replying to the questions; her tears redoubled and she was overcome with such fervour that the Prioress could hardly make her understand what she was suposed to say. At last, she pronounced the formula of the vows in its entirety, three times, as was the custom, and the Te Deum was sung; all the sisters embraced her in turn as she lay in bed. Her faint moans and sighs showed that she was aware of what was going on, but was unable to express herself, and she gave to each one of us all the signs of love and joy of which she was capable. She began to speak but could only stammer words that were impossible to understand; the tender affection which she showed, however, said all that was necessary. She spent the whole day singing in praise of the mercies of God. The flight of her spirit was such that, I repeat, you would have had to have seen it to believe it; all those who saw her in this condition can vouch for it…She also asked the sisters to give thanks on her behalf, exclaiming from time to time, ‘How great are your grace and mercy, O my God! What grace you have bestowed on me!’ and similar expressions of love and thanksgiving. The wonders that were wrought within her during that illness were so great that they are known only to the One from whom nothing is hidden…
There are so many different aspects to her life in religion that I am going to concentrate today on just three of them: her reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, her trust in God and her concern for the spiritual progress of her sisters.
Her reverence for the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar was so profound that it is mentioned in all the depositions of the nuns that were collected during the apostolic (in specie) process, so I want to share with you the account given by Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac). It is the most vivid and down-to-earth of the testimonies. It also mentions her attachment to the words of the Gospels.
‘Her reverence for the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar was so great that I noticed that as soon as she went into the choir of one of our chapels, a remarkable change came over her face; she seemed to be taken out of herself and to be filled with great fear and reverence. She was most particular that all the customs observed in the chapel should be maintained with great respect; she never wearied in her efforts to adhere to this. Her chief recreation was to talk about ways of adorning the altars in the chapel and I have often heard her say that there was no more agreeable way of passing the time than to engage in such conversations. Even when she was ill, she seemed to gain new strength when she spoke of such matters, and she would often say to the sisters, “Courage, my sisters, let us work for God! Oh, if only I could do so, if only I had the strength, but I am not worthy of it”.
On one occasion she was holding a piece of pure white cloth intended for use in the chapel and, looking at us with a most joyful expression she said, “If a person’s soul was as white and pure as this piece of cloth, how pleasing she would be to God! Just think of eternity! Don’t you know that every thing we do will last forever? To think that such an insignificant piece of work is everlasting! How good God is, and how merciful!”
When she was ill and they brought her the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, she lay there looking so radiantly beautiful that it seemed as if she was no longer suffering. She could not restrain her fervour and the excessive love which made her beside herself. “Come, great Jesus!” she would exclaim, “Come, good Jesus, ah, I have waited so long for your coming! Come to me, a poor creature of yours!” and use other similar expressions; she was all the time bathed in tears. I never grew tired of watching her when she was like this. I felt that she conveyed the impression of what the life of the blessed in Heaven is really like.
On one occasion, in Amiens, when she was seriously ill, her confessor brought her the Holy Viaticum, for she was so weak that she could not move. As soon as she saw the Host she was overcome with great joy and devotion and she raised herself up to a kneeling position on her bed. Her face was all aflame. When her confessor asked her, “Do you believe that this is the True Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ?” she cried aloud in astonishment, “I do believe it, Father, I do believe it, of course I do. Come to me, O Lord!” Her fervour and her tears showed clearly that her faith was so great that she found it intolerable for someone to ask her if she believed; this was quite obvious to her confessor, who steped forward at once and gave her Holy Communion.
The night before Palm Sunday, during this same illness, she was transported in spirit and took on a wondrous beauty. She kept crying out, “Hosanna! Benedictus qui venit! Oh, come quickly, Lord, come quickly! Hosanna! Hosanna!” and her loving words increased in fervour as the time for her to receive the most Blessed Sacrament drew near.
Amongst her other devotional exercises, she had had a copy made of the Preface which is sung at Mass on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, ‘ Qui cum unigenite Filio tuo et Spiritu Sancto unum es Deus, unus es Dominus ’Who, with your unique Son and Holy Spirit are a God and a single Lord (‘who with thy only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit art one God, one Lord’), and the rest; she used to read it frequently, and I have heard her reading it aloud with great devotion, stressing each word and beginning again several times, exclaiming, “What amazing words! What depth of meaning!” And when she came to the words ‘ qui non cessant clamare quotidie ’10 Piling shout every day (‘Lift up their endless hymn, day by day with one voice singing’), she seemed to forget that she was on earth, and she never tired of saying over and over again, “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus! Qui non cessant clamare quotidie, sanctus, sanctus,sanctus ”.11 Holy, holy, holy piling shout every day She would then continue speaking of whatever matter was in hand, or take up her work again, but she would keep breaking off, overcome all at once by her fervour, and would repeat “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, qui non cessant clamare ” Holy, holy piling shout and other words from the same Preface.
I remember once in the monastery in Amiens, when she was in the infirmary with the Mother Prioress, her exceeding devotion made her so radiantly beautiful that I could not take my eyes off her. We all knew that she was naturally endowed with great beauty, but the beauty of countenance and the grace of her movements when her fervour was at its height were so different from ordinary human beauty that one had to see it to believe it, and whoever saw her like this could say without fear of contradiction that it was as I described it, and that I was not exaggerating.
She showed great devotion and reverence for all holy objects, such as pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His holy Mother and the saints and showed great respect to priests, whatever their rank, and to religious superiors. She always talked about them very discreetly and respectfully; I noticed this several times. On one occasion she was speaking to me about a certain religious and mentioned his name without thinking. Although what she was saying was a matter of no importance and was for my benefit alone, as soon as she realized what she had done she showed great remorse, and said ”One should never mention the name of a religious if that is going to affect even in the slightest the good opinion people have of him.”
During the course of her aforementioned illness in Amiens, she was in danger of death and she asked them to place a picture of St. Mary Major at the foot of her bed. Gazing at it with a joyful expression and her face bathed in tears, she said, ”How beautiful she is! So beautiful! The Holy Mother of God has such great glory in Heaven! What must that glory be like?” and other marvellous words, so that we were all astonished. She said to the Prioress, “Mother, I beseech you to give this consolation to all the sisters when they are as close to death as I am, so that they can look at this holy picture and experience the same consolation when they are dying”.
She cherished the words of the Gospels and would often write them out in order to remember them. She habitually carried the Book of the Gospels with her and, if I went to her cell Celle or cell, I would sometimes find her with it in her hand, totally enraptured. She would sometimes read a few words to us, with great devotion. Amongst her most treasured quotations were “ Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. ” Mat 11 29. (Matt.11, 29) and “ Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened ” Mat 11 28. (Matt. 11, 28). She would repeat these verses with great reverence, so as to stir up the sisters’ devotion,(this is what she said herself); and for the same reason she took it upon herself to set up hermitages, furnished with devotional objects, where the sisters could withdraw to be alone with God; she put great effort into this, which is why she used to visit the hermitages personally with great devotion, even when it was very difficult for her to walk.’
The above quotations show that she considered that the sight of the Blessed Sacrament and pictures of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints was an important aid to prayer and would increase and elevate each sister’s devotion. In Blessed Mary’s case, the sight of these holy things produced such a state of ecstasy and exaltation that it was visible to everyone.
Another element of first importance to Sister Mary was trust in God. Here again, I shall quote the words of Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac): ‘She had such great confidence in God that she used to say to me that she could tolerate all kinds of imperfection in a person, without any problem, but to see that person lacking confidence in God was intolerable.
Her longing for the blessings of eternal life never left her; sometimes, when she looked up at the sky, it seemed as if her spirit took flight. She would raise her eyes to the heavens and, pointing in that direction, she would say to us with great fervour, “That is our homeland, and what a beautiful country it is! We are poor exiles on this earth, we have been banished; oh, when shall we go to that beautiful country!” I have sometimes seen her so taken out of herself when she looked up at the sky that she was unable to speak, and raising her hands she would male signs to indicate her great joy. She was once in the garden, in Amiens like this, gazing at the sky, and crying out, “My God, my God!” She was weeping but softly and peacefully. This often hapened.
She was in the habit of saying, especially in her last illness, “What a hard life this is! What a hard life, when all in a moment one can lose God forever!” In Amiens Carmel the Prioress ordered her to be responsible for giving talks to the novices; I had the good fortune to be one of them. She picked up the book called ‘ The spiritual combat ’ The author was Lorenzo de Scupoli. so as to speak to us about it when we were all together. Having read the first chapters, which deal with distrust of self and confidence in God, she told us that she could not continue, and that she would not speak to us about other subjects until she saw that we were more advanced. She knew how important it was to distrust oneself completely and to place all one’s confidence in God; a soul in this state is capable of great things and as for herself, she said it was the lesson she wished others would always learn from her.
Coming across a passage in the same book, where it says, referring to persons who are going in the right direction, that it is legitimate to enjoy the consolations of Heaven while still on earth, she said, “Oh, sisters, how true it is that if a person humiliates herself and is willing to be despised, seeking nothing but God and solitude far from created things, then it is possible and permissible for that person to enjoy heavenly consolations in this life. Ah, how delightful that is! How good God is! Such a person is solitary, separated from all created things and savouring the life of the blessed. It is permissible and possible to enjoy such a life here below [but] as long as we remain entangled in our passions, such a good is denied us.” Every time she reached the self same passage in the book, I saw her stop immediately; her face was suffused with joy and her fervour increased her beauty. She would repeat the words again and again.
One day a sister said to her, ”No matter what it costs, I want to acquire such and such a virtue.” Blessed Mary replied very gently, “Sister, you should say I wish to acquire it, I wish to strive for it. You should always speak with humility and mistrust of yourself.”,
She was never upset by any unforeseen event and if someone told her about an incident that could have surprised or annoyed her, she would merely raise her eyes to Heaven and joining her hands say, “Since it pleases God that this should be so, what is there left to say? His holy will be done.” Everyone knows that she was rarely surprised by such incidents and that all the stratagems of the evil one affected her not a whit.
A person in religion once told her that she intended asking God if she could have her Purgatory in this life. Blessed Mary said, in reply, “Be careful what you say, who knows if any of us would have the patience to endure such suffering. We must let God decide; He knows the limit of our strength. It is not for us to desire one thing or another. We must leave ourselves in His hands. We must be humble and dependant on Divine Providence for everything.”
Someone was once speaking to Blessed Mary about her time in the world and the great good she had done to certain individuals. She replied with great earnestness, “We deceive ourselves, wretched as we are, for we think that we must have a hand in everything and that, unless we offer our opinion, things will turn out badly. God has many other ways of putting His will into effect. He can do more in one instant than we can ever imagine. He has no need of us, and instead of serving Him we put obstacles in his way. If we were not a hindrance to Him, how powerfully He would work on earth and what marvels would result! His power is so great! He is able to do so much with us if we give Him the freedom to act.” The meaning was obvious; if God had used her as His instrument, He could have worked equally well without her, and perhaps better, and that now she was no longer in the world, people were still managing perfectly well in her absence.
She found it intolerable that anyone whom she was counselling should be discouraged by some imperfection. This was the one situation where she would deliver a strong rebuttal. I remember that I was once talking to her in her cell. “You must never lose heart,” she told me. “What are we in ourselves? Do you think that there can be any good in us unless it is put there by God? We must be quite content to see ourselves as we are. We must act like a little child who has fallen in the street and spoilt his clothes; even if he can see several other people, he only wants his mother and throws himself into her arms, although he fully expects that she will punish him. So must we, at every moment and in every circumstance, throw ourselves into the arms of God, our good Father, and abandon ourselves to his mercy.” She would often say this and other similar things to me and sometimes, when she spoke of throwing ourselves into the arms of God’s mercy, a wonderful expression of childlike simplicity apeared on her face and the tenderness of her love caused great tears to flow from her eyes, so that anyone listening to her felt obliged to join her in weeping. On other occasions she stretched out her arms to show that I should throw myself blindly into the arms of Divine Providence, and her words came haltingly, since she was so overcome by the tender love in her heart that if she began to say a word she could not finish it. Only to speak of the Divine Mercy had a profound effect on her; everyone who had dealings with her could confirm this; only those who had never known her were unaware of it.’
Mary of the Incarnation shows that we must inwardly digest the word of God and let ourselves be moulded until we abide in Him, but all this has to be based on total trust in God. In spite of the difficulties of life, we must not get discouraged. From the moment we have unshakeable confidence in God, we can always be sure of finding refuge in Him, like a child in its mother’s arms. She shows that we must be conscious of our weaknesses but never dwell on them. We are interpreters of the Will of God, so we must always remember that our spiritual selves are capable of salvation as soon as we have total confidence in God. We must have no will of our own, but a desire for God to help us in the acquisition of virtue.
Early on in the time Blessed Mary spent in Amiens, Mother Isabel of Jesus realized that her qualities fitted her for the office of Novice Mistress. She noticed that Blessed Mary had a natural talent for furthering the spiritual progress of all the sisters in the community.
Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac) describes how Mary of the Incarnation’s presence gave new heart to the community and how she contributed to the sisters’ spiritual progress.
‘ She was in the infirmary at the time that she was telling us these things. It was later on that I knew for certain that one of the sisters who was listening to her had begun to tread a very dangerous path, but she had been rescued through the power of Blessed Mary’s words.
She told us repeatedly that it is impossible for anyone who dwells on the actions and omissions of another person to advance in virtue. She had written down Our Lord’s maxim “Judge rightly; do not judge by apearances”. She would often quote it, showing how often and how far we are mistaken in our judgements, and what great restraint we must show in this matter; and that someone who fails in this respect is always troubled and anxious. She would emphasize the words of the maxim, acting all the time like a person taken by surprise. I particularly remember one occasion when she did this, although I remember others as well.
Her great charity was evident in all her dealings with the other sisters. If one of the sisters told the Prioress that she needed help with something, Blessed Mary would volunteer immediately and ask permission to go and help her. The Prioress told her that she herself realized that it was impossible for her to do this without sustaining some very serious injury. Blessed Mary replied with great emotion, ‘God knows exactly how to temper my pride! If He had given me strong legs, I would perhaps have misused them, He has done the right thing. I am just a good-for-nothing in the House of God!’ This is something I often witnessed and others did, too.
Wherever she hapened to be and whatever she hapened to be doing, if she received the slightest indication that she could perform some charitable deed, she would do so immediately, even though she was sometimes so abstracted hat she almost fell when she left her place to carry out the kind action.
She helped the nuns in every way she could with regard to their spiritual progress and her kindness and gentleness as she did so are impossible to describe. When we opened the door of her cell, to catch sight of her was a consolation in itself; I have heard several other sisters say the same. She showed the same charity to everyone without exception, and a willingness to listen and to help them in every possible way.
She maintained strict secrecy regarding the faults and failings of others, and if these became known, she would excuse them with great love and compassion.
On one occasion there was talk at recreation of a young woman who had been strangely deluded, and although this affair had involved Blessed Mary when she was in the world, she did not give the least indication that she knew anything about it. The sisters still remember this quite clearly.
When the sisters were warming themselves at recreation, even though she suffered very much from the cold, she saw to it that she was the last to warm herself, and when the Prioress made her come nearer the fire she tried to hide in a corner, and even then she was scarcely able to sit quietly as long as she could see someone who had been unable to warm themselves, and she would invite them most kindly to go nearer the fire.
One day, she was warming herself and heard that one of the other sisters was cold and was feeling unwell. She sent her a message asking her to come and sit with her, but the other nun excused herself twice because she was busy with something, so she took the trouble to go and ask her personally to come and warm herself. She was so insistent and spoke so kindly that he sister was thoroughly amazed. She was astonished that she had gone to such trouble on her account, because this hapened at a time when Blessed Mary had great difficulty in walking.
I have sometimes seen her, when she had finished talking to the novices, as she had been asked to do, make them sit with her near the fire and she saw to it that they were sitting comfortably; I am unable to describe how hapy she seemed to be to be able to offer them this slight relief. She told them that they should feel free to come near the fire when they felt cold, and her behaviour towards them was so childlike and she looked at them so fondly that it seemed as though she wished to enfold them completely in her love.
On one occasion, when she was consumed with devotion, she said to me ‘If God bestowed some grace on me, oh, I would willingly deprive myself of it and give it to you, if it were in my power to do so; such graces are of more benefit to these young sisters, whereas I am a poor woman who has grown old without improving, there is no longer any hope of my being useful; I am good for nothing.’ These were not just fine words; it was evident that they came from a heart full of genuine charity.
She was tireless in her charity towards the sick. In Amiens Carmel, I have seen her spend almost the entire day at the bedside of one or other of the sisters who were sick, although she herself was far from well, and if the invalid refused her help, she would take her to task very gently, saying ‘You are being unkind by refusing me this consolation.’ She tried to do everything she was able to do, and even more than she was able, and when she became very tired she would sit down to entertain the invalid by telling her stories and relating other amusing incidents, doing this with such loving kindness that the onlookers were amazed, knowing that all the time she was totally absorbed in God.
It hapened one day that they forgot to give on of the invalids something that she wanted. When Blessed Mary realized that they had still forgotten it – it was something of absolutely no importance – she was afraid to mention it, but she was so upset because she could not get the sister what she wanted that her eyes filled with tears and she went to the invalid and looking at her most kindly, said to her ‘Come, Sister, you must be content. We are poor and if we ask for anything and they forget it, there is nothing we can do about it; we must not be troubled about it in any way, but practise poverty and accept everything which God allows to hapen to us.’ Blessed Mary’s visits were the invalid’s only recreation. I remember once that she had been very busy all day and when she went to the infirmary in the evening the sick sister said to her, ‘You are welcome, Sister. I have been very sad – I haven’t smiled all day.’ Then she cheered up in her company. I have several times seen her behave in the same way with other sisters who were sick; she would sit with the invalid during the offices and the sermon, fearing that she might be bored; and she would say that she had come because there was no one else available and because she was useless for anything else, and it is a fact that her conversation and her presence made people forget their illnesses. She behaved in a childlike way with the sick, so innocently, graciously and gently that it had to be seen to be believed. And even when the recreation was at its height we never noticed anything disorderly in her conduct.
Her charity was such that she could not bear to see even animals being ill-treated; I have experienced instances of this. She was very tolerant of other people’s defects of character and made every effort to conceal them.
We never heard her say anything, even jokingly, which could damage her neighbour’s reputation, however remotely, even when they related stories in her presence about people in the world who had lost their reason; instead of laughing at them, she immediately turned her thoughts to God and showed that she felt deeply compassion for them. I know, having heard about it from someone who saw it for themselves, that she treated such persons with the respect that she would have given to the wisest and most psychologically balanced person in existence.’
The above account shows us that, more than words of encouragement, it was Blessed Mary’s attitude that was conducive to spiritual progress. Through the numerous details mentioned earlier one perceives that her devotedness to others was of a kind to elicit everyone’s admiration and oblige them to act in the same way, without a word being said. It was the sense of well-being that resulted from her actions which inspired each sister with a desire to imitate her on the way to perfection and to influence others in her turn.
As Novice Mistress, it was again through her personal experience that she made the novices around her reflect and grow in virtue. The testimony bequeathed to us by Sister Mary of the Blessed Sacrament is doubly precious because she herself went through the noviciate in Amiens Carmel under the direction of Blessed Mary and accompanied her to the monastery in Pontoise, where Mary of the Incarnation’s influence continued to grow when she was the spiritual guide of a good number of novices. Here, in broad outline, is the teaching given to the novices:
‘Although she was endowed with such plentiful and such rare graces and gifts from God, every time these extraordinary graces were mentioned in her presence, she remained silent, and even if someone spoke to her directly about them, she would reply as if she were entirely ignorant of them and she would listen with great humility to what was being said, but as soon as the conversation turned to the practice of some virtue, she would talk about it courageously and with great fervour, saying that she had a great desire to begin the task of self-mastery and to overcome her pride, that pride that will not give surrender to God. I saw this hapen every time the occasion presented itself.
Her usual way of instructing us, when we were in conversation with her, was to describe one of the faults that she believed she had, and she told us about her inclinations and how she ought to profit from them. She nearly always instructed us in this way, by showing us what she herself ought to do and revealing her own shortcomings; and she did all this with such great humility, such a low opinion of herself and such abundant tears that sometimes we did not know what to say to her; her words had made such a deep impression on us, that there was nothing for it but to admit our own misdeeds. Several others had the same experience and know that I am speaking the truth.
If someone spoke well of her in her presence, she remained silent and was very embarrassed; at other times, she behaved as if it was another person who was being talked about.
She said to me more than once, “If a person has some knowledge of herself and realizes that someone is praising her she should be careful to remain silent, because she knows, on the contrary, that the depths of her poverty and wretchedness are so great that nothing that she can say can describe them adequately, so she maintains her reserve, and is so preoccupied with the sight of her wretchedness and poverty, the virtues she needs to acquire and the passions she needs to mortify, that she is very far from dwelling on the praise meted out to her and in fact hardly gives it a thought…”
When we were talking to her in her cell, she sometimes said words such as these, “When I speak of the things of God, it is necessary for me to forget myself; for as soon as I am aware of myself, because the things of God are so lofty and so great, and these words proceed from such a lowly and poverty-stricken source, all that I say seems to me so mediocre that I am reluctant to speak; I see that what I say is far from the truth and when I consider my role as a lay sister, which is always to listen to others and to learn from them, the idea restrains me so forcibly that I am unable to utter a word.
When I look at myself, I see that I am as wretched as a piece of rag, good for nothing, utterly useless; this makes me so ashamed that I am unable to say anything. You could knock me down with a flick of your finger or tread me underfoot like a little worm without my being able to say a word, because I know that whatever hapens to me is totally acceptable.” I can scarcely bring myself to repeat the words that she said, but whoever was aware of the spirit behind them, the profound humility, the honesty and the tears with which they were uttered would be sure that only those who have seen Blessed Mary can in any way understand the truly noble humility that was evident in all that she did.
When she was speaking with great fervour of the things of God, we observed that she sometimes stoped short, greatly embarrassed, as soon as she was aware of what she was saying and although we begged her to continue, she would no longer say a word unless she immediately forgot herself again.
She said the following words to me several times when she saw that I was somewhat discouraged, “When I consider that I am so full of faults and so wretched, I am not surprised, I am only like a dung-hill in its proper place, and I cannot expect anything else. Why do we want to find something in ourselves that cannot be there unless God puts it there? We cannot boast about the graces given to us by God, for we are only a poor shabby earthenware vessel; if the King uses it to store his treasures in and embellishes it, it will be very beautiful, but as soon as he removes his treasures, it will be just as it was before; so it is with us; we are rich when God gives us His graces, but He can deprive us of them in an instant and then we are left in all our poverty and wretchedness.”
She spoke to me very earnestly on one occasion about the status she had in the world and the opinions people had of her, saying “Somethingwhich shines as brightly as the sun in the world is only like a tiny star in religious life, where the greatest virtues seem as nothing. I am filled with confusion at the sight of myself. I am completely ignorant; I have not even mastered the ceremonies of religious life. The novices know more about them than I do, because I am confined to the infirmary and no one shows me how to do anything, I am just left there. You are so fortunate in having someone to teach you; you are outstriping me. I have not even acquired the habit of not speaking in the place where one has to keep silence.” She said other things of the same kind on that occasion and when we met at other times.
When she spoke of her wretchedness, her ingratitude and her pride she could not find words to express adequately what she felt and she ended by saying that only God could know the extent of her wretchedness and her pride. Such words were forced out of her by the low opinion that she genuinely had of herself in every circumstance. Anyone who had seen her in this state would know that one can only give the faintest description of it.
If someone pointed out one of her failings in a light hearted way or without giving it much thought, she would immediately join her hands and thank that person warmly. Sometimes she would say, “I am much obliged to you, for I wasn’t aware if it, you see. I am so blind, please do me the same favour whenever it is necessary.” She never stoped to consider whether she was guilty of this failing or not or whether the person who made the remark was lacking in intelligence or age or experience, whether she was a novice or a lay sister; she accepted criticism from anyone and would confess her fault as if she were in front of the Prioress. We were sometimes embarrassed to see her demean herself so readily on account of something that had been mentioned thoughtlessly and for which she was in no way to blame.
On one occasion she was with someone whose motives were full of self-interest. She was in conversation with her, and was listening to her very respectfully and humbly, as she was accustomed to do, since she made no distinction between different kinds of people. When this person was taking her leave, she spoke very harshly to Blessed Mary, as if she were reprimanding her for no aparent reason. When the person had gone, I saw Blessed Mary with tears in her eyes, overcome with grief. Striking her breast and joining her hands, she said between her sobs, “Oh, that person told the truth. People do not know what I am like. No one has ever told me the truth so plainly. Everything she said was true.”
I once said to her that those who lost their reason and were mentally disturbed were to be pitied and I had a great fear of that hapening to me. She replied, “Oh, I’m not at all afraid of that; if it was God’s will for me, I would be very hapy. What does it matter; one would be more contemptible in the eyes of the world but no worse in the sight of God. One must adore the will of God in these matters and not make any judgements. His ways are far different from anything we can imagine.”
When she spoke to us about virtue and the things of God she would add, as a rule, “I learned from a great servant of God, I heard people say so and so about this, or I have read such a thing; it was very rare for her to attribute anything to herself and I understood that she did not aprove of people talking about something as if they were an expert, without making it clear that someone had taught them; she said this was why, when she wrote down a quotation, she always gave her source. I once showed her a quotation I had written down without mentioning the author and she said very gravely, “Don’t put it down like that; it isn’t right. I heard a learned man say that it is very wrong and implies that one is never indebted to anyone.”
She once told me that when we accuse ourselves of our faults either in confession or in speaking to another person, we should begin with the fault of which we are most ashamed and that this would allow grace to operate more freely; she herself was accustomed to act in this way and she always found it very satisfactory.
She took delight in busying herself with the most menial tasks and although she was often confined to the infirmary because of serious illness, she was always wondering while she was there how she could occupy herself. On one occasion, after much thought, she decided she would ask if she could mend the sisters’ alpargates, as we call our rope sandals. She was so insistent that the Mother Prioress agreed, although she knew quite well that Blessed Mary’s arms were too weak for such a task. I once went into the infirmary and saw her full of joy, with an alpargate in her hand and looking as if she were holding the most valuable jewel in the world; she was trying to mend it. She said it had given her great consolation to do this, but seeing that some of the sisters were reluctant to give her their sandals, she asked Mother Prioress, who was with her at the time, why this was so, and she replied, “Because, Sister, they think it is too menial a task for you. “Oh, Mother,” Blessed Mary exclaimed, “I cannot understand why anything in religious life should be considered trivial or menial. That is all very well in the world, but in religious life, everything is significant and noble.”
When she confessed her faults in Chapter or in the refectory, she brought tears to the eyes of those who were listening to her, because she spoke so deprecatingly of herself, in such an affecting tone and with so many signs of her low self-esteem that, I repeat, it was clear to see but impossible to describe.
We were all astonished to see that it was possible for a person so continually occupied with God to think that she was so far away from Him, for there was nothing that she stressed more or showed more aversion from than the faults that she believed she had committed through her inattentiveness to God; she would often accuse herself of this failing. I do not know how it was possible for her to discover the faults of which she accused herself, because they were the last thing one would have suspected of her and sometimes when she said her culpa she even expressed deep sorrow for things that other people considered to be great virtues.
She was once talking to the novices about the passage in the Gospel where St. John [the Baptist] says that he is a voice crying in the wilderness. “The voices crying in the wilderness of our souls,” she said, “are our imperfections. When I commit sins, they are like voices that I can hear echoing in my soul from every direction. They cry out, look at you! Look how proud you are! Learn to know yourself. Look at what is within you, your poverty, your wretchedness. Those voices tell me very quickly and clearly what I am like.”
She hardly ever referred to herself and when she did so, it was always to accuse herself of some fault and to show herself in an unfavourable light. If she said anything different it was because she was so enraptured that she was not aware of what she was saying.
When she performed any act of mortification in the refectory she did so with such humility, fervour and devotion that the whole community was moved at the sight.’
After several years in Amiens, Sister Mary of the Incarnation joined the Carmel in Pontoise on December 6-7, 1616. Just over a year after her arrival in Pontoise, she was taken ill. On April 18.1618, with her community around her, in the presence of Michel de Marillac and having received the Last Rites from André Duval, Madame Acarie, Sister Mary of the Incarnation, breathed her last.
In conclusion, I should like to say that the most striking feature of the Sisters’ depositions is Mary of the Incarnation’s complete openness to God and to her neighbour. The mainspring of her effect on others, her discernment, her gift for direction, her realism and her holiness was the love of God. She wanted always to praise and glorify Him, wherever she might be. Her faith, deepened by the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Viaticum, resulted in the ecstasies that left her totally at God’s disposal. Her life was one long prayer. Her life in the world and her life as a contemplative were one. She listened to, lived and experienced the presence of God within her. Her influence spread through her religious communities through instruction she gave to the novices and her obedience and submission to her superiors. Her humility, her patience and her prophetic gift were evidence of her interior fulfilment. Her sufferings give us a glimpse of the advanced level of her interior mortification. Hers was an edifying life, a masterly synthesis accomplished by a shining example of virtue; this explains why an intense outburst of devotion followed the announcement of her death in the Carmel of Pontoise on April18, 1618.
Closer acquaintance with this exceptional woman – wife, mother of a family, businesswoman, person responsible for bringing a contemplative order to France (an order which she would not enter until after her husband’s death) – gives us an understanding of that seventeenth century female sensibility of which Barbe Acarie was a product.
One hundred and ninety three witnesses made depositions during the process inaugurated in Rome in1627. Pope Urban VIII ordered further formal investigations to be made before the beatification process proper. The process in specie, or apostolic process, ran from 1630 to 1633. On April 16, 1791, the Sacred Congregation of Rites confirmed that the beatification could go ahead. This decision was ratified by a decree on April 24. On June 5, 1791, Pope Pius VI presided at the beatification ceremony in St. Peter’s. When will her canonization be?