Notes on Blessed Mary’s exterior circumstances :
Her last days
Her place in the Church
Notes on her interior life :
A gifted person influenced by the Holy Spirit
A person ever ready to do God’s work
A contemplative life of prayer, humility and fraternal charity
A woman of her time, Madame Acarie made an uncommonly good choice of the direction that her life should take. She was deeply involved in family life, in the practice of difficult professions and in centres devoted to advanced stages of the spiritual life. In this way, she offers us a model of conduct which remains valid for us today.
Madame Acarie, Some Thoughts and Words for Our Times
By Bernard Yon.
It is still possible to see Madame Acarie (Sister Mary of the Incarnation in religion) in our mind’s eye, because the monastery where she spent her last years is the very one in which we are assembled today, and it remains just as it was when she had it (partially) built. In the monastery church can be seen the white marble statue which shows her as a Carmelite nun.
The monastery was constructed in accordance with the ideas of St. Teresa of Avila. It is of modest dimensions, as befitted a community of about twenty Sisters. It consists of very simple buildings, without any eye-catching ornamentation; but buildings that are nevertheless extremely beautiful and well-proportioned. The monastery was built with the close collaboration of Michel de Marillac. In his testimony for the beatification process, he wrote, “According to her word alone (that is, Madame Acarie’s) did I draw up the plans and procedures and enable the work to begin and to be brought to a conclusion.” When Sister Mary of the Incarnation arrived in Pontoise on December 17, 1616 (having come from Amiens, where she was clothed on April 7, 1614), the work of improving and completing the building was resumed at her instigation. It was work for which there had previously been no funds available. In the design of the whole, one can discern the eye of a woman of taste who was thoroughly familiar with the contemporary classical architecture of Paris, yet who could have buildings constructed that were plain and without superfluous features.
Madame Acarie abhorred dirt and would not allow a slip-shod approach to the upkeep of one’s surroundings. “Oh, my Sisters !” she used to say, “Most of the saints loved cleanliness !” And again, “The cleanliness and well-ordered exterior of a house are a sign that the Spirit of God is there.”
The monastery as we see it today has remained in this condition, in spite of the absence of the Carmelites for a period of twenty-nine years. This absence resulted from the decrees of the National Assembly dated November 2, 1789, which transformed the property of the clergy into “property of the State”, and the decree of October 29 in the same year, which suspended solemn monastic profession. These decrees led to the final expulsion of the Sisters on September 30, 1792.
The return of the nuns did not take place without difficulty. “After having been closed for thirty years to its natural occupants, and having served successively as an armaments factory and a cotton mill, the monastery of the daughters of St. Teresa was destined to become a theatre, when, through the devotion and efforts of a few well-disposed persons, it was returned to its original use.
For those who have faith in Providence, the obstacles which had to be surmounted – and which were in fact surmounted to achieve this end – leave one in no doubt that the re-establishment of the pious daughters of Carmel in our town [i.e. Pontoise] was a special work of that same Providence; some even said that it was a miracle.” (Abbé Trou: Recherches sur Pontoise, p.334)
At the risk of straying somewhat from the subject, it will be of great interest to the inhabitants of Pontoise to learn of the half-forgotten sequel to this. “The Town Council of Pontoise had become the owners of the convent when the few [surviving] Carmelites made known their desire to buy it back. But the civil authorities had just authorised the acquisition of the house by our Town Council, on the grounds that it would be useful to them, so they were of necessity opposed to such a speedy and openly declared resale.
The Carmelites were advised to purchase Verville House (in the Rue de la Coutellerie) and at the same time to offer it in exchange to the Town Council, which would give the latter real advantages. Verville House was very suitable for conversion into a Sous-préfecture; offices could be set up in the gardens and there was enough ground left for a very fine public park. The former monastery was hardly suitable for these diverse uses; moreover, the Carmelites were offering to pay a price exceeding the intrinsic value of the properties, so the deed of exchange did not present any more difficulties. The agreement of the higher authority was obtained and in the course of October 1821 the Carmelites left Versailles, where they had been established for some time, to live in those venerable cloisters which were so dear to them, and which brought to mind such hallowed and touching memories.” (Abbé Trou, op.cit., p.335) Verville House became in this way the Sous-préfecture and its garden became the municipal park which we know today.
The chief memory treasured by the Sisters in this ancient monastery is that of Sister Mary of the Incarnation. The statue made in her likeness is without doubt the work of the eminent sculptor Francesco Bordoni. It was commissioned in 1629 (that is, eight years after the death of Mary of the Incarnation) by Mother Jeanne of Jesus, the Superior. The Queen Mother herself, Marie de Medici, donated the marble, “giving the sculptor permission to choose it from the royal storehouse”.
The statue, which can still be seen today, was placed on the pinnacle of a mausoleum which had been constructed in order to display the nun’s body to the crowds of pilgrims. Miraculously, the body escaped the destruction wrought during the French Revolution, by the fact that it was removed for its protection from the Mausoleum (probably by the Carmelites themselves) on the night of September 21-22, 1792, and two days later Jacques de Monthiers, Seigneur de Nucourt, was able to transfer it in a remarkable way to his own property at Nucourt.
To simplify the narrative, omitting many equally miraculous events which occurred during the “Reign of Terror.” On May 7, 1822, the Comte de Monthiers, at the request of the Carmelites and their ecclesiastical superior, brought Blessed Mary’s remains back to the monastery of Pontoise. These glorious remains were left as they were until September 24 following. Then Armand Louis Lejuge de Bonzonville, priest, Chevalier of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, Superior of the Carmelites of Pontoise, by virtue of a special commission from the Bishop of Versailles … placed [the bones] in the casket in which we see them today ” (Abbé Trou, op cit., pp 342 and 345) As a matter of fact, the small casket which we now see is not the one mentioned by Abbé Trou, but a very old one from the monastery in Compiègne; it was to this casket that Blessed Mary’s remains were transferred.
The statue (and a second statue which was in the church and is now in the Carmelite Monastery at Creteil) were put up for sale as state property and were bought by persons who were motivated by respect. They placed the statues in Verville House, preserving them as a consequence from being broken up. Happily, the casket with its remains and the statue have been replaced in a simple setting, without a mausoleum, in the side chapel. This was done in 1965.
The statue shows a person with rounded features and recollected expression, giving a glimpse of Mary of the Incarnation’s profound interior spirit. The lowered eyes are half-closed, the skin is wrinkle-free and the curve of the eyebrows is smooth, giving the face an expression of admirable sweetness. The profile gives an impression of youthful vigour combined with great spiritual maturity. All Madame Acarie’s contemporaries praised her good looks. The statue succeeds in depicting her beauty but, in addition, reveals her interior beauty, indicated by the relaxed expression, harmonious features and a suggestion of flight from the world in order to experience some infinitely richer interior contemplation. Her pose, at first glance, seems almost commonplace in its simplicity. The Sister is on her knees, wearing her choir mantle, praying with her hands joined in front of her.
But a longer examination reveals the immense effort made by the sculptor to depict, by means of this great block of marble, shaped with care and skill, the body of a person at prayer, leaning forward slightly (originally against a prie-dieu) and utterly rapt in thought. It is probable that the infirmity from which Madame Acarie suffered (the result of a serious fall from horseback when returning from Luzarches in 1596, and two more accidents which followed in 1596 and 1598) made kneeling uncomfortable for her, to say the least. There is a suggestion in the statue that, beneath the ample folds of her choir-mantle, the nun has retained a certain stiffness in her posture, her disability prevented her from moving her hip or bending her knee with ease.
Lastly, her hands are joined in a gesture of good-will and complete self-offering. Her whole attitude reinforces this gesture; her hands are raised to the One who is the subject of her interior gaze.
Her fingers are gnarled, the nails worn down, her thumbs misshapen, the result, no doubt, of the strenuous manual work on behalf of others which Madame Acarie continued to do, even after she became a nun.
How wonderfully the habit, and especially the toque ( ) and veil has been rendered in marble ! The sculptor has indicated the delicate folds of the well-starched material, and what care the nun took not to crumple them as she dressed. Yes, the cleanliness which Madame Acarie liked in her surroundings is also evident in her clothing. The Carmelites of today continue to observe this meticulous care.
So much for the external evidence which is still available today. It does not contradict the records of her biographers – and it would need many more pages to relate everything which impressed Madame Acarie’s contemporaries.
But my presentation has a more modest objective. I wish merely to trace a few lines of thought which could lead to more reflection and research, in order to shed light on the interior life of Madame Acarie, Sister Mary of the Incarnation, showing her as she really was.
My three chosen subjects are :
- 1. Her many-sided personality, centred on the Holy Spirit.
- 2. Her energy in carrying out God’s work.
- 3. Her life of mental and vocal prayer, humility and fraternal charity.
I shall not keep rigidly to the chronology of Madame Acarie’s life, the chronology already having been established very precisely by M. Picard, but an account of her words, her actions and the numerous testimonies gathered for the canonisation process which began in April 1622, (she died on April 16, 1618) will be used to demonstrate the nature of her personality and her life of prayer.
The quotations in italics are from records of Blessed Mary’s own words. Very few writings in her own hand remain to us, because by an act of humility, which we shall try to comprehend fully at the end of this paper, she burned all her spiritual notes. All that remain are fourteen of her letters written to various members of her family and close associates, and a collection of spiritual maxims collected in a booklet entitled “Vrais exercices spirituels” (“True spiritual exercises”) M Bouchet has identified the text as being indeed the work of Madame Acarie.
There are descriptions by biographers and historians of the period when the child with the surname Avrillot and the Christian name Barbe was born. Her mother had had a first child, a son, Philibert, who died young; he was followed by other children, but none survived, and when she became pregnant yet again, she made a vow to the Blessed Virgin and to St. Claude that if the child lived, it would be dressed “in white, with a white bonnet, after the manner of poor people.” It is unlikely that any parents today would give their offspring the Christian name Barbe, (although they give them plenty of other names which are equally ridiculous and which, sad to say, have no connection with a patron saint) nor would they dress the baby in white in this way, but this was how from the first, the little girl received the badge of poverty (rather than destitution) from her mother. Her baptism in 1566 at the church of St. Merry would make her a child of God. The construction of the church had begun in the reign of Francois I and would not be finished until about 1612, but it contained a chapel dedicated to St. Barbe, as an expression of the popular devotion of the time – The church serves one of the historic quarters of Paris. To perpetuate the memory of the little girl who was baptised there, a chapel in the church would be dedicated to Blessed Mary of the Incarnation; it would be adorned with frescoes and an altarpiece depicting her life. All this can still be seen today.
One is dumbfounded on reading of the kind of love which her mother showed to the little girl.
“Her mother thought nothing of her. In her eyes, the girl was coarse, clumsy and ill-humoured, and so she treated her harshly both in words and actions, to the extent that she would not let her go near the fire [to warm herself], no matter how cold the weather. Moreover, the place where she used to get dressed was near a door; a wind came through it which chilled her to the marrow. She suffered so much from the cold that she contracted severe frostbite in her feet and they were then obliged to place her in the hands of the surgeons, who removed the bones in her toes in order to effect a cure. This caused her great pain; she would speak to us about it from time to time.Testimony of Marie Acarie, the eldest daughter of Madame Acarie.“
Furthermore : "When they were at table, she was served the coarsest cuts of meat. She was subjected to physical abuse, but she appeared “neither annoyed nor displeased.” She had the gentleness which is a token of real strength. Madame Avrillot, Barbe’s mother, was unable to fathom the supernatural element in this serenity. She thought her daughter was unsophisticated and awkward. “Grosse bonnière !”Father Bruno of Jesus and Mary : La belle Acarie, p 19. she would call her. What precisely did Barbe’s mother mean by the words “grosse bonnière” ? We do not know exactly because the expression is no longer in current use and is not in Littre’s dictionary, but it still sounds highly pejorative to modern ears !
It is clearly important to take a closer look at her childhood …
Without placing too much emphasis on this, there are four features of her childhood which would greatly influence Madame Acarie’s spiritual life:
- She became accustomed from her earliest years to poverty and physical suffering.
- She submitted with serenity and respect to her mother’s unjust demands.
- She experienced periods of aridity without complaining and without compensation on the human level.
- She had a serenity and a gentleness given to her from on high.
Another Carmelite Sister, Marie Angelique of Jesus (1893-1919) also had a terrible interior struggle to accept her mother’s abuse of authority. She wrote “I wanted the ability to listen quietly and peacefully to everything [my mother] said. Jesus usually granted me this grace, as well as the grace never to get upset.Paul Marie of the Cross: Montée d’une ame à l’oraison, p 57.“ Then her mother would become angry with her : “That girl! She’s impossible! I’ve never seen the likes of her !”Flamme de Joie, p. 32.
Three more boys would be born after Barbe. They all survived, but would not figure in Blessed Mary’s life – Theirs was not a united family and the brothers, it seems, would leave their sister to face the difficulties of life without giving her even moral support. So, to the above-mentioned points, it is safe to add that, very early in life, when the first bonds of affection are formed, Barbe suffered from great interior solitude.
To provide for her education during adolescence, her parents, following a tradition which dated from the Middle Ages and was still current, placed her in an abbey, Notre Dame de Longchamp, where her aunt Isabelle l’Huillier was a nun. (The abbey’s full title is “Monastery of the Minims of Our Lady’s humility.”) The monastic life was based on the spirituality of St. Clare. The monastery was founded in the thirteenth century by Bl. Isabelle of France, the sister of St. Louis. Following its destruction during the French Revolution, almost nothing remains, apart from a ruined turret and two Gothic arches in what is the present Bois de Boulogne. Barbe came to the monastery about the age of eleven or twelve and stayed there for three years. The witnesses of the time give a valuable description of the young girl:
- She was very upright and unwavering in her desire for truthfulness.
- She had a profound sense of her failings (which she never distinguished from sins) and she had a gift for self-mastery.
- She was moved by the sufferings of others.
- She had a gift for friendship (notably with Andrèe Levoix, whom she got to know at the monastery) and for loyalty.
Once the girls reached fourteen or fifteen years of age they had as a rule, either to leave the monastery and “enter society”, as the saying went, or to seek admission to the noviciate in order to become a religious in that same monastery, according to the custom prevailing in all medieval monasteries.555- Christian Feldman : Hildegarde de Bingen, p.42 Barbe had pondered the question with regard to herself. The witnesses have left an account of the depth of her spirituality and her desire for total consecration to the Lord.
A long time before this, Barbe’s mother had decided that her daughter would not be a nun. True to her overbearing nature, she decided to remove Barbe from Longchamp and bring her back to the family home, where there were now three little brothers. Barbe had plans for the future and tried in vain to get her parents to agree to them. She wanted to serve the poor, possibly by caring for the patients in the Hôtel-Dieu. This period only served to emphasise the differences between Barbe and her parents.
They thought of her getting married, whereas Barbe was deepening her prayer-life and her spirituality and waiting for the Lord to show her which direction she should take. We do not know the stages of this development because, as was said earlier, her spiritual notes have been destroyed. It would have been enlightening to have had a clearer insight into the soul of this adolescent girl and to observe how she became progressively more open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is at this time, however, that some of the witnesses say that “turning her gaze inwards, she perceived that everything was unstable, ephemeral, empty… less than nothing".666- Father Bruno, op cit., p.17 One cannot avoid making a comparison with the experience of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, when she talks about her visit to Alençon just before her First Holy Communion : “And I see that all is vanity and vexation of spirit under the sun.”Thérèse of Lisieux: Story of a Soul, tr. J Clarke, p. 73
It is worth noting that Barbe also “turns her gaze inwards” (an attitude brilliantly captured in Bordoni’s statue), and she then makes the discovery that “Apart from God, all is vanity, all is passing.”
It is evident that by this stage in her life, all the traits of Madame Acarie’s exceptional character were already fixed. In the first place, she had a realisation, born of experience, of life in God, and her nature was entirely receptive to this. The effort which Barbe was obliged to make could be the subject of lengthy discussions.
“God does not impart grace to men in such a way as to suspend for the moment the functions and duties of nature, but instead He either allows nature to accommodate itself to the grace which is superadded to it, so that the good deed may be performed with all the more ease, or else, if nature is disposed to resist, so that this very resistance, overcome and put down by grace, may add to the merit of the deed because it was difficult to doSt. Thomas More : The sadness of Christ, tr. Miller, p.15.”
Barbe appears to have been one of those people who correspond readily to grace, in her case by virtue of having experienced great spiritual dryness within her immediate family circle during her formative years. Similar cases exist; for example, Sister Marie Angelique of Jesus wrote about herself in these words : “In order to make my time of exile tolerable, God granted me, when I was in the world, a grace which I did not recognise at the time: I had hardly any difficulty in combating my natural impulses.Flamme de Joie, p. 42.“ But make no mistake, will-power is involved in this; often very much so; at times to prevent the soul from being intimidated and thrown into confusion by the forces of evil (witness the examples of St. John Vianney and, nearer our own time, Padre Pio); at times to carry out the task which God wishes his servant to perform.
The first obvious difficulty which Barbe had to surmount – and she did so triumphantly – was the decision imposed on her by her parents that she should be married at sixteen. There were other ordeals, before and after this one; she kept up her resistance, either by opposition to her parents, or by a great interior resolve, or by a combination of the two. Barbe, according to one of her Seguier relatives, “married out of obedience.” 101010- Testimony of Sister Jeanne of Jesus Seguier.
Pierre Acarie was chosen to be her husband and the marriage took place in summer 1582. Barbe was then sixteen and a half. In society she was called Madame Acarie from then on, and that is the name by which she is usually known. The young girl’s attitude to marriage was not typical, for sure, because she wrote, in one of the very few of her letters which have survived : “Since my sins have rendered me unworthy of the title of spouse of Jesus Christ, I must perforce be content to be His servant in a lower state.Father Bruno, op. cit., p. 24.“ Later, when she had become a nun, she wrote in another letter; To enter religion, [that is, in the sense of consecrated life] is to receive much from God. But to remain in the world with the disposition and desires that He has given to you [the attraction to religious life] is, I believe to give Him much in return.”id. citation précédente.
But her daughter Marie’s testimony differs somewhat from what one is given to understand. “[She married] out of obedience but, above all, in accordance with God’s plan.”quoted by Father Bruno, op.cit., p.26. Yes, in Barbe’s eyes, to obey her parents was truly God’s plan for her, in fact she would say later to her own daughters, “It is not proper for a well-brought up young girl to be dissatisfied with her mother’s company or to deviate from her mother’s will for her.Father Bruno, op. cit., p. 252.“
She would demonstrate the same spirit of obedience towards her husband and towards her superiors in the convent; she would say to the latter, “Mother, the truth is that ever since I have been here, I have always looked on you as “Jesus Christ on earth” for me, because of the position which you hold.quoted by Father Bruno, op.cit., p.541.“ She considered such obedience was a way of corresponding with God’s plan for her; and how could she allow any self-will to prevail over this ?
So Barbe gave up her own preference and followed what obedience dictated. She recognised the will of God in this obedience, and no doubt that was very hard for her. Pierre was a “character,” he was a man who has been described in detail by the Biographers, who sometimes reached contradictory conclusions. But Pierre and Barbe, in common with the people of their time, believed in marriage; in addition, they certainly believed in the love which could spring up between husband and wife. We ought to take note that such ideas date from fairly recent times – from the end of the Renaissance at the earliest – and were in strong contrast to the ideas current in previous centuries. Did not Christine de Pisan (1365-1430) declare, when widowed young, that she would in no way consider re-marriage, because the fate of a married woman was “worse than being in prison in a Saracen country” ? And that is saying something !
Right from the start of their married life, Pierre and Barbe were set on fire with real conjugal love in the modern sense. Theirs was a successful marriage, in spite of the tensions inevitable in any union.
In this day and age, when so many marriages are failing, when people are unable to make a serious commitment, when legislation on PACS was passed on October 12, 1999, after a second reading in the National Assembly (making all sorts of unions legitimate) it is good to look at the example of Pierre and Barbe. No record remains of the conversations between the two which would have enabled us to understand the significance their marriage had for them. Even so, we can highlight some thoroughly admirable features of their relationship, which show the Lord’s delicacy in His dealings with the hearts of those who put themselves at His disposal to do His work. I should like, within the limits of this presentation, to highlight just two amongst many others.
Feeling himself marginalized to a certain extend by Madame Acarie’s very wide-ranging activities, Pierre confided in a well-known monk. The latter interceded with Barbe. According to a relative and intimate friend of the couple, Michel de Marillac, the monk in question “ordered her … to restrain her deference [to her husband] and to act coldly towards him for a whole month.” Here was a monk settling the question entirely to Pierre’s disadvantage – and yet Pierre was the injured party! But he was also a monk who gave extremely imprudent advice.
It was very fortunate that Madame Acarie felt deeply about her husband’s plight; the witness goes on, “Such a specific command filled her with fear, being a reminder of the cold treatment of former times, for she wished to obey, and did so, and communicated [in the sense of “spoke” – see para. I of the conclusion] to me about it quite openly. Her conflict, however, could not continue. She was moved by her respect and love [for her husband] to the point that she was obliged to reveal her state of soul to that person [the monk counsellor] and he gave her back the liberty to follow God’s inspirations… ” One can be in no doubt that the Lord would counsel her to love her husband and not to create an artificial coolness – a kind of sanction – between them.
In the midst of all her extraordinary activity, Madame Acarie came here, to this monastery at Pontoise, accompanied by her husband. The Sisters asked immediately if they could have some conversations with her, and she agreed at once. The conversations must have been lengthy, but at one point, one of the Sisters came let her know that M. Acarie, who was probably in the room to the right of the entrance, was now alone. Straightaway, without even finishing the discussion, she went back to Pierre to keep him company. She gave this duty priority over having discussions; this shows that she was not a “spoiled nun.” As Michel de Marillac would say, “She believed that she had a greater duty to ensure her husband’s happiness than to look to her own interests.”
She and her husband would have six children: Nicholas, Marie, Pierre, Jean, Marguerite and Genevieve. They all survived. Needless to say, in contrast to what she experienced in her own childhood, she surrounded her children with great affection. The education she gave them was very strict and it had two particularly striking features :
- They were taught to be generous from an early age.
- They were to tell the truth without fail and never to tell a lie.
There is particular emphasis in the testimonies on demonstrating these two points. These two great virtues were implanted in the Acarie children with great gentleness, mingled with firmness and persistence, and sometimes with a severity which would not be practised today. Nicholas married Marie de Huguenat on January 4, 1606. He and his wife would have a daughter Marie, who would be particularly dear to her grandmother. (We shall mention the little girl again at the end of this presentation.) The couple and Madame Acarie’s son Jean were a cause of intense anxiety to her. “Her son Jean was unmarried in 1617. He married much later, in unfortunate circumstances.” (Letter from Sister Anne-Thérèse, October 2, 1999) Madame Acarie wrote to her daughter Marie, who had already entered religious life, “It is enough for us if you are mindful of us in the presence of God … and if you remember your two brothers and your sister-in-law. I commend them to your prayers more than the others, believing that they have more need of them.” And again,…. “Pray for your two brothers who are on the high seas of the world and in great danger of being shipwrecked.”Father Bruno, op. cit., p. 463.
In addition, her husband was not always easy to live with, in spite of the great love which bound them together. “He was slightly put out by the fact that a great number of persons from all walks of life, great and small, men, women, young girls, religious and laity, came to his house to talk to his wife and that they sent her letters from all quartersAndré Duval, Biographie de madame Acarie..”
Although the biographer is well-disposed towards Pierre, he is obliged to record, “He complained that those who came to the house asked to see Madame Acarie and not himself; he told the servants to say that she was not at home, and on many occasions he snubbed, in her presence, the persons of merit who had come to see her.” But speaking with resignation and perhaps with the hint of a smile, he would finally say to a priest, “It’s very inconvenient to have a wife who is so virtuous and so wise.”Father Bruno, op. cit., p. 195. The reason for this ill-humour was doubtless that “because of the great love he had for her, he did not see her as much as he would have liked ; and he feared that she would become ill from over-work.”Father Bruno, op. cit. p. 482.
These elements of family life – educational and vocational guidance of children, preoccupation of a married couple, discontent of the husband – are certainly a very important aspect of the moulding of Madame Acarie’s human qualities. In every case, she quietly resolved the difficulty without, however, neglecting the pressing obligation which arose, she knew, from the hold of God’s will upon her. Such human qualities would stand her in good stead throughout all her work of spiritual discernment, which we shall discuss at the end of this section.
But her human formation also took place in the demanding sphere of business and property management. The most extraordinary incident was without doubt the sudden financial ruin of the family due to the exile of Pierre on the order of Henri IV. This period of history has been amply documented by biographers and historians and it would serve no good purpose to go over the events in this presentation. The suddenness of her extreme poverty is still a source of amazement, as is the fact that young Madame Acarie, by a considerable amount of well-planned, well-thought-out work, succeeded in restoring the family fortunes; she was just thirty years of age !
Abbé Trou sums it up: “The Wars of the League broke out; the Master of Accounts [M. Acarie] embraced its cause with such fervour that he became known as its LACKEY!” Misfortunes crowded in on him as a result. M. Acarie was stripped of his office, exiled and treated as an enemy by Henri the Bearnais. His possessions were confiscated and the wife of the exiled man fell into the hands of creditors, who acted with not a little barbarity, even taking away the dishes in which they had just served up a modest repast for herself and her young children ! They beheld how the unfortunate wife bore this thrust of a dagger with angelic calm! It was put to her that the civil bonds [of marriage, the religious bonds being indissoluble] which united her to the erst-while Master of Accounts, should be broken; she spurned such an indelicate proposal with all the scorn and dignity of which a Christian woman is capable! With the passage of time, through her merit and virtue, her husband’s affairs were put to rights; she found the means to pay off his debts and to deliver him from exile, and finally had the happiness of restoring an upright man to his native soil, a father to his children, and the missing half of her life to herself.” (Abbé Trou, op.cit., p.196)
It is certain that the responsibility and the successful outcome of her action made her familiar with the workings of the civil society in which she lived. On the social plane, she was despised during the period of her adversity by respectable people who had admired her when she was wealthy. She was not particularly affected by all this, if truth be told, because the essentials of her character were already fully formed, but it confirmed both her abilities and her inner orientation.
When considering the activities undertaken from then on by Madame Acarie in connection with religious affairs, one is forced to see God’s plan at work on a grand scale. She was consulted by all manner of people and became involved in the reform of numerous religious houses. The list is impressive. It includes the Daughters of St. Louis at the Hôtel-Dieu in Pontoise.
And in 1601, when she was at prayer, St. Teresa of Avila informed her that she wished to introduce the Carmelite Order into France, with Madame Acarie as intermediary. “Just as I enriched Spain with this renowned Order, so do you, who are bringing piety back to France, endeavour to let that country experience this benefit.” There were very great obstacles to this undertaking, notably the enmity between France and Spain. It is well known how it all came to pass, the delay in the end being very brief; On October 15, 1604, the Spanish nuns reached Paris, that is, three and a half years after St. Teresa of Avila’s first mandate.
Madame Acarie also “laid the foundations of an educational establishment for young girls.” (Abbé Trou, op.cit., p.197) to such an effect that the “Ursulines of Madame Sainte-Beuve could equally well be called the Ursulines of Madame Acarie.” (Père Bruno, op.cit., note on p 218) This fact is less well known. But let us not diverge from her efforts to bring the Carmelite Order to France.
In the interim, Madame Acarie had had the first monastery built, in the Faubourg St. Jacques; The Spanish nuns “were tireless in their admiration of Madame Acarie’s talent.” The other new buildings would not be as highly appreciated as the originals. “Seeing that they were so large, they said that [the monastery] was not well laid out, nor as small as it should be to conform with our Order and its constitutions, since it had forty eight cells instead of the obligatory twenty.” The mistake would not be repeated in succeeding foundations, the next of which was at Pontoise.
Whatever the gravity of the error, one is obliged to recognise that Madame Acarie took considerable responsibility for the project. Having total confidence in God, she worked with the certainty that the project would be brought to conclusion, and she was not disappointed, or rather, the Lord did not disappoint her. She would act in the same way at Pontoise. She had “a spirit so apt for every kind of business, and even for trades and mechanical arts so that it seemed as if she had learned all sorts of workmanship and trades and was aware of the defects to which they were subject. And everyone admired and also loved her for it.Testimony of Marie of the Blessed Sacrament Saint Leu.“
To those with doubt in their minds she would say, “With a glance in God’s direction, we must show Him our weakness and ask Him to give us strength.”Jeanne de Jésus Séguier. And we have this wonderful maxim of hers : “She left everything to Providence as if there were no human means of doing things, and worked as if there were no such thing as Divine Providence.”Marie de Saint-Joseph.
It was impossible for her to be put in charge of a project like this, because she was a married woman. Had she been single or just a religious, the rights accorded to women at the time would not have included permission for such an undertaking. In addition she had to be very competent in legal and financial matters in order to plan and carry out the project. It is certain that the financial ruin of her husband and the recovery of the family fortunes through her efforts were an excellent preparation for the work. One can only marvel at the wisdom of God, who made use of Barbe, a married woman, (Barbe’s obedience has a higher sense in this context) and, by extraordinary reversals of fortune, prepared her to undertake the work which He wished to be carried out.
Once again, the plan of God in all its wisdom is apparent, not going against the normal practices of the time, but rather using them, and taking particular care in preparing the woman who was destined to realise that plan. Once in Carmel, Madame Acarie would be given (probably at Berulle’s instigation) the name – and how fitting it was – “Mary of the Incarnation.”
Neither was she able, as a woman, to undertake the journey to Spain or to carry on the delicate negotiations which would permit the arrival of the Spanish Sisters in France. Her young cousin, Pierre de Berulle, was accordingly the one who co-operated throughout the proceedings, working to good effect. In spite of certain instances of rivalry which can be looked on as deviations from God’s plan, his presence was an essential element in the Divine operation.
Yet again, one cannot help being amazed at the way God arranges things here on earth! It is no different today, except that women now have more rights than previously. The Lord allowed mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example to do His work directly, without any of the complications associated with the status of women in former times.
This young married woman who was beautiful and the focus of admiration, may for a short period have allowed herself to be tempted by the spirit of the age. Certainly, there was nothing serious involved, nothing which amounted to straying from the path of virtue; perhaps there was some titivating, some pleasure at the compliments paid her by a few men who were captivated by her beauty and charm, some occasional reading of the kind of novels which were frowned on at the time. One of the books which she read had been translated from the Spanish, and a best-seller since 1540. It was “The first book of Amadis de Gaul, which treats of many an adventure of arms and amours, which befell many Knights and Ladies, both in the Kingdom of Great Britain and in other lands.”
The novel fell into the hands of her husband, who was deeply distressed to think that his wife was putting her soul in danger by reading what he considered to be bad books. This is a debatable point; but note that love now enters into it, which is a great contrast to what happened in earlier times; one reads for example, in “Chaucer and his England” by George F Coulton, that at the beginning of the fourteenth century a law existed in Beauvais which allowed men to beat their wives only “in moderation and for good cause.” That was already a sign of enormous progress. People of the times were avid readers of this new kind of literature; another proof of this is the huge success of the “Amours” of Ronsard, a member of the gentry from Vendôme. The first edition of this book was published by Nicholas Le Rous in Rouen in 1557.
Pierre, however, as a man of his time, was mindful of his wife’s spiritual welfare. He took the book away and replaced it with works of devotion. This account of events has been handed down in biographies, but it is not necessarily in favour with modern historians; for example, Pierre Miquel, in his book “Saint Vincent de Paul”, has Madame Acarie reading the great spiritual writers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of her own volition. In whatever way the works of devotion came into her hands, in one of them Barbe read this sentence from the spiritual writings of St. Augustine : “Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit”. (He is indeed a miser for whom God does not suffice.”) The words recalled her to the “straight and narrow road” which she had previously followed.
One must admit that the phrase sounds obscure in the language of today [In the original French] there are two negative statements intended to emphasise the affirmation that, when all comes to all, God is enough for us, and to possess anything else is a form of avarice (in the sense of attachment to material things) It was a sentence she would repeat throughout her life; in the Carmel at Pontoise she said to one of the Sisters : “He is indeed a miser for whom God does not suffice. Let us be content”Sœur Marguerite de Saint-Joseph (Langlois)..
When the “spiritual project” (to use St. Bernard’s felicitous expression) takes shape, it often leads to others. The truth of this is borne out once again by the case under consideration, and a striking parallel can be found in the letter from Hildegarde of Bingen to Sophia of Altwick, an abbess in the Low Countries:- “Collect your wits, so that your heart is not consumed by that surrender to this passing world, which is causing you so much harm. You must remain alive as long as the grace of God wills it” (Quoted in “Hildegarde Bingen” by Christian Feldman, p 161) The discovery of these words of St. Augustine changed her life, and as M. Picard rightly observes, her course of action was based on two principal ideas :
- When one gives one’s time to God, one finds enough time for everything else.
- The Spirit of God is not a spirit of idleness. People who wish to do nothing do not have a truly spiritual outlook.
The first idea is similar to one expressed later by another young woman, Edith Stein, who would also become a Carmelite as Sister Benedicta of the Cross. “From the time when we awake in the early morning, tasks and problems demand our attention …We are in turmoil. We should like to tackle them without more ado. We should pull ourselves together at this point and say, ’Be calm! Everything in its time!’ The first how of my day belongs to the Lord. It is He who will give me the strength to finish the task which He has entrusted to me … Lord, what do You want of me ?" (Conrad de Meester, Sainte Edith Stein, p. 40)
In this way, Edith realised that she would always have enough time to do what she had to do. She expresses it like this : “I do as much as I can. The ability to accomplish increases noticeably in proportion to the number of things that must be done. When there’s nothing urgent at hand, it ceases much sooner. Heaven is an expert at economy.” (Edith Stein: Self-portrait in Letters, 1916-1942, tr. Josephine Koeppel, p 72)
And again, “The only essential is that one finds …. a quiet corner is which one can communicate with God as though there were nothing else …. It seems to me the best time is in the early morning hours before we begin our daily work; furthermore, it is essential that one accepts one’s particular mission there, preferably for each day.” (Edith Stein: Self portrait in letters, 1916-1942, p. 54)
This attitude towards work as a means of carrying out God’s plan day by day is also very much the attitude of Madame Acarie.
The second idea is more individual, but very true, nevertheless. It is not so long ago that many people thought that one became a monk or a nun to have a quiet life, “sheltered from the world and its noise”, as Jean de La Fontaine put it, or even, particularly in the case of women, to blot out the pain of a deeply unhappy love affair. Sister Mary of the Incarnation has definite views about this. She who knew the human heart so well went to very great lengths to eradicate this false notion, saying, “Mother, you need to be aware that the Sisters who are less recollected are the most negligent; they will excuse themselves from doing any work if they can. It sometimes happens that souls wish to be present at the times of silent prayer in order to have a rest rather than to occupy themselves with Our LordChronicles of Pontoise Carmel.“.
And the obligation to work is in itself of central importance to her. The testimony of Sister Anne of St. Laurence is very enlightening in this respect :
“I once spent a long time looking for something, and as I was still searching, the bell rang for meditation. I went to ask [Blessed Mary] what she thought I should do; should I go to prayer, or should I go on searching” ? “Sister”, she said, “I think you should go on searching; if something is lost, that is against the spirit of holy poverty. To do your duty is a good way of meditating.”
St. Vincent de Paul would say the same to the Daughters of Charity, gathered around St Louise de Marillac, when they were anxious to know if it was wrong to have so much to do that occasionally the time of prayer is cut short.
Special gifts were bestowed on Madame Acarie by the Lord and the most extraordinary were without doubt her ecstasies and (invisible) stigmata. M. Picard has spoken about them, her first ecstasy having probably occurred between July and November 1590. She received these gifts with extreme prudence. In fact, these highly unusual manifestations caused her anxiety ; she naturally asked herself if they really came from God.
Having at first concealed her ecstasies, she disclosed them under the seal of confidentiality to the English Capuchin Benet of Canfield, probably in the summer of 1592. “He dispelled her doubts and made her see that everything that was happening to her was from God and was the result of grace.”
It was probably in 1593 that she received the (invisible) stigmata on her hands and feet. Father Coton would write, with reference to this, “She had the stigmata on her body in such a fashion that at certain times and notably on Fridays, Saturdays and the days of Lent, she felt extreme pain in her feet, her hands, her side and her head, as if someone had pierced them and she had been left hangingPierre Miquel, Saint Vincent de Paul, p. 141.“.
It is necessary to emphasise that these gifts were received with prudence by the young Madame Acarie, and that she kept them hidden. This is an additional sign of their authenticity. A very great mystic and stigmatic of our own times, Padre Pio, also underwent this great and mysterious trial and kept it hidden as far as possible.
“Days went by and Padre Pio’s illness continued … then about a month later, during a chance conversation in Brother Pio’s cell when he was bringing him some clean clothes, he (Brother Gaetano) saw amongst the sheets a piece of cloth soaked in blood. He tried to understand … It was only later that it dawned on him that Padre Pio was hiding a great secretEnrico Malatesta, Padre Pio, p. 61..”
It is undoubtedly difficult for the average person to comprehend the spiritual journey of such individuals. But, in Madame Acarie’s case, we are encouraged by the fact that she was, throughout, a married woman and would, after receiving these mysterious gifts, have three more children, Jean, Marguerite and Genevieve; she would suffer the loss of the family fortunes and the accidents which left her disabled. Hers was indeed a life of suffering, to be continued in Carmel. “At Amiens [the first Carmel which Mary of the Incarnation entered] since she used to suffer intense pain during the night, Mother Isabel of Jesus was greatly afflicted, not knowing what she could do to help her.Valence de Marillac.“
She experienced in addition, periods of great interior suffering; at the time that she was faced with destitution and her husband had been forced into exile. This is what a witness says of her. “Barbe Acarie had the idea that she was ruined and that her possessions had gone for ever. She experienced such anguish of spirit and such groans issued from the depths of her being that her grief seemed scarcely humanEdmond de Messa.“.
But judging by her outward appearance, her contemporaries would have observed that she accepted the depths of her suffering unreservedly, without turning in on herself and without bitterness – maintaining a serene and relaxed expression, the same that appears, as we have seen, on the statue. She also offered up her sufferings with an act of oblation such as Pope John Paul has reminded us to make anew at the present time, notably when he declared St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Patroness of Europe. He wrote, “Her voice … was joined to the cry of Christ on the cross, which gives to human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness.” (Pope John Paul II : Apostolic Letter on three Co-Patronesses of Europe) She was aware of the ferment of resurrection life which follows on from the sacrificial offering of oneself in obedience, an offering identical to that of Christ in His Passion. This is a tentative description of what Madame Acarie experienced in the depth of her being, but one must admit that she alone knew what it was like to await the dawn of the resurrection in the depths of physical and moral suffering.
Self-renunciation calls for great humility. Madame Acarie was without doubt a humble, one might say a very humble, person. There are abundant testimonies to her strong feelings about this, and her own radical statement has been recorded. “When I look at myself, I appear so wretched in my own eyes that I am like a good-for-nothing dog, and I should be driven out of the House of God … . Without being able to complain, or even daring to, or to say why I am being treated thus, because I have the feeling (and I speak the truth) that all this and even more is my due.292929- Sa fille Marie.“ She would describe herself, on another occasion, as “a toad all puffed up with pride”. She despaired of herself in the days preceding her death, saying these deeply cruel words about herself, “I am no longer myself. All is lost. I am a vile creature”303030- Agnès de Jésus (des Lyons).. (Testimony of Agnes of Jesus Lyons)
What are we to make of this ? We know that it is certainly the opposite of what we have gradually discovered about this person who was energetic, efficient, centred on God and concerned for her family and her neighbours. No, she is not a “good-for-nothing”, she should not “be driven out of the house of God”, she is not “a vile creature”.
On the contrary, she is a joyful beacon of light, a beautiful woman transfigured by God, a person of extraordinary energy, and most of all, a reliable witness to the delicacy of the Lord’s ways with human beings, His creation.
So why did Sister Mary of the Incarnation say such things ? The human sciences and psychoanalysis would offer a ready explanation: “She had a desire for self-degradation to the point of masochism”. All religious authors have made the observation that the saints had a very low opinion of themselves in particular (This is how, for example, they would interpret the strong words which Marie Angelique of Jesus, quoted earlier, wrote about herself.) As for us, we are aware that the roots of Jansenism go deep into our religious history, and that seventeenth century mysticism, whatever its beauty, had already been contaminated as a result.
What is humility ? It is a disposition of soul which welcomes the Holy Spirit and the grace flowing from that same Spirit. The greatest act of humility known to humankind was made by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who couched it in language which surpasses all other human language in its beauty : “He has looked upon His lowly handmaid”, and as a result “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed.”
Sister Mary of the Incarnation, so aptly named on earth and now in Heaven, far removed from the unwholesome atmosphere of incipient Jansenism, can say in her turn, in imitation of Mary, the greatest of all women, “Yes, the Lord has looked in His own way upon His lowly handmaid” and we affirm that, because this has happened, the people of today can say “Henceforth she is blessed”. Would that we were already in her place !
Humility for humility’s sake is a blind alley. It makes no sense except in relation to grace received from God and this grace is above all, before all and at all times, the grace of charity.
Madame Acarie was a person who was charitable to everyone, especially to her neighbour; this is an indisputable sign, ranking above all others, of her genuine sanctity. Madame Simon Acarie, who was very fond of her daughter-in-law, saw her during the siege of Paris in 1590, giving everything that was not needed in the house to the poor, for poverty was becoming ever more widespread. Her mother-in-law wanted Barbe to be prudent and to build up a reserve as a precautionary measure. Barbe made no formal objection to this, it is true, but she thought the proposed stockpiling was excessive and she wanted to share out at least part of it. At this point, Madame Acarie disagreed with her daughter-in-law and told her that she was going to have the reserves hidden away. Barbe replied immediately “You must keep it well hidden in a place where I can’t find it, because if I do, I shall certainly give it to the poor and needy.”Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier).
This charity in action is evident throughout Madame Acarie’s life and she linked it, of course, with the practice of the virtue of poverty. Sister Mary of the Incarnation would say, “We are obliged by holy poverty to earn our own living” and at another time “We are poor, and poor people don’t waste anything” meaning that one should make use of the smallest scraps, no matter what they were – morsels of bread, bits of thread, washing-up water, etc. The present day Carmelite Sisters practise the same carefulness with regard to material things; we have come across many instances of this in the past twenty years. It would not be proper to go into details, but all the examples are highly significant indicators of the humility and poverty they experience in the practicalities of their day-to-day living.
She was assiduous in her charity towards others, those to whom she wished to give support and those who crossed her path, especially the labourers who worked on the construction of the monasteries. She was a woman with a social conscience carrying out the everyday practice of charity in a very modern way. M Picard is proposing to examine this line of thought in more depth and to compare Madame Acarie’s attitude with the Church’s social teaching. This will be very interesting since it is true that to a large extent charity in present-day social and labour relations has probably been influenced by this same social teaching.
It is evident that Madame Acarie showed abundant charity with regard to material things, but she did not limit herself to this. The moral support of the poor and suffering took up a great deal of her time.
Together with her friend Andrèe Levoix, she learned how to listen to others, and that would lead to her great gift for spiritual discernment. Speaking in all honesty and with impartiality, she had the courage to say about one postulant, “If it were up to me, I would not accept her for anything in the world”. In the same way, “she placed more value on a person who walked in the truth, that is, in openness and sincerity, without giving way to self-love, than on others who seemed more spiritually advanced and more experienced.”Testimony du père Coton.
The qualities which she tried to discern in a soul were these : “Attentiveness to God, conducting oneself with the greatest simplicity and openness, awareness of one’s imperfections, conversion of heart, not trying to achieve goodness by one’s own efforts, but making room for graceTestimony de Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Saint Leu).“.
This is undoubtedly one of the secrets of understanding Madame Acarie’s life : “not trying to achieve goodness by one’s efforts, but making room for grace”. This simple statement can be compared with Edith Stein’s words : “Basically, it is always a small, simple truth I have to express : how to go about living at the Lord’s hand.”Edith Stein : Self portrait in Letters, p. 86
This is simple, but not easy; we know that was the case for Edith, Sister Benedicta of the Cross. Nor was it easy for Madame Acarie, but that is where the fullness of the gift lies. Her daughter Marie throws light on her mother’s fundamental attitude : “I am able to tolerate all kinds of imperfection in a soul, but to see it lacking confidence in God and unwilling to serve Him to the point of self-abandonment: that is something I cannot abide”. It is all very well to be unable to abide a lack of confidence in God but is this the way in which she acted on every occasion ?
Little Marie (the daughter of her son Nicholas and Marie de Huguenat) died just after her husband Pierre, and not long before she entered Amiens Carmel. The Lord had spared her the inevitably very painful trial of losing one of her own children, but now this loved and cherished grandchild, whom she had prepared for her First Communion, was departing this life prematurely.
How does one go through this “at the Lord’s hand” ? The testimony of Jeanne of Jesus Seguier is terse. “Seeing that God had taken her at this tender age, even though she loved her dearly, she was satisfied”. This testimony only reveals the outward attitude of the exceptional person that Madame Acarie was.
As for what went on within her admirable soul, we naturally think of the following passage from Emmanuel Mounier. It has a wealth of spiritual meaning which is worthy of Madame Acarie and it is in basic agreement with the testimony of Jeanne of Jesus.
“This would have made no sense at all had our little daughter been nothing more than a scrap of flesh that had suffered some unknown injury, a morsel of human life involved in an accident. No, she is like a small white host. She has outstripped us. She is a mysterious, infinite expanse of love, and the sight of her would dazzle us if we could see her face to face.
If all we can do is to suffer, undergo, endure, bear this tragedy then we should not hold out, and we should fail in what is being asked of us. From morning till night, we must think of this disastrous event not as if something has been taken away from us, but as if we are making a gift, so as not to show ourselves unworthy of the Christ-child in our midst… These are days which I think we must not waste by undervaluing them; they are days filled with infinite graceEmmanuel Mounier, Letter to his wife, mars 1940. “.
It is only in this sense that Madame Acarie could “be satisfied” with the loss of little Marie at about seven years old.
Madame Acarie would not countenance any falsehood; on the contrary, she valued truthfulness above all else. She knew that the term “Communication” in the age of the great humanists, (whose works she had probably read), meant “verbal communication”. One could speak, for example, of “communicatio sermonis”. Thomas More and Erasmus considered that this form of communication conveyed the truth; the written word, on the other hand, was always subject to distortion. One can put forward the hypothesis that Madame Acarie, having had countless discussions with people of every kind, and having a concern for absolute truth, thought the cause of truth would be better served if she did not leave any writings, and that is why she destroyed them.
Historians have been successful in relating the lives of M. and Mme. Acarie to the times in which they lived, that is, the period at the end of the Wars of Religion, a period riven by heresy, when the people suffered widespread distress as a result of war and famine. These dreadful events were illustrated in engravings by Jacques Callot which are a striking record of the times. One can understand the urgent necessity for the kind of material charity to which Madame Acarie devoted so much of her time and resources. This was an era, notwithstanding, of important scientific advances. In 1610, Galileo published his short work “Siderus Nuncius” ; there was great expansion in the mission field, which led to the intermingling of cultures. Madame Acarie lived, for example, at the time of the first persecutions in Japan (notably at Nagasaki, where St Paul Miki and his companions were put to death in 1597). These are two other aspects of the age in which she lived.
The world which she knew was, like our own, suspended between truth and falsehood. But it retains its balance.
Undoubtedly because saints can still be found in our society and also because there are three privileged areas where truth remains paramount :
- The family, where children have their first experience of being loved, in the measure that the husband and wife love each other.
- The traditional professions and professions concerned with the welfare of others. It is through these that active charity towards one’s neighbour can be practised, with reference if possible to the social teaching of the Church.
- Centres of spirituality, first and foremost the Church, with its charitable undertakings :
Marthe Robin and her “Foyers de Charité.
Jean Vanier and l’Arche.
Father Werenfried and “Aid to the Church in Need.”
In fact, everywhere where there is an honest seeking for God.
Because of her desire for the truth, Madame Acarie was wonderfully guided in the way of holiness, while ignoring other options where lying would have been almost unavoidable.
In fact, she kept her distance from the sphere of politics, although her husband was deeply involved, and also she distanced herself from the centre of power, although she was close to it, and from fashionable society. She may have been attracted to all this for a very brief period.
On the other hand, she put a great deal of herself into family affairs and difficult professions such as architecture, supervision of building construction, finance and law. She was very involved also in the higher reaches of the spiritual life, and to this work she brought an outstanding gift for discernment which should still be recognised today.