Saturday, July 16, 2016
Constance was only one of the sixteen women who were now facing their own imminent deaths at the hands of those who were the self-proclaimed enlightened minds of a new world order. Yet, she was the youngest and least experienced of all of the women. Constance was still in her novitiate with the Carmelite order when they had been arrested and dragged before a judge to answer charges of treason, espionage, and fanaticism.Thus, Constance was distressed that she would face death without having ever professed her vows as a nun. However, the prioress of the community--Teresa--invited Constance to profess her vows with the community as the older and more experienced women reconsecrated themselves in service to God at the foot of the guillotine. Having finally become a full member of that sacred community, Constance was more than willing to ascend the steps to the revolution's enlightened butchery, but first she knelt before her prioress and asked for permission to go and die as a martyr for their common Lord Jesus.When Teresa granted her permission, Constance stood quickly and walked confidently up the stairs while singing the hymn "Laudate Dominum omnes gentes"--"All peoples praise the Lord." Fifteen other voices joined with her as Constance set her own neck in the path of the suspended blade but the rest of the crowd remained deathly silent. Once the blade had fallen and made Constance a martyr, there were only fifteen voices left to sing the hymn.
The women had once lived peaceful lives in a cloistered community of service and devotion. They fed the poor, treated the sick, and offered love to their enemies. But, in 1792 there had been a revolution in France that overthrew the absolute monarchy and aristocracy that strongly favored Roman Catholic clergy and monastics. In the aftermath of that upheaval, the new leaders had favored a viciously anti-religious government that discounted all expressions of faith regardless of their goodness or peacefulness. They ruled by more modern ideas and according to the teachings of those thinkers we call members of "the Enlightenment."The nuns of Compiegne had not fought against the revolutionaries and had, in fact, helped to reduce oppression upon the poor and hurting but in the aftermath of the revolution their vows of allegiance to Jesus Christ meant that they were targets for elimination. At first, they were simply outlawed but they continued to meet in secret in spite of the commands of the new government. Eventually, they were arrested and tried. In accordance with the demands of Robespierre, their trial and sentencing happened in less than twenty-four hours. The charges were trumped up and they were eventually found guilty of the catch-all crime for those the revolutionaries detested: "fanaticism."
As each woman climbed the steps that led to her death and martyrdom there was one less voice singing the hymns that sustained them and spoke beautifully of the faith that motivated their actions. The crowd remained silent as they watched each woman approach their death with courage and forgive their executioners. Their song became a trio and then a duet but it had lost none of its passion. Finally, it was a solo performance by Teresa, the prioress of a community of martyrs. Teresa ascended the stairs and followed in the footsteps of Constance and all the other faithful women who had died in the last few hours. She continued the song they had shared. When Teresa finished the song, she offered forgiveness to the executioner and surrendered her neck to the guillotine with a quiet prayer. The lever was pulled and the blade, having not grown tired of carnage, rushed to kill Teresa and reunite her with her sisters in the presence of God.With the death of the last nun, the crowd remained silent and began to leave that place with doubts in their mind--who would claim such savagery as enlightened when it was covered over in the blood of sixteen innocent and loving women? As they left the place, one of the crowd observed, "Look at them and see if they do not have the air of angels! By my faith, if these women did not all go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!" As the crowd left, perhaps some went away humming the hymn the women had sung and left behind for the crowd as an inheritance of a Kingdom-not-of-this-world.