Quebec – An Ursuline Epic Part Three

The landing of La Mère Marie de l’Incarnation was indeed an event of deep national importance. She is unquestionably one of the five founders of New France, and her fame with posterity is quite as secure as that of Champlain, Laval, Frontenac or Talon. The little band of colonists could not foresee this; but they recognized her at once as their fellow-pioneer, the leader of the first religieuses to answer the call of their new, wild, far-off home. Canadians were then in dire need of men, money and material from the Mère Patrie to safeguard their country’s infant life against stark, constricting circumstances. Yet they freely gave a heartfelt welcome to a woman who brought no other wealth than that which is the only inheritance of the saints on earth. Their hopeful faith in her was amply justified by history, both before and since her time. For, besides being one of the five founders of New France, she was the third of three great nuns whom the three great Latin races brought forth in the service of the Church of Rome at three most critical epochs. All three had a close affinity of devotion; but this was made effectual in the widest diversity of environment. The Italian, St. Catherine of Siena, was the last of the really medieval saints the Spaniard, St. Theresa, was the first great woman leader against the Reformation while in La Mère Marie colonial France found the Moses and Joshua of what proved to be the Promised Land of Canada.

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most intimately human and intensely sympathetic of all the saints. She was all things good to every man and woman she could influence; and no one that met her could fail to be influenced by her magnetic moral genius. Her letters are full of plain speaking against ugly sins ; yet none are more wonderfully persuasive. She did in very truth become the spiritual “dearest sister” of each correspondent, and the “Slave of the servants of Jesus Crucified “; and no one better understood how many different ways of holiness could lead to the one Heaven, adapted to every variety of character : “in my Father’s house are many mansions” was her favourite refrain. The world had need of her in that lax age of sundering strife, which is only too well described in the chronicle of Neri di Donato for 1373:

The Brothers of St. Austin killed their Provincial at Sant’ Antonio, and in Siena was much fighting. At Assisi, the Brothers Minor fought, and killed fourteen with the knife. The Brothers of the Rose fought and drove six away. . So all Religious everywhere seemed to have strife and dissension among themselves. And every Religious, of whatever rule, was oppressed and insulted by the world. . . It seems there are divisions over all the world. In Siena loyalty was not observed ; gentlemen did not show it among themselves or outside; nor did the Nine among themselves, nor with people outside, nor did the Twelve. The people did not agree with their leader, nor exactly with any one else.”

The youngest of the twenty-five children of a common dyer of Siena, St. Catherine was only sixteen when she had already lived down the opposition excited by her precocious ecstasies, her visions, her vows and her ascetic practices. Devoted followers began to gather round her ; and she threw herself into the work of rescuing errant souls from this mad flux of evil, with all the effectiveness of the practical mystic. It was characteristic of her that when she started on a pilgrimage, at the age of eight, she took bread and water with her, lest the angels might forget her on the way. Her success in personal persuasion was the wonder of her own age, as it has been of all succeeding. The con-summation of her visions came on the last day of the carnival of 1367, when she was divinely espoused to her Redeemer. Henceforth she knew herself “bought with a price.” She had previously become a Dominican tertiary, one of those devout women who live at home under religious rule.

She never sought the cloisters ; but, on the contrary, became more active in domestic and social life as time went on. She quickly got into touch with people of all classes, all occupations, all opinions. There never was a wider correspondence with two Popes, several cardinals and many humbler “religious” of both sexes ; with the King of France and the concupiscent Giovanna, Queen of Naples ; with the reclaimed Brother William of England, and with that redoubtable freelance, Sir John Hawkwood ; with the members of her own humble family and with others as various as they were many. Yet it was only in 1377, when she was thirty, that she learnt to write. Before this she had been dependent on the secretaries who willingly came to her from every walk of life. She became an ambassador in bonds for the Pope. She went to Pisa and Lucca to persuade these towns not to join an anti-papal league. For the same purpose she went to Florence, where a Papal Legate was flayed alive, and where she just missed martyr-dom herself in 1378, to a regret: as poignant as Togo felt because Tsu-shima denied him a victorious death. She was sent as an Envoy Extra-ordinary to and from the Papal Court, on what were practically international affairs ; and at Avignon in 1376 she certainly became a self-appointed Minister Plenipotentiary, and gained her ends by sheer moral suasion. This alone fixes her historical position firmly within mediæval times. It would almost be a modern parallel if the Tsar Alexander II had sent Father John of Kronstadt to checkmate Lord Beaconsfield at the Congress of Ber lin, and if Father John had nominated himself into the chair for the two Peace Conferences at the Hague.

By the irony of fate she failed only in world politics. She bent all her energies, she literally gave her very life, in a vain attempt to unite Italy and the rest of Christendom round the universal Church, centred in Rome and reformed from within. She did, indeed, do more than anyone else to bring back Gregory XI from Avignon; and Urban VI began with a fury of reform. But the one had the velvet glove without the gauntlet, and the other the gauntlet without the velvet glove. Besides, the times were hopelessly out of course for the nice readjustment of temporal and spiritual affairs from the obsolescent mediæval point of view. She was too late and too early for the work on which she had set her heart. She was too late, because the age of St. Francis was the last when any such scheme would have had a chance of acceptance throughout all Christendom. She would have made an excellent Franciscan in all departments of woman’s aid, from the revivalizing tours with the saint—which did, within the Church, what Methodists and Salvationists have since done out-side it—to the royal interview between a Beatus AEgidius ” and St. Louis, whom she would have found a far more kindred spirit than the other King of France to whom she wrote. She was too early, because no Luther had yet roused Loyola and Theresa to lead a counter-reformation in that part of Christendom which was naturally Roman Catholic by temperament and circumstances. And, in her own generation, she could have little affinity with the intellectual Joachites, the followers of the holy Joachim da Fiore, who thought the Church had not always been the same, and that it should develop dynamically in adaptation to the needs of a changing world. The Joachites were, in fact, empirical evolutionists, and not favoured by the upholders of static religion. Had they published a manifesto it might have waited till our own day before getting the stamp of Nihil obstat, Imprimatur. Protestants might suppose this privilege would never have been granted at all. But let them look at The Priest’s Studies of Dr. Scannell, which actually recommends works based on the theory of evolution as applied to theology, and which passed the censor with flying colours in the very year of the u Modernist ” Encyclical.

And so this most human of saintly women died at thirty-three, the very age of Christ, heart-broken at having failed in her Church and State reform but leaving an example of mediating service between God and man that will quicken individual effort to the end of time.

St. Theresa’s worldly circumstances were entirely different. She was born in 1515, of aristocratic family, at Avila, in gallant, proud, sententious Old Castile. As a child she had the true Don Quixote love of books about knight-errantry. At seven-teen she was a pretty débutante ; and doubtless spoke the language of mantilla, fan and eyes as well as others of her sex and people. Even when she entered the local Carmelite convent of the Incarnation, she acquiesced, though with qualms of conscience, in the rather worldly intercourse that went on there. “For twenty years I was tossed about on a stormy sea in a wretched condition ; for, if I had small contentment in the world, in God I had no pleasure. At prayers I watched the clock to see it strike the end of the hour. To go to the oratory was a vexation, and prayer itself a constant effort.” It was only in her fortieth year, after her father’s death, that the sight of her Saviour’s wounds struck her so intensely that she fell in tears before the crucifix, while every worldly emotion died within her. In vision she saw herself as a clear but formless mirror, which shone with the inner light of Christ. She felt his bodily presence so constantly that she named herself Theresa of Jesus. An angel then appeared and pierced her heart with a fire-tipped lance : a mystic act which became a favourite subject with religious artists and is still represented in the frontispiece of all her books of devotion. She immediately began reforming the Carmelite practice, and, of course, met with strong opposition. Finally, in ’562, she opened a little house of her own in Avila, with four poor women living under the strictest rule. Here she spent her five happiest years, following every self-denying precept, and writing her immortal works. Philip II valued her manuscripts so highly that he kept them in the richest cabinet in the Escorial, and always carried the key about his person. She died in 1582, and was canonized by Pope Gregory XV forty years later.

There are many curious links, historical and psychological, connecting these three saintly women with each other and with their religious affinities. St. Theresa, who did so much of the woman’s work in aid of the Jesuit effort against the Protestants, was canonized in the same year as Ignatius Loyola. La Mere Marie has been the accepted Ste. Therese de l’Amérique ever since Bossuet first called her so ; Pope Paul III told the Jesuits he was giving them sisters when he approved the institution of the Ursulines; and. Jesuits and Ursulines worked together as the pioneers of education and conversion in the early days of Canada. St. Catherine of Siena is the true psychological link between St. Theresa and St. Francis, and the Franciscans were the first of all missionaries to America, whither they went with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493.

Instances might easily be multiplied ; and many comparatively trifling coincidences added, such as that Diego de Yepez, Philip II’s confessor, published the Life of St, Theresa in 1599, the year La Mere Marie was born. But what is most significant to the Church’s universal work is that the three women were not really so much alike as complementary. St. Catherine was of lowly origin, only learnt to read after she was grown up, and to write three years before her death. She embodied the best traditions of mediaeval sanctity, and yet was almost Pauline in her exhortation and persuasiveness. St. Theresa was highly born, well educated, and the first of modern female saints. She did not write so much to exhort and persuade directly as to reveal and justify. She did not live in the tumultuous world as St. Catherine did, and her only statesmanship took the special form of expanding and consolidating her Theresian Carmelites. The St. Catherine we know from her quick-worded letters is a woman appealing to soul after soul to help the Mother Church with their own salvation and re-union. The St. Theresa of the autobiography and El Castillo interior is a steward of the mysteries of God, a high priestess who enters the Holy of Holies alone, and after-wards re-tells to the faithful the message revealed to her beside the Ark of the Covenant, in presence of the Cherubim.

La Mère Marie was neither highly nor lowly born, though very well connected on her mother’s side. She was more statesmanlike than St. Catherine, more practical in worldly matters than St. Theresa. They were of mediæval and modern Europe : she was a pioneer and missionary in the sternest of the New-World wilds. There, when the colony was still in its impressionable youth, her cunning hand fashioned the moulds for the same work that her two sister saints had done within their own spheres of usefulness, and fashioned them in a spirit at once akin to and adaptively different from theirs. Her pen, too, completed their accounts of Church activities, from a nun’s standpoint, by telling the first story of con-vent life in North America. It is true that she wrote no formal work, and that her letters are rather documents than history. And it must be admitted that her writings are not, and never will be, French classics, as St. Catherine’s are Italian classics to a certain extent, and St. Theresa’s are Spanish classics altogether. They are just a little like very good dispatches, and by just so much they miss the saving grace of a native style. They were generally written under great pressure of time, amid many distractions, and partly as reports. So their very nature prevents vivid presentation, and keeps them on the lower literary level of description. The spiritual passages are always excellent ; but here the lack of a sustained context and of the instinct for the one inevitable word combine to prevent the expression from doing full justice to the ideas. The saint, in fact, was greater than the author.

It is her life, rather than her letters, that is the important point even to-day. And this was of still more importance at the time she came to Canada. For she came as the inheritor of a great tradition, as the third of a trio of nuns who played a great interdependent part in the history of their Church, as the foundress of the first convent, as the first educator of Canadian girls, and as the first white woman to evangelize the Indians. And what heightened the importance of all this was that the French-Canadians were then, as they are now, by tradition, training and consent, the most Roman Catholic community in the world. She had no dire troubles within the Church to strain her heart to death, as St. Catherine had ; no challenging Protestants to confute, like St. Theresa. Her spiritual warfare was the universal one against the powers of evil, and her earthly work was against savagery and the forces of nature. In both she was prepared to acquit herself excellently well. And her landing at Quebec was indeed an event of profound significance.