Mother Mary of Jesus, Foundress of Kirk Edge Carmel, Part V

Monday, January 22, 2007

“Carmelite Seed-Time” – fragments of the second part of chapter 3 from “In the silence of Mary- the life of Mother Mary of Jesus Carmelite Prioress and Foundress 1851-1942”.  In following chapters we will read about Sister Mary of Jesus spiritual formation in Carmel, but first we meet her Prioress, Mother Mary of the Blessed Trinity, who contributed a lot to Sister Mary of Jesus formation.For a newcomer to Carmel there are three people who contribute to her formation as a true Carmelite: her Prioress, her Mistress of novices and, as far as external observance is concerned, her ‘angel’. In the case of Sister Mary of Jesus, it was the first and the last who exercised the greatest influence. With her Prioress there were laid early foundations of a spiritual relationship and bond that were destined to be lifelong, and the part played by Mother Mary of the Blessed Trinity was too considerable not to pause over it a little…A story how the former English Protestant came to find herself the Prioress of the first Carmel in France, and with an influence that extended beyond the enclosure, does not belong to this book. A few incidents, however, give an illuminating glimpses of the personality and character that appealed so much to Sister Mary of Jesus. Elisabeth Thompson was fifth child and eldest daughter of a large, prosperous and thoroughly God-fearing Protestant family. Stevenson’s phrase ‘steel-true and blade-straight’ might have written of her. She was one of those essentially upright souls who are incapable of double-dealing either with God or man. her frankness found expression in a kind of unaffected spontaneity, while her soul was built for the great simplicities of Carmel. She united a man’s clarity of mind and capacity for unbiased judgment with all a woman’s power of love and tenderness. A swift sense of humor and a natural gracefulness make up the picture of this very charming personality. At fifteen she had resolutely cut out of her life the study of mathematics, which she loved and at which she was exceptionally brilliant, because she felt it was robbing God of His full room in her soul. So, later on, when the call to Catholicism came, there was no human hesitancy, though it meant a break with the family who idolized her, and most of whom she had mothered, ever since her mother had became a semi-invalid. But she was determined to act for God alone. At her introductory interview with Father Faber (it was through one of his book that she had first been moved) she sat, courteous but resolute, with her back to him the whole time; she had heard of his personal charm, and was not going to allow it to play any part in her search of truth. A few months later, in that same parlour, with everything set for her reception, she went through a last minute agony of doubt. Once again she turned her back on the Oratorian, and burying her face in her hands, implored God not to let her take the step if it were not His will. the priest sat by, praying silently with her, realizing that no words could help. Suddenly she turned, and wiht an almost fierce intensity, born of the stress of soul, she said: ‘If in ten years i find that I have been mistaken today, I will undo it- not in private but publicly, before the whole church’. ‘And you would do quite rightly’ answered the priest quietly, ‘but that day will never come’. As a child, in spite of her gaiety and high spirits, her favourite ‘game’ had been to hide away in a dark cupboard and think of God; after her conversion, she realized that real graces had been given to her in these hours of solitude with God and that they were a sign of her vocation to the contemplative life. Father Faber had already sensed this latter, and saw in her a possibility of carrying into effect a dream he had long cherished, of establishing a Carmel of the Primitive Observance in London. He had discussed it with cardinal Wiseman, who was equally enthusiastic, and had already sent one of his penitents, Miss White, to the Rue d’Enfer with the idea in mind. In Elizabeth Thompson he saw the qualities necessary to undertake such an enterprise: to imbibe the spirit of St Teresa in all its plenitude and to bring it back with her someday to London. Accordingly, he made arrangements for her to enter in Paris, stipulating that she should return to this country whenever there should be question of an English foundation. He gave it as his opinion that she ‘would make a first-rate Prioress some day’, and her own early experience in Carmel may certainly be said to have fitted her for the office, for it bred in an already sympathetic heart a boundless capacity to enter into the soul travail of others. Her affectionate nature was torn by the attitude of her family, to whom her vocation was utterly incomprehensible; it took time for so English a character to get to know her new French Sisters. She had scarcely any idea of what life in an enclosed Monastery would entail: her delicate health made her unusually sensitive both to extremities of the Paris climate and to fasting, while the weakness left by spinal injury received as a girl caused her much additional fatigue. Interiorly, instead of the consolations of her childhood, there was nothing but darkness and aridity. A few sentences of Sister Mary of St Joseph, written years later, explain why it was that in the face of so many obstacles she came swiftly to union with God, and won a position of genuine affection and veneration in the community. ‘Her headlong love of God, which, although hidden and tasteless to herself at this time, preserved all its energy of action. Her generous fidelity to grace, together with the strength and ardour of her character, prevented her from remaining, like many weak and ungenerous souls in a hesitating, repining, half-and -half state, taking months or years of painful, intermittent warfare before bringing about the necessary breaking and death of their sensitive nature. She, on the contrary, had one desperate struggle, one violent wrench, and then all was over; the victory was gained and though the suffering might return, she no longer deigned to look at it.’

It must have been admiration at the heroism of this convert of thirty five that evoked the tribute from her Prioress: ‘God would have founded the order of Carmel for that soul alone!’

(Today’s picture, above, shows the copy of St Teresa sculpture from St. Peter’s in Rome made for her Cloister shrine at Notting Hill in London.)


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