“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. Now we also meet her future Prioress, Sister Mary of St Joseph.
Mother Mary of the Blessed Trinity was not altogether a stranger to her, for Father Faber had been wont to share his letters from Carmel, and the Mistress had thus begun unconsciously to communicate something of her own spirit to the future postulant. They were in fact, kindred souls, for all the disparity of age; each was characterized by the same singleness of purpose, generous ardor, unswerving fidelity , and all-consuming love of God. They were led by very similar paths, yet, so marked were the exterior differences between them, that a casual onlooker might well have failed to observe this. Mother Mary of the Blessed Trinity, with her spontaneous charm of manner, musical voice, natural grace of movement and quick, deft fingers, all betokening a wide experience and practical competence, was born to be a leader. Sister Mary of St Joseph, on the contrary, suffered from painful shyness, which made her over-diffident and awkwardly self-conscious. Elected Sub-prioress after only four years of Profession, ‘she gave great edification’, wrote a contemporary, ‘but her timidity and her conviction that she was incapable of anything prevented her from doing herself justice in the office.’ Her shyness lent a tinge of formality to her manner that quite belied her affectionate nature, and her oddly deep voice had been a family joke at Arundel and became one in Carmel also. The talents were all of the imaginative and literary order, and did not include manual dexterity….Above all, she was endowed with a rare and lovely humility and a capacity for personal loyalty that, supernaturalized in Carmel, had grown into a singularly attractive example of the true spirit of faith in Superiors. Both as ‘angel’ and as Mistress of novices, which latter function she fulfilled both in Paris and in London, she was admirably fitted to give young Carmelites that solid grounding in regular observance which is a bulwark for the whole Religious life. Her training was strict and comprehensive, but saved from any suspicion of rigidity by her innate kindliness and her own humility. She taught even more powerfully by what she was than what she said, and the lesson above all others upon which she insisted was that of obedience, of going beyond the human person in any Superior, to find and obey God alone.
She used to love to tell, in later days, how she has cast an appraining glance at the face of the new postulant when she was being introduced, and had said joyfully to herself: ‘She’s made of the right stuff!’ Further acquaintance with her charge only deepened this first impression. ‘She always went on, never back’ was her summing up of Sister Mary of Jesus’ early days. Between her and the young Sister there grew up a deep friendship in God and for God, which was destined to last all their lives.
There is one further factor in the shaping of a Carmelite, namely, the work with which her days are occupied, which imperceptibly continues her training. Sister Mary of Jesus appears to have been placed now in this office, now in that; she worked in the Refectory, in the alpargate office, in the garden, and in the sewing offices. Everywhere, the old Carmelite methods were lovingly and scrupulously followed, not because they were necessarily the quickest or the most efficient, but because they had been proved by centuries of experience to be the ways most likely to help souls to pray and to be united to God. She learned that the ideal of a Carmelite officer, as she wrote herself when Prioress, is ‘to love God and devote herself to her work: to change nothing, to inaugurate nothing, to be zealous for the perfection of holy poverty in all that she has to use; to let her only ambition to live and die in Carmel with no print of her own personality but only that of fidelity to God’. It was probably easier then than nowadays for a newcomer to grasp that efficiency is not an end in itself in Carmelite work, though perfection must be sought and an attitude of laissez-aller is equally to be depracated: that a phrase like ‘labour-saving’ can have no meaning where labour is synonymous with love and prayer…Another lesson she learned in the offices was that of selflessness and mortification. One picture gives a glimpse of her toiling up a long flight of stairs with the heavy stone water jar needed for the refectory. She must have looked weary, for an old crippled Sister who passed her draw her aside and whispered: ‘Sister, you look so tired. I wish I could help you. Don’t count steps, leave our Lord to do that’. Another story is that of her arriving at Recreation after a full day’s washing in the laundry, with her hands badly skinned back and front and even bleeding. She was scolded for that a double as a sign of incompetent washing, and accepted the rebuke in silence. Only later did the Prioress discover that a double quantity of ammonia had been poured into the water by mistake, so that even the hardened hands of the Sisters of the White Veil had suffered. Yet a third story serves to show that she had learned early the art of bearing incidental suffering without fuss or complaint. One day, the Sister in charge of the garden came to her to say that she had permission to ask her to spend the hour of silence picking caterpillars off the cabbages; there was a plague of the creatures at that time, and the community vegetables were suffering. Ever since one had nearly killed her as a child, Sister Mary of Jesus had had so great physical horror of them that to touch one made her literraly sick. Nevertheless, whe went off at once and spent whole hour in the hot Paris sun, picking them off one at a time into a jar, and suffered the usual consequences without telling anyone.
…The community had taken to their heart the shy, fair postulant with the lovely voice and the winning smile, and had no difficulty whatever in accepting her for her Clothing. Nothing is known of the ceremony save that it took place on the feast of her personal saint, St Mary Magdalen, and that Madame Dupont’s loving fingers afterwards made a chasuble out of bridal dress she wore. So the first part of her life in Carmel came to an end, and she entered upon a harder and more arduous way.