The 16 Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne, 1794


The Carmelite Mass by Jac May

celebrating the sacrifice of the 16 Carmelite sisters of Compiegne

who went to the Guillotine on 17th July 1794, singing with joy

The Sixteen Carmelite sisters of Compiegne, a painting by Jac May 5th August 2018


  1. Introit:

                The prophet Elijah, the bad King Ahab, God and Mount Carmel


Hunger, thirst and fire

in the grit of the dust and sand

And drought in the king’s lassitude

And land.

“Is it you, Elijah,

you troubler of Israel,

ha’attah zeh ‘ocher yisra’el[1],

‘ocher yisra’el,

and is your God with you?”[2]

“Et cum spiritu tuo[3], Ahab

(may the dogs slick up your blood

in some God-forsaken place[4]).

How long will you limp along[5]

between her limpid, painted eyes[6],

and the Lord the God of Israel?”

(Oh you, Jezebel of Ethbaal!

baharog ‘izevel; baharog ‘izevel)


Elijah’s ferocious purity

is sand, grit, drought and desert in itself;

the prophet’s words are catastrophe,

God’s grafitti etched deep in echoes over the wasteland,

Threats and promises splashed reckless

on eremitic rocks and burnt off crops,

his words fly from a font of dust and fire

bannered at a flock of goats.

“Alone, in the presence of the Lord, I stand.[7]

I, even I only, am left.[8]

‘ani notarti navi laihvah, levaddi

Levaddi, levaddi[9]

This wilderness is my altar,

this broom tree my chantry,[10]

this drought my offertory,

this sun the fire of sacrifice.”[11]


Ravens, widows and angels feed him,[12]

and in the sacrament of the desert

the elements are never spent;[13]

sun, sand, fire, grit, wind and snow,

duststorm and locust bite through the soul,

the last meal and oil,

and the last meal and oil…


“What are you doing here, Elijah?”[14]

Now it is God asking

on Horeb after wind and fire

in cavernous silences

after the storm.

“Here?  I am very jealous for the Lord of hosts.”


“Have you found me, O my enemy?”[15]

Ahab is afraid.

“Leave your vegetable plot, Ahab,[16]

that garden where you are walled

in with your bitter herbs,

and come near to me,

on Horeb,

listening for the voice.”


Ravens, angels, clouds and prophets

stir like a wind from the east

whirling over the wilderness,

that sweep him to the feast

in chariots of fire.

“I, even I only, am left”,

cries Elijah,

in that God-forsaken land.


“I, even I only, AM.”

says the Lord.


In the presence of God we stand.






  1. Gloria

The discalced Carmelites of the Spanish Golden Age are brought to France


Adoramus te, Glorificamus te,

Domine Deus Rex coelestis…[17]


“Behold, you are beautiful, my love,[18]

your eyes are doves

behind your veil,

your voice like honey

in the cleft of rocks,

your hair is like a flock of goats.”

The breeze is fragrant with spices

under the apple tree

and the winter is past:

I have awoken to Spring and lyre

in the garden of your love.

O, I am sick with love,

dancing in the choir,[19]

barefoot[20] and with flowing tresses

festooned with the angels,

no space between my soul

and your caresses.


Darkness before now filled my soul

at the brink of hell,[21]

when shepherds came[22]

and called me on the hill,

and I came to your bower,[23]

all spangled flowers of light

and dreaming sight of sacrament

in that moonbeam spilling hour.


Tu solis altissimus,

Cuantas veces el angel me decia:

“Alma, asomate agora a la ventura”[24]

He calls me to the world’s rim

and I have fallen over the edge into heaven.


Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Mother Anne of Jesus has brought

the dance of Carmelites to France.






III.           The Gospel of Mary and Martha,

at the Carmelite Convent of the Annunciation at Compiegne, 1784



Sister Martha[25] hurries through the yard,

and reaching the steps with her yoke of pails

ascends, rapt, through fragrant clouds of mimosa.

The perfume of prayer rises within the veil.

“My gradual I make with incense

of flowers and herbs, their fragrance

like my labour and small works of love

are the truest prayer, up they rise and above

Compiegne and my small cloistered life

my soul flies in windblown leaf and laugh.

`Le Seigneur circule parmi les marmites,’[26]

and I have found him whom I adore

in all my tasks: in the kitchen’s heat,

and at the gate among the starving poor.

I make my mass with versicles of bells,

the wind precenting in the convent trees,

in fetching water from the holy well,

in shelling peas and making cheese.”

Laborare est orare,

Incarnation is her aria.



Sister Mary[27] sighs for the Lord’s words, singing

her gradual[28] from the altar through the choir;

ecstatic in angel-song, herself ascends in the swinging

smoke, the love of God has set her heart on fire.

“Here is Love that bade me welcome[29],

Sequentia sancti Euangelii secundam Lucam.

Gloria tibi Domine. The Lord be in my heart,

for I have abandoned myself to providence[30],

and in exile[31] from heaven I know no greater art

than love of God, no prayer of greater excellence[32].”

A lilting soul bent on prayer, adoration, oblation –

Omni maneo prope ad Deo[33] – her consecration

is the flight from street, bustle, crowd and town

to the cool, dim silence of oratory and cell.

Compound of rough clay and spirit ground

in a nun’s mortar to motes of holy dust that will

float in the triforium in shafts of sunlight,

she is a prayer drifting, pierced between the heights

of heaven and the freefall chancel floor,

Thee in ravished bliss she doth adore.

Orare est laborare

contemplation is her aria[34].


3rd stanza is a duet:

love is….. (eg the ultimate prayer, practical)

is….. (eg adoration/contemplation)

this third level of the religious life is transcendence, illumination, unification… check



  1. Credo:

                                The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14th, 1792

                                on which day the nuns of Compiegne were forced to leave their Carmel


Credo in unum Deum,

Patrem omnipotentem,

factorem caeli et terrae…

But they go marching the Marseillaise:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,

                Le jour de gloire est arrive

                Contre nous, de la tyrannie,

                L’etandard sanglant est leve. [35]

This is the creed of Revolution, and the glory

of blood is their freedom and story,

equality for all, save those who disagree,

fraternity for all, except for you and me.

Light of light, very God of very God,

this day we find our freedom in your suffering,

the bloody standard of Christ’s holy cross

fills the chalice with Thine own offering.


Today we are carried off in the whirlwind,

like birds swept off precarious perches[36]

into the wilderness, prisoners of hope[37],

dreamers of dreams

and voyagers in mysteries.

Daily we offer our own holocaust,

chanters in eternity above the marbled floor,

the spirit free beyond the cell,

we believe in love,

its pain, the bread we broke

its incarnation crumbling

in the soft, dim, cloistered light


Now they stand in the temple of reason[38]

citizens of the earth, scurriers and getters,

the ones who believe in history,

and genuflect to truth.

Oh carters of the mundane,

What is truth?

Give me Abelard and Elouise,

beauty setting reason on fire,

a flagrant intoxication of dreams;

give me Alighieri Dante and Beatrice

to be consumed by the imagination;

give me rapture in my contemplation

of invisible verities and

ecstasy in the commune of heaven.

I believe

one loving spirit sets another spirit on fire[39]

but now

the bells of St Jacques have stopped ringing,

and we are exiled from Carmel,

down the mountain we scatter singing,

love is an angel taking wing,

charity is the porch of heaven

hymning the elevated mind and

transfiguring the soul at prayer,

ascendit in caelum.



  1. Offertory
  2. Acclamation during imprisonment in the Convent of the Visitation in Compiegne,

                                 22nd June 1794


`O love divine, I now with all my being

abandon my soul here at thy creche.’[40]

The bird sings in the garden, seeing

the sisters in their prison cage.

`Tranche a ton gré, immole ta victime’,

Here for thy coups de grace they call.

The rose blooms in the yard, and dreams

like petals at thy bidding  fall.

And on another altar, in another place,

in sacrament they pass beyond the veil.

The sun burns in the sky above,

and angels fan their smouldering hearts of love.


  1. Procession to Paris, 12th July 1794


At 10.15am the mayor strode in with a mounted guard,

bundled the elements into two carts and rode hard

for Paris.  Such a kerfuffle, clinking of harness and scuffling

hooves, the knocking of wooden parts, hardly muffling

the abuse of the shuffling crowds, their eyes searching

out the nuns borne up along the rutted nave to the altar.

And the chafe of the bit, the whinnying, the lurching

progress and stops.  Jolting, bolting, the faltering

way to sacrament.  Good practise for tumbrel,

plank and neck-stall.

The nature of a true Offertory is a lost art:[41]

Lord, take these sixteen lives to your sacred, bleeding heart.



  1. At the Conciergerie, 13th July 1794


The bound offering is cast onto the paving stones[42],

thus they come to the sanctuary.

The martyrs make off to their passion,

thus they will fly to glory.[43]

They are accused of hiding weapons,

see in their hand a cross[44].

You make me a terrorist,

a suicide bomber with a small, clay statuette[45]

of the Virgin and Child strapped to my body,

and I will die for God and my nation

making peace through self-oblation

and I will take you with me.





  1. Eucharistic Prayer

The sixteen Carmelite nuns go to the Guillotine on July 17th 1794, singing.


  1. The tumbrels


The tumbrels bear them away

from the Conciergerie –

hoc est enim Corpus meum”,[46]

ostendit populo.

In the tumble and sway

go the angels in white

above the populace,

a lost song of paradise,

on the clatter of the great wheels.

Such heat and a duet sung

at the world’s end:

the people contend

“Ah! ca ira, ca ira, ca ira,

                le peuple en ce jour sans cesse repete.”[47]

and the sisters chant

“The day of glory,

Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high”.[48]

The day is away to the fields of heaven,

and as they wheel off out of history

the crowd falls silent at the bread

crumbling in the crowded ways, wending

in the bright, broad street of mystery.

“Lord, grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.”


  1. The Guillotine


Back to the blade they sit on the bench,

fearing the Guillotine, smelling the stench

of yesterday’s blood, hearing the knock

of the plank, the neck-stall click,

a trinity of sounds with

the swish of the blade, and all still singing

in the silence of the barriere du Trone:

“Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ”:

hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei,

novi et aeterni testamenti” –

“For his mercy endures for ever”.

Life is away and free in the garden of Paradise

                – mysterium fidei –

and by the swish of the blade

and Sanson’s leather sack

Life vanishes to infinity[49].




VII.         The Dismissal

July 1894: Letter to Cambrai on the Centenary of the martyrdom, from the Abbess of Stanbrook, successor of the English Benedictine nuns who were briefly imprisoned with the Carmelites at Compiegne and who escaped wearing the secular clothing and sandals of the Carmelites.


“We hold these things in high honour

How happy we are to have kept this sandal for so many years!

It seems to invite us to follow in the footsteps of those who

bade us farewell so tenderly,

before getting into the cart

to reach the throne of glory by way of Paris and the guillotine.”[50]


Ite, misse est.





JACM: this first draft completed 7am Tuesday 8th April 2008.  (Begun after hearing Jean Francaix’s Carmelite Suite at CLC on Saturday 10th March 2007).



[1] Hebrew transliterated: you trouble of Israel

[2] The stories of Elijah and King Ahab are found in 1 Kings 16.29 – 1 Kings 21.  A number of questions characterise the story.  This first question (1 Kings 18.17) reflects Elijah’s conflict with King Ahab, who worships the gods of his pagan wife Jezebel.

[3] the greeting of the people in the Latin Mass.

[4] After King Ahab has wickedly arranged Naboth’s death, so that he can have his vineyard, Elijah prophesies that the dogs will lick up his own blood in the place where Naboth died.  This happens in 1 Kings 22.38.

[5] In 1 Kings 18.21, before his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah accuses Ahab and the people of corrupting a pure monotheism, and `limping with two different opinions’.

[6]   Eventually (2 Kings 2.11) Elijah was taken up to heaven by chariots of fire and the prophet Elisha succeeded him.  The reference to Jezebel’s painted eyes comes in 2 Kings 9.30.

[7] The story of Elijah begins in 1 Kings 17.1 with his significant saying, so suitable for this Mass Introit, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand…”

[8] 1 Kings 18.22 Before the contest with the prophets of Baal on Carmel, Elijah says that he only is left a prophet of the Lord.

[9] “I remain a prophet of the Lord, alone” alone, alone

[10] 1 Kings 19.5: After winning the contest and killing all the prophets of Baal Elijah runs for his life to Beersheba, hides in the wilderness and sits under a broom tree.  An angel feeds him.

[11] see Teilhard de Chardin, Mass on the World (in the Ordos desert in China)

[12] At the beginning of Elijah’s story he is fed (beside the brook Cherith) by ravens; next he is fed by the widow of Zarephath; after Carmel he is fed by an angel.

[13] Early on, the widow of Zarephath feeds Elijah with her last food, and Elijah prophesies (`1 Kings 17.14) that thae jar of meal will never be spent, and the cruise of oil will never fail.

[14] After the contest on Mount Carmel, and being fed in the wilderness by an angel, Elijah went to Mount Horeb and lodged in a cave, where God sought him out and asked this question (1 Kings 19.9)

[15] 1 Kings 21.20

[16] The story of Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard begins with Ahab wanting it for a vegetable plot (1 Kings 21.2).  The desire of it is already poisoning his thoughts.

[17] various extracts from the Gloria of the Latin Mass

[18] extracts from the Song of Solomon  ch.4, so popular with St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila etc

[19] Mother Anne of Jesus, companion of Teresa and St John of the Cross, founded Carmelite houses in France and was said to have astonished the French novices by dancing in the choir.

[20] `discalced’ Carmelites, means `without shoes’, or only sandals.

[21] St John of the Cross, dark night etc

[22] see Lope de Vega, El Pastor divino, and Matthew Arnold, The Scholar Gypsy

[23] the manger and Incarnation

[24] Lines from Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Rimas sacras, Soneto XVIII, translated: How many times has the angel said to me “Soul, come to the window and look out’.

[25] Sr Martha, a lay sister, primarily occupied with manual labour and secular affairs, born in Bannes or Beaune, 2:x:1741.

[26] the words of St Teresa of Avila, foundress and inspiration of the discalced Carmelites

[27] Sister Mary Henrietta  of Providence, a choir-nun born at Carjac, Lot 16:vi:1760.  Choir-nuns could read the Gospel.

[28] scything censing

[29] George Herbert (1593-1633)

[30] L’Abandon, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade 1675-1751

[31] Fenelon, bp of Cambrai before this time, said that cherity was resigned not to find in this place of exile its true tranquillity

[32] see Benet Canfield; le regle de perfection

[33] `always stay close to God’

[34] I was going to do a third verse here, showing the third and final stage of the soul’s ascent – ie following the active and contemplation life comes the transcendent or perfect

[35] the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, was composed one night on 24th April 1792.

[36] St Bridget is said to have regarded her life as that of a seabird on a precarious perch on a cliff.

[37] the prophet Malachi??

[38] In November the next year (1793) the worship of Reason was officially proclaimed and the church of Saint-Jacques in Compiégne became the Temple of Reason

[39] St Augustine

[40] words from the Christmas canticle composed by Mother Teresa of Augustine, 1792 or 1793

[41] Your Revolutionary Surveillance Committee has found them,

Your Committee of Public Safety has bound them;

[42] Sr Charlotte, aged 78, hands bound and with a crutch, could not move after the long journey.  She was pitched out of the cart into the courtyard

[43] These two lines are from the hymn composed by Sr Cretien de Neuville, written on a scrap of paper with charred wood, while int he Conciergerie.

[44] On trial, Mme Lidoine, the prioress, was accused of hiding weapons to be used against the Revolution.  She said that her only weapon was the cross she wore.

[45] The prioress also carried a small, clay statuette of the Virgin and Child.

[46] consecration of the bread in the Latin Mass

[47] A song of the Revolution, `Ca Ira’ means `We will win’

[48] During the sisters’ incarceration int he Conciergerie Mme Cretien de Neuville obtained a scrap of paper from the jailer and with some bits of charred wood wrote her last text, from which these words are taken, set to the tune of La Marseillaise.

[49] line from Dante’s `Il Convivio’ (see Reynolds p.99)

[50] with a few phrases omitted, these are the words of the abbess of Stanbrook.  She probably wrote in French – I should do my own translation.  NB I have not referred to the self-offering of the nuns for the sins of France, and to the ending of the Terror only 10 days’ after their sacrifice….. so…..

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