by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Saint of the Day, Tuesday, February 17, 1970
“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”
The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.
Venerable Camille de Soyecourt, a Carmelite from the highest nobility of France, sticks to her vocation when expelled from the convent by the French Revolution. She is obliged to beg for alms and to perform prosaic jobs. She later recovers her family’s fortune, calls back the dispersed sisters and restores the convent. She confronts Napoleon and dies at the age of 92 after much suffering. She is a stellar example of fortitude facing her “Chinese river” (*).
Below is an excerpt from G. Lenotre (Louis Léon Théodore Gosselin) on the French Revolution.
“On July 24, 1784 Mademoiselle Camille de Soyecourt, a daughter of the highest French nobility, received the Carmelite habit. She was a frail young lady suffering with what her doctors diagnosed as an incurable heart disease. Everyone thought she would be unable to stay in the convent more than six months. However, she not only survived many years but her remarkable personality played an outstanding role preserving the Carmel of Paris during the Revolution.
In 1792 her convent was invaded and the nuns dispersed. Leading a group of them, Sister Camille settled in a private house firmly determined to keep the Carmelite spirit alive. The small community was denounced and the nuns arrested. When she was set free, Mademoiselle de Soyecourt took refuge in her family home but not for long. Shortly afterward, her parents and two sisters were incarcerated. After many obstacles in the journey to fulfill her vocation, she was employed on a farm. During this time she never failed to fulfill all the rules set forth by the Carmel as rigorously as she could; fasting, reciting the office at the prescribed hours and with great difficulty, going to confession weekly with a refractory priest. A refractory was a priest that remained faithful to the Church and fought against the French Revolution. One day she learned that all her relatives had been convicted and guillotined and that one of her sisters still had a young son alive.
Despite her most difficult situation, Sister Camille took care of her nephew until her death. Her parents’ execution revealed her cover and she was expelled from the farm where she worked reducing her to beg for alms for a while. Then she ran into one of the sisters from her convent and decided to restore her Order. With money raised by begging for alms and aided by refractory priests, she got a hold of a seminary chapel and resumed religious services. After the Terror ended, Mademoiselle de Soyecourt, then a tall, pale, serious and gentle lady, decided to recover her parents’ fortune for her nephew and her convent. Lawyers and notaries public were amazed to hear an impoverished woman talking about millions in land sales and purchasing real estate. But she got everything she wanted and called back her scattered sisters.
She then reinstalled her community at the Carmelite convent in Paris where she lived for over 45 years, though not without problems. For example, in January 1811 Joseph Fouché, a French statesman and Minister of Police under Napoleon, was informed that a Carmelite superior of the Carmel was actively copying and distributing the Bull of excommunication…against the emperor himself. She was promptly arrested and taken to a place far away from the convent, though this did not stop her from assisting her community. The nuns would visit her in disguise and safely pass by the guards. The Restoration freed her from this exile. When her moral difficulties seemed to diminish, physical ones commenced. Her body had become pale and almost transparent because of fasting and penance. At 85 she had a bad back and slept on a board while suffering from a most painful gout and stomach pain that did not allow her to rest. However, as always, she maintained her good humor and unchanging, proverbial boldness. Filled with pain, she died in 1849 at 92 years of age.”
This biography is a treatise on the Chinese river, about which I am sure all of you have heard. I would like to comment on it, but not from a readers’ standpoint rather from the vantage point of the one who lived it. It is very different for us to read about her life and say, what a great woman Mademoiselle Camille de Soyecourt was! It is altogether something else is to imagine us in her shoes.
One sees everything that happened to her as part of the fulfillment of a defined vocation. She had a clearly defined goal and pursued it with all her might; and when you look at her life, it was a typical Chinese river. She became a Carmelite nun and could have expected to lead a life like St. Therese the Great or St. Therese the Little Flower— though with its own difficulties, a life entirely inside the Carmel. For sure she had had thousands of inspirations of grace in this regard.
Now, what actually happened? The French Revolution erupts, and she is incarcerated. Let us suppose that she thought of becoming a martyr: “I will give up my life and become a saint. I will gladly accept it.” Conformity. She is set free and hopes to live for God as a single person. Yet she needs to raise her nephew. As a girl she was rich, now she loses her fortune. Her parents are guillotined, and she is reduced to a housemaid, then a beggar.
Then she becomes a farm hand–a manual worker. Born a noble, she becomes a nun and ends up as a farm hand. Although her biography does not go into detail, it is possible that she had to clean stables, cows and do other very prosaic jobs. She moves forward. She is fired and becomes a beggar while trying to support her nephew.
She begs for alms in one place then another and suddenly the French Revolution ends. She becomes a businesswoman and begins to visit notaries to recover the fortune she was entitled to. You see how all this is completely the opposite of what she originally seemed to pursue. She always has the same ultimate goal: to be a Carmelite. She restores the Carmel and begins a normal life as a Carmelite. Then she is jailed in a faraway prison, a sort of internal exile until the Bourbons come to power.
In other words, her Carmelite life is interrupted once again. Finally the Bourbons restore the normal order of things, and she returns to the Carmel. One would say she could now lead a tranquil life like a Carmelite back in her convent where she restarts her prayer life. Yet another type of trial begins. One might say: poor lady, this is the last phase in her life, and she will soon die and rest in the peace of God. No sir—no such thing! She will fight on this earth till her last breath. After so many trials, illnesses and suffering from a bad back, she still lives to be 92—an age no one could have imagined while constantly doing penance as an exemplary nun.
So people with a modern mentality may ask the question: was her life successful or not? It definitely was frustrated, for it seems that for it to have been fulfilled, she should have entered the convent and had a regular religious life till her death. Since so many obstacles impeded her life in the convent and obliged her to become involved in a number of activities she did not desire, she most certainly should have felt frustrated hundreds of times and perhaps even abandoned her vocation. Then when she went back into the convent and became sick. She could have been tempted and said, “This is it, there’s no longer any solution, God has abandoned me. Now that I could lead a normal life as a Carmelite, I begin to live as a patient!”
However, we say that hers was a great and “fully accomplished” life. It is impossible for you to have heard this story without feeling enormous admiration for her. So we ask ourselves, what does accomplishment mean? This is where the mentality of modern man clashes with the Catholic spirit. According to the mentality of the world, her life was frustrated because she did not lead the life she wanted. She led an entirely different life from the one to which she directed all her efforts. She did not appear to accomplish the initial work she had undertaken. In the final analysis, the modern notion of accomplishment is for an individual to have led the life he wanted or to have made a lot of money, supposing this is what most everyone wants. According to the spirit of the Church, she was accomplished, according to the world she was a frustrated failure. Here we see the two concepts of accomplishment.
She did not make a lot of money, nor was she able to lead the life she set out to lead. But it is impossible to hear this story without seeing that she was accomplished. So what is the true meaning of the word, accomplishment? It is something different than what the modern mentality thinks. Worldly accomplishment is above all, self-accomplishment. I do not say above all in the supreme sense, but in the sense of the immediate, it is the accomplishment of oneself.
She fully developed a great personality. She was a person of great virtue who in the splendor of her virtue also manifested a great number of natural qualities with which Providence had endowed her. This clearly was manifest during her life. In other words, she realized the entire natural potential she had. She brought to perfection a thousand aspects that were only potential in her. She was like a seed that fully developed into a splendid tree. This first notion of accomplishment is in a more immediate sense, the accomplishment of having attained one’s own perfection.
There is a second notion of accomplishment where we see this perfection not as a series of disasters that ended in failure but rather her life had continuity—not the accomplishment of her plan but the plan God had for her. Her life was the fulfillment of the will of God.
When we finish reading her life, we see that her great work among men for the glory of God was not so much to have founded a convent, which is an excellent work in and of itself, rather she did something much greater than founding a convent. Her life was a great example of virtue for history.
Her life was a great model of perseverance, resolution, strength of soul, trust in Divine Providence, and obedience to God’s designs in the most adverse circumstances of life.
Thus, people in difficult situations will feel encouraged to face the hardships of life when they know the struggles of her life. As long as her memory persists among men, she will be the strength of the weak and the light of those who find themselves in uncertainty and darkness. Why? Because of her great example. Leaving a great example is something far superior than accomplishing a great work.
While founding a great convent is something splendid, it is utterly useless without leaving a great example. After worshipping God, the best thing we can do is to edify souls by our example. Words come in a distant second place to influence people. However, our example drags others to the correct position. Words move us but examples drag us. She set an example of strength of soul. We perceive how strong she always remained through all the uncertainties of her life. She never gave up and always moved forward, doing her duty according to the will of Providence while never straying from the unity of the work she was accomplishing. She understood that by doing her duty at the moment, she was doing the will of God.
In heaven, she sees the unity in her life that God had willed. She is already Venerable, an extraordinary person who will probably be canonized. Such is the life of a person who blindly moves ahead in the face of difficulties and uncertainties, not letting them bother her, and keeps fighting ahead. In the end comes the glory of having given a good example by obeying God. It seems to me that this is the great lesson of this Saint of the Day.
Summarizing, we have analyzed her life from the perspective of accomplishment. According to a modern notion of accomplishment, her life was frustrated. However according to a Catholic notion, it was fully accomplished.
The difference is found in the very notion of accomplishment. To put this more clearly, we can see that the pagan concept is to do one’s own will in life, whatever one wants. The Catholic concept of accomplishment is to rightly expand one’s own personality, and the most perfect way to do this is by doing the will of God. Of course, these last two notions are related.
After looking at these concepts, we read her biography and see how logical it is for a pagan to see her life as frustrated. She suffered all kinds of mishaps in a long, winding Chinese river. But who has the highest vision of reality, a saint or a pagan?
Then we went on to make a careful analysis showing how it is reasonable for a Catholic to consider her life as completely accomplished. She developed a great personality and practiced great virtue out of love of God. At the same time, she completed a great work. While there is no question that her convent was a great work, her example is worth much more than a convent. After worshipping God and practicing virtue, the best thing one can do is to set an example.
The example she gave is one of fortitude of soul. It will serve well when applied to our theses and spiritual life, and also for all men for as long as her memory is preserved.
(*) Several Chinese rivers zigzag back and forth before entering the ocean. Some even come very close to the ocean and flow back inland before finally emptying into the sea. This is a metaphor for trials and difficulties in the spiritual life.