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understanding. And she prayed directly to God Almighty, and thereby
came, she says, to love Him. And with prayer came new virtues. She now
ceases to speak ill of people, and persuades others to cease from all
detractions, so that absent people are safe. She speaks of God as her
heavenly physician, who alone could cure her. She now desires, not
sickness to show her patience, but health in order to serve God better.
She begins to abominate those forms and ceremonies to which so many were
slavishly devoted, and which she regards as superstitious. But she has
drawbacks and relapses, and is pulled back by temptations and vanities,
so that she is ashamed to approach God with that familiarity which
frequent prayer requires. Then she fears hell, which she thinks she
deserves. She has not yet reached the placidity of a pardoned soul.
Perfection is very slow to be reached, and that is what the Middle Ages
required in order to exorcise the fears of divine wrath. Not, however,
until these fears are exorcised can there be the liberty of the gospel
or the full triumph of love.

Thus for several years Theresa passed a miserable life, since the more
she prayed the more she realized her faults; and these she could not
correct, because her soul was not a master, but a slave. She was drawn
two ways, in opposite directions. She made good resolutions, but failed
to keep them; and then there was a deluge of tears, - the feeling that
she was the weakest and wickedest of all creatures. For nearly twenty
years she passed through this tempestuous sea, between failings and
risings, enjoying neither the sweetness of God nor the pleasures of the
world. But she did not lose the courage of applying herself to mental
prayer. This fortified her; this was her stronghold; this united her to
God. She was persuaded if she persevered in this, whatever sin she might
commit, or whatever temptation might be presented, that, in the end, her
Lord would bring her safe to the port of salvation. So she prayed
without ceasing. She especially insisted on the importance of mental
prayer (which is, I suppose, what is called holy meditation) as a sort
of treaty of friendship with her Lord. At last she feels that the Lord
assists her, in His great love, and she begins to trust in Him. She
declares that prayer is the gate through which the Lord bestows upon her
His favors; and it is only through this that any comfort comes. Then she
begins to enjoy sermons, which once tormented her, whether good or bad,
so long as God is spoken of, for she now loves Him; and she cannot hear
too much of Him she loves. She delights to see her Lord's picture, since
it aids her to see Him inwardly, and to feel that He is always near her,
which is her constant desire.

About this time the "Confessions of Saint Augustine" were put into
Theresa's hands, - one of the few immortal books which are endeared to
the heart of Christians. This book was a comfort and enlightenment to
her, she thinking that the Lord would forgive her, as He did those
saints who had been great sinners, because He loved them. When she
meditated on the conversion of Saint Augustine, - how he heard the voice
in the garden, - it seemed to her that the Lord equally spoke to her, and
thus she was filled with gratitude and joy. After this, her history is
the enumeration of the favors which God gave her, and of the joys of
prayer, which seemed to her to be the very joys of heaven. She longs
more and more for her divine Spouse, to whom she is spiritually wedded.
She pants for Him as the hart pants for the water-brook. She cannot be
separated from Him; neither death nor hell can separate her from His
love. He is infinitely precious to her, - He is chief among ten thousand.
She blesses His holy name. In her exceeding joy she cries, "O Lord of my
soul, O my eternal Good!" In her ecstasy she sings, -

"Absent from Thee, my Saviour dear!
I call not life this living here.
Ah, Lord I my light and living breath,
Take me, oh, take me from this death
And burst the bars that sever me
From my true life above!
Think how I die Thy face to see,
And cannot live away from Thee,
O my Eternal Love!"

Thus she composes canticles and dries her tears, feeling that the love
of God does not consist in these, but in serving Him with fidelity and
devotion. She is filled with the graces of humility, and praises God
that she is permitted to speak of things relating to Him. She is filled
also with strength, since it is He who strengthens her. She is
perpetually refreshed, since she drinks from a divine fountain. She is
in a sort of trance of delight from the enjoyment of divine blessings.
Her soul is elevated to rapture. She feels that her salvation, through
grace, is assured. She no longer has fear of devils or of hell, since
with an everlasting love she is beloved; and her lover is Christ. She
has broken the bondage of the Middle Ages, and she has broken it by
prayer. She is an emancipated woman, and can now afford to devote
herself to practical duties. She visits the sick, she dispenses
charities, she gives wise counsels; for with all her visionary piety she
has good sense in the things of the world, and is as practical as she is
spiritual and transcendental.

And all this in the midst of visions. I will not dwell on these
visions, the weak point in her religious life, though they are visions
of beauty, not of devils, of celestial spirits who came to comfort her,
and who filled her soul with joy and peace.

"A little bird I am,
Shut from the fields of air,
And in my cage I sit and sing
To Him who placed me there;
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my God, it pleases Thee."

She is bathed in the glory of her Lord, and her face shines with the
radiance of heaven, with the moral beauty which the greatest of Spanish
painters represents on his canvas. And she is beloved by everybody, is
universally venerated for her virtues as well as for her spiritual
elevation. The greatest ecclesiastical dignitaries come to see her, and
encourage her, and hold converse with her, for her intellectual gifts
were as remarkable as her piety. Her conversation, it appears, was
charming. Her influence over the highest people was immense. She
pleased, she softened, and she elevated all who knew her. She reigned in
her convent as Madame de Staël reigned in her _salon_. She was supposed
to have reached perfection; and yet she never claimed perfection, but
sadly felt her imperfections, and confessed them. She was very fond of
the society of learned men, from first to last, but formed no
friendships except with those whom she believed to be faithful
servants of God.

At this period Theresa meditated the foundation of a new convent of the
Carmelite order, to be called St. Joseph, after the name of her patron
saint. But here she found great difficulty, as her plans were not
generally approved by her superiors or the learned men whom she
consulted. They were deemed impracticable, for she insisted that the
convent should not be endowed, nor be allowed to possess property. In
all the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the monks, if individually poor,
might be collectively rich; and all the famous monasteries came
gradually to be as well endowed as Oxford and Cambridge universities
were. This proved, in the end, an evil, since the monks became lazy and
luxurious and proud. They could afford to be idle; and with idleness and
luxury came corruption. The austere lives of the founders of these
monasteries gave them a reputation for sanctity and learning, and this
brought them wealth. Rich people who had no near relatives were almost
certain to leave them something in their wills. And the richer the
monasteries became, the greedier their rulers were.

Theresa determined to set a new example. She did not institute any
stricter rules; she was emancipated from austerities; but she resolved
to make her nuns dependent on the Lord rather than on rich people. Nor
was she ambitious of founding a large convent. She thought that thirteen
women together were enough. Gradually she brought the provincial of the
order over to her views, and also the celebrated friar, Peter of
Alcantara, the most eminent ecclesiastic in Spain. But the townspeople
of Avila were full of opposition. They said it was better for Theresa to
remain where she was; that there was no necessity for another convent,
and that it was a very foolish thing. So great was the outcry, that the
provincial finally withdrew his consent; he also deemed the revenue to
be too uncertain. Then the advice of a celebrated Dominican was sought,
who took eight days to consider the matter, and was at first inclined to
recommend the abandonment of the project, but on further reflection he
could see no harm in it, and encouraged it. So a small house was bought,
for the nuns must have some shelter over their heads. The provincial
changed his opinion again, and now favored the enterprise. It was a
small affair, but a great thing to Theresa. Her friend the Dominican
wrote letters to Rome, and the provincial offered no further objection.
Moreover, she had bright visions of celestial comforters.

But the superior of her convent, not wishing the enterprise to succeed,
and desiring to get her out of the way, sent Theresa to Toledo, to visit
and comfort a sick lady of rank, with whom she remained six months.
Here she met many eminent men, chiefly ecclesiastics of the Dominican
and Jesuit orders; and here she inspired other ladies to follow her
example, among others a noble nun of her own order, who sold all she had
and walked to Rome barefooted, in order to obtain leave to establish a
religious house like that proposed by Theresa. At last there came
letters and a brief from Rome for the establishment of the convent, and
Theresa was elected prioress, in the year 1562.

But the opposition still continued, and the most learned and influential
were resolved on disestablishing the house. The matter at last reached
the ears of the King and council, and an order came requiring a
statement as to how the monastery was to be founded. Everything was
discouraging. Theresa, as usual, took refuge in prayer, and went to the
Lord and said, "This house is not mine; it is established for Thee; and
since there is no one to conduct the case, do Thou undertake it." From
that time she considered the matter settled. Nevertheless the opposition
continued, much to the astonishment of Theresa, who could not see how a
prioress and twelve nuns could be injurious to the city. Finally,
opposition so far ceased that it was agreed that the house should be
unmolested, provided it were endowed. On this point, however, Theresa
was firm, feeling that if she once began to admit revenue, the people
would not afterwards allow her to refuse it. So amid great opposition
she at last took up her abode in the convent she had founded, and wanted
for nothing, since alms, all unsolicited, poured in sufficient for all
necessities; and the attention of the nuns was given to their duties
without anxieties or obstruction, in all the dignity of
voluntary poverty.

I look upon this reformation of the Carmelite order as very remarkable.
The nuns did not go around among rich people supplicating their aid as
was generally customary, for no convent or monastery was ever rich
enough, in its own opinion. Still less did they say to rich people, "Ye
are the lords and masters of mankind. We recognize your greatness and
your power. Deign to give us from your abundance, not that we may live
comfortably when serving the Lord, but live in luxury like you, and
compete with you in the sumptuousness of our banquets and in the
costliness of our furniture and our works of art, and be your companions
and equals in social distinctions, and be enrolled with you as leaders
of society." On the contrary they said, "We ask nothing from you. We do
not wish to be rich. We prefer poverty. We would not be encumbered with
useless impediments - too much camp equipage - while marching to do battle
with the forces of the Devil. Christ is our Captain. He can take care of
his own troops. He will not let us starve. And if we do suffer, what of
that? He suffered for our sake, shall we not suffer for his cause?"

The Convent of St. Joseph was founded in 1562, after Theresa had passed
twenty-nine years in the Convent of the Incarnation. She died, 1582, at
the age of sixty-seven, after twenty years of successful labors in the
convent she had founded; revered by everybody; the friend of some of the
most eminent men in Spain, including the celebrated Borgia, ex-Duke of
Candia, and General of the Jesuits, who took the same interest in
Theresa that Fénelon did in Madame Guyon. She lived to see established
sixteen convents of nuns, all obeying her reformed rule, and most of
them founded by her amid great difficulties and opposition. When she
founded the Carmelite Convent of Toledo she had only four ducats to
begin with. Some one objected to the smallness of the sum, when she
replied, "Theresa and this money are indeed nothing; but God and Theresa
and four ducats can accomplish anything." It was amid the fatigues
incident to the founding a convent in Burgos that she sickened and died.

It was not, however, merely from her labors as a reformer and nun that
Saint Theresa won her fame, but also for her writings, which blaze with
genius, although chiefly confined to her own religious experience. These
consist of an account of her own life, and various letters and mystic
treatises, some description of her spiritual conflicts and ecstasies,
others giving accounts of her religious labors in the founding of
reformed orders and convents; while the most famous is a rapt portrayal
of the progress of the soul to the highest heaven. Her own Memoirs
remind one of the "Confessions of Saint Augustine," and of the
"Imitation of Christ," by Thomas à Kempis. People do not read such books
in these times to any extent, at least in this country, but they have
ever been highly valued on the continent of Europe. The biographers of
Saint Theresa have been numerous, some of them very distinguished, like
Ribera, Yepez, and Sainte Marie. Bossuet, while he condemned Madame
Guyon for the same mystical piety which marked Saint Theresa, still
bowed down to the authority of the writings of the saint, while Fleury
quotes them with the decrees of the Council of Trent.

But Saint Theresa ever was submissive to the authority of the Pope and
of her spiritual directors. She would not have been canonized by Gregory
XV. had she not been. So long as priests and nuns have been submissive
to the authority of the Church, the Church has been lenient to their
opinions. Until the Reformation, there was great practical freedom of
opinion in the Catholic Church. Nor was the Church of the sixteenth
century able to see the logical tendency of the mysticism of Saint
Theresa, since it was not coupled with rebellion against spiritual
despotism. It was not until the logical and dogmatic intellect of
Bossuet discerned the spiritual independence of the Jansenists and
Quietists, that persecution began against them. Had Saint Theresa lived
a century later, she would probably have shared the fate of Madame
Guyon, whom she resembled more closely than any other woman that I have
read of, - in her social position, in her practical intellect, despite
the visions of a dreamy piety, in her passionate love of the Saviour, in
her method of prayer, in her spiritual conflicts, in the benevolence
which marked all her relations with the world, in the divine charity
which breathed through all her words, and in the triumph of love over
all the fears inspired by a gloomy theology and a superstitious
priesthood. Both of these eminent women were poets of no ordinary merit;
both enjoyed the friendship of the most eminent men of their age; both
craved the society of the learned; both were of high birth and beautiful
in their youth, and fitted to adorn society by their brilliant talk as
well as graceful manners; both were amiable and sought to please, and
loved distinction and appreciation; both were Catholics, yet permeated
with the spirit of Protestantism, so far as religion is made a matter
between God and the individual soul, and marked by internal communion
with the Deity rather than by outward acts of prescribed forms; both had
confessors, and yet both maintained the freedom of their minds and
souls, and knew of no binding authority but that divine voice which
appealed to their conscience and heart, and that divine word which is
written in the Scriptures. After the love of God had subdued their
hearts, we read but little of penances, or self-expiations, or forms of
worship, or church ceremonies, or priestly rigors, or any of the
slaveries and formalities which bound ordinary people. Their piety was
mystical, sometimes visionary, and not always intelligible, but deep,
sincere, and lofty. Of the two women, I think Saint Theresa was the more
remarkable, and had the most originality. Madame Guyon seems to have
borrowed much from her, especially in her methods of prayer.

The influence of Saint Theresa's life and writings has been eminent and
marked, not only in the Catholic but in the Protestant Church. If not
direct, it has been indirect. She had that active, ardent nature which
sets at defiance a formal piety, and became an example to noble women in
a more enlightened, if less poetic, age. She was the precursor of a
Madame de Chantal, of a Francis de Sales, of a Mère Angelique. The
learned and saintly Port Royalists, in many respects, were her
disciples. We even see a resemblance to her spiritual exercises in the
"Thoughts" of Pascal. We see her mystical love of the Saviour in the
poetry of Cowper and Watts and Wesley. The same sentiments she uttered
appear even in the devotional works of Jeremy Taylor and Jonathan
Edwards. The Protestant theology of the last century was in harmony with
hers in its essential features. In the "Pilgrim's Progress" of Bunyan we
have no more graphic pictures of the sense of sin, the justice of its
punishment, and the power by which it is broken, than are to be found in
the writings of this saintly woman. In no Protestant hymnals do we find
a warmer desire for a spiritual union with the Author of our salvation;
in none do we see the aspiring soul seeking to climb to the regions of
eternal love more than in her exultant melodies.

"For uncreated charms I burn,
Oppressed by slavish fears no more;
For _One_ in whom I may discern,
E'en when He frowns, a sweetness I adore."

That remarkable work of Fénelon in which he defends Madame Guyon, called
"Maxims of the Saints," would equally apply to Saint Theresa, in fact to
all those who have been distinguished for an inward life, from Saint
Augustine to Richard Baxter, - for unselfish love, resignation to the
divine will, self-renunciation, meditation too deep for words, and union
with Christ, as represented by the figure of the bride and bridegroom.
This is Christianity, as it has appeared in all ages, both among
Catholic and Protestant saints. It may seem to some visionary, to others
unreasonable, and to others again repulsive. But this has been the life
and joy of those whom the Church has honored and commended. It has
raised them above the despair of Paganism and the superstitions of the
Middle Ages. It is the love which casteth out fear, producing in the
harassed soul repose and rest amid the doubts and disappointments of
life. It is not inspired by duty; it does not rest on philanthropy; it
is not the religion of humanity. It is a gift bestowed by the Father of
Lights, and will be, to remotest ages, the most precious boon which He
bestows on those who seek His guidance.

AUTHORITIES.

Vie de Sainte Thérèse, écrite par elle-même; Lettres de Sainte Thérèse;
Les Ouvrages de Sainte Thérèse; Biographie Universelle; Fraser's
Magazine, lxv. 59; Butler's Lives of the Saints; Digby's Ages of Faith;
the Catholic Histories of the Church, especially Fleury's "Maxims of the
Saints." Lives of Saint Theresa by Ribera, Yepez, and Sainte Marie.




MADAME DE MAINTENON.

* * * * *

A. D. 1635-1719.

THE POLITICAL WOMAN.


I present Madame de Maintenon as one of those great women who have
exerted a powerful influence on the political destinies of a nation,
since she was the life of the French monarchy for more than thirty years
during the reign of Louis XIV. In the earlier part of her career she was
a queen of society; but her social triumphs pale before the lustre of
that power which she exercised as the wife of the greatest monarch of
the age, - so far as splendor and magnificence can make a monarch great.
No woman in modern times ever rose so high from a humble position, with
the exception of Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. She was not born
a duchess, like some of those brilliant women who shed glory around the
absolute throne of the proudest monarch of his century, but rose to her
magnificent position by pure merit, - her graces, her virtues, and her
abilities having won the respect and admiration of the overlauded but
sagacious King of France. And yet she was well born, so far as blood is
concerned, since the Protestant family of D'Aubigné - to which she
belonged - was one of the oldest in the kingdom. Her father, however, was
a man of reckless extravagance and infamous habits, and committed
follies and crimes which caused him to be imprisoned in Bordeaux. While
in prison he compromised the character of the daughter of his jailer,
and by her means escaped to America. He returned, and was again
arrested. His wife followed him to his cell; and it was in this cell
that the subject of this lecture was born (1635). Subsequently her
miserable father obtained his release, sailed with his family to
Martinique, and died there in extreme poverty. His wife, heart-broken,
returned to France, and got her living by her needle, until she too,
worn out by poverty and misfortune, died, leaving her daughter to
strive, as she had striven, with a cold and heartless world.

This daughter became at first a humble dependent on one of her rich
relatives; and "the future wife of Louis XIV. could be seen on a morning
assisting the coachmen to groom the horses, or following a flock of
turkeys, with her breakfast in a basket." But she was beautiful and
bright, and panted, like most ambitious girls, for an entrance into what
is called "society." Society at that time in France was brilliant,
intellectual, and wicked. "There was the blending of calculating
interest and religious asceticism," when women of the world, after
having exhausted its pleasures, retired to cloisters, and "sacrificed
their natural affections to family pride." It was an age of intellectual
idlers, when men and women, having nothing to do, spent their time in
_salons_, and learned the art of conversation, which was followed by the
art of letter-writing.

To reach the _salons_ of semi-literary and semi-fashionable people,
where rank and wealth were balanced by wit, became the desire of the
young Mademoiselle d'Aubigné. Her entrance into society was effected in
a curious way. At that time there lived in Paris (about the year 1650) a
man whose house was the centre of gay and literary people, - those who
did not like the stiffness of the court or the pedantries of the Hôtel
de Rambouillet. His name was Scarron, - a popular and ribald poet, a
comic dramatist, a buffoon, a sort of Rabelais, whose inexhaustible wit
was the admiration of the city. He belonged to a good family, and
originally was a man of means. His uncle had been a bishop and his
father a member of the Parliament of Paris. But he had wasted his
substance in riotous living, and was reduced to a small pension from the
Government. His profession was originally that of a priest, and he
continued through life to wear the ecclesiastical garb. He was full of
maladies and miseries, and his only relief was in society. In spite of
his poverty he contrived to give suppers - they would now be called
dinners - which were exceedingly attractive. To his house came the noted
characters of the day, - Mademoiselle de Scudéry the novelist, Marigny
the songwriter, Hénault the translator of Lucretius, De Grammont the pet
of the court, Chatillon, the duchesses de la Salière and De Sévigné,
even Ninon de L'Enclos; all bright and fashionable people, whose wit and
raillery were the admiration of the city.

It so happened that to a reception of the Abbé Scarron was brought one


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Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 07 Great Women → online text (page 7 of 20)