The Salve Regina (“Hail Holy Queen”) prayer to Our Lady, possibly 10th century.
[Jesus said] Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28.
There is a tiny cemetery in Paris near the Place de la Nation in north-east of the city called the Cimetière de Picpus (taken from the name of a local street). It is difficult to find, which is odd as it contains the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. But that is not the reason this place has been mentioned here. Earlier, this land had been owned by an order of nuns, but was confiscated during the French Revolution. The nearby Place de la Nation had another name at that time, Place du Trône-Renversé or “Overturned Throne Place” mocking its original Place du Trône royal title; there were more changes later. In about 1794, revolutionary extremists, led by Maximilien Robespierre, instituted what became known as the Reign of Terror. This meant that anyone considered to be an enemy of the state was summarily condemned to the guillotine with no appeal. One such was erected in the Place du Trône-Renversé, and 1,306 of its victims were buried in the Picpus. In that now quiet place you will find this:
16 Carmelite sisters, whose convent had been in Compiègne, a city to the north of Paris, had been arrested by revolutionaries, ordered to dress as peasant girls rather than in their habits, and sent to Paris. As happened to many priests and sisters at that time, they were condemned to death as enemies of the state and sent to the guillotine. Their headless bodies were then dumped in the cemetery. In 1906, Pope Pius X beatified the 16 martyrs. In 1957, the Catholic French composer Francis Poulenc wrote an opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on this history, and it is performed throughout the operatic world to this day. The conclusion of this opera is one of the most profound, agonizing, shattering scenes you could ever imagine, but is based on what actually happened as the sisters sang the Salve Regina in their last moments. Rather than showing the squalor of death, it reveals the overwhelming strength of faith even in the face of terror. With these thoughts, today’s gospel shows us the root of this strength, sufficient to empower them and us through whatever might confront us.
Almost certainly no-one is spared at some point, desperately difficult moments in life, calling for choices which are all terrible in one way or another. Although probably not as bad as for the Carmelites in the Revolution, but in their own way awful for each of us, the situation can seem overwhelming. What does one do in such a situation? The answer? Today’s gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Jesus was a man who went through the same excruciating situation where, to be true to himself, to his mission and to God, he had no choice, exactly the same situation as the Carmelites faced. Confronted by the impossible, we must move away from the hurly-burly, settle down and talk with God as the first step. To arrange priorities together is another. To decide where your heart lies, where the truth is found, where strength is present, that’s where the yoke and burden become understandable and tolerable, even if desperate. And that’s where God’s will and presence become your driving force, for you are not alone. Jesus was not alone, though appearances seemed that way; for him there was no apparent sign of a loving and supporting Father as he endured his Passion. But at the deepest level there was certainty: his last words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46); he was certain that he was returning to the place he had come from, a place of light, love and home, the opposite where he was at that moment.
So now, with shards of light beginning to show through the dark mists of corona virus night, Jesus beckons us back to the communal strength of the Eucharist and the Word which give us light and life. That heralds the return of spiritual strength, food and company. Let us cry Alleluia for such great gifts!
Eucharist, St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, Riviera Beach, Maryland, USA.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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