Walled in Light: The Life of St. Colette
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Every great religious order runs into difficulties, and God provides a saint to redress them. Where would the Benedictines be without St. Romauld or St. Peter Damian, the Franciscans without St. Bonaventure, or the Dominicans without Blessed Jordan? Likewise, where would the Poor Clares be without St. Colette?
Colette of Corbie was born in one of the most turbulent times in the Church, the 14th century. She moved within the world of the Western Schism, having interacted with many of the great figures of her day, men as diverse as the anti-Pope Pedro de Luna, Pope Martin V, and St. John Capistrano. She was also active during the close of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England and was a contemporary of St. Joan of Arc. But her most enduring legacy is her reform of the Second Order of St. Francis, the Poor Clares.
Mother Mary Francis tells the amazing story of this great saint, whose life was filled with miracles, who defeated the devil with humility, prayer and trust in God. She writes Colette’s life with flowing prose that connects her to the great and dramatic events of her time, while at every turn bringing out the work of God in her soul. Saint Colette is a saint to know better, who along with others in laboring in the troubled vineyard of the 15th century, did so much to heal and reform the Church.
6 Dom Raoul vs. Colette
The word “recluse” falls on our ears like a sound from another world. The concept of a severance from society so total as was the life of the medieval anchorite or anchoress is perhaps more difficult for our twentieth-century-conditioned minds to grasp than the notion of separate humanities on other planets. However, during Colette’s lifetime, this very ancient way of life was still followed by a considerable number of men and women, some of them professed religious attached to monasteries; others, layfolk who lived on the alms of the townspeople or of passersby if the anchorhold was situated outside a town. One of the sharpest contrasts between our way of thinking and the medieval outlook is in the attitude taken toward these recluses.
If one of our acquaintances expressed the desire to build himself a little lean-to against one of our big city churches, there to live and die in complete seclusion and utter dependence on the goodwill offerings of people going into the church, all the neighbors would probably agree that he should certainly be locked up. Perhaps his friends would hustle him off to a psychiatrist, who in his turn would be delighted at having so rare a specimen to study. It was not so in the Middle Ages. A recluse was the pride and glory of his town. Sometimes he was given a regular pension out of the town coffers, made annual gifts of clothing; altogether, he was highly respected as one singled out by God. The recluse became a symbol of God’s protection over a city, and the people guarded their treasure jealously as a kind of spiritual lightning-rod. It is quite possible that there was a goodly admixture of superstition in this kind of veneration; but the basic spiritual outlook was there, too.
Some of those who embarked on this way of life were penitents who wished to wash out the stains of their own past swindling or lasciviousness, or what-have-you, with prayer and austerity. Others were individuals whose personal past was the lightest of burdens, but who wished to offer themselves as holocausts of reparation for the sins of the world or for particular sinners or classes of sinners. In still other cases, the motive of reparation was secondary to the simple desire to be as closely united to God as is humanly possible. These latter wanted nothing on earth except to be utterly alone with the Lord they loved, waiting on Him by day and by night, their gypses uncluttered by any material interests, living in complete and happy detachment from all the things other men spend their lives and energies pursuing. Colette was one of these. Yet, Father Jéhan must have had more than one inward tremor about what he was proposing to this lovely young woman. He admitted that the vocation of a recluse was one beyond his own spiritual powers, and he tried to test Colette’s motives by accenting its objective harshness. Relentlessly he pressed upon her imagination the concrete details of the life she was about to embrace.
She would be actually sealed into one or two tiny rooms. (The ritual for enclosing a recluse included an official sealing of the door.) Think what it would mean: Never to walk again in the fragrant fields of Corbie at twilight. Never again to feel the wind or sun against her cheeks. Never again to feel the warm pressure of a friend’s hand, or to join in the laughter of Jacquette Legrande and Guillemette Chrétien over the wonder of being alive and young. She would be completely dependent on the charity of others: she would eat the food they might bring her; or nothing, if they forgot her.
Then, the austerity of the life itself, with all the pleasant distractions of the world removed: prayer and penance; the recitation of the Divine Office; assisting at Mass through a wicket opening into the church. And for relaxation—and as a possible means of support if alms failed—some needlework, perhaps.
When Father Jéhan had completed his word pictures, he swung his gaze back on the girl before him. If he expected to see indrawn lips, thoughtful eyes, and that slight forward thrust of the jaw which her biographers describe as the characteristic sign of Colette’s moments of struggle, he was disappointed. She was smiling, and she had only one question to ask: “When may I begin? I am ready.”
Father Jéhan did not at first reply. Probably he could not. But Colette repeated softly: “I am ready, Father.” The priest finally stood up. “Yes,” he said, “I believe you are.” He blessed her and sent her away until he could make arrangements for carrying out their plan.
It is not clear from the ancient biographies where Colette was living these days, but very probably she stayed with Jacquette or Guillemette, her most loyal friends. We know that she told them of Father Jéhan’s inspiration, and that they received her confidence with a great deal of awe and no small measure of sorrow. Both the older girls were convinced that Colette Boellet had the rare qualities of soul for the austere life of a recluse, but the thought of losing her was almost unbearable. Jacquette and Guillemette suddenly realized how Colette had entered into the very core of their own lives, steadying them. Now the ground was shifting under their feet. They cried.
Colette comforted her two friends, receiving the testimony of their affection quite simply. The greater the holiness, the greater the power to love and the capacity for being loved. The young girl who was so delighted at the prospect of being enclosed in a tiny hermitage for the rest of her life had in its perfection the first prerequisite of a recluse: a love for God and men so great that it could not express itself in any measure less than that of holocaust.
With all her bride’s eagerness, Colette kept her businesslike sense of the importance of details. And the biggest and most formidable detail to be attended to was Dom Raoul de Raye. The spiritual aspect of his guardianship becomes fully apparent here. For although Colette had disposed of her earthly goods on her own initiative and with a free heart, she evidently felt that her entering upon the life of a recluse was a matter entirely within Dom Raoul’s jurisdiction. Years later she confided to Sister Perrine her memories of that difficult time, and from what we know of the characters of Colette and Dom Raoul we can imagine what the encounters between the two might have been like.
One day in August, taking inward reassurance from the Franciscan habit she wore and the solid reality of the Franciscan cord knotted around her waist, Colette set out for the Abbey of Saint-Pierre to disclose her plan to the abbot and obtain his consent to it.
It was a familiar journey, and at every few paces she must have found some reminder of her childhood walks with her father. One can imagine her coming out of the sunlight into the coolness of the abbey parlor, sitting on the edge of one of the stiff chairs, listening, with prayerful anxiety, for the abbot’s precise footfalls in the great flagged hall.
At last he came, looked speculatively at the brown habit and white cord—and perhaps more speculatively at something in Colette’s eyes—and took his seat before her. In her usual direct way, she outlined Father Jéhan’s suggestion for her future life, trying to compensate by her own enthusiasm for the total lack of response she saw in the abbot’s face. Silence. She began again, with a rising inflection, asking his opinion on various points. Still not a word. And then she fell to her knees, as she had done when she was a small child, and said simply, “Will your Lordship permit me to be a recluse?”
At last Abbot Raoul de Raye spoke, and his words must have fallen like small hammer blows in the summer stillness: “I most certainly will not. This is nonsense. And I do not intend to betray the trust of your father by being a party to the wild scheme of Father —Jéhan—Pinet.” Abbot Raoul’s voice was a marvelous instrument. It dragged the Franciscan friar before the bar of justice on “Father,” condemned him on “Jéhan,” and sentenced him with “Pinet.”
All her life, Colette had seen the great abbot at his best, with that odd mixture of reverence and indulgence he reserved for M. Boellet’s daughter. Now, for the first time, she saw the forbidding countenance of an abbot whose mind was closed.
He rose, gesturing for her to rise too, and dismissed her: “I have a number of things to attend to, and I will ask you to excuse me. In any case, the subject is closed.” He held out his hand, and Colette went on her knees again to kiss his ring. She glanced up at him, her eyes full of tears, and he softened a little. “Go along, child,” he said. “You will see for yourself that this is all nonsense. Come back to see me next week.”
Colette had been defeated in the first engagement, but there was another Party involved. She prayed that He would intervene.
Sister Perrine tells us that she went again and again to the abbey, and time after time Abbot Raoul heard her out impassively. And then one day when she was almost in despair of gaining his consent, with the lightning quickness of inspiration she fell prostrate at the abbot’s feet, and the old man suddenly yielded. He stooped down and raised her to her feet. She looked up at him and heard his voice, more gentle than she had ever heard it before: “Go, child, go, and be a recluse.” And then, after a pause, the unbelievable words: “I will help you.”
In the days that followed, all Dom Raoul’s best qualities of soul and heart, too often submerged in half measures, came swimming to the surface of his character. Once this powerful man determined to do something, he did it with despatch and thoroughness. This time, his efficiency was tempered with genuine love for the girl he knew was already greater than he would ever be; but he proceeded with an energy that must have forced Colette to hide a smile more than once.
Like the practical businessman he was, the abbot first announced to all the people of Corbie that they were to be blessed with a recluse of their own, and that the one who wished to place herself in spiritual bondage for their good was no other than his own ward, Colette Boellet. Dom Raoul de Raye, remember, was the reigning lord of Corbie. If the people’s sense of pleasure at the notion of having a recluse in their midst needed any whetting, the immense force of the abbot’s personality would supply it. The townspeople were not asked if they wished to support a recluse. They were told that they were to be privileged to do so and that a delegate of the abbot would shortly be calling on them to take up a collection for the erection of an anchorhold for his protégée.
The fact is, the people were genuinely happy and grateful to God for what their faith considered a rare gift to the town, but the identity of the recluse was a thunderbolt. A converted sinner, yes; maybe a strong man of middle years, or perhaps an aged widow on whom the world had no claims and for whom it held no attractions. But the most beautiful girl in their town! The one who could preach as well as the famous priests in Paris! The happy, innocent daughter of the Boellets! This was too much. They forgot all their grievances against Colette’s supposed instability. Where they had criticized her for not following the abbot’s advice in the past, they now blamed her for acting under his authority.
However, the men, women, and children of Corbie were tame opposition for the determination of Abbot Raoul de Raye. The affair was settled. The ceremony of Colette’s enclosure in her anchorage would be held on Sunday, September 17 of that year, which was 1402. All were invited to attend the solemn rites, over which he himself would preside, in the abbey church. And now, please, a generous donation toward the little dwelling which was to be placed between two buttresses of the parish church of Notre Dame in Corbie.
It needed the intense drive of a Raoul de Raye to get the three- room anchorhold erected and finished in detail by September 17. Doubtless his enormous prestige, as well as her own personal admiration for Mlle. Boellet, inspired the widow of the town provost, Mme. Guillemette Gamalin, to give the entire sum necessary to construct the anchorhold, although the abbot continued to solicit other offerings for Colette’s security. The complaints of workmen who objected to all this haste lodged sidewise in their throats when Dom Raoul came to inspect their progress. One just did not argue with this man. He directed that his own monks should supply the choir for the ceremony of Colette’s enclosure, and that all the civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries should conduct her in procession to the abbey church. Surely it was a magnanimous gesture on the abbot’s part to invite the Franciscan friar, Father Jéhan Pinet, to be present and to receive Colette’s vow of perpetual enclosure before the high altar in the Benedictine church. But it was my lord abbot who would preside from his throne during the ceremony. Everyone was given to understand that this was no mere carpenter’s daughter who was electing to follow the very ancient religious life of a recluse, but the gifted ward of Abbot Raoul de Raye, lord of Corbie. Colette doubtless continued to smile to herself over Dom Raoul’s way of conducting the whole affair. Yet she loved her guardian and saw, perhaps more clearly than any other ever did, the seeds of greatness in his soul. She left him a free hand in arranging for her future as a recluse.
September 17 dawned bright and cloudless for the procession of Corbie’s most distinguished persons conducting a young girl in a Franciscan habit into the abbey church of Saint-Pierre. The flawless Gregorian chant of the Benedictine monks swept worldly concerns out the back doors of the church, and there remained inside only the intense vitality of spiritual reality. Colette was incensed and asperged. She renewed her vow of perpetual virginity, and then Father Jéhan stood directly in front of her and received in the name of the Church her vow of perpetual enclosure. The abbot rose from his throne and signalled the procession to form again. He walked at the end, with Colette immediately in front of him, carrying in her hand the key to the anchorhold in token of her freedom of choice.
Throughout the long and impressive ceremony, Colette had remained serene in her quiet recollection, but when the procession at last parted ranks before the small anchorhold and she came face to face with it, emotion overcame her. She told Sister Penine in later years how she knelt down and kissed the threshold. Then, in something of a transport of joy, she cried out: “Here is the place of my rest, and here I will dwell, for I have chosen it.”
Women began to weep when Colette rose and smiled a last goodbye to her friends. Some in the procession instinctively knelt down. Even Abbot Raoul de Raye permitted himself some moments of silence after Colette disappeared into the tiny dwelling. Then, with his characteristic energy, he stepped quickly forward and placed his own great wax seal on the door. The ceremony was over. Corbie had a recluse. The next day, the door was secured with mortar, and Colette began to follow what she never doubted was her final vocation.