THE OBEDIENCE OF MARTIN VERGA
This convent, which in 1824 had already existed for many a long
year in the Rue Petit-Picpus, was a community of Bernardines
of the obedience of Martin Verga.
These Bernardines were attached, in consequence, not to Clairvaux,
like the Bernardine monks, but to Citeaux, like the Benedictine monks.
In other words, they were the subjects, not of Saint Bernard,
but of Saint Benoit.
Any one who has turned over old folios to any extent
knows that Martin Verga founded in 1425 a congregation
of Bernardines-Benedictines, with Salamanca
for the head of the order, and Alcala as the branch establishment.
This congregation had sent out branches throughout all the Catholic
countries of Europe.
There is nothing unusual in the Latin Church in these grafts of one
order on another. To mention only a single order of Saint-Benoit,
which is here in question: there are attached to this order,
without counting the obedience of Martin Verga, four congregations,--
two in Italy, Mont-Cassin and Sainte-Justine of Padua; two in France,
Cluny and Saint-Maur; and nine orders,--Vallombrosa, Granmont,
the Celestins, the Camaldules, the Carthusians, the Humilies,
the Olivateurs, the Silvestrins, and lastly, Citeaux; for Citeaux itself,
a trunk for other orders, is only an offshoot of Saint-Benoit.
Citeaux dates from Saint Robert, Abbe de Molesme, in the diocese
of Langres, in 1098. Now it was in 529 that the devil, having retired
to the desert of Subiaco--he was old--had he turned hermit?--
was chased from the ancient temple of Apollo, where he dwelt,
by Saint-Benoit, then aged seventeen.
After the rule of the Carmelites, who go barefoot, wear a bit
of willow on their throats, and never sit down, the harshest
rule is that of the Bernardines-Benedictines of Martin Verga.
They are clothed in black, with a guimpe, which, in accordance
with the express command of Saint-Benoit, mounts to the chin.
A robe of serge with large sleeves, a large woollen veil, the guimpe
which mounts to the chin cut square on the breast, the band which
descends over their brow to their eyes,--this is their dress.
All is black except the band, which is white. The novices wear
the same habit, but all in white. The professed nuns also wear
a rosary at their side.
The Bernardines-Benedictines of Martin Verga practise the Perpetual
Adoration, like the Benedictines called Ladies of the Holy Sacrament,
who, at the beginning of this century, had two houses in Paris,--
one at the Temple, the other in the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve. However,
the Bernardines-Benedictines of the Petit-Picpus, of whom we are speaking,
were a totally different order from the Ladies of the Holy Sacrament,
cloistered in the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve and at the Temple.
There were numerous differences in their rule; there were some in
their costume. The Bernardines-Benedictines of the Petit-Picpus
wore the black guimpe, and the Benedictines of the Holy Sacrament
and of the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve wore a white one, and had,
besides, on their breasts, a Holy Sacrament about three inches long,
in silver gilt or gilded copper. The nuns of the Petit-Picpus did not
wear this Holy Sacrament. The Perpetual Adoration, which was common
to the house of the Petit-Picpus and to the house of the Temple,
leaves those two orders perfectly distinct. Their only resemblance
lies in this practice of the Ladies of the Holy Sacrament and the
Bernardines of Martin Verga, just as there existed a similarity
in the study and the glorification of all the mysteries relating
to the infancy, the life, and death of Jesus Christ and the Virgin,
between the two orders, which were, nevertheless, widely separated,
and on occasion even hostile. The Oratory of Italy, established at
Florence by Philip de Neri, and the Oratory of France, established by
Pierre de Berulle. The Oratory of France claimed the precedence,
since Philip de Neri was only a saint, while Berulle was a cardinal.
Let us return to the harsh Spanish rule of Martin Verga.
The Bernardines-Benedictines of this obedience fast all the year round,
abstain from meat, fast in Lent and on many other days which are
peculiar to them, rise from their first sleep, from one to three
o'clock in the morning, to read their breviary and chant matins,
sleep in all seasons between serge sheets and on straw, make no use
of the bath, never light a fire, scourge themselves every Friday,
observe the rule of silence, speak to each other only during
the recreation hours, which are very brief, and wear drugget
chemises for six months in the year, from September 14th,
which is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, until Easter.
These six months are a modification: the rule says all the year,
but this drugget chemise, intolerable in the heat of summer,
produced fevers and nervous spasms. The use of it had to be restricted.
Even with this palliation, when the nuns put on this chemise on the
14th of September, they suffer from fever for three or four days.
Obedience, poverty, chastity, perseverance in their seclusion,--
these are their vows, which the rule greatly aggravates.
The prioress is elected for three years by the mothers, who are
called meres vocales because they have a voice in the chapter.
A prioress can only be re-elected twice, which fixes the longest
possible reign of a prioress at nine years.
They never see the officiating priest, who is always hidden from them
by a serge curtain nine feet in height. During the sermon, when the
preacher is in the chapel, they drop their veils over their faces.
They must always speak low, walk with their eyes on the ground and
their heads bowed. One man only is allowed to enter the convent,--
the archbishop of the diocese.
There is really one other,--the gardener. But he is always an
old man, and, in order that he may always be alone in the garden,
and that the nuns may be warned to avoid him, a bell is attached
to his knee.
Their submission to the prioress is absolute and passive.
It is the canonical subjection in the full force of its abnegation.
As at the voice of Christ, ut voci Christi, at a gesture,
at the first sign, ad nutum, ad primum signum, immediately,
with cheerfulness, with perseverance, with a certain blind obedience,
prompte, hilariter, perseveranter et caeca quadam obedientia,
as the file in the hand of the workman, quasi limam in manibus fabri,
without power to read or to write without express permission,
legere vel scribere non addiscerit sine expressa superioris licentia.
Each one of them in turn makes what they call reparation.
The reparation is the prayer for all the sins, for all the faults,
for all the dissensions, for all the violations, for all the iniquities,
for all the crimes committed on earth. For the space of twelve
consecutive hours, from four o'clock in the afternoon till four o'clock
in the morning, or from four o'clock in the morning until four o'clock
in the afternoon, the sister who is making reparation remains on her
knees on the stone before the Holy Sacrament, with hands clasped,
a rope around her neck. When her fatigue becomes unendurable,
she prostrates herself flat on her face against the earth, with her
arms outstretched in the form of a cross; this is her only relief.
In this attitude she prays for all the guilty in the universe.
This is great to sublimity.
As this act is performed in front of a post on which burns a candle,
it is called without distinction, to make reparation or to be at
the post. The nuns even prefer, out of humility, this last expression,
which contains an idea of torture and abasement.
To make reparation is a function in which the whole soul is absorbed.
The sister at the post would not turn round were a thunderbolt
to fall directly behind her.
Besides this, there is always a sister kneeling before the
Holy Sacrament. This station lasts an hour. They relieve
each other like soldiers on guard. This is the Perpetual Adoration.
The prioresses and the mothers almost always bear names stamped
with peculiar solemnity, recalling, not the saints and martyrs,
but moments in the life of Jesus Christ: as Mother Nativity,
Mother Conception, Mother Presentation, Mother Passion. But the names
of saints are not interdicted.
When one sees them, one never sees anything but their mouths.
All their teeth are yellow. No tooth-brush ever entered that convent.
Brushing one's teeth is at the top of a ladder at whose bottom is
the loss of one's soul.
They never say my. They possess nothing of their own, and they must not
attach themselves to anything. They call everything our; thus: our veil,
our chaplet; if they were speaking of their chemise, they would say
our chemise. Sometimes they grow attached to some petty object,--
to a book of hours, a relic, a medal that has been blessed. As soon
as they become aware that they are growing attached to this object,
they must give it up. They recall the words of Saint Therese,
to whom a great lady said, as she was on the point of entering
her order, "Permit me, mother, to send for a Bible to which I
am greatly attached." "Ah, you are attached to something!
In that case, do not enter our order!"
Every person whatever is forbidden to shut herself up, to have
a place of her own, a chamber. They live with their cells open.
When they meet, one says, "Blessed and adored be the most Holy
Sacrament of the altar!" The other responds, "Forever." The same
ceremony when one taps at the other's door. Hardly has she
touched the door when a soft voice on the other side is heard
to say hastily, "Forever!" Like all practices, this becomes
mechanical by force of habit; and one sometimes says forever
before the other has had time to say the rather long sentence,
"Praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar."
Among the Visitandines the one who enters says: "Ave Maria,"
and the one whose cell is entered says, "Gratia plena." It is their
way of saying good day, which is in fact full of grace.
At each hour of the day three supplementary strokes sound from the
church bell of the convent. At this signal prioress, vocal mothers,
professed nuns, lay-sisters, novices, postulants, interrupt what
they are saying, what they are doing, or what they are thinking,
and all say in unison if it is five o'clock, for instance,
"At five o'clock and at all hours praised and adored be the most
Holy Sacrament of the altar!" If it is eight o'clock, "At eight
o'clock and at all hours!" and so on, according to the hour.
This custom, the object of which is to break the thread of thought
and to lead it back constantly to God, exists in many communities;
the formula alone varies. Thus at The Infant Jesus they say, "At this
hour and at every hour may the love of Jesus kindle my heart!"
The Bernardines-Benedictines of Martin Verga, cloistered fifty
years ago at Petit-Picpus, chant the offices to a solemn psalmody,
a pure Gregorian chant, and always with full voice during the whole
course of the office. Everywhere in the missal where an asterisk
occurs they pause, and say in a low voice, "Jesus-Marie-Joseph." For
the office of the dead they adopt a tone so low that the voices
of women can hardly descend to such a depth. The effect produced is
striking and tragic.
The nuns of the Petit-Picpus had made a vault under their grand
altar for the burial of their community. The Government,
as they say, does not permit this vault to receive coffins so they
leave the convent when they die. This is an affliction to them,
and causes them consternation as an infraction of the rules.
They had obtained a mediocre consolation at best,--permission to be
interred at a special hour and in a special corner in the ancient
Vaugirard cemetery, which was made of land which had formerly
belonged to their community.
On Fridays the nuns hear high mass, vespers, and all the offices,
as on Sunday. They scrupulously observe in addition all the little
festivals unknown to people of the world, of which the Church of France
was so prodigal in the olden days, and of which it is still prodigal
in Spain and Italy. Their stations in the chapel are interminable.
As for the number and duration of their prayers we can convey no better
idea of them than by quoting the ingenuous remark of one of them:
"The prayers of the postulants are frightful, the prayers of the
novices are still worse, and the prayers of the professed nuns are
Once a week the chapter assembles: the prioress presides;
the vocal mothers assist. Each sister kneels in turn on the stones,
and confesses aloud, in the presence of all, the faults and sins
which she has committed during the week. The vocal mothers consult
after each confession and inflict the penance aloud.
Besides this confession in a loud tone, for which all faults
in the least serious are reserved, they have for their venial
offences what they call the coulpe. To make one's coulpe means
to prostrate one's self flat on one's face during the office
in front of the prioress until the latter, who is never called
anything but our mother, notifies the culprit by a slight tap
of her foot against the wood of her stall that she can rise.
The coulpe or peccavi, is made for a very small matter--a broken glass,
a torn veil, an involuntary delay of a few seconds at an office,
a false note in church, etc.; this suffices, and the coulpe is made.
The coulpe is entirely spontaneous; it is the culpable person herself
(the word is etymologically in its place here) who judges herself
and inflicts it on herself. On festival days and Sundays four
mother precentors intone the offices before a large reading-desk
with four places. One day one of the mother precentors intoned
a psalm beginning with Ecce, and instead of Ecce she uttered aloud
the three notes do si sol; for this piece of absent-mindedness
she underwent a coulpe which lasted during the whole service:
what rendered the fault enormous was the fact that the chapter
When a nun is summoned to the parlor, even were it the prioress herself,
she drops her veil, as will be remembered, so that only her mouth
The prioress alone can hold communication with strangers.
The others can see only their immediate family, and that very rarely.
If, by chance, an outsider presents herself to see a nun, or one
whom she has known and loved in the outer world, a regular series
of negotiations is required. If it is a woman, the authorization
may sometimes be granted; the nun comes, and they talk to her
through the shutters, which are opened only for a mother or sister.
It is unnecessary to say that permission is always refused to men.
Such is the rule of Saint-Benoit, aggravated by Martin Verga.
These nuns are not gay, rosy, and fresh, as the daughters of other
orders often are. They are pale and grave. Between 1825 and 1830
three of them went mad.