As time permits, all during this Mectildian Jubilee Year (1614–2014), I shall be posting on the life and writings of Mother Catherine Mectilde de Bar.
A Child and her Mama
In 1623 Madame de Bar falls grievously ill. Catherine is only nine years old. Family and friends storm heaven to obtain Madame de Bar’s restoration to health. Little Catherine, fearing that her mother may be close to death, whispers a secret into her ear:
My dear Mama, I beg you, once you are in paradise, after having made your reverence to the Holy Trinity, to ask [of God] for me the grace to become a religious. And then, you will turn to the Blessed Virgin and beseech her to take me under her protection.
A Precocious Liturgical Sense
An extraordinary request coming from a nine year old girl! Already, little Catherine has an innate “liturgical” sense of good order and ceremonial courtesy. One recognises the budding Benedictine. She asks her mother first to do reverence to the Holy Trinity, then to make her request and, finally, to entrust her to the Blessed Virgin. We see here, already, in a very condensed form, what will become an underlying motif throughout Mother Mectilde’s long life. How many of us, as mere children, have formulated similar prayers, only to find the substance of them recurring again and again with the passing years?
Enter Saint Francis
Shortly thereafter, Madame de Bar does, in fact, recover from her illness. At about that time, Catherine, visiting a church of the Capuchins, happens upon the text of profession in the Third Order of Saint Francis. The text fascinates her to the point of becoming her favourite prayer. Without formally becoming a Franciscan tertiary, Catherine repeats the formula of profession and finds in it a certain sweetness, and a power of attraction:
I, Catherine, promise and vow to God, to the Virgin Mary, to our father Saint Francis, and to all the saints of paradise, to keep all the commandments of God as long as I shall live, and to make fitting satisfaction for the transgressions I will have committed against the Rule and the manner of life of the Penitents.
Saint Francis of Assisi being, at once, so winning and so well known, enters young Catherine’s life, as he has entered the lives and imaginations of countless children over the centuries. The popularity of Saint Francis is due, undoubtedly, to the astonishing proliferation of his sons, but also to the images of him that everywhere adorn churches touched by the influence and preaching of the friars. Nothing appeals more to the religious imagination of a child than the depiction of Saint Francis embraced by the Crucified Jesus, or kneeling with outstretched arms before the mysterious Seraph who marks him with the wounds of Our Lord’s Passion.
The Cure of Her Eyes
Catherine’s health is far from strong. Her eyes are affected by some kind of illness, making her nearly blind. The doctors’ efforts to cure her are all in vain. The family has recourse to prayer. On the Vigil of the Ascension, Catherine and her mother participate in the Rogations procession. The relics of the saints are borne aloft and, among them, are the relics of Saint Odilia, patroness of those with poor eyesight. Slowly, during the procession, Catherine’s sight improves. By the time she and her mother return home, the cure is complete, and Catherine will never again suffer from a disease of the eyes, even until her death at over eighty years of age.
Catherine is educated at home. She seems to have a propensity for learning certain liturgical prayers, given in Latin in the books of piety at her disposal. Catherine has no pretensions whatsoever of becoming a bluestocking. She resists higher studies, saying, “If I apply myself to all of that, I shall forget God: far better that I should think on Him and neglect the rest.”