Pilgrimage and Enclosure
When one thinks of the Benedictine ideal, one imagines monks behind their enclosure walls, buried deep in a kind of unshakeable stability. In spite of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one does not usually associate pilgrimages with monks and nuns. Pilgrimages remain exceptional for monks and nuns, but they are not unknown. Many a monastic vocation has been consolidated and restored by sending a man on pilgrimage, and many a monk has obtained special graces while praying in a place sanctified by a sacred image or apparition of the Mother of God, or marked by the miracles wrought by a saints. There are two significant pilgrimages in the life of Catherine–Mectilde de Bar. The first was to a humble Marian sanctuary, and the second was to the famous Mont Saint–Michel. So much for a narrowly legalistic conception of monastic enclosure! The saints are wonderfully free with the sublime freedom of the children of God. They are free within the constraints of the law, and free when obliged to press through its constraints, always acting in obedience to the Church and under the sway of the Holy Spirit’s seven gifts.
Appeal to Our Lady
In 1641, Mother Mectilde and her companions, temporarily lodged at Saint–Mihiel on the banks of the Meuse, learned, to their dismay, that the abbess of Montmartre had refused them hospitality in Paris for fear of seeing foreign usages introduced into her monastery by guests. Undaunted, Mother Mectilde appealed to a Lady more powerful than the abbess of Montmartre; she addressed a petition to the Most Immaculate Mother of God and, in the company of two other nuns, went on pilgrimage, petition in hand, to the marian sanctuary of Benoîte–Vaux. The sanctuary was in the care of the Premonstratensian canons. The pilgrim Benedictines spent the whole night in prayer. At 4 o’clock in the morning, the chaplain of the sanctuary celebrated the Mass of Our Lady of the Angels — it was August 2nd, the feast of the Portiuncula — and the petition of the Benedictines was placed at Our Lady’s feet. The fervent pilgrims begged, above all, for the grace of knowing the will of God; they further asked to be spared the outrages perpetrated by soldiers, and to find some Benedictine houses willing to take them in, so that they might persevere in their monastic consecration.
Our Lady’s Answer
When the little band of pilgrims returned to Saint-Mihiel, it was obvious to all who saw Mother Mectilde and her two companions that they had received extraordinary graces; they seemed transfigured. Much later, Mother Mectilde let slip a few words intimating that, in the sanctuary of Benoîte-Vaux, Our Lady revealed to her God’s designs on her life. A few days after the pilgrimage, a commissary of Monsieur Vincent (Saint Vincent de Paul), named Mathieu Renard, asked to see the prioress and, with no preliminaries, said, “I have come, Mother, to take two of your religious to Montmartre, I have orders to do this, and Madame the Duchess of Aiguillon has provided me with money for the journey.”
An Abbess Changes Her Mind
What happened that caused the abbess of Montmartre to have so complete a change of heart? On the very night that Mother Mectilde and her companions were praying at the sanctuary of Benoîte-Vaux, the abbess of Montmartre woke up all of a sudden and summoned the two attendants who slept in her bedchamber. The abbess was in a dreadful state of fright. It seemed to her, she said, that she saw the Most Holy Virgin and her Divine Son reproaching her for her lack of hospitality; they threatened her with a rigourous judgment should the poor homeless Benedictines, through her fault, perish in their misery and need. The next day the Abbess convened her senior religious; all agreed that they had to execute the manifest will of God.
Paris, Saint Louise de Marillac and Saint Vincent de Paul
Mother Mectilde and Mother Louise were chosen to go to Montmartre. They began their journey on 21 August and arrived in Paris on August 28, 1642. Matthieu Renard led them to the home of Mademoiselle Legras (Saint Louise de Marillac) in the Faubourg Saint Martin. Saint Louise de Marillac received the homeless Benedictines with an exquisite charity. The next morning, Mother Mectilde and her companions were presented to Saint Vincent de Paul. The very same day the doors of the grand Abbey of Montmartre opened to welcome them. Once the Lady Abbess had met Mother Mectilde, she wanted nothing more than to keep her at the Abbey of Montmartre.
Pilgrimage to Saint Michael the Archangel
In 1660, Mother Mectilde, having served three years as prioress of the Benedictine monastery of Notre–Dame de Bon–Secours in Caen was elected prioress of the community of her profession at Rambervillers. This turn of events obliges her to travel from Caen to Paris, and then from Paris to Rambervillers in the Vosges mountains. Ever devoted to Saint Michael the Archangel, Mother Mectilde requested permission of her ecclesiastical superior to undertake a pilgrimage to the Mont Saint–Michel, some one–hundred–forty kilometres from Caen. Several of her friends offered her the cost of the pilgrimage as a token of their own devotion to the Archangel protector of France in whom Saint Joan of Arc had such confidence. Mother Mectilde later designated Saint Michael the Archangel as one of the patrons of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration.