Caryll Houselander speaks of emptiness as the hollow in the reed to receive the piper’s breath and to break into a song. “The reed grows by the streams-the simplest of things, but it must be cut by the sharp knife, hollowed out, and the stops must be cut in it; it must be shaped and pierced before it can utter the shepherd’s song. It is the narrowest emptiness in the world but the little reed utters infinite music. Thus it is with us – we may be formed by the knife, pared down, cut to the least, to the minimum of our own being.”
Jesus was the first to empty Himself; others have drawn courage from to go through this painful process of self annihilation. ‘Though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:6) This is divine wisdom that teaches us to clear off all the garbage of self-importance, power, status and prestige that will hinder the Eternal Love to pipe His song through us.
Mary, the humble one of Nazareth through her words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word’ (Lk.1:38) allowed herself to be emptied so as to give space for the Eternal One to be formed in her. Her whole life of emptiness raised her to such a height that all generations call her ‘blessed’. Her entire life was a song of love.
Mother Veronica’s life can be seen as a reed, slender and tall. The Master was enchanted by it; He chose to pull it out from the familiar shores. He did so, very gently, early on an Easter Tuesday morning when He breathed on her the words of peace –“My peace I leave unto you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you”. This was His way of drawing her to Himself with an invitation to empty of herself so that He could fill her with Himself.
In her letter dated 17th December 1892, she mentions about the family’s visit to Naples. They sat by the side of the fiery molten river – ‘the sight was wonderful and I remember thinking that the feeling of God and His Almighty power was the only one to fill one’s mind and one’s whole being, there on the top of that volcano in eruption at night and lighted by the flames springing from its crater!’ The feeling of Jesus taking possession on her heart started gnawing into her being. Once convinced of this fact, she took great courage to write to her fiancé to give her up as she wished to be a Sister of Mercy. This initial desire of giving herself to Jesus in her and her sister Mary Anne ignited in them an urge to empty themselves of all their trinkets and fine dresses. They dressed like maids in gowns and long veils incurring the wrath of their dear mother.
As much as she emptied herself at the beginning, Jesus drew her to Himself as she relates in her letter dated 2nd January 1893. ‘I used to do all kinds of Catholic practices…such as fasting and penances… I used to go alone into the beautiful Cathedral at Valetta and without knowing that Jesus was there in the Blessed Sacrament, I always knelt before the side altar where He resided…See how the Good Shepherd drew His poor lamb to Himself, even without my knowing He was there.’ Once grace touched her and she knew she was on the path of Truth, she severed all the loving ties that bound her to her close-knit family. She writes about that last night, ‘…after family prayers as usual, it seemed as if we could not get away, - we each lingered and the terrible thought that this was the last evening we should spend as a peaceful, united family, and that on the morrow there would be a gulf between us (Sophie and Mary Anne) and those we loved best in the world, was heart-breaking!’ What a struggle she went through as the Divine Musician hollowed into her to fill the empty space. He poured on her and Mary Anne the waters of Baptism – His own life-giving grace bringing them to the true fold. Step by step she allowed herself to be hewn, thus responding to His grace, she received the holy Habit of St. Joseph on 14th September 1851.
Finding her roots here, she felt sure that this was her place. She says, ‘In so short a time Our Lord has raised me to the honour of being His Spouse. I believe that you haven’t any other Sister who has received the graces that I have received…It is because of this that I always think that all I can give or do is nothing and I fear nothing because now I possess and know Him who is ALL and I am so happy because in making my vows I have also given Him all I have to give and with all my heart’ (27th November 1851). Mother Veronica was aware of her English character that came in the way of her being submissive. She relied on the grace of God for this self-emptying process… ‘gives me greater graces not to offend her by failing in my Vows’.
One can sense her spirit of surrender and contentment in her letter dated May 25th, 1861-‘that’s all about my Will. I have disposed of everything; it is one less thread binding me to this miserable world. The thread certainly was not very thick, not very gripping. Now it is completely severed, and it is one preoccupation less!’ Alongside with the Lord hollowing her, she on her own cast off all the ‘lesser loves’ to belong to the Lord totally.
Her will became more and more pliable. She wrote to Mother Emilie Julien, ‘I am unreservedly at your orders. Send me where you will. God willing, I shall always do all the good I can there, in spite of my miseries and imperfections.’ She received orders to go to Calicut, India. It was transplantation from her familiar surroundings to an unknown strange place, strange people and strange language with a climate not very pleasant. She got acclimatized to all these accepting them in faith seeing from God’s point of view to form her unto his likeness, the likeness of his Son.
One can say that Mother Veronica settled happily in India as per her letter dated, 3rd, September 1862: ‘if India is a torture for some, I tell you that for me I find it a Paradise, I shall willingly live and die here. Our Lord is so near…if you knew what a feast it is for us on the days when we have the Blessed Sacrament exposed the whole day in our little chapel! It seems to be a paradise and so it is’. She could not think of exchanging it even with ‘our jewel of a chapel in the dear house of Rome.’ In 1862 she wrote, ‘I am so happy and content right here in India that I would like to remain here always.’ She might have experienced a sense of fulfillment here in India. At the same time we see in her an openness to the possibility of losing this tranquility and her readiness for it, ‘but if there is such a possibility as that of being even happier than I ever was before, even though I am certainly not always on a bed of roses, rather, quite the contrary, still it is better to lie on thorns than on roses’. She slowly and steadily progressed in her spirituality of divesting herself of all joys and comforts save of doing God’s will alone. ‘This alone I fear…of taking the wrong path while bearing my cross. I hold it, clinging to it so that I may not fail to serve and follow Jesus to Calvary faithfully and lovingly’. ‘Our Lord has named me Veronica. He has begun to chisel the rough block; must I restrain his hand?’ she pleads for prayer that she may have the courage to become in truth and not merely be in name, Veronica of the Passion. She was fully convinced that God permitted everything in her life…’to try us and with the grace of God. I would certainly not like to refuse any cross which he sends me, nor justify myself when falsely accused. Sufferings, crosses and persecutions are too precious to forego when one knows their true value.’
The Lord had revealed to St. Teresa of Avila the way he treats his friends- not in a very pleasant manner. Mother Veronica felt deep within her that the Lord and her Spouse had chosen for Himself and all his elect the way of humiliations, persecutions and crosses. ‘How then can I think of a different way…? It is not possible that he leads me by any other way, so what else should I desire?’ ‘…having undertaken the road to Calvary with my Lord, I might follow him to the summit and die there, crucified with him and like him.’
God was preparing Mother Veronica for yet more painful events. It is said He was ‘hollowing out a great cave in her heart where He could hold undisturbed communion with her’. She sensed God mysteriously drawing her into something unknown. Her deep roots in St. Joseph of the Apparition were being shaken. Deep within her she felt she was walking ‘along the edge of a trackless desert, a waterless land’. She struggled to emerge from this desert where God had led her into, during her Retreat, while at the same time she felt being called to a life of solitude.
At prayer, alone before the Blessed Sacrament her anguished cry to God was to show what He wanted of her and His soft whisper was ‘Carmel’. She was being shaken up, torn from the life she loved – caring for the children, fully involved in an active life to the solitude of Carmel. What was the Master’s demand? She sought the guidance of those led by the Spirit could show her the way
The way He did show but the ‘reed’ cried out in pain as deep notches were made. ‘God knows it will break my heart…I love my Congregation, I love my work. I love my Superiors and sisters. Even the thought of leaving them all is painful!’ But once the Lord had set His eyes on her, she, filled with a strong love for Him, could not resist. She yielded though –‘I am still in a mist’. This love made her accept His will – in a way the mist was cleared as she did not doubt God leading her.
The ways of God are awesome. In Mother Veronica, His chosen instrument, He found one pliable for His work. She braved ‘difficulties, oppositions and miseries of every kind before reaching the blessed paradise of my Carmel of Pau’ in 1867 on the eve of the feast of the Holy Trinity. More struggles, hardships and humiliations stormed her to make the foundation of the Apostolic Carmel a reality. Her guide and support was only Obedience to her higher Superiors, however painful and bitter it might have been to do so. Once she knew it was God’s Will, she did not swerve – lack of support or rejection- every drop from the bitter cup she drank to the dregs. This is the rich legacy left by her to her daughters – her great spirit of Obedience.
The knife that carved out the notches went deeper into her. Her great desire to accompany her sisters to India was cruelly squashed. She bade a painful ‘Goodbye, my children. God and Our Lady go with you’. ‘When she got back to Bayonne it seemed to her that a great cavern had been hollowed out in her heart.’ She smiled through her tears and put on a brave front – peace reigned with her for she had lain all on the altar of sacrifice.
The closure of the Little Carmel of Bayonne tore her heart; even this she let go. God divested her of her every dream, every plan she might have had for the Little Carmel she had given birth to in torment and pain. The instrument needed to be given the last touches before the Heavenly Musician could breathe His music into it. Mother Veronica had completed fifty golden years of her life – golden yes, but without any glamour or sparkle. At this juncture she was led by the Divine Will to be lost in another kind of emptiness starting her life once again as a Novice in the Novitiate of Carmel at Pau. She submitted herself to His doing and rested in this ‘earthly paradise.’ God had purged her entire being leaving an emptiness to be filled with His love. This could be the reason why there were no bitter feelings over all that had happened; no complaints or self-pity passed her lips.
A painful blow awaited her now – the death of Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified who was a part of her life, offering her spiritual wisdom in her own little way. No consolation was left for her save of being alone with Him who had emptied Himself taking upon Himself the bitterest agony and shame. Life in Bethlehem took her closer to the Lord’s Passion. More humiliations, deprivation of receiving Holy Communion, baseless condemnation – everything led her to ‘darkness of body, mind and spirit’. Her only peace was – Obedience – doing God’s Will. From the depths of her heart came this cry of gratitude, ‘Our Lord has permitted such a grain of dust to do and suffer something for Him. Is this not something to be thankful for?’
As God tempers the wind to a shorn lamb, He led Mother Veronica to the Carmel of Pau – the last lap of her journey- there her last nineteen years were sent in that solitude and peace that He alone can give. Her desire now was to dies a holy death as the true daughter of the Church. Weak in health but strong in the love for her Lord, she spent her time in prayer, living the austere life of Carmel till it pleased the Master to take her to Himself.
The empty reed was now ready with all the notches. The Divine Musician played His music in and through her. May we hear the strains and follow the path of self-emptying obedience without bitterness of grudge against anyone. If she our mother could do it, we too can strive with His grace and grace alone.
Dear Mother Veronica, do intercede with the Lord for this great grace.
Sister Nirmala Francis A.C.
St. Ann’s Convent
Mangaluru 575 001