"Here They Fell"

“Here They Fell”

Today is Bastille Day. This evening, we will celebrate by cooking a big French dinner for my Francophile niece and her Francophile friend. More on that later. For me, today is a day not to celebrate the French Revolution, but to celebrate France, which I love.

It is also a day of mourning. This morning in the Divine Liturgy, our mission parish observed the Feast of All The Saints Of Russia.  Fr. Matthew preached about how strange it seems for we Americans who grew up during the Cold War to celebrate the lives of Russian saints. In truth, though, we are all part of the universal church, and anyone who lived and died for and in Christ is our brother, our sister. Fr. Matthew spoke of how so many Russian Christians became martyrs to Communism, and how they had to suffer for their faith in ways that are unimaginable to most of us Christians in the West, living in liberty and comfort. And he spoke of how our own little parish here in the Louisiana countryside is one of the fruits of the Bolshevik catastrophe. We are part of the Russian church that went into exile to escape the Soviet terror. Because they suffered the pain of persecution and exile, we exist.

It was a powerful sermon.

Thinking of the martyrs of the Russian Church, I also prayed during liturgy for all the marytrs of the French Revolution. The image above I photographed last fall in Paris. The Latin phrase is “Here They Fell.” The door is at the rear of a Carmelite convent church in Paris. This is what happened there on September 2, 1792, during the worst days of the Revolution:

The same afternoon another small gang of armed men burst into the garden of the Carmelite Convent off the Rue de Vaugirard where about 150 priests who had been held prisoner for the past fortnight, were gathered under guard, several of them reading their office. The men advanced upon them, calling out for the Archbishop of Arles. One of the priests went forward to meet them, demanding a fair trial for himself and his fellow-prisoners. A shot was fired and his shoulder was smashed. The Archbishop, after praying for a moment on his knees, then went towards the men himself. “I am the man you are looking for,” he said, and was immediately struck across the face with a sword. As he fell to the ground a pike was plunged through his chest. At that moment an officer of the National Guard appeared and managed to get the priests away to the nearby church where they gave each other absolution. While they were saying prayers for the dying, the armed gang broke through the door and dragged the priests out in pairs to slaughter them in the garden. After several had been killed a man with an air of authority arrived at the church calling out, “Don’t kill them so quickly. We are meant to try them.” Thereafter each priest was summoned before a makeshift tribunal before being executed. He was asked if he was now prepared to take the constitutional oath and when he said that he was not — as all of them did — he was taken away to be killed. Some bodies were removed in carts, the rest thrown down a well from which their broken skeletons were recovered seventy years later.

– Christopher Hibbert, “The French Revolution”

The mass murder happened right there, on the spot you see in the photo. Martyrs, all.

It must be said that history is not black and white. Fr. Arseny, an Orthodox priest who suffered in the gulag, told fellow prisoners that the chastisement of the Bolshevik revolution came upon Russia in part because so many of the clergy, like himself, had failed in holiness. While there can be no justification for the Bolsheviks’ mass murder and persecution of the Church, any more than there can be justification for the French revolutionaries’ bloodlust, it is true that the very great sins of the ancien régime helped bring forth the orgy of hatred and murder.

That said, today is bittersweet for we Christians who love France. This morning I prayed for the martyrs of the French Revolution. Tonight I will lift my glass to France and the French. May the prayers of St. Denis, St. Martin, Ste. Geneviève, St. Thérèse, the Martyrs Of Compiègne, and all the holy men and woman of France, restore the soul of the great French nation. Vive la France!

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