Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter III. Harriet Monsell's Self-Consecration in Sorrow

"God gives us love, something to love
He lends us; but when love is grown
To ripeness, that on which it throve
Falls off, and love is left alone." TENNYSON.

AFTER a lingering sickness of upwards of five years, the end drew rapidly on towards the close of the year 1850. They had gone to Naples, and of the last few days spent there or in its neighbourhood, the account may be given in Harriet Monsell's own words.

The author of this Memoir received from her some years ago a brief Diary of that sad crisis of her history, that he might know the means by which she had been drawn to consecrate herself to GOD'S service. This Diary, together with a letter written by her within a few days of her husband's death, conveys a vivid description of what so deeply moved her, and stamped its lasting impression on her inmost soul. The Diary commences with the Eve of Christmas Day.

"Christmas Eve. A most lovely day; drove through Naples with Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone, Charles and I, he wonderfully well for him; all his powers coming out in converse with Mr. Gladstone; all looking bright around one again, and a spring of hope in me, that he might be again well, and rally, as he had so often done before. The last really joyous day I have known, as far as earthly joy goes.

"Christmas Day. The Gladstones and other friends dined with us; very pleasant, but Charles was tired, it was as much as he could do to get through it. They left us at nine, and he went to bed very tired.

"Thursday and Friday, Very poorly.

"Saturday, A Christmas tree at the Gladstones', the preparation for which they made him go to look at; he was so loved by all the young friends (not children) who were at Naples. He had a remarkable elasticity, yet ever bearing the shadow of the Cross and of CHRIST'S Presence about with him.

"New Year's Day. A most lovely day. We walked by the sea-side, and went in to the Gladstones, who lived near. He was faint and poorly, and that day I felt a conviction of what was at hand.

"Monday. He continued ill, and we thought we would try change of air. We went (it was the Epiphany) to Sorrento. He was better that evening for the change. Mr. Reid and Robert Ffrench came with us. At Sorrento he was obliged to remain in bed almost entirely, very ill. Each night I feared I never should get him back to Naples. We had no doctor at Sorrento, but one came from Naples, and ordered him home.

"Friday, 10th. We returned to Naples.

"Thursday, 16th. A most lovely day. We drove in the Hubbards' carriage along the Strada Nuova, a beautiful drive. He was quite in spirits, and spoke of the possibility of getting home in spring.

"Friday and Saturday. In bed ill.

"Sunday, 19th. Very ill. Never could get out of his bed after this day.

"25th . Very ill. I let him see it was hopeless.

"26th. Communion at eight o'clock in the morning, after he had been told there was no hope. Mr. Reid, my maid, and myself, with him. During the day he was tired and spoke but little, but at night he spoke a good deal of home, of his father, of all that life and GOD'S love, &c., had been to us both.

"27th. Drowsy all day; about six in the evening he called me to him and said he was dying, and asked for Holy Communion. Many friends were present in the outer room, I alone was by him. After It was over he said to me, 'Stay by me to the last,' and I never left him except for one hour, when they made me lie down.

"28th. He lingered on all through this day, speaking from time to time, and with a wondrous light coming over him now and then, every movement calm and submissive, every word spoken more expressive of penitence than aught else, except deep love, and once he said he had a blessed assurance. He called for Mr. Reid, (a valued friend of those days, who was also abroad on account of health; he afterwards settled at Ravello, a lovely spot above Amalfi, on the Bay of Salerno,) and commended me to his care, but his heart and his trust for me seemed quite stayed on his GOD. He had in other illnesses expressed anxiety about my having to lay him in a foreign grave alone, now all seemed gone, and only the sense of the nearness of GOD and His greatness filled his soul.

At a quarter to four this morning he 'fell asleep.' For an hour before he had slept on my arm, and gradually the rest became deeper, the breathing slower. Rest! oh how blessed that parting smile which told that it had come at last. My maid had dropped asleep on the sofa. The doctor slept in the other room. I was alone with GOD."

The following letter written by herself to a most dear sister, within four days of her husband's death, gives a somewhat fuller account of what passed. It vividly expresses the first, freshest feelings of her crushed heart, and is a most touching picture of the last hours of a truly saintly sufferer. The feelings expressed are so closely connected with her subsequent life, that although the letter is one of a most private character, it seems too important a link in her history to be omitted.

"Naples, Feb. 3, 1851.

"MY DEAREST, This boat must not leave without my writing to my dearest sister, and yet from others you know all, and I have nothing to tell you of but loneliness and desolation. Yet, thank GOD, there is a bright light shining on all, and GOD has enabled me to feel His Presence in a degree such as I never dared to hope would be granted me, so unworthy of His great consolation. Dearest ------, how can I tell you of those mysterious hours when I went down with that sainted soul to the very gates of death; holding close communion with it till he sank to sleep in my arms for about an hour before his breath passed away, so gently, that had I not been watching with the most intense anxiety, I could not have perceived it.

"And yet, dear, of this I must tell you, (for it is as a message from the grave to all who knew and loved him, and whose heart may be failing them through fear and doubting, and one they may not disregard,) to let none delude themselves with the idea that the Church of England cannot train saints for glory, and that her Sacraments cannot support in a dying hour.

"On Monday morning he called Dr. Strange, and asked him to tell him truly his state. He did so, and told him that he might live only a few hours, or he might live a few days. He said, 'I feel it.' Dr. Strange says he never saw anything like the smile with which he received it.

"Almost immediately after he said to me, 'It is sad not to have Charles Harris, or Ward, or some of our clergyman friends with me.' I said, 'Should you like to have the Sacrament?' He said, 'Oh, yes,' and I at once sent for Mr. Bolland, who came and administered to him. At first, as I knelt beside him, I was greatly agitated, but he laid his hand gently on my head and calmed me, and I have felt its influence ever since. After we had received, I said, 'This has been a great blessing.' He said, 'Oh, so great. I have prayed GOD that I might suffer anything in body or mind, but that I might be preserved from sin or remaining in sin.' All that morning he talked of all his own and all my people, and expressed much love for all; spoke of what he wished me to do, and of what I had been to him. All that day and night he was calm, better than the night before, so much so that on Monday morning the doctor had a hope, and I too felt it. All that day he was sleepy, but woke up bright and clear, so about three, when the doctor came, they still had hope. About five he woke up again, and after a little said, 'I am going.' Again Dr. Strange came, and he said, 'I feel that I am going.' Dr. Strange said to me, 'But what is it? his pulse is as I left it last, I see no change.' I said, 'I only know that he feels it.' After a time he said, 'I wish Mr. Bolland would administer Holy Communion to me again.' He asked him to come and read the Confession and Absolution. We then received, and this Blessed Food of the Body and Blood of our LORD JESUS CHRIST was the last he received. From that time for thirty-four hours he was in the act of death, and except something to moisten his lips, never tasted food.

"Oh, dearest, nothing that I have gone through since has been anything in comparison with those long hours of suffering. His mind continued as clear as ever to the very last; no pain, but suffering intensely from a mysterious suffering of death and exhaustion. All that night Mary and I watched by him, sure that a few hours would end his sufferings, but morning came, and his pulse was strong, and his heart beat. [Mary was the faithful servant of the family.] His patience was extreme, and he told me to be sure to read the Commendatory Prayer when he was in the act of death, and often asked for what he called 'his prayer,' and oh! the depth of his penitence! At first it was by far his strongest feeling. Afterwards he said, 'Surely GOD will never reject one that comes to Him in deep penitence,' and constantly repeated that prayer,' Though we be tied and bound with the chain of our sins, &c. Oh! how intense was his suffering. When it seemed almost more than he could bear, I said to him, 'You only wished for prolonged life and health that you might in some way serve GOD, and He has answered your prayer in another way, and given you the power of glorifying Him in your death.' He said, 'I trust so,' and seemed to have gained fresh courage for the conflict. Some time in the morning he asked for the 8th of Romans, and some of the Church prayers. About ten o'clock the struggle began again, and from that time till about two his sufferings were most intense. I repeated prayers for him which always comforted him, especially, 'By Thine Agony and Bloody Sweat,' and he would say, 'Good LORD, deliver me.' About one o'clock I took the Bible, and read to him verses here and there, the 8th of Romans, the 5th of Corinthians, and the last chapter of the Revelation. He took it all in, and found peace and comfort. At last came a great struggle for breath, and he gave one cry, 'Oh, my GOD, my GOD!' After a little while he became quiet, and said, 'Bless you, my child,' and sank off by degrees to sleep.

"I sat watching and watching the gentle breath, and thanking GOD for it, when suddenly the thought came over me that thus he would go; and I listened, and the breath became less and less, and then there was none, and my darling was at rest, safe in the Bosom of his Goo. How often during those weary hours did I pray for his release: how often did I fear lest any sinful, impatient thought of mine had caused a prolonging of the sufferings, and oh! how did I tremble lest in that hour of terrible trial his faith should fail, but neither act, look, or word ever gave the least sign of impatience. At one time I said to him, 'JESUS will support and comfort you;' he said, 'None other can.' At times there came the most wondrous smile on his poor wasted face, a smile which still rested on him after he was placed in his coffin. Mary once said to me,' Look at that!' it was so radiant. May I not say that I have gone to the very gates of death? and that none need wander from the fold where he found such comfort and such support? [This and a former allusion of the same kind, shows how deeply the anxiety spoken of before of some dear friends who had seceded to the Church of Rome, had entered into her and her husband's heart.]

"All that day and all the next, till called to go forth and complete what was necessary to be done, I sat meditating on his rest and blessedness, and received strength with an entire willingness to resign him to Him Who had so long permitted me to minister to and comfort one whom He had loved so tenderly, and had made so perfect through suffering. Every one who has been near him lately seems to have been impressed with there being a something heavenly about him; all who saw, have most deeply felt the influence of his death.

"Of myself I need not speak. Those who know what he has been to me for the last six years and a half, to say nothing of the brighter and more joyous years of our union, must know what it must be to sit alone and feel that he now no longer needs me; but GOD has been wonderfully gracious to me, and has given me peace, His 'peace which passeth all understanding.' The kindness and sympathy of friends is very great, and all feel that they have themselves lost something."

The letter thus concludes:

"I leave, I trust, on Monday next; if you can have me, and will let me come and watch over you, there is nothing my heart turns to with so much pleasure; at the same time, if GOD has anything for me to do elsewhere, I am quite ready to go where He calls. The narrow grave contains my earthly all. His spirit will be by my side wherever I go, and most truly I know and feel that I shall have the tender love and sympathy of all the dear ones at home, both in his family and my own to cheer and comfort me.......

We go to Marseilles, and then across France as rapidly as possible, so perhaps I may be with you about the end of February."

The scene of profound sorrow through which Harriet Monsell passed (her own words in describing it speak vividly of her own state of mind and character at the time) formed the most critical turning point in her life. It was indeed the crisis of her history, so much so that her after course cannot be understood without this being clearly apprehended. For it was at this time that her consecration of herself to the service of GOD took place, and there had been preparations for it not previously understood. She afterwards was wont to speak of her husband and herself planning (if GOD should restore his health sufficiently for him to return to England and undertake light duty) the establishment of some charitable institution for nursing the sick or such like, of a distinctive Church character, under some kind of religious rule. She little conceived how such plans would eventually be carried into effect. But it was in. after days a joy as well as a support to her to feel that in her subsequent life-work she was fulfilling, though in very unexpected ways, what had long been working in her mind in union with her husband as a common thought of mutual self-devotion. Her consecration of herself to GOD'S service as He might be pleased to call her, may best be described in her own words, the close of the diary part of which has already been given.

What follows takes up the history from the day of her husband's death.

"Wednesday, 29th. I was alone with GOD. When all had been done that was needful, a bed was prepared for me in the room near him, and I was made to go and lie down. When all was still, for one hour I felt as if I should go mad, then GOD sent sleep, and about nine I got up calm, as you first saw me. [The reference is to the author of the Memoir and his first interview with Mrs. Monsell.] Soon after I went into the room and knelt beside him. Who could be other than calm in the presence of that rest and peace, that smile of victory won? That day I often knelt beside him, and that evening the friend I told you of came, and would have me let her talk of herself, and all he had done for her. And then I felt GOD'S call to work for Him.

"Thursday morning, 30th. I went into the room. He was laid in his coffin, and kneeling there, the dedication of myself to GOD was made, which was renewed here [At the House of Mercy.] on Ascension Day, the 29th of May, four months after, and has been so often renewed on the 30th of January.

"Robert Ffrench and Mr. Reid took precious care of me. Just when it was needed I found my widow's dress all ready through their care. They put me in the carriage, and they and my maid came with me. It was a long drive through the town. At last we reached that peaceful spot. I knew nothing, but that I did what I was told. There were loving friends near, I saw none; I only saw him moving before me, and felt, as we stood in the chapel, the power of those words, 'I am the Resurrection and the Life.' Again we moved, and we stood by the grave, and he went down into it, and I felt our LORD'S Presence all the time most precious to me. I knew the sacrifice on my part was needful for the full accomplishment of his bliss, and I asked no more. One long look when all was over, and I walked quietly back to the carriage, and came to my desolate abode; but CHRIST was there, and how blessed was His Presence!

"In the evening Mr. Bolland, the clergyman, came to comfort me, but he and all felt that I was comforted of GOD as none but He can comfort."

This closes the Diary; the remainder of her account completes the history of this eventful period.

"While in Naples I went to his grave three times, ever to give myself anew to GOD, and I knelt by his bed hour by hour. I saw all who wished to see me, and did all that was needed by others.

"On Wednesday, the 4th of February, (the day week) I had Holy Communion, and many of the friends were with me who sorrowed for him, and on the loth I left Naples for England with Mr. Hubbard, his niece, and my maid. On the 21st Mr. Hubbard left me with the Harris's in Lowndes Street, and that long, lonely journey was ended."

What Harriet Monsell had lost, struck deeply even strangers who were brought into passing intercourse with her husband. The following letter was written at the time to Dr. Hook by a visitor at Naples, who during a brief stay had chanced to become acquainted with Charles Monsell.

"Naples, March 4th, 1851.

"We have lately had a death here of one of those eminent and highly gifted Christians who seem to be lent to the world, as a light and example for a short time, but are 'taken away from the evil to come.' He has just died of consumption, at the age of 34. He was one, who like Timothy, served and loved GOD from his earliest youth, and was so perfect and consistent a Christian character, that those who knew him could not but believe that he was, though on earth, one of the purified saints of Heaven.

"To show you what he was, I must give you an extract from the diary of a clever, well-disposed, but rather eccentric young man, reckless and madcap, who had known him intimately, and over whom he had obtained some influence for good, as he did over every one who came within his sphere. 'I thought of poor Mr. Monsell: poor! why call him poor? Rich he was in grace and works; rich in cultivated and commanding intellect; rich in a simple and reflective mind; rich in imagination and reasoning powers; rich in sympathy and charity; in Christian cheerfulness and faith; rich in the appreciation of the beautiful and the good; rich in CHRIST'S doctrines, principles, and practice; rich in tenderness, penitence, and love.'"

What Harriet Monsell had lost, having been, however imperfectly, described, the remainder of this Memoir will be occupied in the endeavour to show what, in her deep sorrow, through the Grace of GOD, she had found,--the answer to many prayers, and the fruit of "much tribulation" borne in "the faith which worketh by love."

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