Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter VI. Harriet Monsell as Mother Superior

''Ye loved the Lord with all your heart,
In Him ye laved the souls of men,
Your joy was freely to impart
Your best, and ask for nought again;
No selfish greed, no lust of power,
Defiled your bounties' kindly shower.

"Whate'er ye planned, began, achieved,
Ye kept one pure and steadfast aim
To make the Christ yet more believed,
To win more worship to His Name;
And every truth and rule ye taught,
Into your daily life was wrought."

BRIGHT'S "Hymns and other Verses."

IT has been shown in the last chapter how Harriet Mon-sell entered upon her work wholly inexperienced, both as to Sisterhood life and the care of the Penitents. She had to learn everything, and at the same time to lead others who were equally learning. It was like being cast into the sea to sink or swim, while sustaining others. There could at first be no system in her work, and this was a real loss, for there is much that traditionary experience, out of which system grows, alone can give. But all experience is developed out of living independent action, and life itself is greater than system; and to learn by one's own efforts has in some respects results beyond what any system can impart.

But Harriet Monsell had a great readiness to learn, not only from those under whom she was placed, but also from those who worked with and under her. She had also a courage and a venturesomeness, with great mental elasticity, which enabled her at once to be ready to make experiments, and to adapt or change what had been begun, as seemed advisable when the trial had been made. She had also the grasp of mind which could overlook the least detail, while yet her eyes and her heart were everywhere. And her powers developed as occasions arose, and demands were made upon her.

It is not meant that what she did, she did, or could have done, alone. She had from the very commencement of her work most valuable aid from the few who came either at the same time or immediately after her, and were most closely associated with her in all her undertakings. But it was of necessity hers to set in motion and direct the whole, and as the work went on, and more and more sisters were drawn to her side, it was given to her to impart a tone and a character, peculiarly its own, to the growing Community, and to infuse a spirit which lives on, to be transmitted to a succeeding generation.

The position suited her genius, while it gave full scope for its development. It seemed providentially ordered that she should be the chief instrument in the formation of the Community, rather than take up its management when formed. For her peculiar and remarkable qualities could not have been brought into play, had she been obliged to adapt herself to existing rule, and follow out established principles. In the early stages of the life of Religious Communities, everything must depend, to a large extent, on personal influence; and in this lay one main source of her strength. The original and originating powers, which strikingly distinguished her, had thus a sphere of exercise which could not have existed in a settled institution. She seemed to have been raised up for the particular time and the particular circumstances in which she was called to work, and yet, living on to preside over the Community when its Rule was fixed, and when it had attained, comparatively speaking, a settled form, her powers of government and her spiritual capacities, which had evidently grown with its growth, were not found unequal to the exigencies of its matured state.

In subsequent chapters she will be found speaking for herself as to her own thoughts and feelings through extracts from letters which have been permitted to be used for this purpose. In the present chapter it is desired to place her before the reader's eye in the light in which she appeared to those who worked with her, or at least to convey an idea of her character and her methods of dealing, as they became impressed on their minds.

The following words describe the main feelings left on the mind of one of the Sisters who was well able to judge, and who had frequent intercourse with her.

"I should describe Mother Harriet's personality as the most living power I have ever come across. It seemed as if she could do nothing in a routine or mechanical manner, but that the whole force and fervour of her character came out in all she touched, leaving some marked impression, though the occasion which called it out might be comparatively a slight one. Even in a short private interview she would bring before the young Sister by a word or tone some great defect or fault of character, that she might labour to remedy it, while her way of doing it never wounded or discouraged, but rather stimulated and strengthened; at least in the case of those who understood and trusted her. She seemed to have also an insight into the higher sides of character, and she would at the same time set before the mind the special form of excellence that each was called to reach after.

"She had in an eminent degree that special characteristic of great souls,--a width of view, and largeness of mental horizon, in which each person, and his or her circumstances, fall into their true relations, and with this a power of individualising and of taking each up separately, and, to use her own words, 'getting at once to the core of the being.'

"It seemed to be this same power and the combination of a general grasp, with a quick perception of particulars, that made everything she took part in become a real, living function, not merely something customary, mechanical, and general. Whether it was a Chapter of the Community at which she presided, or a daily Conference at which she had something to say to the Sisters, or a distribution of prizes, or a social gathering, her touch seemed at once to give to what would perhaps be tedious or monotonous, the interest and variety of life."

What chiefly struck a looker-on was the exceeding vigour with which she embarked on her many plans, and the eager, sanguine enthusiasm which animated her in carrying them out. And she could impart something of the same power to others. The effect of her own determination was catching, and seemed to act as a perpetual stimulus. "It must be done," is an expression of hers often recalled by a Sister who was set on a task from which she shrank as a too onerous charge, but which left no question on her mind as to doing her best to fulfil it. To the same effect was the experience of a Sister whose lot it was soon after her Profession to be sent to work at a distance from the Mother House.

"Wherever I might be, I could not but feel that Mother was with me in spirit, knowing all that I was doing or feeling, encouraging, strengthening, thinking of me always, so that I learnt to trust her, and rest in her love.....I can see now in looking back long years past one or two points which give a slight insight into her management with regard to myself. Her 'It be to be done, dear,' playfully and kindly said, but firmly meant, when I shrank back from anything I disliked doing, always braced me up, and made me feel that she knew my powers better than I did myself, and that I could do whatever was required of me. Indeed she had a very happy persuasion and confidence that there was nothing in the way of work that her Sisters could not do well and thoroughly, and she had really a most keen and intuitive perception of the work best adapted for each Sister, and her judgment I think rarely failed on this point.

"Another strong characteristic was, I think, her simple, straightforward way of looking at things as in GOD'S sight. To any one who would ask her advice in a perplexity she would say, 'I don't see the difficulty, the lines are straight.' That generally seemed quite sufficient; the eye once fixed upon the path of duty soon discovered the straight line, and the perplexity would vanish.

"Nor can I omit to mention, as most striking, the charm of her sweet graciousness on receiving any little help or pleasure from any one; all through her active, no less than her helpless state, it was a delight one coveted to be able to do the least thing for her."

It was universally felt that a great warmth of love animated all this energy, and gave even to a few words an amazing power. A Sister who had the charge of a distant house, says, "The most beautiful thing in her dealing with the Sisters was her motherliness. Whenever she came to see us it was "more her love and brightness than what she said, that helped one on. I think she really cared for each one of us, not only as a working machine more or less useful, but as if we had been her own children."

Yet Mother Harriet could be very severe, in case of any serious fault, to some even overwhelming; but it was with a manner and in a spirit peculiarly her own. One who has had long experience in the Community says; "I suppose we should be universally agreed that Mother Harriet's reproving would be preferred to that of all others. It partook of her own individual character. It was decided, strong, perhaps severe, showing the whole extent of her displeasure, which might be great. But then it was the whole, nothing remained to come afterwards as an addition, and once over you felt sure as to the future. A frank submission met with an instant forgiveness, and the Sister reproved departed with even more love in her heart for her Superior than before, and met her the next minute without a shadow of fear.

"Sometimes, however, Mother Harriet did not make full allowance, or was not aware of the nervous nature before her, and a collapse was the result. Mother Harriet was then the most unhappy of the two. She would at once mollify, comfort, and uplift, and never let the Sister leave her till she had restored the loving confidence between herself and her daughter.

"Her loving sympathies penetrated into the deepest recesses of the heart of her children in their sorrows. She made herself acquainted with the family trials of each would take unwearied trouble to help each at real personal cost to herself, and often did so most efficiently. Nothing was too trivial for her to be interested in, and she would remember little personalities as to each one's surroundings in a way which was surprising, considering the multitude of matters that were at all times crowding into her heart and brain."

Another speaks of the remarkable facility which Mother Harriet had of "adapting herself to many diversities of character; imparting confidence and courage to the timid and the weak, while in the case of stronger natures she would help on the process of self-surrender to Rule without calling out opposition to be battled with; encouraging those who failed by taking up with her own hands the defective details of the work, and then putting the discomfited Sister on fresh lines; always patient with mistakes, and with her buoyant spirit and ready appreciation of fun, getting over a difficulty without showing any displeasure, and only afterwards, when a private opportunity occurred, making the error a matter of grave counsel. She had a gift of imparting her own special lines of thought, and would give out grand outlines and leading principles, often not understood at the time, but afterwards seen to be applicable to minor points of duty, mixing up the great and the small in a manner which often produced startling contrasts.

"Her spirit full of lively resources diffused itself all round. Often would a hard day's work be brightened up by a few moments at her side; and in social intercourse with few or many, there was always felt to be ease and freedom. A close observer could detect the skilful hand she would lay on the reserved or diffident, or on one who might be feeling lonely, whom she would single out, without appearing to do so, and raise her into companionship with herself before she was aware of it. She would win confidence by giving out her own, and this with a combination of humility and simplicity, which had the effect of raising the recipient of the kindness into fellowship, instead of letting her remain in the attitude of one only receiving help.

"Her feeling was that those who ruled should share interests with others, making all feel it to be a common work, even though one were widely separated from another. Strong and self-reliant herself, she was most generous to others, making arrangements often with a view to giving scope for their special gifts and energies. Strong individualities of character were a positive pleasure to her; they called out her intelligence and her sympathies, for there was in her a very real love of liberty, and she would encourage a true freedom in others, believing it to be perfectly consistent with loyalty and obedience, or rather, that it raised obedience to the higher level of a reasonable service. She was fond of drawing out the thoughts of others, even on ordinary subjects outside the sphere of Community interests, so as to bring out character, and keep up a play of mind, freshening an atmosphere which might, at times, especially during early struggles and arduous undertakings, be over-weighted."

It was a marked feature in Mother Harriet, that she would never allow discouragement. She seemed to have suffered from the want of encouragement when growing up.

One of the Sisters remembers her saying of herself that "a turning point in her early life had been when some one spoke encouragingly to her." The Sister adds: "When I was working in the girls' school at ------, there was one who caused very deep anxiety, and Mother when she came used constantly to ask about her, and say, 'Now, don't discourage her.'"

This same spirit told greatly in her dealing with the Penitents. "The secret of the influence she exercised over them was mainly due," as one who worked under her thought, "to her always encouraging them. They began to think they must try to do better, when they saw she expected it of them."

There was indeed a transparent hopefulness and assurance in her whole tone, founded on a very trustful nature and a happy reliance on GOD'S ordering all things mercifully, and such ready, generous recognition of GOD in the most untoward circumstances, that it could not but affect those who brought their difficulties to her, or expressed complaints in her presence.

One already quoted moreover observes how she would "accept suggestions from any quarter, would readily yield a point, and draw back, abstaining from pressing her desire when she felt real difficulties, and then quickly turn to make essays on other lines. She would readily acknowledge a mistake or fault even to a Novice, and, associating herself with the youngest, ever try to keep up a loving interchange of thought and feeling."

Very much of her influence depended on this strong sense of justice, and her power of balancing facts on both sides of a question. She thus imparted a general sense of security that right would be done, even though she might not explain to the aggrieved person what she meant to do. Often one was struck by the quickness with which she would lay hold of the main points at issue, fastening on them with a singular tenacity, and, separating off incidental matters perplexing to many minds, go straight to a decision. This characteristic of her mind was shown both in dealing with questions of conduct and with the forming of rules; she clung to the points of essential moment, and if assured that they were safe, she would leave minor details to be settled with comparative indifference.

With all this there was a brightness and playfulness which had a singularly happy charm, and which became a real power. In meeting difficulties, often a few strong words, or a quotation from some book she had been reading, or from a sermon she had lately heard, perhaps a flash of quiet humour, would have a wonderful effect, opening out new trains of ideas, or dissipating clouds of despondency. She showed a very unusual amount of power in thus supporting others, keeping up what she called "the sparkle" in the life, and while bearing her own weight of trial, meeting the instant need of others burdened, or saddened, or overwrought. The great natural vigour of her buoyant temperament helped her quick keen insight and her large breadth of loving sympathy. This genial play of mind was all the more appreciated because of the consciousness of the sorrow of her widowed state, so evidently living on, fresh as at the first,--evidently at least to those who were on the closer terms of intercourse with her,--and felt to be a spring both of energetic action and tenderest considerateness, intensifying and consecrating the commonest details. In all this varied intercourse, serious or playful, her object seemed to be to encourage and stimulate by showing what she considered to be the power of particular Sisters, that they might not fail to fulfil their course, and constantly strive after the perfection to which GOD had destined them.

It was a remarkable proof of the mental strength and spiritual earnestness which Mother Harriet maintained to the end, that although the care of the Novices was committed to a Novice Mistress, yet she never ceased to watch carefully over them, and while their Mistress gave them their regular teaching, it was her own vigorous spirit which was being continually infused into them. This wide reach of her influence upon the younger Sisters up to the very end of her working days, is perhaps one of the most striking evidences of her energy and wisdom. One of the last Novices of her day observes how "on her first coming Mother Harriet's influence began to be felt," adding,--"She took pains to make me understand all the arrangements and economy of the House. On Christmas Day soon after I came she sent for me, and made me sit by her, thinking I should be lonely and wanting my own people. Many little bits of spirituality she often taught me; but not so much directly as indirectly, for her health was failing, and she seldom talked much at a time, only a few terse words on what one's life meant, and where the discipline lay, which was the only road to what we were seeking. One never went into her room without learning something. Over and above this, too, we were touched by the trouble Mother always took every time she sent for us to make plain what she intended to teach, never letting us go away without something learnt; her way of dealing in itself acting as a lesson."

Her teaching of the young Sisters had a remarkable simplicity mingled with a deep reality and common sense. One Sister relates, as an instance, how "once when displeased by a Sister's indiscretion, an excuse was made for her; 'She is young, Mother.' She only said thoughtfully, 'Young,' and after a short silence she turned to me, who happened to be near, and said with such force, 'Don't let them say that of you, that you are young. At your age you might be married, and have all such cares: no one would then excuse your failings because you were young.' "

The same Sister remembers another similar incident, showing how she would "simplify and smooth away perplexities when consulted about difficulties. Once she said to me, 'You, young ones, think your lives so complicated; now your old Mother just sits here and tries to do a kindness to any one who requires it in the course of the day. It is like a married life. At first there is fussiness and anxiety about the love being felt and understood, but as years go on the love grows deeper, more satisfying, more satisfied.'"

There were in Mother Harriet mental qualities not often found combined in the same person. Those who were struck with her vigorous active powers, were hardly prepared for the taste, the delicacy, and spiritual tenderness, which came out to view by degrees; and it was also remarkable that one endowed with such an elastic temperament, should have had such a gift of sustained, persevering patience. In organising work, her forte did not so much lie in details or in defining. In this she was content to be dependent, and acknowledged her dependence on others. Her power lay in developing large principles, in giving broad outlines and a general scope, to be afterwards filled up and completed by others. Her mind was constantly planning. Often her ideas were the merest dreams, or seemed so, but when any practicable opening for work occurred, nothing could surpass the rapidity with which the scheme was formed, the possibilities anticipated, and the foundations laid. She would then look to find in the Sister to whom any charge was committed, a fertility of resource resembling her own quick imaginations, being as generous in giving them credit for what they did, as she was large in her expectations of their success. She once said to a Sister in charge of a very important work, "I will never feel anxious again about what may become of the Community and the work, when I lay it down. I see that GOD can raise a great work without me."

Before closing this sketch of Mother Harriet's characteristic qualities as Mother Superior, something needs to be added as to the sources out of which her inner life drew its nourishment, or what may be called her spiritual consciousness. Her standard of belief was very simple, like her nature, and it was based on her husband's teaching. She was exceedingly sensitive as to anything that jarred upon this, and as much delighted when she found any response to it. Her favourite, her one practical, ideal was contained in a sermon of her husband's, to which she was fond of referring, on the text, "CHRIST in you the hope of glory." The "CHRIST Life," as she termed it, possessed her to the end, and was traceable in all her lines of thought and feeling, as her standard of practical religion, and she would apply the dominant idea to all details, great or small. It is not that Mother Harriet would constitute herself a teacher or spiritual guide; she would have utterly disclaimed such an assumption; nor was her mental view always definite and clear; it was that out of the fulness of her heart she would give forth strong, earnest utterances of what formed her own support and comfort, and what she felt must be equally helpful to others.

She was wanting in exactness, but her mind grasped great truths eagerly and firmly, as living realities to her soul. Specially she worked on a profound conviction, fortified by her husband's matured belief, that the Church of England, as a true Catholic Communion, has within its resources power to develope both the contemplative and the active sides of the supernatural life; and that while free to gather what we will from the accumulated experience of ages within the Roman Communion, we have an equal claim to the same grace and laws of life, as well as an equal capacity for adapting to our national characteristics the same principles.

It is surprising how much she was able to compose, in the desire of helping others with her own ideas, or what she had gathered from books, considering the ceaseless exactions upon her active energies and power of attention. She was continually writing in the Sisters' manuals of devotion short heads for thought and prayer, seeking to leaven and direct the mind of the growing Community by word as by deed.

Her life of prayer was peculiarly her own, as indeed all her gifts were. Besides her settled rule, she would set apart other times for special exercises, and was fond of fresh methods of devotion. Thus, for a time she kept Thursday evenings till after midnight, at another time she would devote an hour before the household rose. There was a small recess in the old chapel, a bay window overlooking the altar, where she might often be found, or before the altar itself. She could bear any interruption while at prayer, if need were, not letting any one feel she disliked being disturbed, and sometimes she would give her answer while on her knees, as though it were a natural position in which to be found, and this more frequently as she became more infirm. When any fresh work was being undertaken, she would keep weeks of prayer, sometimes a month, as a private preparation of her own. During the illness of a Sister she would, if the case were serious, watch by her bed-side all night, and very soothing and assuring her words were felt to be. She was not a good sleeper, and, perhaps from nursing her husband so many years, had the power of waking herself at any hour; and she was fond of making times of prayer at night while her strength permitted it.

The following extract from a letter written by her to one who had been once expected to join her in the work, though afterwards unavoidably hindered, will convey the idea of the secret source of her strength better than any general description, and may fitly form the close of this sketch of her character.

"I do, and will, dear, often pray for you, and there are few things I ask more earnestly than to be brought so near to GOD that my prayers for others may be heard and accepted, for it is my only strength in this work to lay before GOD the wants, and cares, and struggles of each one whom He hath given me to watch over for Him, and then to trust that He will do His own work in them, and that my want of humility may put no hindrance in their path. If, dear, I have made any advance in spiritual life, and am any way fitted to help others in it, a look back into the past to see all the merciful ways in which GOD has been leading me out of self, and disciplining me into fitness, shows me how completely, and how tenderly it has been His work, and how He has given me so many who love and pray for me; and with prayer, what may not be done?"

Further extracts from her letters will be given in the following chapters, written at different times to one or other of the Sisters, which will show more fully in her own words what has been here said generally of her mind and character, more especially illustrating her habits of thought and her dealing with those who were led to live and work for GOD under her leadership.

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