Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter XIII. Mother Harriet's Life at Folkestone

"Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,
Whose loves in higher love endure;
What souls possess themselves so pure,
Or is there blessedness like theirs?"

"In Memoriam"

MOTHER Harriet wrote as follows to a common friend in reference to the sore trial that came on James Skinner, when he was compelled by ill health to give up his important work at S. Barnabas', Pimlico.

"The shadow of sickness and sorrow falls blessedly often in GOD'S own work, doing more for His glory in the chastened conformity of man's will to GOD'S Will, than could be accomplished by the most brilliant active service. Hard lessons to learn are hid in GOD'S teaching, but the whole body is being perfected by the siftings, and the fire that tries each soul, some more, some less, on their journey onward."

She thus expressed in reference to another what she was herself destined to experience, as "the Hand of GOD touched" her, and laid her aside from her work yet more absolutely.

It will have been seen in the course of the last chapter that she did not attain the "quietness" of which its closing passages speak without a struggle. Nor could it well have been looked for. To one of her ardent temperament, with the habits and uses of a whole life bent on action, with unusually great powers of management, and the pleasure, which she never cared to disclaim, in the exercise of them, with such opportunities of doing GOD service in fostering works she dearly loved, and of which she had been the inain-spring and the guide, and when fresh openings were already in view,--the sudden transition to a state of complete inaction, without any hope of resuming any portion of her former work, would hardly fail to cost a severe conflict. Her mind too had retained much of its former vigour when her nervous system had collapsed. Indeed, it was observed, at certain times during the latter years of her illness, that when her body was at the weakest, her mind became the stronger. She exhibited from the first very earnest efforts in disciplining herself with her simple trust in GOD'S overruling Providence, so as to accept cheerfully the new conditions of so changed an existence; but for a considerable time the distressing strain was felt. It was indeed a very crucifixion of the flesh, a transformation of all her natural instincts, and of the feelings and uses of a long past history, such as she had never experienced in any degree before. But the calmness which after a while possessed her; the thorough unquestioning surrender of herself; the acknowledgment of GOD'S ordering in love of all things connected with her helplessness, and her many infirmities, with their ceaseless exactions,'--this was quite as remarkable as had been her previous energetic activity.

It was a great source of pleasure to Mother Harriet, that the year after she had taken up her abode at the Hermitage, the late Archbishop of Canterbury (her cousin by marriage) paid her a visit, and blessed the House as a House of Prayer, at the same time giving her a Bible and Prayer Book, in which he wrote as follows:

House of Retreat,
August 7, 1876,
Name of JESUS.

"Whatsoever ye shall ask in My Name, that will I do, that the FATHER may be glorified in the SON."--S. John xiv. 13.

For awhile, after her resignation, Mother Harriet was able occasionally to move from Folkestone, and she stayed for a short time, at intervals, at Clewer, either at the House of Mercy, or at S. Andrew's Hospital. She was also able to attend regularly the early Celebrations at the Parish Church. But her bodily infirmities gradually increased, and after the lapse of about three years she became so feeble as to be unable to move from her chair, or even to turn in her bed without assistance. Latterly she could with difficulty even feed herself. She lived on thus for four years, and during this period, while thus helplessly dependent, her brightness and resignation were touchingly beautiful.

The following account, written by one who from time to time stayed at the Hermitage, conveys the impression given of her state of mind during that time. The letter is addressed to the author.

"I will very gladly give you my recollections of the dear Mother's life at Folkestone, for it is always a pleasure to go back in thought to the time I was permitted to spend there with her in the Hermitage. No fitter home could have been found for her as a place of rest, than that quiet home on the Bail, with its cheerful little garden running down to the very edge of the cliff, and its most lovely view of the sea; and close to the Church where, until increasing infirmity hindered it, she used to enjoy the early services.

"The House was bright in its surroundings, but its chief brightness was within. It was always a pleasure when word came to us, that the Mother wanted 'to be taken care of for a time, during the absence of the Sister, her ordinary companion. And a great privilege I thought it to be allowed to take her place then as far as I could. The chief thing that struck me when thus in close contact with the dear Mother, was her wonderful patience in a state of utter helplessness, when one remembered what her life had been, so full of action and untiring energy, and what it must have been to her to sit hour after hour not able even to stir in her chair, and far less move from it without help. Never once in all the months I spent with her did I ever hear a word that breathed of impatience. There were many little playful allusions to her helplessness, but never a word of regret that she could not do more, or work any longer for GOD, or even apologies for constantly having to give trouble, or being a burden, which one so often hears elsewhere. Her entire simplicity and acceptance of His will descended to the smallest details of her daily life.

"Then her calmness was another thing that struck one, calmness of mind under great physical nervousness. The two did not seem to get mixed together as in so many invalids, when irritability of nerve and irritability of temper are so hard to disentangle and to deal with.

"Unable to write herself (for the feebleness of her hands that used to write so freely and so well made even the necessary signing of her name a difficult task) she dictated with the greatest clearness and calmness, so that it was very easy to write letters for her, and scarcely a day passed without her dictating many, for she kept up her keen interest in all the work of the Community both far and near, and all her family ties. In all these letters it was wonderful how self was left out. She rarely mentioned herself or her state of health, but threw herself warmly into the interests of those dear ones she wrote to. She kept up her interest also in all the passing events of the day, liking to read the papers each morning for a little while, and using the knowledge thus obtained by remembering the various needs of those she read of, in her prayers. In fact her quiet life was a life of prayer and intercession. She had different days of special remembrance of those whose needs she had at heart, but I think she was almost always praying and holding communion with GOD, and this gave her the influence she had when in intercourse with others. She was always willing to see friends when able, though she could not bear many at one time, or indeed any one for long together, but those who were privileged to come near her will not soon forget their visit to that bright little room, nor how often they felt strengthened and helped by a very few words from 'the Mother.'

"Her wisdom often struck me when hearing her give little bits of advice to one or another, and her quickness in seeing into their special needs, saying just the right thing to each. It might be only a bright cheering word given with a playful look, but whatever it was, her words could not soon be forgotten by those who heard them.

"Her various pets were a rest and an amusement to her during the long days when she sat still and could do nothing; and her room was bright with flowers, mostly the gifts of loving friends. Her sight and hearing were wonderfully good; and she was quick to detect a mistake in an Office, or a change in another's countenance, or even in their dress. She gave out sympathy in little things as well as in great, in joy quite as much as in sorrow, and so every one came to her to claim it. Reading, for which during the years of her active life she had had but little time, was a pleasure to her now, as far as she was equal to it. With her usual quickness she grasped the drift of a book, and after a glance at its pages said at once whether she would go on with it or not. One could not be with her and not learn something, and in the quiet restfulness of those days of helplessness the real greatness of her character seemed to come out more than ever before."

The 'pets' spoken of in this account formed a new feature in Mother Harriet's surroundings. In her working days she had been strong in denouncing the indulgence, as unbefitting a Sister's life, and lowering its energies. A Sister who remembers her once dealing with such a tendency in former days, was deeply struck with the apology she made for allowing herself this natural pleasure in the days of her infirmity. Alluding to a past occurrence, when she had shown in Mother Harriet's presence a special fondness for animals, she says: "The strength and energy of her own spirit acted on mine in a way that often surprised me, and though my love for animals remained, I have had no pets since that day. In later years I have been touched by the humility with which she excused herself to me for the dogs and birds she had collected about her"--that "she could not move about, or use her hands to draw or work, that she grew weary of always reading, and needed something light and trifling for recreation, and these creatures filled up just the want of something to take off her thoughts."

Another picture is given by one who often sought counsel of Mother Harriet at that time, and loved to record her sayings.

"To visit her in her quiet little room and to hear her accustomed words, 'Now sit down, and tell me all about yourself/ to lay before her the cares and difficulties weighing upon one; to listen to her words of counsel and help, spoken with such a full understanding of one's needs,--no one who has experienced this can ever forget it; and then, when this was ended, and she had given all the special advice that was wanted, she would go on to speak of other subjects in a wider form, showing how the discipline of trial and sorrow is needed to bring the soul nearer to GOD, and to teach more and more His love and power. 'I speak that I do know, and testify that I have seen,' was the impression left by her words, for to her the love of GOD and the blessedness of a life devoted to Him, and the nearness of the unseen world were all tangible realities; strong facts as great and greater than those with which she had come in contact in the outward life.

"'It is good for us to be here/ was the involuntary feeling of all who were admitted to the little sanctuary of her room; for the cares of life were shut out for a time, and one seemed able to live above them all in the atmosphere of peace and love which surrounded her. 'And now, my child, good-bye, and may GOD bless and help you in all your ways,' she would say, as she bade me farewell."

The following are extracts from letters written from her Folkestone home while she was still able to write a little. They are quoted here because they speak of her way of employing herself, and of the interests which still possessed her mind.

"I must write you a line before Lent, for I mean to enjoy as much freedom as I then can from the pen. I am keeping as well as a decidedly delicate body can, and hope in May to be at Clewer for a bit.

"I draw, and I read, and find plenty to interest me. My life here is so quiet and same like, there is nothing new to tell. All you tell me interests me. Be sure you have a good Lent. Love to------."

The second extract refers to one of the pets, to which allusion was made previously.

"Before Advent comes I must send you a line to thank you for your letter, which interested me very much. I am very sorry to hear of ------'s heart, and hope she will really take care. I find it makes the greatest difference keeping it warm, and after all if one realises the need of care and adjusts one's life accordingly, one can get on very happily. I have got a sweet little Poll to enliven my old age. We make him 'hop up there,' and 'go home,' and be very obedient. Seeing he is a bird of character and very audacious, he has nearly as difficult 'dispositions' as some of my friends have, and I shall evolve a theory that there is a great affinity between parrot nature and human nature. I am glad you have got a nice field of work, which will calm your mind under all emergencies. Don't be too conceited about it, but take advice when you have made your design. As to your logic, don't come to hard conclusions; that is all I have to say, for I hold that the 'law of love' is greater than the 'law of logic,' though I dare say, rightly understood, they are not antagonistic to each other.

"Ever yours very lovingly,


"What is------going to do while you are studying logic?

Has she any work in hand to improve her mind?"

With the Sisters she was in constant communication, noting lovingly with all her former interest the movements that took place among them. Thus to one starting for America she thus writes:

"This evening's post must bear you my love and blessing, lest if I delay before midday post, you are off. Yet I think we may meet at the Altar Friday morning. The sea is glassy still, and how I shall watch it from my window as it bears you away on your venture of faith. You must, dear, take great care while the heat lasts; really give yourself to quiet and rest the middle of the day. Go slow at first, it will carry you on further in the end. How I should like to fold my large motherly arms round you and the other dear Sisters, as you step over the threshold of the dear Mother House, and go out alone with GOD--a most blessed 'alone,' when we can let all the entanglements of earth drop off from us, and only take them all up in GOD at their true value, but that value is very great. Every loved object in GOD is radiant with a glory of its own. The hidden life is no stamping out feelings and affections, and all the sweet illusions of love; it is giving them their true value, and harmony, and balance in the framework of the Divine Life, so do not fear to cherish them, while you lay them all at the feet of JESUS. And now, my precious child, I commend you to GOD and His safe keeping.

"Your loving old Mother,


And to the same Sister, after her arrival in America, she thus writes again:

"I got your letter just as your Retreat began. It is so blessed for us all to be with you in spirit. We all feel so near. The novena, the Retreat, and the work, and the life bridge over the wild roaring sea that rages between us. I do well see what GOD is doing with you. He first gave you the desire, then He points out the way; but experience has to make it our own to be drawn through the close personal struggle and personal union into the oneness of the transformed life."

Her heart turned always very fondly to watch the growth of the Community in America, and to the Sister who had the charge of the work there she sent enclosed in the above letter a few lines of love and blessing:

"I think of you, dear child, as like my white hen and all her chickens, a nursing Mother in the kingdom of GOD. May He give you largely the gift of wisdom, of love, and of patience. I will only send you this wee line of love. You will feet the Hermitage very close to New York, just over the sea, and the waves bringing loving thoughts between us at all hours day and night.

"Ever your very loving Mother,

"HARRIET, C. S. J. B."

A dear friend who from time to time stayed with Mother Harriet, speaks of her gradual decline, giving dates, which enhance the interest of her report:

"I was with her in June, 1879, and she was then able to drive out, and could walk with help into the garden. She told me that on Easter Day she had been well enough to go to the Celebration at the Parish Church, but she did not think she could ever do it again. While kneeling at the Altar she had been frightened at her own helplessness, and was obliged to catch hold of a man's arm, and ask him to help her back to her place. She had not then begun to have Celebrations regularly in her own home, but I think she never made her Communion in church after that Easter.

"I was with her in October, 1880, just as Sister Ethel's illness began. She was much more feeble then, and had to keep upon one floor. I was with her again the following autumn, just after Sister Ethel's death. She was not much altered in bodily power, but more depressed than I had ever seen her. I was with her again in November, 1882; she was then very quietly happy and content, but much more feeble in body. She could not at that time bear reading aloud for any length of time, but much enjoyed a little poetry. She asked me to read her some of her old favourites, Gray's Elegy in particular.

"When I went away I said something of my grief at seeing her so increasingly feeble: she said, 'It will go on, dear, no doubt, if life goes on.' I said, 'I could not bear to think so.' She said, 'Ah, my dear, when one gives up one's life, one is apt to be taken at one's word.' These were almost her last words to me."

During these last years it was most touching to witness the working of her mind, still so vigorous and so playful, though imprisoned in a body so helpless, often so suffering, and all the while making amusement for herself out of the simplest things, clothing them with her own large and fruitful ideas. She was delighted at any opportunity of conversing with any person of intelligence, with a joyous laugh and kindling eye catching at any opening for humorous thought, whilst yet it was ever felt that there lay behind some deep earnest purpose. There was a wonderful unity in these rapid transitions from the grave to the gay, the same buoyant spirit linking both together now as of old time, when it animated and invigorated her working powers. The Sister who was constantly with her during the last year and more, after Sister Ethel's death, says, "At the same time that she was so constantly giving herself out for deep and difficult questions of life in its varied forms, her sympathy, and bright, joyous, almost child-like keenness of interest were perpetually pouring sunshine into the details of every life that came across her. She managed to get interest and pleasure out of everything. Every minutest detail of what went on in her little household was at her wish made known to her, and all was a joy to her. 'Search England through,' she would say, 'and you could not find a nicer, cosier little home than we have.' 'It seems made for me, and we are such a happy household.' The sunny southern aspect of the sitting-room, the view of the sea, of the cliffs, of the vessels passing up and down the channel, her little garden, the church bells, her pets, her flowers, all were unfailing sources of pleasure. 'I do not believe,' she would say to her doctor [Dr. Bowles, of Folkestone] (who, through his unceasing care and kindness during the many years of his watchful attendance, had become a personal friend), 'you have any patient who is more uncomfortable in body than I am, but it is all outside, all nerves, and I am as bright and cheerful and happy an old woman as any in Folkestone;' or, leaving her symptoms and her sufferings on one side, she would plunge into all the topics of the day, and beguile the busy doctor with some keen argument and discussion, full of quick repartee and grasp of the subject in hand. And then the next minute after he had gone she would perhaps call her little pet dog, 'Gyp,' or allow her white cockatoo, 'Charlie,' to climb up her knee, and give them a droll, quaint rechauffe of her views on some political or literary subject, amusing herself with their funny ways and tricks, with the same zest and life as she had just before put into discussing deep subjects that were very near her heart. Sunshine and activity seemed the atmosphere that surrounded her, in spite of her complete inability even to change her position in her chair without help. When the day was hopelessly dull and foggy, 'Let us go,' she would say, 'and spend the day in Italy.' And she could recall at will the places which she had visited abroad, and this so vividly, that 'it gave,' she would say, 'as much pleasure as if'she had been able to go there again in reality.' "Children and their joys and pleasures were as great an interest and delight to her during these later, as in her earlier days. Her grand-nephews, some of whom were at school at Folkestone, used to say, 'Aunt Harriet always knows what a fellow wants, and gets it for him.' She was with children as a child, and entered into all their young life with the zest of a young person. Every Sunday they would scamper in to pay her a visit after morning service, and all their school interests, work, companions, games, &c., were poured into her ears. With the high spirits of boyhood she had a most keen sympathy. 'They will need all their spirits by-and-by,' she would say, 'how should I have got through life without mine?'"

It cannot be said that Mother Harriet's work ceased during all this period. To the Sisters at work around her she was the constant referee, and an unfailing support, full of wise and cheery helpfulness, as of old. Other Sisters from a distance came on short visits, and thus a constant intercourse was kept up with all Community interests, and seldom it happened but that her advice was sought in times of need. Her busy thoughts occupied themselves specially with all that was going on at Folkestone, and the starting S. Saviour's Mission near the Railway Arch owes a good deal to the energy she threw into the scheme. There were also constant visitors to whom she gave out her warm sympathy and her ever-ready counsel. But what most struck the Sister who watched by her, was the inward work she ceaselessly carried on by her life of intercessory prayer. "This," to quote her words, "became a more and more strongly marked feature of her life, as increasing weakness compelled her to drop more and more of the outward life, and the state of her nerves frequently prevented her being even able to hear about things in which she took great interest. She often told me she felt herself she had done a more real work for GOD whilst sitting 'stuck to my chair,' than in all her busy, active, working years. And she would frequently say, 'Oh, how I have been praying for------.

All night long I was praying for ------.' All the varied interests of the Community and its works, the passing political events of the day, specially those connected with Ireland, and still more events affecting the Church, all in turn filled her rnind, and every thought was a prayer. Then individuals had each their place, and were never forgotten. The very last morning she was wheeled into the sitting-room she came holding her book of intercessions out to me, saying, 'I see my Novice's page is quite full, put in another sheet, dear, at once, that I may have room for their names.' On one occasion she was extremely anxious about two of her nieces, who were both most dangerously ill at the same time, and for days she said to me, 'Night and day I am praying for them; they are never out of my mind for a single minute.' "

It is not to be supposed that the intercourse which has been described as being kept up with those who came to unfold their difficulties or griefs to Mother Harriet, entailed no effort. She would limit the time during which she could sustain a conversation, not scrupling to say "it was enough," and that she needed rest. Latterly such visits often quite exhausted her, and towards the end, as the Sister above quoted says, she received them at extreme cost to herself, so much so that she could not bear making appointments to see people. "No one knows," she would say, "the effort it is to me to think beforehand of speaking to them, or of feeling I must do so at a certain time." Often she was so overdone that tears would roll down her cheeks, but she would say, "Never mind, dear, I am so glad I was able to help ------ a little." Or at another time: "It is strange, but I felt I went just to the very point in her life where she needed help." Many who knew her will know what the feeling was of "the Mother" touching that point in their lives. "I can't think how it was, but the Mother's eyes seemed to look into me, and oblige me to unroll myself," was a not uncommon remark. It was very striking to observe the strength of mind that remained embodied in such an exceedingly enfeebled bodily frame; for her sayings were to the last uttered with her wonted energy and peculiar moral influence. One who had looked to her for occasional counsel when visiting her shortly before her death, was greatly struck with the vigour and animation of the last words she heard her speak.

"In replying to dear Mother's asking me how I did, (I had just recovered from an illness,) I said, 'So much better, thank you. I can feel glad to be alive now still to do GOD'S will.' She said to me, 'There is something much better than that to live for. There is GOD'S will to be done in you. You can never tell to what degree of holiness you may attain by His grace in you, and to what higher place prepared for you in Heaven you may come: how much more He may be glorified in you by your remaining here.' I am not sure that these were her very words, but they convey the impression which her words left on my mind."

It had been Mother Harriet's strong desire to visit Clewer once more before she died. The effort was made in the beginning of June, 1882. Being quite unable to bear the stir and movement of life at either of the Community Houses, she stayed at S. John's Lodge with the author. She remained through the month. During the interval since she had been at Clewer, the new Chapel of the House of Mercy had been built, as well as the Chapel and Refectories of S. Andrew's Hospital. She was able to go the round of these Houses, and also to see all the Sisters and other friends who desired to have a last sight of her, though often it was at the cost of much fatigue.

She stayed over the Feast of S. John Baptist, which is observed as a private Festival at the House of Mercy, and which closes with a general tea, at which the Sisters and Penitents are assembled together in the Recreation Ground. She was drawn in in her chair to be present at Vespers in the Chapel, and afterwards into the garden, at the general tea, at which she remained a short time. It was felt by all to be a real Nunc Dimittis, as she looked and saw how what she first had seen there as a "little one," had grown with years to be a great and growing number. But so accustomed were we to her enfeebled state, it was hardly realised, that this was to be the last Festival of the Patron Saint of the Community that she would celebrate on earth.

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