Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter XIV. The Last Days of Mother Harriet

"Therefore, in our hymns, we pray Thee,
Grant us, Blessed Trinity,
At the last to keep Thine Easter,
In our Home beyond the sky,
There to Thee for ever singing Alleluia, joyfully"

Hymns Ancient and Modern.

"My soul fleeth unto the Lord; before the morning watch."

WHILE on the one hand a fresh, young life had been growing up around Mother Harriet, and Homes forming with the closest spiritual ties, which were to her a constant interest and joy, on the other hand the circle of family relationships, always so fondly cherished, had gradually been narrowing, and links with the world within the veil increasing in .number, year by year.

The sister who had been associated with her during the earlier period of her work at Clewer, the Hon. Mrs. Harris, died in 1865, of a fever caught while visiting among the poor in her husband's parish of Bremhill. Bishop Harris, in heart as in work so closely united with her, died in 1874; a chill which seriously affected him at Malta during his last visitation along the coasts of the Mediterranean, having brought on an illness, under which he sank. Dr. Monsell, her husband's brother, who had moved from Egham to Guildford, died in the year 1875, having met with an accident, while superintending the works carried on in rebuilding his parish church, which became the immediate cause of a fatal disorder; and thus a home where she would often take a few days' rest to recruit her strength, was closed for ever. Her two sisters, Mrs. Martineau, and Miss O'Brien, died, the former in 1872, the latter in 1871. Her three elder brothers had died by the end of 1872, and thus one brother alone was left, with whom she kept up a loving intercourse to the last.

Mother Harriet had felt that her visit to Clewer, recorded in the last chapter, was her last effort; and she returned to Folkestone with the thankful feeling that what she had set her heart to do before she died, had been accomplished.

The Sister who had been her companion during the last year and a half, and who remained with her to the end, gives the following account of the brief interval between the return to Folkestone and her death.

"The last summer and autumn of her life are very bright and peaceful days to recall. She was for some time particularly well. The remembrance of her visit to Clewer was a source of unceasing pleasure. All the many old associations that were almost overpowering at the time, were reviewed with intense delight, as she sat in the bright little garden on lovely summer evenings, revelling in the glorious sunset tints on the sea, and watching the growth of S. Andrew's Convalescent Home on the opposite cliff.

"Many will remember the hours spent with her in those glowing autumn days; friends, relations, and Sisters coming for a little rest and sea-air, and a sight of 'old Mother.' To strangers visiting the place for health or recreation, she would suggest some plan of amusement,--a hunt for fossils on the shore, or a picnic scramble in the Warren. 'I love to see you enjoy yourselves,' she would add, and half the enjoyment was telling her 'all about what had been done.'

"The visits of Sisters from distant Houses were of the greatest interest to her,--and so accurately and distinctly did she grasp every detail, that once when I remarked, 'You talk, Mother, as though you had been there last month, instead of years ago,' she answered quickly, 'Ah, child, it is burnt into my heart; my love for the Community prevents my forgetting anything.'

"The last days of Archbishop Tail occupied her thoughts very much all the autumn. She had kept up constant loving intercourse with the home life at Addington. She had very close relations with it through her cousin, Mrs. Tait, and she was of just the same age with the Archbishop. She would say, 'I little thought when I resigned my office that I should outlive him.'

"The early part of the winter gave no special warning of decay of strength. Her mornings were still employed in reading, dictating letters, interspersing her rapid dictation (she never repeated a sentence) with bits of the newspaper, or a book read aloud, which she commented on in her quaint, pithy way. She received visits most days from people of various kinds, often seeking help or advice. She still took the same keen interest in the work going on around her, and often amused herself with ideal plans of work for herself. When eagerly listening to the details of the Sisters' voyage on their Mission to Calcutta, she was greatly stirred, and pictured herself at Port Said, and dreamed of ending her days there, and being buried at Jerusalem. Another time, when a fresh bit of home mission work was being undertaken by the Sisters, she sent for a shilling map, studied the locale with perfect care, and remarked, 'I could walk straight to the place this minute, and wouldn't I be there pretty quickly too, if I could make myself go. They would have me popping in upon them in no time.1 At the same time, while her mind was still so fresh and vigorous, there were many slight signs of the decrease of bodily powers, and the increase of the helplessness which was so distressing to her. One of the Sisters who saw her frequently remarked, 'Mother is more of the old lady this winter than ever before.' And it was so; she felt it herself, and often talked of what must be done when she was entirely helpless, dreading the thought of increasing infirmity.

"Christmas Day found her in bed with a heavy cold, and she had her Christmas Communion in her bedroom. But she was soon able to return to her sitting-room, and delighted in watching the snowdrops and crocuses appear in the little garden, and making plans for filling the beds. She continued to read a good deal, and liked to be read to all the evening. Dr. Pusey's last volume of Sermons, the 'Rule of S. Benedict' in an old French copy, Maurice's Lectures on the different 'Religions of the World,' and Montalembert's 'Monks of the West' were among the books then read."

A young friend whose accounts of her earliest intercourse with Mother Harriet have been already related, speaks of having been "permitted to be with her during the last weeks of the February of this year." She carefully noted what fell from her lips during those visits, "writing it down day by day after each conversation with her." These sayings have a special interest as being the last among the series of counsels which she was accustomed to give to those who sought her aid. The following are extracts selected from the last notes then taken down, and kindly entrusted to the author:

"People often waste all their energies in running about doing active work, and think that they serve GOD in this way, while all the time they utterly neglect the inner life of communion with Him, which alone makes their work worth anything in His sight. We must not rob GOD we must give Him His due. Remember He has the first claim on our being; our aim must be to think of Him, to live for Him, to be always trying to please Him. The Divine Life must be shown forth in us. Our desire must be to manifest the life of GOD in our body, soul, and spirit; and to let others see that our lives are really given to GOD, and set apart for Him, whether living in the world or in a Sisterhood. This must be a great reality, there must be no mistake about it. Our work on earth must be simply this, to lead the holiest life we possibly can for GOD.

"If we give ourselves to GOD without reserve, to live and work for Him, there is no doubt that He gives us special spiritual power. But if we wish for this power, we must keep in close communion with Him; we must keep regular times for prayer and meditation. It is well to have a timetable, for GOD will require an account of our time, and we must have order and method in the arrangement of the day. Set apart certain stated times for communion with GOD, and keep to them as much as possible. Let this come first, but this done, return to social life as easily and naturally as possible. Be merry and happy with all around you, and throw yourself heartily into whatever they are doing."

Speaking of the unbelief of the present age, especially among women, she said, "Remember it is one of the chief forms of temptation with which we have need to cope. It is a very sad one, destroying as it does all the peace and happiness of those who fall under its sway. But we must not judge them; we must pray for them earnestly, and try to help them by every means in our power. We never know what may have led them to give up Faith, perhaps secret trial or temptation of which we know nothing. GOD can bring them back in some way unknown to us, and in some illness or sorrow they may feel their need of Him, and turn to Him once more.

"Trial of any kind is very good for us. Sickness, loss of friends, inward crosses, which others know not of, all are sent to empty us of self, and to be emptied of self and filled with GOD is the greatest lesson we have to learn.

"When GOD finds this, He uses us for the finer, more spiritual part of the work. Those who are full of self, seeking praise, always thinking of self, He uses, but for the rougher parts of His work. We must try to be like fine instruments, polished and prepared, fit for the Master's use.

"We must also try to 'serve the LORD with all gladness.' Happiness and brightness in GOD'S service is a great gift, and one that wins others to Him. We are told to 'make melody in our hearts to the LORD,' and how can we do this unless we are bright and cheerful, and serve Him gladly?

"What I want to impress upon you is, that you must live the life, not merely do the work. Live a quiet, peaceful life, alone with GOD, stayed on Him, and the work will come out of it. You will then do it simply, unconsciously. Try to keep yourself perfectly free, and ready for Him to use you."

One thing that distressed her much was the frequency with which people often assured her, that others were not true, when they happened to differ from them.

"I cannot bear," she remarked, "to hear them say this. I always tell them it is only because they do not see things from the same point of view. We are like travellers going up a mountain, those higher up can see a very different view from those lower down."

Speaking of her favourite texts, she mentioned the following:

"Walk humbly with thy GOD."

"Not I, but CHRIST liveth in me."

"The LORD GOD omnipotent reigneth."

"Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee."

The following are the last words which Mother Harriet spoke to this young friend:

"I am glad you do not fear death. I believe you will feel even less dread of it as life goes on, not more, as some people tell you.

"I do not shrink from death. I know it may be painful, but I look upon it as the last trial to be gone through before reaching the glory which shall be hereafter, the blessedness of seeing GOD, the joy of being re-united with those I love.

"I have always seen the fear of death taken away very wonderfully at the last from those who had dreaded it all their lives.

"We must certainly often think of it, and pray for a holy, happy death, for we know not how suddenly it may come upon us, and we may then have but little time to prepare for it."

These last sentences are the more to be noted, because the fear at least of the act of death had formerly weighed painfully on Mother Harriet's mind. She had been heard to observe, that finding in cases known to her how this fear had been removed with the advance of years, had helped to strengthen her against it.

By the end of February a great change had come, and as the month closed it became evident that the end was not far off.

Sunday was a day she had always delighted in. The feeling that "so much work for GOD was going on everywhere, so many souls being drawn in and sought after," possessed her. And her Sunday mornings had been always spent in prayer and reading. Pusey's "Sermons from Advent to Whitsuntide," had occupied her every Sunday of this Lent. But on Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of her life on earth, when beginning the sermon for the day, she soon closed the book, saying, "I dare not read it, it is wiser not to try." The intense cold of the weather at this time greatly tried her.

The Sister whose account of these last days has been hitherto followed, thus continues the record of the last Holy Week:

"From Palm Sunday she became very feeble, and often suffered from difficulty of breathing. But there was as yet no thought of real alarm. Dr. Bowles saw her most days. Monday morning in Holy Week she was bright and fairly well, but later in the day I was struck with a peculiar look in her face, a look I had never seen before, and she said she felt 'so uncomfortable, that she did not know what to do, or what it meant' I coaxed her to go to bed, and she went, though unwillingly, saying, 'I do not think I am very ill, but I shall never take up again what I put down.' The next morning she insisted on being dressed, and coming into the sitting-room, but was so breathless, that after her dinner she went to bed, and never again left her bedroom.

"Yet there was no apprehension of her being likely then to die, only there was great general feebleness. She herself said the same, 'I do not think I am very ill; I have no pain; but I don't think I shall ever be better again, I have no power of rallying.'

"Maundy Thursday came, she had Celebration in her bedroom. She had had a special longing for her Maundy Thursday Communion. She said, 'I do not wish for another till it is my Viaticum.' She sent a special Easter message to the Sisters as to their revealing the mind of CHRIST. 'This,' she said, 'you know is the keynote of your whole life, and your Rule; without it your Rule is dead, for it is the very kernel of it, and as you all know, it has been the one aim and object of all my teaching.'

"On Good Friday morning Dr. Bowles came early, and for the first time was seriously alarmed, and said that there should be no delay in sending word to her relations, and to any who ought to come. He did not tell Mother Harriet what he thought, but on going to her after his visit, she said, 'I am much weaker to-day, and I quite know now that this is the beginning of the end. I am going home, leaving a very happy home here to go to a still happier one within the veil.' Then she added, 'I may yet rally, and if I do, I am well content to stay, but if I go, I am more than content to go.'

"One could see the shadow of death resting upon her, but stripped of all its terrors; and whilst in spirit she knelt at the foot of the Cross that day, her conformity with GOD'S will was manifest. She was 'going,' as she said, 'to a well-known place, a familiar home.' 'I have gazed and gazed,' she added, 'for thirty-three years at the land within the veil. I seem to have lived more truly there than here.' Another time she said, 'Easter Eve is to me such a special time; for thirty-three years my life has been one long Easter Eve of waiting.' "

"She then looked over all her directions, her little remembrances to various persons, her wishes about her funeral; making a few alterations and additions, and adding as to the funeral,' Tell them it is to be really as you all like; I am quite indifferent about it.'

"Good Friday passed away very quietly; parts of the Offices, of the Night Hours, of the Lessons for the day, were read to her. She happened to observe that I was reading Pere Thomas' 'Souffrances de JESUS-CHRIST,' and she said, 'That has been my running reading book all the week; I should love to hear it now, but I had better not.' She then repeated the prayers which it had been her daily habit to say for years, very rapidly, without missing a word, and said, 'If I am unable to say prayers for myself, remember to say them for me.'

"Saturday morning, Dr. Bowles thought her pulse stronger, but she did not think herself any better. She was read to as usual, and all her letters were read to her. She then dictated two letters, her last bit of work in this world; and they were characteristic of the breadth and warmth of her sympathies, still fresh as ever. One was to a young lady, just engaged to be married to one of her nephews; it was full of the happiness of sanctified human love; the other was to a dear friend who had just lost her only child. This last spoke of thoughts of the still greater happiness, and the love awaiting us beyond the grave, touchingly adding, 'that she would look after her boy in Paradise.'

"All through that day there was a steady loss of power. She could sit up in her arm-chair only by being propped all round with pillows, but it was a relief, for from breathless-ness and discomfort she was unable to remain any length of time in bed. But her mind was as clear and unclouded as ever, 'a mind at leisure from itself.' For one minute she talked, with joyful calmness, of 'going home,' and the next, entered into any trifling passing interest with her wonted keenness. She would settle what was to be done or not done in the arrangement of the house, or any matters of a passing kind, as though all were as usual. Easter cards, Easter flowers, letters full of Easter greetings, were constantly coming in, and were brought to her as usual. She was still able to take a good deal of nourishment, while feeling herself, I am sure, that she might die any moment. She told me to keep 'very close at hand.'

"She expressed a wish to see the Vicar. 'Don't put off very long, or it may be too late.' He came about five, and as he was repeating a hymn of Bonar's, to the lines, 'Nearer the bound of life, where we lay our burden down,' she added, 'And nearer, my GOD, to Thee,' in a loud clear voice. As the Vicar bid her good-bye she said to him, 'Easter is a lovely time to go home, is it not?'

"Shortly after two of the elder Sisters from the Mother House arrived. She was the first to hear of their arrival, and greeted them with as warm a welcome as ever, asking eager questions about everybody and everything at Clewer.

"We said the First Vespers for Easter Day. She joined joyfully, saying, 'I have been longing for those Vespers all day.' Dr. Bowles came late that evening, and found her settled in bed. She told him, she 'had no pain, only she was very, very tired.' She had a long talk with him; he asked for his own sake that he might bring another doctor for consultation the next day. She at once assented, only wishing to know at what time, 'that we may not keep you waiting at all.' Though she had lost a great deal that day, there seemed no indication of immediate danger. But about 3.30 on Easter morning we found she could not swallow, though an hour before she had taken food readily. Soon after that she dropped asleep. The last thing she did before this was to arrange for the Blessed Sacrament to be brought to her on Easter morning, having before thought not to ask for It, lest it should 'give too much trouble at a busy time.'

"But she needed nothing now; unconsciousness quickly came on, and she lay just breathing. The Vicar came about five. He prayed for her and with us, only leaving us a few minutes before six, when the church bells she loved so well rang out their joyous Easter peal. He went to ask for the prayers of the Church for her departing soul, and then returned, again to commend her spirit into the Hands of her Heavenly FATHER, to Whom she passed at 6.30 a.m., as the early Easter communicants at the parish church close by were kneeling around the altar, remembering her in their offerings of prayer. The little room, too, where we were kneeling seemed to us to be filled with the same blessing, the 'Peace that passeth all understanding.' The keynote of the day, the Resurrection Life, seemed already begun, for surely then for us 'death was swallowed up in victory.' "It happened this year, 1883, that the Festival of the Annunciation fell on the same day as the Festival of Easter.

On the following Friday the body was brought at an early hour into the church and laid before the Altar. After the Celebration, the Sub-warden of the Community being the Celebrant, the long procession of relatives, Sisters, and other mourners, moved down the aisle, the coffin being preceded by the Cross-bearer, the choir and the clergy singing the special hymn from the Sisters' Office Book, beginning:

"Sister, now thy toils are o'er,
Fought the battle, won the Crown,
On life's rough and barren shore
Thou hast laid thy burden down;
Grant her, LORD, eternal rest,
With the spirits of the blest."

They bore her from the church to the spot which she had selected long before, close by the grave where the dearly-loved Sister Ethel, who had been her companion during the first five years and more of her illness, lay, the Warden of the Community and the Vicar of the parish sharing the last offices. It happened that while the last rites of loving care were being paid, a gale of wind was blowing with scuds of rain. One looked from the scene of mourning beside the grave, during the wildness of the blast, on to the upland downs which are visible from the graveyard, all along the horizon, stretching towards the sea, so quiet, so unmoved, so verdant, and felt the contrast to be a very symbol of the life of her who was being committed to her last earthly home,--a life once so full of conflict, of toil, of suffering, and now passed to a rest so profound, so calm, on the bosom of her GOD, in "solid peace, peace secure and undisturbed, peace within and peace without, peace every way assured;" [Thomas a Kempis.] "a serenity of bliss whose very foundation is the immutability of GOD." The thought of mourning, of regret, seemed to be put to shame in the consciousness of what that rest must be to one who had borne so great a burden, and toiled with such unremitting activity under so great a strain.

But it was impossible not to feel a melancholy blank, when a life so large, so full, so bright, so sympathetic, was to be no more present, no more her animating voice to be heard, nor the kindling of her bright spirit to be consciously felt. What she had been to her own immediate relations and personal friends must necessarily be veiled to the outward eye, but she had become a presence to a wider world, a familiar object to an ever-widening circle that delighted in what might be enjoyed of passing intercourse with her. What again her life was to her Community, may be partially surmised from the records which have been given in this volume; but words are a very feeble expression of the living force of personal communion, and though for the past seven years no charge or office belonged to her, such was her grasp of mind and her breadth of sympathy, that even withdrawn as she was from all share in the work, her influence was ceaselessly felt as a real power, and an ever bright encouragement.

The loving friend that wrote the "In Memoriam "in the Guardian, observed that "When the history of the revival 'of Sisterhoods in our Church is written, a golden page will be given to Mother Harriet." It is true. The more the question of Religious Communities for women is understood, (and it must become more and more a prominent idea in the mind of the English Church,) the more it will be seen, that the cause which she so deeply loved and so desired to further for the deepening of the life of the English Church, and the saving of its multitudes of lost souls, has received an impulse from her wisdom, her singleness of purpose, her pure devotion, and her loving energy, which it is difficult to over-estimate. In the sense in which she would most truly desire the words to be fulfilled, it will be seen in this, as in other respects, that, resting from her labours, her 'works do follow' her.

This Memoir would be incomplete without some notice of what she was accustomed to write as helps to prayer and meditation, though they did not assume to be more than passing suggestions. Her mind was intensely practical, and when she thus cursorily wrote it was only for immediate use, but there is very much, treasured by those whom she thus helped, which illustrates her line of thought and tone of feeling. It is often not possible to distinguish what thoughts were her own, and what were copied from books she happened to have been reading. But her selections from others' writings still speak her own mind.

It will be a not unfit close to these records of her life and character, to give in an Appendix a few passages from these various compilations, which enter into her secret communion with GOD, and show how she sought to deepen and further the aspirations of those who came within her influence.


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