Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.


I SHOULD be deeply grieved if to any one it appeared that there was an impropriety in bringing forward into public notice one whose memory is sacred in my own eyes, and in the eyes of all who knew her. And I must confess that in gathering materials for this Memoir I have at times been haunted by the fear, lest I were breaking through the reserve best becoming one whose life was spent partly within loving home circles, partly in a religious state, which implies yet greater hiddenness. And ordinarily woman is most honoured when least exposed to public notice. But there have been ever felt to be various exceptions to the rule, and among such exceptions the Church, if not the world also, has cherished, and desired to profit by, the examples of those who have been distinguished in the records of Religious Communities, or in any special form of religious devotion. It is on this account, because of important work done, and a high example given in the development of the Religious Life, that many have desired some record of the subject of this Memoir.

Not that her usefulness, or the value of her teaching and example, were confined to this sphere of life alone, for it was given to Harriet Monsell to fulfil a cycle of as many phases of experience as can well fall to woman's lot. And she seems to have profited by the opportunities given to her in each in its appointed order. Brought up in a home where high and generous principles were rendered attractive by intellectual and social powers of no common kind, her character and natural gifts afterwards being elevated and matured through the sympathy of marriage and the chastening of widowhood, she was, while yet in the prime of life, drawn by the grace of GOD to a wholly self-devoted service, and for nearly a quarter of a century became absorbed in active labour for the good of souls, after which years of no ordinary suffering and infirmity followed, as if to chasten her yet more completely for the Presence of GOD. But Harriet Monsell's special distinction rests on her work as a Sister of Mercy, and the part she took in the formation and growth of a Religious Community.

It is not improbable that the prejudice still existing in England against the Religious Life may narrow the circle of those who are likely to be interested in this Memoir, but the time must surely come when such devotion will assume a truer value in the eyes at least of all who love our LORD, and in Him the souls of those for whom He died, and who desire to see Christianity put forth amongst us the fulness of its life and power. Nor can it be that objections which have arisen out of very different circumstances to those which can now exist among us, should always be felt against a system which all allow to be most influential in manifold works of mercy and benevolence. Whatever is new must necessarily take time to win its way to public confidence, and to the revival of what has been supposed to be past and gone, a greater weight of prejudice may be expected than against what is simply novel. But that such a form of life is reconcilable with entire loyalty to the Church of England, that it implies no disparagement of domestic life, and that it has virtues and powers of usefulness peculiarly its own, and of inestimable value for their own sake,--is happily a growing belief.

Those who knew the subject of this Memoir, both within and without the circle of her Community life, have felt that if the example of any one thus dedicated might help to dissipate the prejudices and suspicions above alluded to, it would be given to her to effect this change; for beside her special gifts of winning confidence and conciliating opposition, her sympathies embraced with like ardour and in truest simplicity both the Community and the domestic states of life.

If I may be permitted here to take a wider view of the subject, I would observe, that it is surprising that any who regard the Bible as their standard of GOD'S purposes for His elect, and its sacred texts as the embodiment of Christian ideas, can suppose that social and domestic life, however true, however beautiful, exhibits the whole of the Religion which our LORD came to establish on earth. There are passages which open out forms of life and devotion which cannot be thus satisfied. Our Blessed LORD'S words, after speaking of the virgin state, "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it;" and again as to the devoted separated state, "Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the world to come eternal life,"--imply conditions of life different from those fulfilled by home affections and home duties. And S. Paul, following his Master, shows how the Spirit of GOD drew the hearts of many in Apostolic days to consecrate themselves in the conviction of a special calling to such dedicated service, in which too the will of the parent coincided with the will of the child. "The unmarried woman," says the Apostle, "careth for the things of the LORD, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit;" or, as it is otherwise expressed, "that ye may attend upon the LORD without distraction;" and this is connected with the idea that "every man hath his proper gift of GOD, one after this manner, and another after that;" and this again is followed by the injunction, "let every man wherein he is called, therein abide with God." Such words imply the existence of dispositions and gifts in the soul distinct from those which make Christian homes such centres of holiness and love. They imply other forms and expressions of holiness and love, and though these might be cherished in solitude, or hidden in the midst of the world, the natural tendency of those thus called and inspired, is to associate together for mutual sympathy and support, as well as for greater usefulness through a common fellowship in works of mercy.

Among women, Sisterhoods are the natural and necessary outcome of such drawings of the Spirit of GOD, and have been formed of late through an awakening of life instinct with a true Catholic and Apostolic spirit. Nor can it, I think, be denied that our LORD'S life in the flesh revealed this among other forms of life. In His own sacred Person He exhibited the example, not of one but of different forms of life,--He embraced and exhibited the contemplative and the active, the domestic and the missionary, the ascetic and the social. And while by "His Presence and first miracle which He wrought in Cana of Galilee, He adorned and beautified the holy estate of matrimony to signify and represent the mystical union which is betwixt Himself and His Church," so likewise in His own Person He adorned and beautified the virgin and devoted state, as specially His own. The Church was intended to represent CHRIST in His fulness. It cannot do so in any single individual, it can only do so in the different lives of different members of His Body. Each one is the complement of another. All together make up such completeness as is possible to be realised on earth. And our Christianity would be shorn of its power to represent CHRIST, if it ignored or disparaged any form which found in Him its image and representation. It would be an imperfect witness to the fulness of the grace which flows from His Incarnation.

Bishop Webb, speaking of the rationale of the devoted Sister's life, touches yet another chord of feeling, and opens a further view of her state which he has expressed in very beautiful language, which I would claim the privilege of quoting.

"The Church of GOD," he says, "is called the 'Bride' of CHRIST; the idea representing weakness and dependence, joined with strength of devotion and self-surrender. This heavenly reality the Sister is especially called to represent; though in speaking of this aspect of the life, we must be careful of our phraseology. In the Sisterhood life there is an accentuating of that calling, which in truth belongs to the whole Church, to be the 'Bride' of CHRIST. The Sisters are not so 'brides' of CHRIST as to exclude the rest of the Church, for the whole Church is the Bride; but their part is, especially, to put forward this side of the deep Christian verity. As one part of the Church represents the Priesthood of the whole Church, another the royalty, another the teaching, and another the home life, the family,--which is a shadow upon earth of the Trinity above,--so the Sisterhood life represents and brings out into sharper relief in behalf of, with, for, and in the name of, the whole Church, that calling of the whole Church of CHRIST to be 'His holy Bride;' to be absolutely His, at His disposal; to feel the deepest attachment, and yield the most entire devotion to Him; to live for Him, and for Him only." ["Sisterhood Life and Woman's Work." By the Right Rev. Allan Beecher Webb, D. D., Bishop of Graham's Town. Pp. 64, 5.]

Much has been said of late, and much that I cannot but deem needlessly alarming and unreasonable, on the vexed question of vows. At the late Reading Congress, at the end of the morning's debate in the large Congress Hall, on the comparative merits of the Sisterhood and the Deaconess principles, it was generally felt that they agreed in representing the self-devotion intended in either state as lifelong. And a vow is but the outward expression of a lifelong devotion. It simply implies a vocation of GOD, in which one so called should abide with Him to the end. Every safeguard indeed should be taken against possible error, but this may be ensured both on the side of the Community, and that of its members, if there be, according to long established principle, wisely regulated authority, and a recognised system of dispensation.

Nor can I see any sufficient reason why between domestic and Community life there should be invidious comparisons. Differences of vocation is an universal law of GOD. The order of grace, like the order of nature, fulfils itself in diversity of gifts. "One star differeth from another star in glory;" and "the heavens," studded with these varied orbs of light, "declare the glory of GOD," all the more because of their diversity. So on earth likewise, on the contrasted beauty of the forest and the garden, the tree and the flower, the mountains and the valleys, the varieties of form and colour, depends the loveliness of nature. The eye resents sameness. It is the wonderful harmonising of the different kinds and features of glory, and of beauty, none at variance with the other, each contributing something to the general effect, which causes the outer world to be such a magnificent expression of the mind and character of Him Who is Infinite, and Who is the more glorified in Himself because of the diversity of Person and Attribute. Why should we not look for this to be fulfilled in the spiritual as well as in the natural world, and thus each regard the other, according to their several vocations, with mutual respect, and sympathy, and love?

The Pharisaic spirit, "Stand by thyself, come not near to me, for I am holier than thou," has no existence in the mind of CHRIST, nor ought it to have any in the mind of the disciple. The Love of GOD is the highest standard that can be reached, the holiest law that can be lived, and His Love may be perfected in any state of life to which He may vouchsafe to call His servants. He gives to each the talents, wherewith to "occupy till He comes." "He divideth to every one severally as He will." And His gifts are not to exalt the individual, but to perfect the Body of CHRIST. In the zealous use of appointed gifts in one's appointed lot, is the only lawful competition in the kingdom of GOD; each ministering to the one LORD, each filling up his measure of the life and the work which is to reflect and to reveal the CHRIST.

I shall be amply rewarded if these pages serve in any degree to lead to a better understanding of principles which have been much questioned, so that there may be among us a true "following of the things which make for peace, and things whereby one may edify another," while we more and more learn to live "no longer unto ourselves, but unto Him Who died for us and rose again."

T. T. C.
Vigil of the Feast of the Annunciation, 1884.

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