Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Legend of Sister Beatrice

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Mother of our Savour.”

The first to recount the legend of Sister Beatrice, was Brother Cesar Heisterbach, a monk of Citeaux. He gives it as an event of his own times, and he wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century, a period when sentiments of good feeling and of charity abounded.

In a convent, whose name our chronicler does not consider it necessary to mention, there lived in the twelfth century a maiden called Beatrice. She had entered the holy dwelling in her childhood. Endowed with a pure and spotless mind, her youth had passed there delightfully, for she knew not nor thought of any other world beyond its precincts. The day came on which she was to make her vows. Happy day for her! For years had she longed to be clothed in the simple habit of the good community. Excited by the warmth of her devotion to our Blessed Lady, she consecrated herself to her service, and became by her virtues an honour and a blessing to her convent.

On attaining her eighteenth year, Sister Beatrice possessed an innocent heart, a conscience perfectly free from any shade of sin, and a calm, mild demeanour. To these real and solid advantages were joined the gifts – too often, alas! fatal to youth, of exquisite beauty of person and graceful manners. Yet, she considered not her beauty; nay, perhaps knew not she possessed so eminently charms which would have turned the head of many a worldly girl. She led the life of the saints, seeking to follow at a humble distance in the footsteps of the Queen of Virgins. Her great delight was prayer, in which she seemed to have a foretaste of the joys of heaven, and she was ever first to obey the summons to the holy hours of the divine office. She listened with the deepest attention to holy reading, that intellectual food which nourishes and strengthens our souls in our pilgrimage through life. Her sweetest occupation was to deck our Lady’s altar, to work costly robes for her loved image, to renew daily the choicest flowers which were offered to her shrine, to weave them into crowns for her and her Divine Son, and to imitate during the winter season those flowers which Nature denies us, but which the fair sister excelled in producing in various materials. Beatrice was loved by the whole sisterhood, who did everything to show their admiration of her virtues, and all thought her an especial favourite of our dear Lady.

The life of Sister Beatrice passed thus smoothly along in the quiet discharge of those duties which it was her great happiness to fulfill, and which so well became her, when a young clerk was engaged for the service of the altar, who was more impressed with the spirit of the world than of that of the religious life. The good nuns dreamed not of the existence of any evil in the young man, but would have spurned any thought which would have reflected on the character of any person who ministered at the altar. Satan, however, had unfortunately obtained possession of his heart. Forgetting the sacred vows she had taken, he dared to gaze on the beauty of Beatrice with unholy passion. Instead of fighting with his temptations, or rather flying from the object of their suggestions, he entertained them, and sought the company of the pure creature, whom he now strove to draw with himself into the abyss of crime.

Seizing the first opportunity of finding her alone, he expressed, with well feigned hypocrisy, the astonishment he felt at seeing her immured in a cloister. How was it that at this first attack of the enemy, the poor girl did not suspect his evil designs? Did the suggestions of vanity so soon gain possession of her mind? He drew a picture of the world in colours so alluring, but at the same time so false, that he caught the poor young creature in his snare.

He employed all the resources of his mind to shake her simple and confiding faith. No falsehoods or exaggerations, or screened impiety, or gross dissimulations, were spared to bring trouble and doubt into the pure maid’s mind. Oh! woe be to her who allows the enemy to plant his foot in the sacred enclosure of her virtue! Oh! woe to the soul who ceases for one moment to watch, and who flies not at the approach of the enemy, and knows not that she alone is weakness itself! Beatrice relaxed in the fervour of her devotions. Her habitual serenity abandoned her, and a vague kind of uneasiness took possession of her, and increased daily in gaining the mastery over her conduct. She dreamed continually of a vain liberty, until she had brought herself to believe that in abandoning God, she would receive the most delightful recompense in the false pleasures and delicious homage of the world. Foolish virgin!

After two other conferences, which were conducted with the greatest cunning by the wily clerk, Beatrice promised to run away from the convent – without so much as hinting her determination to those once dear guides of her youth – and to give herself up to the conduct of a young man she knew not, to see this world, of which he drew so flattering a picture, but whose real miseries she was, in her simplicity, far from imagining.

The only thing which caused her any concern was, that she did not feel happy, being ignorant that such is ever the case with those who abandon the course of rectitude. But, doubtless, she was not aware of the greatness of the crime she committed in treading her vows under feet.

Before leaving her convent, after midnight, when all the sisters had retired to their cells, the guilty nun was inspired with a desire of kneeling once more before the image of our dear Lady, whom, despite her late inconstancy, she had never ceased to love tenderly. She entered the chapel. For how many years had this sanctuary been her paradise! and now she was about to flee from it. She approached the altar, knelt, and scarce daring to raise her eyes to the figure of the Blessed Virgin, burst into tears. “O most holy Virgin,” she at length murmured, with a troubled heart, “O most good Lady, my dear Mother and support to this day, I am now about to leave thee; still, as I ever was, I will remain faithful to thee, for I love thee dearly, my sweet Protectress. But thou seest how I am forced into the world. Alas! I feel that I am no longer worthy of serving thee. Take pity on me, I beseech thee!”

After this hasty prayer, she rose; and, as if fearful of being detained, she quickly placed her keys at the foot of the image, while, with downcast eyes, she said:

“Here are the keys thou didst confide to me, and which I can restore to no one else but thee, O Holy Virgin!”

As she spoke, a flower fell from the bouquets in our Lady’s hand. She hurriedly picked it up, kissed it, and placing it in her bosom, determined never to part with it; she turned, and left our Lady’s shrine. The clerk awaited her at a little distance with two fleet horses, which soon bore them far into the world.

After a few short months he abandoned her! Beatrice was alone in the wide world, covered with shame, remorse, and despair. She saw but one path before her; it was revolting to her sight, still she rushed into it.

Fifteen long wretched years had nigh passed over the head of the poor unhappy outcast, when she fell grievously sick. Then did the memory of Her whom she had never forgotten, but had still loved even in her career of guilt – of the holy one whose sweet flower she had ever preserved in her bosom – of Her who never rejects the guilty one, rush into her thoughts, till streams of tears filled her eyes, and sobs convulsed her breast. Fearing that the hour of death approached, and knowing the all-powerful Mary was her only refuge, she prayed most fervently; bitterly bewailing her fall, and its terrible consequences, and entreating her sweet Protectress to obtain for her one grace – the grace of once more being allowed to kneel in sorrow before her dear image, to kiss the floor of the little chapel of the convent in which the years of her innocence had been spent; that she might journey there as a beggar, and expiate her scandalous life by public penance was her ardent wish.

She now began to regain her strength. Faithful to her first intention, she distributed her little trinkets among the poor, and, clad in the meanest apparel, sought the road to her convent. Her convent! Oh, no! She dared not thus profane that sacred dwelling, even in thought. A hundred leagues were between her and the end of her journey. She passed over them without murmur or complaint, suffering everything for love of Mary, seeking neither pity nor consolation, and almost feeling happy, though still in that miserable world, to see which she had paid so dearly. At length she reached the spot which had beheld her chaste and sinless.

As she approached the convent, she again heard the sound once so sweet in her ears of the bell, calling the sisterhood to choir. Her heart beat quickly, and tears flowed freely from her eyes. The moment she beheld the turret, beneath which stood Mary’s shrine, she fell on her knees, and thanked her sweet Patroness most warmly for having drawn her from the depths of vice and misery in which she had voluntarily placed herself. She then approached the convent with faltering steps, though she knew well that no one there could recognize her in her fallen condition, and much changed appearance. But the thoughts of the days of her innocence, and the painful contrast of the past and present, tore her heart-strings, and made her pause to recover strength and determination to proceed.

She at length touches the convent gate. Within that peaceful enclosure she had lived in peace. The signal for the religious to repair to the refectory is given. All the soft calm and tranquillity of her convent life steals upon her, and she almost fancies she has but quitted its routine for a day. It seems as if she has scarce roved beyond the enclosure, that her last fifteen years have been some horrid dream. She wishes to ascertain whether she has been deluded or not. She is among the poor, who, under the convent porch, await to receive the sisters’ bounty after their frugal meal. She thanks God he has permitted her to be in the company of his Mends. And when the distribution of food takes place, she receives her share from the hands of one in whom she recognizes a companion of her youth.

“What makes you tremble so, my child?” asks the nun.

“Oh! I have come some distance, and I am not quite recovered,” replies the mendicant. Then, taking courage, she adds, “Pray, tell me, dear sister, is it in this convent that a poor girl, called Beatrice, dwelt, formerly?”

The religious stares at her to see whether she presents any appearance of folly, and then asks, “Do you know sister Beatrice, then?”

“Formerly, sister, when she used to adorn our lady’s . . . . ”

“Blush not so deeply, my child. If you knew sister Beatrice it must have been a great pleasure to you.”

“Certainly. But for fifteen years….”

“Well! for fifteen years?”

The traveller pauses, trembles, and passes her clammy hand across her brow, and then asks, “Is it known what has become of sister Beatrice these fifteen years? ”

“No one is ignorant of her conduct”, replies the astonished sister; “you must indeed have come from a great distance, my poor child, not to have heard of her.”

The penitent hangs her head, feeling convinced that her past life is known to all; and she says no more. But the good sister, before retiring, draws the penitent to her, and whispers, “Since you formerly knew sister Beatrice, you may just step into the chapel, where you will see her for a few moments.”

“I shall see sister Beatrice?” she echoes aloud; but, thinks she, it must be another sister of the same name: “this cannot be the sister Beatrice I knew?”

“The very same. Our dear sister Beatrice, who for thirty years has been the joy and glory of our house, the same who was brought up in this convent, who for the last seventeen years has been sister Sacristan – the model of a religious, the cherished friend of our Blessed Lady. But, come in, and ask her to pray for you; her prayers are indeed valuable.”

The poor sinner, who knows not whether she hears rightly or is under some delusion, advances into the church, throws herself upon her knees on the pavement, and thus makes her way towards our Lady’s shrine, where a still more astounding wonder awaits her. She there sees, with admiration, her own person standing before the altar. The figure moves towards her; it has her own features and appearance, not indeed disfigured and withered as they now are, but such as they were fifteen years before, when beautiful, joyful, and pure; she was far from conceiving her sad fall….

The apparition, for such she deems it, approaches her; and with a countenance beaming with goodness, presents her with the same keys which on the fatal night she had laid at our Lady’s feet. The figure says to her,

“Take back the keys, daughter, which you restored to me. In order that your fall should not be known, I have, during the fifteen years you have been absent, myself taken your place. But now that I see you return to my feet in such sentiments of penitence, I know you will never abandon me again. Go now to your cell, and put on your holy habit.”

After pronouncing these words in a tender voice, the apparition rises gently in the air, and in the midst of a ray of heavenly light, seems to enter the image over the altar. And thus the poor wandering penitent recognizes her dear Mother and constant Protectress. Bathed in delicious tears; overwhelmed, yet relieved, the penitent rushed through the cloister into her cell, feeling she had regained all her strength and health. She found the quiet cell exactly in the same state in which she had left it. Her habit, which she had cast off on that ever-to-be-lamented day, lay on the spot where she had thrown it. She hastily put it on, determined at once to seek the convent director. She again entered the chapel, and knelt to pour forth her gratitude to her dear Benefactress, who smiled on her with heavenly sweetness, for she was rejoicing in heaven at the return of her lost lamb. She then sought the confessional.

The good monk, who during fifteen years had considered sister Beatrice to be most highly favoured by heaven with the gift of perfection, was deeply moved by the sorrowful and penitential avowal made by the real Beatrice of the years of her sad career of vice, and of its wonderful termination; and, considering that our Lady herself desired the scandal to be concealed, wisely determined and told Beatrice not to mention it to any one of the sisters.

By a persevering and austere penance, the more meritorious as it was concealed, Beatrice recovered her innocence before God. She lived many years; and it was not till after her death, which was most edifying, that the wonderful manifestation of our Lady’s charity in her regard was made known to the world, by the publication of a manuscript left by the holy penitent to her confessor.