The Life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
“If God grants my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of time. Yes, I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth....
I will return! I will come down!”
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most powerful Saints of the Twentieth Century. We have never prayed for the intercession of another Saint who lived so close to our time. She died in 1897 at the age of twenty four, and was canonized in 1925. When she died, she was virtually unknown, even in her own Community.
Within two years of her death, the power of her intercession began to be felt all over Europe. Prayers and novenas were made to her for favors, which were answered in abundance, usually preceded by the reception of a flower. She called herself the Little Flower of Jesus, a name which has remained with her until today. The swiftness of time in which devotion to this Saint grew, would be called in secular terms, a phenomena. We call it a Miracle.
On March 15, 1907, Pope St. Pius X, in a private conversation, called her “The greatest Saint of modern times”. This statement, made ten years after her death, from a man who would himself be raised to the Communion of Saints, is a great tribute to the little Carmelite that no one had known at the time of her death.
A year later in the Vatican, the Prefect of the Congregation of Rites, Cardinal Vico, stated, “We must lose no time in crowning the little Saint with glory, if we do not want the voice of the people to anticipate us.” He was about eight years too late. People began calling Thérèse a Saint as early as two years after her death.
The power of intercession given to Thérèse was undeniable. Truly, her prophecy made towards the end of her life, “God will have to do my will in Heaven, because I have never done my own will on earth,” was coming about. Within a short twenty eight years after her death, in 1925, the little cloistered Carmelite was proclaimed St. Thérèse.
Penny and I didn’t know very much about St. Thérèse in 1976. We were sort of roped into devotion to this coquettish Saint. Penny was born a few years after the canonization of St. Thérèse; although she was christened Pauline and not Thérèse, her mother, who had been caught up in the growing devotion to the new Saint, gave St. Thérèse to Penny as a patron Saint. We still have a statue of the Saint in our home, which was given to Penny as a child.
In 1976, I finally convinced Penny to go to Europe. I had been trying to get her to go for years, but she never wanted to leave the United States. Finally, she agreed to go on a Pilgrimage. We had just come back to the Church the year before, and were hungry for anything that had to do with Church. So, we went off to Europe and the Holy Land; visiting Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, Assisi and all the Shrines in the Holy Land. I had planned three days in Paris at the end of the pilgrimage. I had been stationed in France with the Army in the mid-fifties, and wanted to share the romance of Paris with my darling. I never visited any Shrines while I was in France during my younger years, even though I had been stationed less than a hundred miles from Lourdes. Lisieux, which was way out to the northwest in Normandy, never entered my mind, though I had to pass there by train on one excursion I made to London by boat train.
I had our time in Paris pretty well set. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to bring Penny. We would go to the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph, the Champs Elysees and on and on. However, since we had fallen deeply in love with Church and all the Saints, I fully intended to include the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. But Penny had a different agenda. We had learned in Lourdes that the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette, the Visionary of Lourdes, was in Nevers, about three hours out of Paris by train. Penny insisted we visit the Shrine of St. Bernadette, and see her beautiful body. That was one of our days in Paris shot. I had loved little Bernadette for many years and I really wanted to go, but I didn’t want to give up our days in Paris. In the end, Bernadette and Penny won out. We decided to go to Nevers.
Then, Penny remembered about St. Thérèse. We found out that Lisieux is also about three hours out of Paris by train; only it was in a different direction. St. Thérèse was her patron Saint. We had to go to Lisieux! That would leave only one day for Paris. You can imagine how upset I was. Bernadette was one thing, but I knew nothing about this Little Flower of Lisieux. However, this was Church and Penny was insistent; so we had to include St. Thérèse in the itinerary. Looking back now, I really believe that those two French Saints Bernadette and Thérèse had made a decision in Heaven to keep us away from Paris, as much as possible. And naturally, being who they are, they got their way!
The train trip to Nevers was boring, three hours there and three hours back. The time we spent at the Shrine of St. Bernadette, in the little Convent of St. Gildard, made it well worth the trip. But I wasn’t looking forward to doing the same thing the next day to go to Lisieux. Finally, Penny could see my long face; as we arrived back at the train station in Paris, she weakened. She said we didn’t have to go to Lisieux the next day. I rushed to cash in our tickets. In that way, it was firm. We were not going.
The next day in Paris turned out to be the very worst day we had ever spent at any time of our life. Everything went wrong! We had given the hotel the wrong dates as to how long we were staying there; they wanted to throw us out. We even tried to go home, but were not able to change our plane reservations. We knew that either we had made a mistake, or St. Thérèse was getting even with us for not going to Lisieux. Before we even left Paris, we made a vow to visit St. Thérèse the very next time we went on pilgrimage, even though we had no idea when that might be.
The day after we returned to Los Angeles from our pilgrimage, we had business appointments in San Diego. We stayed there two days, and went to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town. Something that we had never seen before, but must have been there, was a life-sized statue of St.Thérèse in the back of the Church. We decided, after Mass we would go to her and apologize for not having visited Lisieux.
What should we find at the foot of the statue, but a plastic bag with a small rosary called a chaplet, instructions on how to say a novena to St. Thérèse and a testimony from the lady who made up this kit, as to how devotion to St. Thérèse had saved her life.
We were praying for a teenager in our parish who had cancer of the bone marrow in the kneecaps. He couldn’t do anything other teenagers could do. He was an altar boy, but couldn’t kneel. He couldn’t run along the sand at the beach, or take part in sports. His bones would chip whenever he tried to do this. So we decided to pray to St. Thérèse for a healing for this young man, David Hawkins. We were not too happy about being dependent on receiving a flower as an answer to our prayer. Actually, I don’t think we trusted. We were afraid we wouldn’t get a flower. But we were going to pray to St. Thérèse, anyway. So, we began the novena. Keep in mind, that at this time, we knew virtually nothing about the power Our Lord Jesus had given this Saint.
The next day, we returned to Los Angeles. We had an appointment with one of the manufacturers we represented, a Jewish man who imported little gift items from Japan. Penny and I became deeply engrossed in our business meeting with the man. I noticed, however, that he had something wrapped in a cone-shaped piece of green waxed paper. Towards the end of the meeting, he reached for this object. He said to Penny, “I have something brand new here. It’s never been sold in this country. Don’t get excited. I’m not even sure how many of them I can get. I just want your opinion on it.”
He opened the waxed paper, and handed her the most beautiful rose we had ever seen. The sweet fragrance filled the room. The man explained that the rose was made out of very thin wood shavings, and was perfumed. Penny excitedly began to talk about how many we could sell. I immediately thought of our novena to St. Thérèse! I stopped Penny in the middle of her conversation with our manufacturer. “Penny, don’t you see what that is?”
She looked at me strangely. “Of course, it’s a rose, well not a real rose, but it looks and feels and smells like a real rose.”
“It’s a rose, Penny, a rose! Remember our novena to St. Thérèse?”
Her mouth dropped open. We hugged one another, crying. The manufacturer thought we had lost our minds. Our prayer had been answered in one day! Penny was determined to tell the boy’s mother the next day at daily Mass. I warned her not to. Suppose this was not an answer from St. Thérèse? After all, it was an artificial rose. We decided it was best not say anything to the mother, just yet.
The next morning after Mass, as if I had said, “Find Ann Hawkins; run up to her, and tell her David is healed,” that’s exactly what Penny did. The mother looked kindly at us, and told us that there was no hope for David. As a matter of fact, she and her son had an appointment with his doctor that afternoon to talk about amputating his one leg. The pain had become excruciating the last few days. She asked us to pray for them at 2:45 in the afternoon, when they had the appointment.
We promised to pray for them, but at 2:45 that afternoon, we were deep into the building of fixtures for our semi-annual trade show to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. We had completely forgotten about David and his mother when, at about 5 pm, their car pulled up to our driveway. They both got out, and ran up the driveway in tears, crying out “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” David was holding something behind his back.The doctor had told them that David’s cancer not only had not spread, but was actually in remission. He couldn’t give them an explanation; but they didn’t need one. David took a cone-shaped piece of waxed paper from behind his back, and handed it to Penny. It was a rose, a live rose! St. Thérèse had gotten us hooked.
A Post Script to that story is that we kept that rose on the prayer table in our living room, where it lived for four years without one petal dropping, with about two inches of water in the bottom of the vase, which never evaporated. It never smelled bad; the water never became stagnant. In 1980, our daughter Clare and our grandson Rob came to live with us. They brought their cat, Suki, who loved to eat plants. We were afraid the cat would eat the rose of St. Thérèse, so we put it away in a breakfront. It was not closed-in. There were open cane doors on the breakfront. Air could get through. Nevertheless, within three days, the rose died; the water dried up. Jesus and Thérèse had kept the rose alive, the water in the vase for four years. We did not have enough faith that they would protect the rose from a cat!
But we had gained a new friend in Thérèse. Since that time, we have prayed for her help in thousands of situations; she’s never let us down. We vowed that her Shrine would be the first one we would visit if we ever went on pilgrimage again. As it turned out, the following year, 1977, we went back to Europe in search of the Shrines of the Saints, and Lisieux was on top of the list. We had fallen hopelessly in love with St. Thérèse. She and her peaceful little town have become a part of our pilgrimage itinerary until this day.
There is another interesting thing we’d like to share about Thérèse and the power Our Lord Jesus has given her. Lisieux is located in Normandy, right smack in the middle of the path of the fierce fighting that took place in France during the Normandy invasion in 1944. While the town took a beating from the ground warfare and the bombing overhead, the Basilica of St. Thérèse, Les Buissonnets, where she grew up; and the Carmel, where she lived her life as a Nun were not touched. Praise the Lord!
The Little Flower of Jesus
Saints beget Saints. We believe that statement to be true. The parents of Thérèse, Louis and Zélie Martin, both felt drawn to the Religious life. Louis wanted to enter a Religious order, but was turned down because he didn’t know Latin. He moved to Paris, where he stayed for three years. It was too sinful a city for him. He couldn’t stay there any longer, so he went to Alençon, where his parents had a jewelry business. He lived there for eight years in virtual seclusion. He opened up a watch and clock shop, which took up much of his time. He was very spiritual, and kept to himself pretty much. He enjoyed being alone on fishing trips, or spending time at Church. He did involve himself in a young Catholic organization in his parish. He had no qualms about closing his shop each Sunday, which was one of the busiest days in Alençon.
Zélie had suffered an unhappy childhood. She felt that no matter what she did, her mother never considered her as good as her sister. Perhaps because of this, she became an over-achiever, excelling in anything into which she put her energy. She was very hard on herself, suffering from Scrupulosity, which her daughter Thérèse inherited from her. At age 22, when Louis met Zélie, she had mastered the art of making Alençon lace, for which the region was world famous. She had her own little shop, and was doing quite well. She, too, had wanted to enter the Religious life, but was turned down, which only added to her poor self-image, seeing as how her sister had become a Visitation Nun.
It was Louis’ mother who brought the two together. She was concerned about her son, who was now 34 years old. After a very short courtship of three months, Louis and Zélie were married. However, Louis wanted to live a celibate life with Zélie, as brother and sister. She wasn’t happy about the idea, but begrudgingly agreed, for almost a year. Finally, the couple asked guidance from their Confessor, who convinced them that they were to live the full married life. They were so obedient that they had nine children in ten years. Only five of them survived, all girls, of which Thérèse was the youngest and the last. Our little Saint was born on the 2nd of January, 1873.
The family had lost four children, three in infancy, and one at age five. When Thérèse became very ill as an infant, they feared she might join her brothers and sisters in Heaven. They tried everything they could. Finally, the doctor insisted the child be breast-fed, so little Thérèse was sent to a wet-nurse in the country for over a year. She came back healthy, beautiful, and with a great love for the country. Her health was always delicate, however. Even as a child, she became sick from the slightest thing, and the illness always lingered.
Thérèse was everybody’s favorite. The older girls, Marie and Pauline, wanted to mother the child. Céline, only four when Thérèse was born, became her closest friend. Pauline was Thérèse’s ideal. She felt a great attraction to this sister. Thérèse had her own inbred love for God, and had talked about being a Nun at the earliest age. Her sister Pauline wrote to a friend when Thérèse was only four years old, that she could see a vocation in her. But it was when Pauline entered the Carmel, that Thérèse’s vocation was sealed.
Thérèse’s life at Alençon was a happy one. The family was well-to-do. The Franco-Prussian war had ended, and it seemed for a time that peace had come to France. Zélie’s lace business had grown and grown so, that Louis sold his watch shop to take over the management of her business. But Louis and Zélie never allowed their good fortune to get in the way of their spirituality. Jesus and the Church were primary in their home.
Thérèse was a spiritual girl from the very beginning. She had a great love for everything that had to do with her Faith. And being who she was, it was not a quiet, subdued love. It was an alive, exciting, vibrant spirituality. She embraced with fervor Jesus, Mother Mary, all the Angels and the Saints.
Thérèse was spoiled by everyone. She was the youngest, the prettiest, the most coquettish. Not only her family, but her relatives, family friends, virtually everyone who met her as a child adored her. And she knew it! It became one of her strongest weapons to get her way when she wanted it. She was spoiled, but she was never a brat. Everyone wanted to do for her, and she just took it all in. She was also vain. She would have been hard-pressed not to have everybody fawning all over her. But in later years, as a teenager, and then in the Carmel, these became her two greatest obstacles to overcome.
She had a very strong personality, which she herself admits. When she couldn’t get her way, she would roll on the floor in tantrums, to the point where she sometimes choked.
Her mother once noted: “Thérèse is not as gentle as Céline and has an almost unconquerable stubborn streak in her; when she says no, nothing can make her give in, and you can put her in the cellar for the day and she would rather sleep there than say yes.”
It became cute to talk about the naughty pranks that Thérèse did. Zélie wrote letters mentioning her pranks. Her sister Pauline wrote letters mentioning “naughty tricks” and misdeeds. The little Saint herself wrote letters, accusing herself of being impish, answering back, and playing tricks on her sisters. These were all exaggerations, which the family understood. However, there came a time during the Process for Beatification, that these innocent charges were used against her. It was only Divine Intervention, that most of the people who knew her were still alive to testify to her character.
In 1877, at four and a half years old, Thérèse’s world came tumbling down on her. Her dear mother, after a lengthy illness, died. Thérèse took this very hard. In her own words,
“The moving ritual of Extreme Unction impressed itself on my soul. I still see the spot where I was told to kneel; I still hear the sobs of our poor father. . . I do not remember that I wept much. I spoke to no one of the profound feelings which filled my heart; I looked and listened in silence.”
Louis Martin felt it best to move his five girls to Lisieux, to be close to Zélie’s brother and sister-in-law, who could be helpful in raising them. They rented a beautiful little home, called Les Buissonnets, which still stands today. The atmosphere was different from Alençon. There, their home faced the main street. Zélie was outgoing, and there were many friends visiting all the time. In Lisieux, they knew nobody, except of course, Zélie’s family, the Guérins. The home was a distance from the main street, and very secluded. For Thérèse it was good in a way, in that she had a big garden, which was reminiscent of her infancy in the country. For all of them however, it was a time of being alone, just family. Louis went back to his old ways of solitude, a luxury he was not able to enjoy while Zélie was alive.
The two older girls took charge of the household, under the supervision of Madame Guérin. Thérèse had two more playmates however, her cousin Jeanne, who was much older, ten, and Marie, seven and a half. But soon, her sister Céline, closest in age to Thérèse, went off to school, and our little Saint found herself alone much of the time. She wrote about this time in her life.
“After Mamma’s death my happy disposition changed completely. I, who had been so full of life, so outgoing, became shy, quiet and oversensitive. A look was enough to reduce me to tears. I was only happy when no one paid attention to me. I could not bear the company of strangers, and only regained my cheerfulness within the intimacy of my family.”
It was a time, however, that brought Thérèse closer to her sister, Pauline. Marie, the oldest, and Pauline took charge of teaching Thérèse during the mornings. It was during this time that Pauline became her second mother. Thérèse always referred to her in those terms, even in the Convent. In the afternoon, she got to go out with her father for long walks. It was good for Louis, too, because he would have stayed alone up in the “belvedere” (an open gallery) at the top of the house, if he were allowed to. But he enjoyed this time with his little princess, the last of his children. People stopped to stare at Thérèse no matter where they went. They always had a compliment to pay to her father, about how pretty she was. There had been a time when she loved to hear these flattering words, but now she wanted to hide behind her father. The compliments, however, remained in her subconscious.
It was during this time at Les Buissonnets that Thérèse had a Vision, which she did not understand for years to come. One day, she was up in her room. Her father had gone back to Alençon to visit friends. All of a sudden, she saw a man who looked exactly like her father, walking in their garden. But he was all stooped over, and wore something over his head like an apron. She called out to him, “Papa! Papa!” but he disappeared without turning back.
Her two older sisters, alarmed by the sound of her voice, ran into her room. She cried aloud what she had seen. She was on the verge of hysteria. Marie and Pauline ran downstairs and looked all over the grounds. They found no one. They spoke to the maid, who had a habit of finding ways of teasing Thérèse. She knew nothing of what the child had seen. Thérèse was confused and frightened by this Vision. She had never seen her father this way. She couldn’t get it out of her mind. A time would come after she had entered the Carmel when this would prove to have been a prophetic Vision.
Thérèse felt a security at home, among family, which extended to the Guérins, but not much beyond that. She didn’t want to be with other people. She was not happy with other people. This was all contrary to the outgoing personality she’d had before her mother died. At one time, she actually expressed a desire to be a hermit, to her sister Pauline.
Therefore, her entry into school was a traumatic experience for her. She was very good with her subjects, with the possible exception of Mathematics. But in everything else, she excelled. She actually threw herself into her studies to avoid relationship with any of her classmates. She couldn’t stand playtime. She didn’t get along well with the other children. And this from a girl who loved and was loved by all she encountered. There was something wrong. She did not feel safe in this atmosphere. She once wrote that this period, the time spent in school at the Benedictine Convent in Lisieux, was the saddest time of her life.
She read a lot. Actually, she buried herself in books, got lost in books. It was a way of escaping from the world she lived in. Her heroine was Joan of Arc, who was not yet canonized. Did Thérèse know somewhere in her subconscious that one day she would be proclaimed Secondary Patron of France with St. Joan of Arc? (1944) Joan of Arc was to play an important part in the life of our Saint. Thérèse felt a kinship with her always. On two different occasions during her life in the Carmel, she wrote, directed and starred in productions about Joan of Arc.
There were many ups and downs in her life during this period. She lost her sister Pauline to the Carmel in Lisieux in 1882. This was a very difficult time for her. Pauline had been her second mother. Now she was gone. Thérèse was only nine years old at the time. She had felt such a closeness to this sister. She thought Pauline would wait for her, until she could go with her. Once, some years before, Pauline had made that statement, not thinking anything of it. She had evidently forgotten this commitment she made to her sister. Thérèse had not.
When she was ten years old, Thérèse was stricken with an illness that was difficult to diagnose. It seemed for a time like it would kill her. She was in a constant state of hallucinations and violent trembling, her shivering body, ice-cold. It began on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, and stayed with her almost seven weeks. She was completely debilitated. She rallied once on April 6, because she wanted desperately to attend the ceremony of her sister Pauline’s receiving the Carmelite habit. She was able to go to the ceremony, but when she returned, her relapse was so severe, all thought it was the end for her.
It got so bad that her family took turns praying around her bed. Then, in the month of Mary, on May 13, a miracle took place. She kept calling out “Mama! Mama!” Her three sisters knelt at her bedside, and prayed to the statue of Our Lady which was on the bureau. Thérèse tells what happened:
“Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse also turned to her Heavenly Mother and prayed with all her heart for her (Mary) to have pity on her at last. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared to me beautiful, more beautiful than anything I had ever seen. Her face expressed an ineffable goodness and tenderness, but what went right to the depths of my soul was The Blessed Virgin’s ravishing smile! Then all my pain vanished, two large tears welled up on my eyelashes and silently rolled down my cheeks, but they were tears of pure joy. Ah! I thought, the blessed Virgin has smiled at me, how happy I am - but I will never tell anyone, for then my happiness would disappear.”
Thérèse was completely healed on May 13, 1883, through an apparition by Mary. Another miracle would take place through another apparition by Mary, on another May 13, 1917, in a little town in Portugal, called Fatima.
Ironically, during this period, which she referred to as the saddest of her life, Thérèse had one of her most spiritually uplifting experiences. She received her First Holy Communion. This was an event she had waited for as far back as she could remember. The whole family took this very seriously. Her sister Marie prepared her for the upcoming event. From the Carmel, her sister Pauline sent home a book of daily sacrifices for Thérèse to do in preparation for the long awaited day. This went on from February until May, when she finally received the Lord.
It was an extra special day for the Martin family. While the youngest, Thérèse, was to receive First Holy Communion, the first daughter who had entered the Carmel, Pauline, was making her final profession. The day chosen was May 8, 1884. Thérèse refers to her First Holy Communion as the “First sweet kiss of Jesus”. As she got closer and closer to the Communion rail, thoughts of when her sister Céline had received her first Holy Communion went through her mind. How sad she had been that time when she could not receive the Lord with Céline. But today was her day, hers and Jesus’. She described her feelings,
“Ah, how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of Love; I felt that I was loved, and I said, `I love you and I give myself to you forever!’ There were no requests, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time Jesus and poor little Thérèse had looked at each other (from a distance) and understood each other. That day it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; there were no longer two, Thérèse had vanished like a drop of water lost in the depths of the ocean. Jesus alone remained. He was the Master, the King.”
This time with Jesus became the most important time in her life. She anticipated when she would be able to receive Him again inside of her. This was at a time when daily Communion was not allowed. So there was never a chance of Thérèse taking this gift for granted, as if she ever would. She even made a diary of how many times she had received Communion in the first year and a half, twenty two.
A Special Relationship with Jesus
We want to take a minute here to share about Thérèse’s special relationship with Jesus. While it’s true that the quotations we’re using here are from her autobiography, which was written when she was 22 years old, we have to believe that the feelings that are expressed throughout the story of her life were those that she actually experienced at those times.
From the time she was an infant, she loved Jesus above all others. But at this time that we’re sharing about, 1885 to 1888, she was also blossoming into a beautiful young woman. She had to have this kind of relationship with Jesus, in order to be able to maintain her focus, in the light of all the compliments she was receiving, and the natural emotions that were being stirred up inside her. She herself was to say about her emotional state at age fourteen, in 1887, “I was at the most dangerous age for young girls”, and “My heart could easily have let itself be caught by affection”.
If she had not given herself completely to Jesus with a passion, and maintained that passion through all the temptations that were thrown her way during her teenage years, she feared she might have given in to the world, and its false glamor.
We must keep in mind that this girl had it all. She was breathtakingly beautiful, well-groomed, educated, used to the finer things in life. Nowhere do we read that she even went through that gawky stage that most children experience. It was more difficult for her to walk away from all the world had to offer.
Thérèse was very hard on herself. She had inherited Scrupulosity from her mother, which is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as follows:
Because of confusion over the morality of actions, scruples arise when a troubled conscience, prompted by imaginary reasons, causes one to constantly dread sin where no sin exists, or to hold a venially sinful action mortally sinful. A conscience with scruples is a conscience ruled by fear.
Many of the great Saints were victims of scruples. Thérèse was no different. This plagued her all her life. As a young girl, she had her sister Pauline to set her mind at rest. After Pauline went into the Carmel, Thérèse felt shy about speaking to her about her scruples any more, especially since some of her problems may have been with chastity. She then went to her oldest sister, Marie, who helped her with these battles Thérèse constantly had with her conscience. She never shared her feelings with her Confessors at that time. She didn’t know how to talk to them about inner feelings. She depended on her sisters.
In later years, in the Convent, her Spiritual Director admonished her,
“I forbid you in the name of God to question your state of soul. The Devil is laughing heartily. I protest against this willful distrust. Believe, come what may, that God loves you!”
And then again, after listening to Thérèse during confession, he told her,
“In the presence of God, the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints, I declare that you have never committed a mortal sin. Thank God for what He has done for you, for if He abandoned you, instead of being a little Angel, you would become a little demon.”
We talk about these points, not to minimize the saintliness of Thérèse, the Little Flower of Jesus, but to maximize her love for Jesus in the light of all the obstacles placed in the path of her life. If we lose track of the battles of this young, normal girl, if we make her into a Saint without struggle, we lose some of the touchability of this powerful intercessor. While it’s true that she loved Jesus above everyone and everything else all her life, she fought with every grace from Heaven to maintain that love. It was not an easy battle.
Little Thérèse and Bernadette Soubirous are two of my favorite women Saints. I think the reason I love them so much is because of the inner strength they showed in suppressing their human shortcomings. And while we don’t want to dwell on their humanity, we don’t want to belittle it either.
Thérèse’s Determination to Enter Carmel
Thérèse had determination, and a strong will. When she decided she wanted something, nothing could stand in her way. A case in point was her decision to enter the Carmel, after her sisters Pauline and Marie. She was up against insurmountable odds. First off, she was fourteen years old. Secondly, Teresa La Grande, Foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, had made a rule that no more than two from a family could be in the same Community. This Thérèse La Petite wanted to buck the wisdom of one of the greatest Saints in history, and the Mother of their Order, Teresa of Avila. But as we mentioned, when Thérèse put her mind to something, look out!
Her first obstacle was her father. She had to get his permission. Emotionally, this may have been her most difficult task. She loved this man so much, and he adored her. She knew he would be heartbroken to lose his little “Princess”. But the Lord was calling her.
Louis Martin had suffered a stroke shortly before the day that Thérèse had chosen to drop her bomb on him. He was tired and weak. In addition, the middle daughter, Léonie, the only one who did not enter the Carmelite order, was vacillating back and forth with a vocation. She had only recently returned from an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Poor Clares, and was now asking for permission to enter the Visitation Order.
Considering all that was happening, someone with less courage than Thérèse would have chosen some other, more opportune time to approach her father. But that would not have been Thérèse. She waited until after dinner on a Sunday evening, and took her father out to the garden in back of the house at Les Buissonnets. They sat on a bench. She held his hands, and looked deeply into his eyes. He didn’t stand a chance. His only objection was that she was so young. But she convinced him that her calling was truly of the Lord. He didn’t actually tell her what he was feeling. He did not want to lose this precious diamond, his little “Princess”. But he thanked our Dear Lord for the honor bestowed on him that all his girls would be serving Him in Community.
Thérèse was not looking forward to her confrontation with her second obstacle, her uncle Isidore, Zélie’s brother. He and his wife had been very active in the upbringing of the Martin girls after his sister’s death. Thérèse, who had an urgency to enter the Carmel, waited for six months after getting permission from her father, before broaching the subject with her uncle. She was somewhat intimidated by him. She had good reason. He turned her down immediately. It was ridiculous, he said, for a girl of her young years to think she had a Religious vocation. He insisted she wait until she was at least seventeen.
Thérèse was crushed. She went into deep depression. She says of that time,
“. . . it was night everywhere, the dark night of the soul; I felt, like Our Lord in His agony, that I was quite alone, without anyone in Heaven or on earth to console me; God Himself seemed to have abandoned me.”
Her sister Pauline noticed her depression during one of Thérèse’s visits to the parlor of the Carmel. She had never been so low. Even Thérèse could not understand why. Pauline decided to write a letter to her uncle, who valued her opinion greatly. As soon as he received her letter, his heart opened, and he gave his consent for Thérèse to enter the Carmel.
Obstacle three was one which she probably never quite overcame. It was Fr. Delatroette, who had been the Superior of the Carmel since before she was born. Word came to Thérèse that he would not even consider a child of her age entering the Convent. He gave twenty one as the minimum age for entering.
The next day, Thérèse charged down to the Priest’s office, with her father and Céline as support. Remember, now, she was only fourteen at this point. Fr. Delatroette would not budge. His decision was final. But he made a mistake. He left the door open. He should have known his adversary better. His parting words were, “Of course, the final decision rests with the Bishop. If he agrees.”
Thérèse jumped on this. Her father, knowing in advance what her next step would be, and to stop the floodgate of tears which had begun as they left the Priest’s office, volunteered to take her to see the Bishop. In a dramatic gesture, the future Saint made a prophecy,
“I said I’d go to the Holy Father himself if the Bishop of Bayeux wouldn’t let me enter the Carmel at fifteen.”
Thérèse’s interview with the Bishop of Bayeux, Bishop Hugonin, was her fourth obstacle. It is the first time we hear of her putting her hair up in a bun to give the impression of being older. It didn’t help. The Bishop thought it was cute, but reserved making a decision until he had an opportunity to speak to Father Delatroette. The Bishop promised Thérèse’s father an answer during their Pilgrimage to Italy.
Here we see the Hand of the Lord. He is working with his people, putting everyone into position. Thérèse had made the statement that she would petition the Holy Father. We would say coincidentally, except we don’t believe that anything is coincidental with the Lord. So, instead, we say we believe the Divine Plan called for Thérèse and Céline to accompany their father on a Pilgrimage through France and Italy, which would culminate in a visit with His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII, for the occasion of his Golden Jubilee, fifty years a Priest.
Again, not coincidentally, there was a great deal of press coverage, because of the stand the Church of France was taking by honoring their Pope. It was a time of political uncertainty; the French Catholics were making a show of support for their Pope, and against the Freemasons both in France and in Italy. Thérèse could not have cared less about any of this. She had a focus, and was working her plan. But because of the press coverage, her audience with the Pope was reported in the French press.
She was preparing to meet her fifth obstacle, Pope Leo XIII. The audience line was very long that Sunday, November 20, 1887. Thérèse felt her whole life hinged on what she said to the Pope. She and Céline were on the back of the line of the group from their Diocese. Men were on one line, ladies on the other; so, the girls were separated from their father. Thérèse’s little heart pounded as she got closer and closer to the Pope. She could see that His Holiness said something to each of the pilgrims before her. She knew she would have her chance to speak to him. Suddenly, word came down the line that he was getting tired, and there would be no more conversation. They were to kneel, kiss his ring, and move on. Thérèse’s heart dropped. It was all over. But her older sister, Céline urged her on. “Speak!” she ordered.
The Bishop of Bayeux, who had not gone on Pilgrimage to Rome, appointed Fr. Révérony as his emissary. Father was standing next to His Holiness, introducing the people to him, and generally keeping the line moving. Thérèse had to pass by him. He gave her a stern look. He had a feeling she wanted to petition the Pope. Thérèse knelt, kissed the Pontiff’s slipper, and then pleaded with him. “Most Holy Father,” she said, “I have a great favor to ask of you.”
The Pope looked at her inquisitively, and then bent down to hear her request. By this time tears were running down her face.
“Most Holy Father, in honor of your jubilee, (nice touch Thérèse) I want you to let me enter the Carmelite order at fifteen.”
Either the Pope didn’t hear her, or didn’t understand the meaning of what she said. He turned to the Priest, Fr. Révérony for an explanation. The Priest glared at Thérèse. “This child here is anxious to enter Carmel at fifteen, and her Superiors are looking into the matter at this moment.”
Pope Leo XIII looked kindly at the angelic face, so full of hope that he would grant her request. “Very well, my child, do what your Superiors tell you.”
She grabbed both his legs, and would not let go. “But if you’d say the word, Most Holy Father, everybody would agree.”
The guards gave her a ceremonial tap on the shoulders, which meant to move on. She didn’t budge. The Pope said,
“All’s well; all’s well. If God wants you to enter, you will.”
We get the impression from Thérèse’s writing that she didn’t feel the tap from the guards. At any rate, she kept her grip on the Pope’s knees. Finally, the guards lifted her bodily, aided by the Priest, Fr. Révérony, who was furious. They literally had to drag her out of the audience room.
The incident was reported in a local newspaper, and as a result, every attempt to plead Thérèse’s cause back home was met with hostility. Everyone went to bat for her, including Mother Marie de Gonzague, and Mother Geneviéve, both of the Carmel in Lisieux, and her uncle Isidore. Everyone failed. Even Thérèse wrote a letter to the Bishop, pleading her own case. She heard nothing. She had wanted to be accepted before Christmas of 1887, but nothing came in the mail. She finally gave up that idea.
Christmas Day was a tearful day for Thérèse. She had wanted so badly to celebrate it from behind the Grille at the Carmel. But that was not to be. After she returned home from a visit to her sister Pauline at the Carmel, she found a little bowl in her room with a ship in it. On the ship, the baby Jesus lay, with a ball next to Him; a single word appeared, “Self-Abandonment”. Six days later, on January 1, 1888, she was to receive word from the Carmel that she had been accepted. The Bishop had given his permission.
Nowhere do we read that Thérèse quite understood what had really happened. We have to believe that she did, because of her great wisdom and sensitivity. We know that she was so in tune with the Lord that it must have become clear what Jesus was doing with all the struggles Thérèse experienced in her quest for admission into the Carmel, all seemingly to no avail. Possibly because her gift of acceptance had been mixed with yet another obstacle, a delay proposed by her own sister Pauline, she never thought to expound on how the Lord had worked in her life.
Thérèse had used everything she knew to try to get what she wanted, when she wanted it. She used all her ingenuity, all the tears that had worked on previous occasions, the pouting, the manipulating and maneuvering, and none of it worked. Her final grandstand play, the disaster of the audience with the Pope, seemed to clinch it for her. She had failed! Even after that, her Uncle Isidore, Mother Genevieve and Mother Marie De Gonzague sent a barrage of pleas for her admittance, but all in vain.
Then, when all her human efforts had failed, when she was at the end of her rope for ideas on how she could make it happen, she had received a word of knowledge, Self-Abandonment. It was as if, after all the amateurs had struck out, the Lord, the Power of all, had just touched the heart of the Bishop, and everything fell into place. Permission had been granted.
We believe He wanted Thérèse to know, and subsequently, us, His Children, that He is the Power. We are nothing, and capable of nothing. All our wheeling and dealing is worthless. He wants us to get out of the way, and turn the power over to Him. And then watch the results!
Life in the Carmel
When Pauline and Marie entered the Carmel, after having lived in their upper middle class homes in Alençon and Lisieux, they experienced a great culture shock. They had never known or anticipated, the austerity, the poverty of the Convent.
The Little Flower, however, the spoiled child of the Martin family, felt no shock at all, either in her own testimony, nor in that of either of her sisters who were there when she entered. Her cell, or room was miniscule, compared to that of Les Buissonnets. It measured 6.8 feet by 12 feet. It contained a bed, a stool, an oil lamp and an hour glass. And that’s it! You really have to see her room at Les Buissonnets, to appreciate what she gave up to live this life. It was large, with a polished hard wood floor, dainty wallcoverings, a plush mattress on a big bed, a curtained canopy, and delicate area carpets. Everything that her room at Les Buissonnets was, the Carmel was not. And yet, there’s almost no indication that she found it anything but exciting. She makes a statement about her entrance which explains her attitude about the Carmel.
“. . . I’d no illusions at all, thank God, when I entered Carmel; I found the Religious Life exactly what I’d expected it to be. The sacrifices I had to make never for a moment took me by surprise - and yet, as far as you know, Mother (Pauline), those first footsteps of mine brought me up against more thorns than roses!”
She loved her new life so much she wrote her sister Céline after a month in the Carmel,
“My dearest Céline, there are moments when I ask myself can it be true that I am at Carmel; sometimes, I can’t believe it! Alas, what have I done for God that He should so fill me to overflowing with His graces?”
But her struggles were just beginning. The sweet little girl whom the Community had known for six years as Sister Agnesof Jesus’ (Pauline) and Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart’s (Marie) little sister, was now one of them. She was too young, too smart, too pretty, too vain, and virtually worthless at physical labor. In the minds of the Community, there was a clan, the Martin clan, three sisters from the same family, of a much higher social status and greater intellect than most of the rest.
The Prioress, Mother Marie De Gonzague, who had adored little Thérèse for years and had fought arduously for her admittance into the Carmel, became her greatest critic. The Prioress was fifty four and Thérèse fifteen when the child entered. They were from different worlds.
Thérèse writes of her Prioress, Mother Marie De Gonzague, very lovingly, but you can sense an undercurrent of hurt there.
“But Reverend Mother was often ill, and couldn’t spend much time with me. I know she was very fond of me, and said the nicest things about me; but God saw to it that she should treat me very severely without meaning to. I hardly ever met her without having to kiss the ground in penance for something I’d done wrong; and it was the same on the rare occasions when she gave me Spiritual Direction.”
There was never a question of the child’s spirituality. From the beginning, it was known by everyone at the Carmel that this was a special gift from God. This same Mother Marie De Gonzague, wrote of Thérèse just one month after her entrance into the Carmel,
“. . .(Thérèse) is perfect. Never would I have expected to find such sound judgment in a fifteen-year old! Not a word has to be said to her. Everything is perfect.”
Why, then, did this woman become the source of her greatest suffering? Why was there such a love-hate relationship between the two for the nine years Thérèse lived in Community? Was she too spiritual? Was she too perfect? That too, can create problems of jealousy, which Thérèse never mentions.
But Thérèse was a sensitive girl, extremely so. She had to know when she was being attacked. There are some references in her writings about the personalities of the women with whom she lived; statements like “Of course, one does not have enemies in Carmel . . .” and “The lack of judgment, education, the touchiness of some characters, all these things do not make life very pleasant.”
She does write very often about suffering. We’re not sure if she knew what she would have to endure before she entered the Carmel, or became aware of it very quickly after she entered. It’s possible that during her parlor visits to the Carmel, with her two sisters over a period of six years, she was able to pick up on some of the undercurrents of tension and the hardships of living with other women in Community. It would have been hard for her sisters to hide their feelings from their families, on these rare occasions when they felt free enough to share their hurts.
Possibly, because of her great insights and acute sensitivity, Thérèse was able to discern very soon after joining the Community that struggle and suffering were to be a part of her everyday life. She shared some of her feelings about suffering.
“Suffering opened her arms to me, and I threw myself into them lovingly enough.”
“And Our Lord let me see clearly that if I wanted to win souls I’d have to do it by bearing a cross; so the more suffering came my way, the more strongly did suffering attract me.”
“For the next five years, it was this way of suffering I had to follow, and yet there was no outward sign of it.”
“. . . I think this way of suffering, by which God led me, will be a revelation to the people who knew me.”
A natural and normal source of consolation and defense would have been her sisters, Pauline and Marie. Remember, Thérèse was only fifteen years old. Notwithstanding the other problems she faced in the Carmel, she was so much younger than everyone else. At first, her sisters treated her as they had at home. She was the youngest, the prettiest, etc. But our little future Saint would have none of that. She fought her own instincts to be spoiled. It was not going to happen here. She had not come to Carmel for Pauline and Marie. She had come for Jesus.
In an effort not to give in to her sisters’ protective instincts, she avoided them. This was extremely difficult for Thérèse because she loved them so, especially Pauline.
The Little Way of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
The Lord gave Thérèse special gifts. He truly took over as Novice-Master. The easiest and most normal path for anyone to follow, in a situation such as she found herself, would have been to either hold in the hurts and anger she felt or lash out at her attackers. In either case, it would have made for a very bitter Sister, and the evil one would have had his way.
Jesus gave Thérèse a special secret, an insight, which became known as the Little Way of St. Thérèse. It was to turn all negatives into positives, to offer all her hurts to Jesus for the conversion of sinners, Priestly vocations, and the success of the missions. For example:
There was a sister who disliked her thoroughly and made every effort to cut her, whenever they would meet. Thérèse’s initial reaction was to give this sister a wide berth, avoid her wherever possible. She walked long distances out of her way not to confront this sister. But then, she decided that a good way to offer her sufferings to Jesus was to go out of her way to meet this sister. When the sister insulted her, as Thérèse knew she would, our little Saint would only smile.
During meditation in the Chapel, an old Nun prayed the rosary, noisily. She made sshshing noises as she prayed. This drove our little Saint up the wall. She dreaded when this sister would come in, because it always broke her concentration. As a special gift to Jesus, she offered this trial to Him. She got to the point where she looked forward to this Nun’s coming into the Chapel, so that she could have this little gift to give to her Lord. She came to love this Sister. When the little old Nun died, Thérèse was sad at having lost her.
Thérèse had a very sensitive stomach. She was used to eating the best food, prepared in a very appetizing way. Under the best conditions, Convent food never approached the quality she had been used to at Les Buissonnets. But there were times when food was prepared that none of the Sisters could bear. At these times, the cook would say, “We can give it to Thérèse. She’ll eat anything!”
It goes on and on. For the rest of her life, she practiced this little way. And nobody ever knew about it. She kept it a secret even from her sisters. She once wrote,
“Perhaps it would have relieved my feelings a bit if other people had been conscious of it, but they weren’t. There’ll be a lot of surprises at the Last Judgment, when we shall be able to see what really happened inside people’s souls; and I think this way of suffering by which God led me will be a revelation to the people who knew me.”
Abandonment became the key word of her Religious Life. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Abandonment as follows:
“It refers specifically to the first stage of the progression of the soul toward union with God whereby futility is found in all other than God.
. . . it involves a passive purification of the soul through willingly undergoing trials and sufferings and leads to a surrender of natural consolations . . .”
In an effort to practice her little way of abandonment, she constantly had to fight off the desires of her sisters to baby her and give her special treatment as they had done at home in Les Buissonnets. She had to go out of her way to avoid them, so as not to allow them to spoil her as they had done since she was an infant. The most difficult sister to avoid was her second mother, Pauline, Sister Agnes.
She had always loved Pauline. Early in her postulancy, she and Pauline were to work together in the refectory, or dining room. Pauline talked incessantly about matters of interest to both of them, family matters. Little Thérèse prayed silently, so as not to hear her. Pauline was hurt by this, but finally came to understand. At one point, Thérèse had to shock her sisters, whom she loved so much, by telling them “I have come here for Jesus, not for you.”
She buried herself in this new way of life. She tried to become so small, so unnoticed, almost a part of the woodwork. She submerged her personality as much as she could. Her unspoken motto was “No one must know, except Jesus.”
“Yes, I want to be forgotten, not only by creatures, but also by myself. I’d like to be so reduced to nothingness, that I have no desire. The Glory of my Jesus, that is all; as for my own, I abandon it to Him; and if He seems to forget me, well, He is free since I am no longer mine, but His. He will grow weary of making me wait, quicker than I of waiting for Him!”
She aspired to Sainthood. Actually, she knew she would be a Saint. But she felt she had to do something. Her little way became her something, that which would bring her into the Communion of Saints, the inner circle of Jesus, the place where she wanted to be.
She was given Scripture passages which affirmed this.
“If anyone is a very little one let him come to me.” (Prov 9:4)
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; you shall be carried at my breast and fondled in my lap!” (Isaiah 66:12-13)
And, of course, her most favorite scripture passage was the one which the Church gave to her for her feast day, that of (Matthew 19:13).
“Let the little children to come unto me. Do not hinder them. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Thérèse must have known things that she did not share with her sisters except in a roundabout way. Thérèse truly believed that she would die young. After the death of her father in the summer of 1894, she talked about death often. While it’s true that she had always suffered bad health, and her respiratory problems began to surface about this time, there’s more to it than that. In a letter to Céline towards the end of 1894, she stated, “...If I die before you, do not think that I will be far from your soul...” and then almost as an afterthought, she wrote: “But above all, do not be alarmed, I am not ill.”
We know that she had a special kinship with Joan of Arc. Joan died young. Thérèse wrote, directed and starred in two plays about Joan of Arc. It appears that she used these plays to expound her own spirituality. She used passages from Scripture in these plays referring to early death,
“But the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest... Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord.” (Wisdom)
Towards the end of the play, Thérèse put these words into the mouth of Joan of Arc,
“Lord, I accept martyrdom for love of you, I no longer cringe from death or fire.
O Jesus how my soul craves for you; to see you, my God, is my one desire.
All I want is to die for your love,
I want to die to begin to live, to die to be with Jesus above.”
A time would come and not be long in the coming, when these words could very easily be attributed to Thérèse talking about herself.
Autobiography of a Soul
The Lord used Pauline in a very special way. All that He had taught Thérèse had to come out. It had to be known. But none of the Martin girls, not Marie, not Pauline, not even Thérèse knew what the Lord’s plan was. Thérèse had adopted her little way. She became smaller and smaller in the eyes of the world. Most people didn’t even know she existed. This was good. This was what she believed the Lord was asking of her. But there was a problem! How would the world ever learn what Jesus had taught His Little Flower? How would anyone know about this Little Way of St. Thérèse? The Lord set the stage.
One winter evening, not long after Céline had entered the Carmel, the four of them, Pauline, Marie, Thérèse and Céline were sitting around the fireplace telling stories of their childhood. Thérèse had been designated master story-teller. She was so good at it. The following had to be the Lord’s design, it appears so contrived. Marie spoke to Pauline, who by now was Prioress of the Community.
“Is it possible that you let her (Thérèse) write little poems for one or other of the Sisters, and she writes nothing about her childhood for us? You will see, she is an Angel; she will not stay long on earth, and we will have lost all these details which are so interesting to us.”
What really prompted Marie to make a statement like that? It appeared to come from out of the blue. What possessed her to say, “She will not stay long on earth.” Pauline looked at Marie strangely. Her older sister was suggesting Thérèse write her life story. Why would she do that at twenty-two years old? How could Pauline as Prioress, permit that? Thérèse didn’t take any of it seriously. All of a sudden, as if she were commanded by the Lord, Pauline, no longer the older sister, but the Mother Superior, said to Thérèse very solemnly, “I order you to write for me all your childhood memories.”
Thérèse made the only logical statement possible. “What do you want me to write that you do not know already?”
But out of obedience to her Superior, and though not knowingly, out of obedience to Divine Providence, Thérèse began to write about her childhood. She opened her autobiography, which she herself called, “Autobiography of a Soul”, with the following,
“Dearest Mother, it is to you, who are my mother twice over, (Pauline) that I am going to tell the history of my soul. When you first asked me to do it, I was frightened; it looked as if it meant wasting my spiritual energies on introspection. But, since then, our Lord has made it clear to me that all He wanted of me was plain obedience. And in any case, what I shall be doing is only what will be my task in eternity - telling over and over again the story of God’s Mercies to me.”
And with that, St. Thérèse, the little flower of Jesus, began what was to become the story of her soul, an inspiration to millions of other souls in the not too distant future. Rather than just recount memories of her childhood, she did what she said she would at the outset. She told the story of God’s Mercies on her, and on the whole world.
The reading of her life story can be considered somewhat romantic. The actual writing of it was anything but that. We’re reminded of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which is so full of love and joy and hope. We went to the place where St. Paul wrote it, the Mamertine prison in Rome. It seems impossible that such a cheerful, loving letter could have been written in a dingy, depressing place like that prison.
The same would have to be said of St. Thérèse, as she wrote the story of her love of Jesus, from her childhood memories. Her writing conditions were the worst possible, maybe not as bad as St. Paul’s, but then again, close. She had to find a writing desk; she didn’t have one. They dragged out an old one from the attic of the Carmel. She had a little school notebook, and a scratchy quill pen. She wrote in her little room at night, under the light of an oil lamp. There were no rough drafts! She prayed before she began. What we read today in her book, which has been retitled, “Autobiography of a Saint”, is exactly what was given to St. Thérèse under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
It was good for her to do this; it was necessary for her to do this. It gave her cause to reflect on her life, on how the Lord had worked in her life from her earliest childhood. Could it be that what she wrote was dictated to her from above, and that in the writing, the realization of her role in history became known to her? Very often in our own lives, when we look back on seemingly disjointed occurrences over a period of years, we see our whole lives coming together, orchestrated as it were, into a beautiful symphony.
In the book, Thérèse writes,
“This was indeed the mystery of my vocation, of my whole life, and above all the mystery of the privileges Jesus has lavished on my soul.”
She finished the first part of the book at the end of 1895. It took six of those little schoolbooks. As she finished each one, Céline read what she had written, and cried, “It will be printed; it will be used.”
Thérèse ended the book with the following:
“There, Mother, that’s all I can tell you about the life of your youngest sister. You yourself know far better than I do what I am, and what our Lord has done for me, you won’t mind my having compressed my life as a Religious within such narrow limits. How is it going to end, this story which I’ve called the story of a little white flower? Perhaps it will be picked still fresh; perhaps it will be replanted in some distant soil, I can’t tell. But I know that the Mercy of God will always go with me, and that I shall never cease to bless you for giving me to our Lord. For all eternity, I shall rejoice that I am one flower in the wreath you have earned; to all eternity I shall echo your song, which can never lose the freshness of its inspiration, the song of love.”
The Beginning of the End
We sometimes believe there’s not enough room in the body and soul to contain all the Lord will give us if we but ask. While Thérèse’s soul was filled to overflowing with the love of Jesus, her body was falling apart. The constant coughing, which had always concerned her sisters and Aunt Marie, turned into Tuberculosis.
The first signs of it took place on Holy Thursday evening of 1896. During that night, she felt a strange sensation. She coughed up a warm liquid. She didn’t look to see what it was until the following morning, because the lights were out in the Carmel, and she didn’t want to break a rule. When it was light enough to see, she found blood on her handkerchief. She was elated to have been given the gift of sharing in the Passion of Jesus.
But her little way, which she had practiced so long, forbade her to tell anyone about her problem. She went around as beautiful and as happy as ever, though she was suffering physically. No one had any idea of what was going on inside her. She wrote poems and plays during this period. As her cough became worse, she tried to cover it up. A time came, however, when she could no longer hide her illness. She was taken out of her cell, and put into the infirmary.
Thérèse became the brunt of sarcastic remarks from some of the Nuns in the Carmel. Mother Marie de Gonzague, whose sieges of moodiness plummeted from bad to worse, from indifference to anger, took every opportunity to cut little Thérèse. Other sisters made statements like “I don’t know why they are speaking so much about Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus; she is not doing anything exceptional. One does not see her practicing virtue. You cannot even say that she is a good Nun.”
In the face of all this, fevers, difficulty in breathing, sleeplessness, constipation, gangrene of the intestines, she maintained her attitude of well-being and cheerfulness, so that no one believed she was sick. Even her doctors were confounded by her appearance.
Thérèse had always suffered bouts with her spirituality. She became spiritually dry almost every time she went on retreat. But in this last year of her life, satan’s attacks became violent. She found herself doubting everything she had ever done or believed in. Her mind filled with fears of having lived for nothing and dying for nothing. She had thrown away her life on delusions. Her sleepless nights were filled with suspicion of all that she had ever embraced.
Was her little way the right way for her? Should she have instead, been a Priest, an Apostle, a Doctor of the Church? She had always envisioned herself in the missions of Indo-China (Vietnam). The Carmel of Lisieux had a Mission in Saigon and Hanoi; was that what the Lord had been calling her to? Had she ignored what He really wanted of her, in favor of this self-abandonment?
She wanted to be a Priest; women were not Priests; but she felt such a desire to be closer to Jesus in this way. It was a question that haunted her! She searched for the Lord to answer her through Scripture. She finally found her answer in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12.
“You, then, are the body of Christ. Every one of you is a member of it . . . Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles or have the gift of healing? Do all speak in tongues, all have the gift of interpretation of tongues? Set your hearts on the greater gifts.”
and then again in Chapter 13,
“If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy, and with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give everything I have to feed the poor and hand over my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Thérèse had been right. The little way was her way. She had peace, at last.
Jesus Touches Pauline, Book Two
When Thérèse finished her six manuscripts of God’s Mercies in her life, she sewed them together into one book, put a picture of Jesus, and her coat of arms on the last page, and presented it to her sister, Pauline. The older sister threw it into a drawer without looking at it. Thérèse was visibly hurt, but being who she was, stubborn, she never asked Pauline if she had read it.
Pauline had read it, and was taken back by the depth of spirituality contained in her baby sister. But she never mentioned it to Thérèse. However, in June of 1897, Thérèse finally admitted to her sister that she had been coughing up blood, and how sick she really was. Whereas Pauline was devastated because her youngest sister was dying, the Lord put it on her heart that this wealth of spirituality, bottled up in Thérèse, could not die with her.
She asked Thérèse to continue her writings about her life in the Carmel. Thérèse’s natural answer was, “What will I write about?” By this time, there was no fear in Pauline as to what our little Saint would write about. The fear was time. She went to Mother Marie de Gonzague, who had just been re-elected Prioress of the Community. Using her very best diplomacy, she was able to convince her Superior that Thérèse should write about her life as a Carmelite; this biography to be sent to all the Carmels in the world upon her death. Pauline even suggested that it be addressed to her, Mother Marie de Gonzague. That probably clinched it. Pauline was granted permission for Thérèse to proceed.
Actually what happened was that the entire manuscript, the first which had originally been written to Pauline, and the second to Mother Marie, were both addressed to the Superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague. Pauline had to swallow her pride to do it, but it was Divine Inspiration. It was the only way it would have been printed after Thérèse had died.
And so, the little flower of Jesus began again, picking up where she had left off almost two years before. Only now it was different. She had a great deal more maturity in her soul, but her body betrayed her badly. She just didn’t have the strength to put into it all she wanted. She was able to write for about a month. Finally, she realized that she had poured out all that would come out of her. She ended her brief manuscript with the following,
“I’m certain of this - that if my conscience were burdened with all the sins it’s possible to commit, I would still go and throw myself into our Lord’s arms, my heart all broken up with contrition; I know what tenderness He has for any prodigal child of His that comes back to Him. No, it’s not just because God, in His prevenient (anticipating) mercy, has kept my soul clear of mortal sin, that I fly to Him on the wings of confidence and of love . . .”
Thérèse finally won her battle over her doubts.
Oh! . . . I Love Him! . . . My God I love . . . Thee!”
Thérèse suffered a horrendous death, and through it all, she comforted those who loved her. She tried to be as little trouble as possible. She finally had to give up denying her torment, because it was just too obvious. Her body was riddled with gangrene. Her bones protruded through her emaciated skin. She had open bed-sores. She fought to maintain her cheerful attitude. She was victorious to the end. During the last few days of September, 1897, her sisters, her relatives, all the members of the Carmel were praying the Lord would end her torture. The only one who seemed to have any patience with the ordeal was Thérèse. She waited for her Lover to come for her in His time.
Late in the afternoon, on a rainy September day in 1897, Jesus the Lover, came for His Little Flower. Her face became very calm. She was young again; she was beautiful. Thérèse looked up at the Crucifix. She spoke her last words,
“Oh! . . . I love Him! . . . My God I love . . . Thee!”
A Shower of Roses
Thérèse died on September 30, 1897. Pauline was allowed to have Thérèse’s autobiography printed, to send to all the Carmels in the world. This was not unusual in a sense; the custom was to publish a short biography of a member of the Community. In this instance, because Thérèse had written this beautiful account of her life, and because it was dedicated to Mother Marie de Gonzague, Pauline was able to push it through. It took a year for the book to be printed. When the two thousand copies arrived at the Carmel, the comment that ran throughout the Convent was “Whatever will we do with all these? We will surely have them left on our hands.” That was a gross overstatement.
Almost immediately the supply of books was gone. Requests came from Carmels all over the world for more. Thérèse’s Autobiography began to be lent out to people outside the Carmelite Community. As a result, requests for the book on the little Carmelite began pouring in from Priests, laity, Religious of other Communities; it seemed like the whole world was catching the fever of Sister Thérèse. Just prior to Thérèse’s canonization, over four hundred thousand books were in circulation. Within ten years of her canonization, over two million were in print.
Her prediction “I will send down a shower of roses!” came about, almost immediately. Wherever her name was mentioned, wherever people had her little book, wherever petitions were sent up to the Saint, miracles occurred, usually accompanied by the reception of a flower. Physical healings, spiritual healings and conversions were credited to the intercession of Sister Thérèse. Burned-out Priests came back to life. Missions in far-off places were given renewed energy. All of this was attributed to the Little Flower of Jesus. And it has never stopped!
The brilliance of her writings, so simple in style, but so deeply spiritual, were felt by the entire world from the day the manuscript of “The Story of a Soul” was first sent to Carmels all over the world. In 1932, the question was first raised of her being elevated to Doctor of the Church. Then in 1991, the Assembly of French Bishops formally petitioned the Vatican to consider giving her this title.
Although the process had been in the works for over 60 years, it took the dynamism and love of our Polish Pope, John Paul II, to finally proclaim Thérèse a Doctor of the Church. On October 19, 1997, at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, His Holiness declared to a record-breaking crowd that this Little Flower of Jesus was to be called for all time, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church. We believe she is the youngest Saint to receive this honor.
Thérèse insisted the Lord had work for her to do. She had always felt that she would do more good in Heaven than she had done on earth. She told her sisters,
“God would not give me this desire to do good on earth after my death if He did not want to realize it . . .
“If you knew what projects I have in mind, what I will do with things when I am in Heaven. I will begin my mission.“ If God grants my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of time. Yes, I will spend my Heaven doing good upon earth . . .
I will return! I will come down!”
More about Saint Therese of Lisieux