St Thérèse of Lisieux: The Last Eighteen Months

STEPHEN SPARROW

Thérèse Martin certainly deserved canonization, but it's helpful to unwrap the legend a little so that we can gain an insight into the authentic Thérèse.


St. Thérèse of Lisieux
(1873-1897)

In pious treatises on St Thérèse of Lisieux; and there are literally thousands of them, the saint has been taken over by a legend that invariably portrays her as one of those classic sweet looking holy card types. There's no doubt that many people bolster their faith with this sort of image but there's probably an equal number who find such pious post mortem accretions very off putting. Thérèse Martin certainly deserved canonization, but it's helpful at times to unwrap the legend a little so that we can gain an insight into the authentic Thérèse and in the process discover that in the last eighteen months of her life, not only did she suffer the real agony of the tuberculosis that ultimately killed her; but that she also suffered the agony of abandonment by God; a trial of faith that at times shrouded her soul in the utmost turmoil and it was only her passionate love of God that helped her to conquer this turmoil and in doing so, establish her sanctity beyond all doubt.

The facts of her life are well known. Thérèse was born in 1873 into a comfortable middle class French family in the Normandy town of Alencon. She was the youngest of five daughters and was only four when her mother died from breast cancer. From then on her day-to-day upbringing was in the hands of her two oldest sisters Marie and Pauline, although the family did employ a full time maid. By the time Thérèse was twelve, these two older Martin sisters had both entered the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux. Thérèse was determined to follow in their footsteps and made plans to enter the Carmel as soon as she turned fifteen. Her father although saddened by the prospect of a third daughter entering an enclosed order was in agreement; but, the local clergy including the Bishop were firm in their resolve that Thérèse should not enter any convent before the age of twenty-one.

In 1887, Thérèse' father, M. Louis Martin, took her and her older sister Celine on an organised pilgrimage to Italy during which they were part of an audience with Pope Leo XIII. When it was the turn of Thérèse to be presented, she broke the then current rule of not speaking by requesting the Pope's help in enabling her to enter the Lisieux Carmel on her fifteenth birthday. The incident caused a minor flap among some of the officials present, but the Pope responded in a kindly manner and at least the message got across of how determined Thérèse was to get her own way in the matter.

Shortly after her return from Italy she received the permission she so ardently desired but it was still to be several months after her fifteenth birthday before the big day arrived and Thérèse Martin would walk through the door of the Lisieux Carmel to commence life as a novice nun. She took the name Sister Thérèse of The Infant Jesus and The Holy Face.

As many people past fifty can testify, there are some marvelous lines in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, which is based on the life of Maria von Trapp, an Austrian nun who left her convent to work as a children's governess and ended up marrying their widower father. One of the advisers to the Broadway production was Sister Gregory, head of drama at Rosary College in Illinois. In a letter to the production and acting team she described the process by which young women choose the religious life, pinpointing the search for a purpose in life that every human being must make. Everyone, she said must find answers to the question: "What does God want me to do with my life? How does He wish me to spend my love?" Oscar Hammerstein held a copy of that letter and while experimenting with the words of the song "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", he wrote, "You can't hide here. Don't think these (convent) walls shut out problems…You have to face life wherever you are. You have to look for life, for the life you were meant to lead. Until you find it you are not living."

Before entering Carmel, Thérèse Martin knew innately that she was being called to a life of contemplation and prayer. Seven years later at the age of twenty-two, she came face to face with the reality of despair. Nearly seventy years on, Oscar Hammerstein in The Sound of Music vividly spelled out for us the unpredictable nature of the crisis Thérèse encountered, with those words "Don't think these walls shut out problems."

During Easter 1896, Thérèse experienced her first bout of coughing up blood that signaled the onset of tuberculosis. It also coincided with the darkening of her faith and it is at this point that Thérèse' sanctity literally springs into view. Up until then her faith life had been filled with consolations. The convent walls really did seem to offer some protection against the problems of the world, but all of that ended on Good Friday 1896. We know of what follows from the published memoirs and letters she left. And yet with all this writing, Thérèse sometimes despaired of words; of how inadequate they were to convey what she meant or how she felt. Nevertheless, for the purposes of understanding what she went through, her cheerful analogical style is more than adequate.

Writing to Mother Marie de Gonzague (the Prioress), Thérèse said that up to this time she had a faith so living and lucid that the thought of heaven was the sum of all her happiness. She couldn't believe that there really were godless people with no faith at all. She felt that it was only by being false to his own inner convictions that a man could deny the existence of heaven.

But God had a severe lesson for her. Thérèse told how He allowed her soul to be overrun by an impenetrable darkness, which made the thought of heaven, a subject of nothing but conflict and torment. And this trial she said was not to be a matter of a few days or a few weeks; it was to last until the moment when God should see fit to remove it. (There is no firm evidence that this trial ceased at all during the rest of her life.) "You must imagine," she said, "that I have been born in a country entirely overspread with a thick mist ….. And now, all of a sudden, the mists round me have become denser than ever; they sink deep into my soul and wrap it round so that I can't recover the dear image of my native country anymore — everything has disappeared."

She wrote of being tired of this darkness and tried to refresh her jaded spirits with the thought of that bright country where her hopes lay; but what happened was worse torment than ever; the darkness itself seemed to borrow from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. She heard it say in mocking accents; "It's all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, bathed in light, scented with delicious perfumes, and of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! You really believe, do you? That the mist, which hangs about you, will clear away later on? All right, all right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence."

"Dear Mother," Thérèse continued; "does it sound as if I were exaggerating my symptoms? Of course, to judge by the sentiments I express in all the little poems I've made up during the last year, you might imagine that my soul was as full of consolations as it could hold; that, for me, the veil which hides the unseen scarcely existed. And all the time it isn't just a veil; it's a great wall, which reaches up to the sky and blocks out the stars! No, when I write poems about the happiness of heaven and the eternal possession of God, it strikes no chord of happiness in my own heart — I'm simply talking about what I'm determined to believe. Sometimes, it's true, a tiny ray of light pierces through the darkness, and then, just for a moment, the ordeal is over; but immediately afterward the memory of it brings me no happiness, it seems to make the darkness thicker than ever."

Thérèse wrote that she was grateful of how gracious and merciful God had been to her in sending this ordeal when He did, since she was at least strong enough to bear it. Coming any earlier in her life it may well have caused her to become discouraged; whereas coming when it did it purged away the complacency, which her longing for heaven had brought on her. She finished her description of this episode by writing, "Dear Mother, what's left now to hinder my soul from taking its flight? The only thing I want badly now is to go on loving till I die of love."

Whew: what a passage. And yet, in all of this trial of faith, Thérèse never indulged in self-pity. She understood to an unthinkable degree the almost illogical condescension of God. For her the knowledge of the sacrifice Christ endured for the sake of all humanity meant she must live her life as close to that ideal as possible. If Christ endured the torture of abandonment during His passion then so would she.

The crucifixion story meant much more to her than some supposedly historical event she had vaguely heard about. It was for Thérèse an encounter with Christ, which left her with no alternative except to repay Him with love. But she knew she could not do it on her own. In what amounts to a love letter to Jesus she asked how, "To love you as you love me?" And answered. "The only way to do that is to come to you for the loan of your own love." After all, wasn't God the source of all love? Unconditional Love? So what was there to fear from Him? For Thérèse it came down to confidence. Like a small child confident of his parent's love, Thérèse would stand empty handed before God and acknowledge her littleness.

Now that was total humility, although today's liberal cynics would probably label it " a self esteem problem." Thérèse made her every action, even the smallest, an act of love. She called it her 'little way.' Her mission was to help everyone as if she was helping Christ Himself and to leave no stone unturned in sticking to that resolve. No easy task when you've been abandoned. No wonder she made reference to "the tangled undergrowth of Carmel." But before moving on we must clarify one thing. Several paragraphs back, Thérèse made reference to sinners; but throughout her writings or whenever she talked about sinners she included herself. There was no dualism in her; no them and us mentality; all were sinners except that some were trying not to be.

Eighteen months after that fateful Easter, Therese Martin died. It was September 30th 1897 and she was just twenty-four. The world would have been in complete ignorance of her but for what can only have been direct intervention by the Holy Spirit; and that was that impulsive directive given to Therese in 1895 by her sister Pauline (Mother Agnes) who was then Prioress. Therese was ordered to write down the events of her life starting with childhood memories right up until the date of the directive. Carmelites like all nuns take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity and an order from the Prioress had to be obeyed even if she was Therese' sister by blood. No special time was allotted her for this task, just the scraps available while in her cell, writing at a little desk into a school exercise book with light from a primitive sort of hurricane lamp.

Therese finished writing what later became known as Manuscript A on January 20,1896. An election for Prioress was held on March 21, 1896 and Mother Agnes was replaced by Mother Marie de Gonzague. Some considerable time elapsed before Mother Agnes summoned the courage to tell the new Prioress of the existence of Manuscript A, but fortunately its value was recognized and Mother Marie de Gonzague ordered Therese to continue writing with the emphasis now on her spiritual thinking and her life in Carmel. Therese commenced Manuscript C on June 3, 1897 and because of deteriorating health, was allowed the luxury of time specifically to write. She ceased writing on July 8, 1897 when she became too weak to even hold a pencil and a short time later was admitted to the infirmary to prepare for her death.

In early September 1896; in the gap between Manuscripts A and C, Therese received a request from her other blood sister (Sister Marie) who sensing Therese' sanctity wrote asking about her 'little way.' Therese' lengthy reply, the incomparable Manuscript B, took only five days to write and together with the other two manuscripts make up what was later published and is today known as either The Story of a Soul or Autobiography of a Saint.

The proposal to publish Therese' writings came about after her death and within one year an initial printing of two thousand copies went on sale. The rest is history. Today there are some sixty different translations in print. Sales figures of what is no doubt the greatest modern book of spirituality run into millions. The actual readership is probably many times more as copies were and still are passed around and get read to bits.

With the publication of The Story of a Soul, Therese' reputation and popularity soared as the so-called 'storm of glory' she started gathered speed and garnered thousands upon thousands of miracles and favours attributed to her holiness and intersession. As acknowledgement of her faithfulness in the face of abandonment, God rewarded Therese by falling in with her promise to "send down a shower of roses". As early as 1914, soldiers on both sides of the battlefields of World War I carried her card image on them. Therese Martin was canonised on May 17,1925 and today a modern basilica dedicated to her in 1937 graces the skyline of the Normandy town of Lisieux. In October 1999, Mission Sunday, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St Therese a Doctor of The Church. We could add she is a doctor of the science of love, since that is her undoubted specialty.


St. Thérèse of Lisieux


Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux - here
The Story of a Life: St. Thérèse of Lisieux - here.
The Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. I: 1877-1890 - here.
Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. II: 1890-1897 - here.
Maurice and Thérèse - here.
I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux - here.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stephen Sparrow. "St Thérèse of Lisieux: The Last Eighteen Months." Catholic Educator's Resource Center (January, 2004).

THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Sigrid Undset. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children.

Copyright © 2004 Stephen Sparrow


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