Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux Part 2- I Just Love Him

8 Nov

The first part of this series of articles on Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux began with details of the early years of Louis Martin and of Zélie Guérin, the parents of Ste. Thérèse.

Sadly, Zélie died after a prolonged battle with breast cancer in 1877, at the age of 46 years. Following his wife’s passing, Louis moved his family to Lisieux. Aided by his brother and sister-in-law, there he raised his five daughters with great love and patience. The two oldest Martin girls, Pauline and Marie, became Carmelite nuns at Lisieux. Thérèse longed to join them in Carmel, and made a bid to do so at only 15 years of age.

This second part ends much the way the first article in this presentation did: in tragedy. In the midst of Louis’ descent into mental and physical infirmity, one of Thérèse’s mentors and closest friends in Carmel, Sr. Geneviève of Saint Teresa, died during an influenza outbreak in December, 1891. Thérèse saw the relation between this holy sister’s death with that of her own mother. Thérese, though, carried a sense of joy despite her suffering and that of her family and religious community. Throughout Thérèse’s life, the Child Jesus was continuously linked with the Holy Face of Our Lord’s Passion.

We ask for the continued intercession of one who lived her religious name to perfection. St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, pray for us…

Louis Martin and his five girls moved to Lisieux in November 1877, to a house called Les Buissonnets which Zélie’s brother, the pharmacist Isidore Guérin, was leasing near his own home. Louis was helped by Isidore and his wife, Céline, in raising his children. A widower at 54, he lavished love upon his daughters without spoiling them. Marie was nicknamed “le diamant”- “the diamond”, Pauline, “second mother” to Thérèse, was “le perle”- “the pearl”, Léonie was “the good-hearted one”, Céline was “the dauntless one”, and Thérèse was Louis’ “Petite Reine” or “Little Queen”. Throughout her life, Thérèse would reciprocate this royal title of endearment conferred upon her by Louis; she often referred to her father as “le Roi de France et de Navarre”- “the King of France and of Navarre”, or, in short, “mon Roi chéri”- “my dear King”.(cf. LT 51, 63, Ms. A, 21r°)

Within four years of the Martins’ move to Lisieux, Thérèse and Céline began studies as day boarders at the Benedictine Notre-Dame-du-Pré Abbey. The Benedictine nuns are not commonly associated with education, but because of the anti-clerical laws that had become increasingly restrictive following the French Revolution, they ran private schools just to remain solvent. Thérèse’s years at the abbey were generally sad. She was several years ahead of her grade level in most subjects, with the exception of French spelling, grammar, and mathematics. Thérèse excelled at learning the Catechism, and had nearly memorized the 15th-century classic on religious devotion, “The Imitation of Christ”, as a child. However, her prodigious intellect coupled with her quiet personality made her the object of derision by her envious schoolmates. (cf. Ms. A, 23r°)

Thérèse was understood by few, and was a lonely child. However, she related specially with God, not going more than a few minutes without thinking about Him, and by her later reckoning not requiring a spiritual director to strengthen the bond between herself and the Lord. Nonetheless, ostracism at school began to cause Thérèse’s health to decline. She suffered dreadful headaches, and her fragile emotional state was a continued concern.

At nine years old, Thérèse was given the mission and the name that she would later take on in religious life. She had gone with her family on a routine visit to the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. The Prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, would ask Thérèse what her leisure activities were, while being reminded of Thérèse’s deep shyness along with devotion due to which she would spend long periods of time kneeling beside her bed in prayer. Thérèse would respond that she would be thinking of God. When pressed by Mother Prioress on what she was thinking about God, Thérèse would clarify, “Nothing, I just love Him.” Thérèse had also already developed a strong connection to Christ, though she said she would have a hard time losing her lovely name, Thérèse, upon entering the Carmelites. Mother Marie de Gonzague suggested, because her name had already been used by Carmelite reformer St. Teresa of Jesus, and therefore as a means of respect that it ought not to be used, that Thérèse should take the name Sr. Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus (Theresa of the Child Jesus). (Ms. A, 31r°) Thérèse was thus given the religious name she had earlier dreamed of, and she was set on the way toward her vocation of love.

Thérèse was aptly named; she gave herself, as did her patron saint, for the love of God and the salvation of souls. Louis also would affectionately call her “Thérésita” (LT 11), after the niece of St. Teresa of Avila, who had entered the monastery at only nine years old. Thérèse’s father would make sure his youngest child was especially attentive whenever St. Teresa of Avila was mentioned during Mass. God had called Thérèse by name, and this was evident to her from a young age. One evening, Louis was returning home from Isidore Guérin’s home with Thérèse, who gazed up at the stars and noticed a constellation in the shape of a T. In her autobiography, Thérèse wrote later, “I showed Papa (the stars), declaring that my name was written in Heaven…With my little head well in the air, I stopped at nothing, then, to contemplate the starry blue heavens above.” (Ms. A, 18r°) The Bible verse from which she drew this reflection, Luke 10:20, in which Jesus reminds His disciples, “Rejoice and be glad, for your names are written in Heaven”, is said during evening prayer on Ste. Thérèse’s feast day, October 1…

God had a special plan for Thérèse, though it seemed that He might take her to Himself prematurely. When Thérèse was not yet ten years old, Pauline, her sister, spiritual guide, second mother, and confidante, joined the Lisieux Carmelites. That event, coupled with a lengthy absence of Louis, who had gone to Paris, plunged the already emotionally fragile Thérèse toward severe illness between March and May, 1883. Some doctors doubted that she would live, let alone recover. Her condition was never accurately diagnosed. Thérèse had a short respite from the mysterious ailment such that she was able to visit Pauline in the monastery in April, but then her health deteriorated again. Louis, Marie, Léonie, and Céline began a novena to Our Lady of Victories, but Thérèse’s health did not improve. At their sister’s bedside on Pentecost, May 13, 1883, Marie, Léonie, and Céline implored Our Lady to save Thérèse’s life. In the room, Louis, on Zélie’s request, had placed a statue of Mary that had been outdoors at his property in Alençon years earlier. As her sisters were praying, Thérèse looked toward the statue, and rose from the bed. She had seen Mary smile at her as she was completely cured. The figure of Mary, which now stands in the Carmel of Lisieux, has since been known as “Our Lady of the Smile”. (Ms. A, 30r°)

Thérèse’s headaches persisted, and she still lacked a mother to contribute emotional stability. Louis arranged for private tutor, Valentine Papinau, to educate Thérèse as of 1886, ending her time at the Benedictine abbey. At the same time, Thérèse was suffering from a crisis of scruples, whereby she was concerned that she would offend God by her every imperfect action, no matter how small. Marie would even need to limit the number of “sins” Thérèse would confess. This would last until October 1886, although Thérèse received full consolation only in October 1891, when her confessor in the Carmel, Fr. Alexis Prou, assured her that she was free of mortal sin.

Christmas 1886 was a turning point in the life of Thérèse Martin. Upon returning home from midnight Mass, the children would traditionally find small gifts in their shoes near the fireplace. By this time Thérèse was nearly fourteen, and Louis showed his fatigue and frustration by wishing aloud that this would be the last year for this childish custom. Thérèse would normally have been deeply upset by a remark such as her father’s. Céline looked with pity on her sister, but Thérèse did not shed a tear. Unexpectedly, she went with joy to the fireplace and began to unwrap her gifts in front of her father. Thérèse’s joy was also imparted to Louis, who watched as his daughter instantly overcame years of emotional hardship related to Zélie’s death.

The following summer, Henri Pranzini was convicted and sentenced to be guillotined for the rapes and murders of two women and a young girl in Paris. At Mass, Thérèse was struck by an image of Christ on the Cross on a prayer card. She would write that she wanted to be at the foot of the Cross to catch the blood that fell from Jesus’ wounds. Thérèse recalled Jesus’ words from the Cross, “I am thirsty”. Our Lord is thirsty for souls, even those as unrepentant as Pranzini. Thérèse saw Pranzini’s salvation as her first divinely-inspired mission. When her “child” was given a last chance to speak before his execution, he asked to borrow the priest’s crucifix, on which he kissed each of Our Lord’s wounds. Thérèse believed this to be a sign from God that Henri Pranzini would be saved. (cf. Ms. A, 46r°)

Thérèse was prepared to begin her “giant’s race”. (Ms. A, 44v°) She was indeed a spiritual giant poised to enter the Carmelites, if only she were able to convince her father, her uncle, Isidore Guérin, the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, Msgr. Flavien Hugonin, the Vicar-General, Fr. Maurice Révérony, the Carmelite superior, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Delatroëtte, and even Pope Leo XIII, of her maturity and wisdom, which were remarkable for a girl of not yet fifteen years old.

Louis was quite easily convinced of Thérèse’s early vocation. Though he initially thought she was young to be making such a commitment, he gave Thérèse his blessing while giving her a small white flower he had picked. Her uncle was more difficult to sway, but after Thérèse, and likely her uncle also, had prayed for fifteen days, on October 22, 1887, Isidore Guérin also gave his consent for Thérèse to enter Carmel. Fr. Delatroëtte was emphatically opposed to Thérèse’s entry into Carmel at such a young age. Her only hope was to speak to the bishop. Louis arranged for Thérèse to meet Bishop Hugonin, and accompanied her to Bayeux, 70 km from Lisieux. One of the most enduring pictures of Thérèse dates from this occasion on October 31, 1887. Thérèse had put her hair up to look older for the bishop. She was strikingly beautiful, with long blond hair and large deep blue eyes. The tallest of the Martin children, she was called “the tall English girl” by some people in Lisieux.

Thérèse got a cautious response from the bishop, who understood that her vocation was true but wished to speak first to Fr. Delatroëtte. Knowing the Carmelite superior’s opposition, Thérèse was unable to hold back her tears. However, Bishop Hugonin suggested that Thérèse join a pilgrimage to Rome a month later for the fiftieth anniversary of the priestly ordination of Pope Leo XIII. The papal audience would take place on November 20, 1887. Léonie had entered the Visitation convent in Caen, where she would stay until the following January; it would be the second unsuccessful attempt at religious life for the poor middle sister of the Martin family. Thus, beginning on November 4 Thérèse and Céline went to Rome with their father Louis, who had recovered sufficiently from his first stroke that had left one side of his body partially paralyzed.

On the way, Thérèse, Céline, and Louis passed through Switzerland, and visited Milan, Venice, Bologna, Padua, and Loreto. At the Casa Santa, in legend thought to have been the home of the Holy Family that was miraculously carried by angels from Nazareth to Loreto, Louis asked a priest to give Communion to Thérèse and Céline. This was a departure from tradition at the Holy House, where a single large host was normally kept on the paten for a priest to celebrate Mass alone. For this special occasion, two more large hosts were added and Mass was said at Louis’ request for Thérèse and for Céline, much to their delight. (Ms. A, 59v°) Meanwhile, Fr. Révérony, representing the Diocese of Bayeux and Lisieux, had been watching Thérèse closely from the beginning of the voyage. The trip enhanced the understanding Thérèse had of priests, who, although they are “raised above the dignity of the very angels” (Ms. A, 56r°), are weak human beings who especially require the prayers of the faithful for the protection of their souls.

Thérèse was understandably nervous, especially at the prospect of speaking to the Pope, as the papal audience approached. One was not supposed to speak to the Pope during the audience, for fear of delaying the ceremony, but Thérèse was encouraged by Pauline in a letter she had received from the Lisieux Carmel. During the audience, Thérèse was prepared to heed the request to genuflect, to kiss the papal slipper and ring, and then to wait for the instruction to rise before moving on, but Céline, waiting behind Thérèse, whispered, “Speak!” (Ms. A, 63r°) Thus, Thérèse asked the Pope to permit her entry into Carmel at fifteen. The Pope responded, “Do as your superiors wish.” Thérèse renewed her request, and the Pope replied, “You will enter if the Good God wills it”, after which Thérèse, who again was moved to tears, was carried by papal guards into another room. Though she was disappointed, Thérèse found joy on the return trip to Lisieux. She knew what God’s will was, and the Lisieux Carmel was almost unanimously behind her, too. At the foot of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, a city that was just beginning to be excavated from volcanic ash that had buried it in 79 A.D., Thérèse reflected that God could will the seemingly impossible. God is so powerful that, in the Psalmist’s words quoted by Thérèse, He “looks on the earth and it trembles, (and) touches the mountains and they smoke.” (Psalm 104:32; Ms. A, 64v°)

On December 28, 1887, Bishop Hugonin wrote to Mother Marie de Gonzague that she had episcopal permission to admit Thérèse into Carmel, but that the entry would be deferred until April 9, 1888, following Easter. Thérèse would spend the months that followed practicing virtue and sacrifice with even more devotion than before. Just three days before the admission letter was received, on Christmas Day, no news had yet been received about Thérèse entering Carmel, although she had been checking the mail with Louis daily for some time. Thérèse arrived at Les Buissonets following midnight Mass. Sensing her sister’s discouragement, Céline placed a model ship in a basin. On the body of the ship, a passage from the Song of Songs was inscribed: “I am sleeping, but my heart keeps vigil”, and on the sail was written, “Abandon!” (Ms. A, 68r°)

The day Thérèse entered Carmel, Louis knelt and tearfully gave his daughter his blessing. On the same day, Céline turned down a request for marriage. Thérèse’s early years in Carmel were difficult. Her two sisters, Marie and Pauline, were both in the same monastery, though religious life dictated a degree of separation between them. Early winters were cold, and the monastery was not heated. Late in 1891, Mother Geneviève of St. Teresa, who had founded the Lisieux Carmel 53 years earlier and whose name was later adopted by Thérèse’s sister Céline, passed away as an influenza epidemic swept through the moanstery. Thérèse was able to see clearly the face of a Carmelite she called a saint, unlike when she was almost too small to see into her own mother’s open casket 14 years earlier. (To be continued…)


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