Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux Part 3- Entering into Life

2 Jan

Happy New Year 2008! In this third and final section to conclude my series of articles on the life of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux, my hope is to convey her virtue, her love, and her holiness that are all amazing, but also to show her humanity that is real and moving. As I wrote the final section, I reflected on how we might become part of the story of Ste. Thérèse; her life is part of our own history as Christians, with all of its joys and pains. Ste. Thérèse lived through joy and suffering, often intertwined, as a Carmelite nun. She died young, and is to this day a popular though as often misunderstood figure in the Church.

…Since the beginning of November I haven’t written any articles to this blog, though in the meantime I completed my fifth course in philosophy (Greek Philosophy and the Christian Tradition), which was a great success and highly enjoyable. Then, I received news that I had been posted as an Associate of the Basilian Fathers (Congregation of St. Basil), to Cali, Colombia, for six months beginning on January 5, 2008 (four days away!). I ask for prayers from those who read this as I begin this next step in my discernment and formation toward the priesthood, and I pray for all of you, God’s people, in return.

I conclude the introduction to this last article on the life of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux with one of her poems entitled “To the Infant Jesus”, from a prayer card I received yesterday:

Jesus, you know my name,
Your sweet gaze beckons me,
And says, “Give yourself up to me
And I shall steer your tiny boat.”

With your sweet little Child’s voice,
O! How marvelous!
You calm the roaring waves
And the wind!

Rest yourself
While the storm rages about you,
Let your fair head
Rest in my heart.

How delightful your smile
While you sleep.
I want to rock you tenderly, fair child,
With my sweetest lullaby.

– Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, O.C.D., December, 1896.

Thérèse’s first chores in Carmel were doing the laundry and sweeping the floors. The latter task was most trying, especially when Thérèse would encounter cobwebs; she was horrified by spiders. Thérèse persevered despite this and her father’s illness that was worsening. Successive strokes had plunged Louis Martin into dementia. Two months after Thérèse’s entry into Carmel, Louis disappeared from Lisieux, but was found by Céline and by Isidore Guérin in Le Havre, 60 km from home. Louis’ strokes recurred in August of 1888, such that Thérèse’s taking of the habit was deferred. She took the habit on January 10, 1889, at barely sixteen years old. Louis was able to participate in the ceremony, and Thérèse also recalled the pure snow falling outside that matched the colour of her novice’s habit. Thérèse, whose love for God and for His people was as pure as the fresh snow, added “of the Holy Face” to her religious name. The additional name was a reminder of God’s promise to come, although Thérèse spent much of her Carmelite life in obscurity, fulfilling her smallest duties with utmost love, though Heaven was at best seen “through a glass darkly”. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Louis’ health continued to decline. Though Céline, too, wished to become a Carmelite, she and Léonie stayed at home to care for their father. Louis was hospitalized at the Bon Sauveur sanatorium in Caen until he became confined to a wheelchair. Throughout Louis’ humiliation, as his mind degenerated into that of a child, Céline and Léonie suffered along with him. Thérèse wrote many letters to her sisters outside Carmel during this time, reminding them of her compassion for them and for Louis despite suggestions by some acquaintances that Louis’ Carmelite daughters had abandoned him, and that “a day without suffering is a day lost”. (LT 47) When Louis was moved back in 1892 to Lisieux to live out his days, Céline took on the role of a nurse. She often pushed Louis’ wheelchair around the garden at La Musse, the Guérins’ property near Lisieux. Louis Martin was wheeled into the Carmelite monastery to visit his three daughters there for the last time on May 12, 1892. He barely managed to whisper the words, “In Heaven…” (Thérèse of Lisieux, Complete Works, Chronology, p.1491) Two years later, he was completely paralyzed by another stroke. Louis received Extreme Unction on May 27, 1894. He suffered a major heart attack ten days later, and he died peacefully on July 29, at the age of 70. Thérèse wrote that Louis’ passing enabled him to rise to eternal union with God, and that the part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in Heaven”, took on an even deeper meaning. (cf. Ms. A, 75v°)

Céline notified her Carmelite sisters of Louis’ death: “Papa is in Heaven.” Thérèse said later that “God had given (her) a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth”. (LT 261) Those words are inscribed above the final resting place of Zélie and of Louis behind the Basilica of Ste. Thérèse in Lisieux. The canonization cause of Zélie and of Louis Martin was opened by 1960, and on March 26, 1994, Thérèse’s parents were declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II. One miracle attributed to their intercession is required for their beatification, and two miracles are needed for canonization.

Following Louis’ death, on September 14, 1894, Céline entered Carmel as Sr. Marie of the Holy Face (eventually Sr. Geneviève of St. Teresa), taking with her much of her painting and photography equipment. Thus, Ste. Thérèse of the Child Jesus remains the most photographed saint to this day. A cousin, Marie Guérin, also entered Carmel as Sr. Marie of the Eucharist on August 15, 1895. Sisters Geneviève of the Holy Face and Marie of the Eucharist were two of five novices entrusted to Thérèse, who was Novice Master in all but name. She gave up her right to official positions of power to allay concerns that the four Martin sisters and one cousin might have excessive influence in the community.

In 1894 and 1895, Thérèse wrote and performed the lead role in two plays about then-Blessed Joan of Arc, “The Mission of Jeanne d’Arc, or the Shepherdess of Domrémy Listening to the Voices”, followed by “Jeanne d’Arc Accomplishing Her Mission”. Pledging obedience to Jesus, to Mary, and to Mother Agnes of Jesus (her sister, Pauline, who had become Prioress), Thérèse wrote her first autobiographical manuscript from January, 1895, to January, 1896, on the orders of Mother Agnes, who had noticed Thérèse’s vivid recollection of her childhood and ordered Thérèse to write it in a simple lined scribbler. Also in 1895, Thérèse offered herself spontaneously to Divine Love, a power so great that it conquers all sin, as a fire consumes a drop of water. (cf. Ms. C, 36r°; Pri 6, 1v°/2r°)

Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart, Thérèse’s oldest sister, asked Thérèse to put her doctrine of spiritual childhood and of complete confidence in God in writing. This became Manuscript B of her future autobiography. Thérèse wrote this during her annual retreat for the anniversary of her profession in September, 1896. It would be Thérèse’s last such retreat, as she had begun to suffer from tuberculosis. Between Holy Thursday and Good Friday of 1896, Thérèse coughed up blood for the first time. She interpreted this as an encounter with her Divine Spouse who was calling her home. (cf. Ms. C, 5r°)

This first concrete sign of tuberculosis was reported much later. For months, Thérèse carried out her regular duties without complaint, despite her cough and high fever. She corresponded with two missionary priests, Fathers Adolphe Roulland and Maurice Bellière, who were struggling with their vocations, and she also wrote her third autobiographical manuscript, a chronicle of her time as a nun which was to be used as a lengthy obituary, or circular, that was customary to honour deceased Carmelites. When she was carried to the infirmary on July 8, 1897, Manuscript C was left unfinished. The last pages had been written in pencil, as Thérèse was too ill to dip a pen into an inkpot. As with all three manuscripts, the third ended with the word “love”. Thérèse’s last recorded letters were written to Fr. Bellière, who in August, 1897, was told that Thérèse had a month or less to live. Thérèse wrote from the infirmary, “I am not dying; I am entering into life.” (LT 244)

Thérèse’s spiritual suffering perhaps exceeded her physical distress. She was unable to see the glory of Heaven. Her writings as well as spoken words compiled by Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline) as the Last Conversations convey a hope in eternal life from which Thérèse felt greatly distanced. Thérèse of Lisieux died in agony. She died alone as did Christ on the Cross: “My God…Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Thérèse gasped her last words just after seven o’clock in the evening on September 30, 1897: “My God, I love you”. (CJ 30.9) She then raised her head from the bed for about the time required to say the Apostles’ Creed before falling back and breathing her last. In death, she maintained an angelic smile upon her face, and she clutched her crucifix so tightly that it had to be forced from her hands to prepare her body for burial. (cf. CJ 30.9, notes of Mother Agnes of Jesus)

Thérèse, who was canonized on May 17, 1925, before 60 000 pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square, promised that she would “spend (her) Heaven doing good on earth” (CJ 17.7), and her mission continues. Léonie entered the Sisters of the Visitation for good in 1899. She died in 1941, and later joined her parents and Ste. Thérèse as members of the Martin family who are either recognized saints or whose merits are being considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Mother Marie de Gonzague wrote in the Lisieux Carmel’s register after Thérèse died: “The nine and a half years (Thérèse) spent among us leave our souls fragrant with the most beautiful virtues with which the life of a Carmelite can be filled. A perfect model of humility, obedience, charity, prudence, detachment, and regularity, she fulfilled the difficult discipline of mistress of novices with a sagacity and affection which nothing could equal save her love for God.”

October 17, 2007 was the tenth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s proclamation of Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux as the thirty-third Doctor of the Church. In the late Pontiff’s Apostolic Letter, “Divini Amoris Scientia”- “The Science of Divine Love”, the universality of Ste. Thérèse’s teaching and message was acknowledged: “Her person (and) the Gospel message of the ‘little way’ of trust and spiritual childhood have received and continue to receive a remarkable welcome, which has transcended every border…The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how all Jesus’ promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome in his own life the saving presence of the Redeemer.”

I testify here to the influence that the intercession of the “greatest Saint of modern times”, in the words of St. Pius X, has had on my own life and vocational discernment. We ask that Ste. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face may continue to keep watch over us and to pray for us. We ask this in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


An explanation of the abbreviations used in my in-text notes:

LT- Letters of Ste. Thérèse
CJ- Carnet Jaune (Last Conversations) (day, month)
Pri- Prayers of Ste. Thérèse
The page numbers cited in all 6 articles (3 in English, 3 in French) are the original page numbers of Ste. Thérèse’s manuscripts, which were written using both sides of each sheet of lined paper. Thus, my citations include either v° (“verso”- reverse side) or r° (“recto”- front side).

In addition, today is the 135th anniversary of the birth of Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux and is also the feast day of the patron of the religious order I belong to, the Congregation of St. Basil (or, the Basilian Fathers). St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, pray for us…


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