Thérèse of Lisieux
Thérèse of Lisieux
French saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) is revered in the Roman Catholic Church as “the Little Flower of Jesus” for the example she set in her short life as a Carmelite nun. At her death at the age of 24, she left behind an autobiography that quickly became a bestseller in France and was translated into dozens of languages. She was elevated to the status of saint in the Church by Pope Pius XI in one of the fastest canonizations in the history of the Roman Catholicism.
Thérèse was born Marie Franc¸oise Thérèse Martin on January 2, 1873, in Alenc¸on, France. She was the last of nine children born to Louis and Zélie Martin, a watchmaker and lacemaker, respectively, and both extremely devout Catholics. Zélie had a growth in her breast for many years which prevented her from nursing her children, and Thérèse was sent to a wet nurse for the first year of her life. The mother's tumor turned out to be inoperable cancer, and Zélie died when Thérèse was four years old—a grievous blow to the youngster, who was extremely attached to her mother. Afterward, Louis Martin relocated the family to the town of Lisieux in Normandy, where relatives helped care for the children.
Sisters Became Nuns
Thérèse was a serious, clingy child from an early age, unusually fixated on being obedient, and preoccupied with questions about heaven and the afterlife. She was a day student at the Benedictine Abbey school in Lisieux, but her piety was interpreted by others as aloofness and she had few friends. She was primarily raised by her older sisters, and was especially close to Pauline, who was 12 years her senior. When Pauline decided to enter the local order of Carmelite nuns in 1882, Thérèse was inconsolable. “In one instant, I understood what life was …. It appeared to me in all its reality, and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation,” she later wrote, according to Kathryn Harrison's biography Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
Several months later, Thérèse was beset by a threemonth-long illness marked by convulsions, nightmares, hallucinations, and occasional comatose states. The family doctor diagnosed it as St. Vitus Dance, more formally known as chorea and characterized by involuntary movements. She was reportedly cured after praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, whom she believed smiled at her at the instant of the intercession. At this point Thérèse became even more intensely devoted to prayer and penance, later writing, “Suffering became my attraction,” she reflected, according to Harrison's book. “It had charms about it which ravished me without my understanding them very well.”
In October of 1886 Thérèse's sister Marie also entered the Carmelite convent, and the following Christmas Thérèse claimed to have begun her own process of religious awakening. This was occasioned by a remark her father made after the family returned from midnight Mass services on Christmas Eve, when he grumbled about having to fill the stockings of his youngest child before going to bed. Thérèse overheard the comment, and instead of becoming upset—she was easily wounded by any slight and was prone to histrionics and attention-seeking—she later recalled that by accepting his words without note, she felt transformed into an adult.
Petitioned the Pope
In the spring of 1887, Thérèse decided that she, too, would take religious vows and follow her sisters into the Carmelite order. The local prelate in Lisieux, who had ecclesiastical oversight over the convent, declared that she was far too young at age 14 and needed to wait until she was 21. With her father she secured a meeting with a higher authority, the bishop, in order to plead her case, but it was again rejected. In November of 1887, Thérèse, her father, and sister Céline made a pilgrimage to Rome, where they took part in a general audience before Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903). The custom for pilgrims was to kneel before the pope, kiss his foot and hand, and not address him at all but instead wait for his benediction, but Thérèse asked for his help in joining the Carmelites. Perplexed, Leo turned to the vicar who had accompanied them and the other French pilgrims, and the vicar explained that the teenager's request was being considered by members of the French clergy. At this, Thérèse exclaimed, “Oh Holy Father, if you say yes, everyone will agree!” Leo's reply, according to Harrison's book, was, “Go, go, you will enter if God wills it.”
The vicar, likely impressed by Thérèse's otherwise devout conduct on the pilgrimage, agreed to take up her cause, and she became a postulant on April 9, 1888, when she entered the Lisieux Carmelite convent at the age of 15. She was given a long blue dress and black bonnet, and slept in a small and chilly room on a straw mattress. The nuns woke daily at five a.m. for prayer and work, taking their first meal only five hours later. They ate in silence in a dining room that had a human skull affixed to the wall to remind them of the ultimate fate of their physical bodies on earth. The rest of the day was governed by chores and prayer, including two hours of silent contemplation and three and a half hours reciting the Liturgy of the Hours.
Thérèse had been a favorite of the mother superior at Lisieux, Mother Marie de Gonzague, even before she entered the order, and the favoritism shown to her exacerbated bitter divisions already apparent among the nuns, many of whom were much older and resented Thérèse's obvious attempts to demonstrate piety. She became a novice in January of 1889, and made her profession of vows in September of 1890. Three years later she was appointed acting mistress of novices when her sister Pauline succeeded Mother Marie as prioress. Within a year, however, Thérèse's health began to fail, and she was beset by a perpetual sore throat that was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. As described in Harrison's book, she wrote to one of her sisters, “Don't worry about me. I am not sick; on the contrary, I have iron health,” though she added “God can break iron just like clay.”
Prayed to be Consumed by Fire
That sister, Céline, would also enter the Carmelite order, and in June of 1895 Thérèse went with her to ask permission from Pauline, now called Mother Agnes, to make an act of oblation together. This was a solemn offering or presentation to God, and in this case was a request that they be overtaken by Christ entirely and by the process of immolation, or ritual sacrifice, often by burning. Thérèse wrote out the text of the prayer, which read, in part: “I ask you to come and take possession of my soul …. I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love.” A few days later she reported experiencing a burning sensation while saying the Stations of the Cross, and considered this a sign from God that her request had been heard.
Thérèse grew weaker from tuberculosis, and during the Lenten season of 1896 experienced the first hemorrhage of her lung tissue. She was duty-bound to inform Pauline, her superior, of the incident, but asked permission to be allowed to perform her chores and prayers anyway, which Pauline granted. Thérèse's health worsened over the next 18 months, and she was kept awake at night by coughing fits. She submitted to painful applications of mustard plasters, which promoted the formation of blisters and was thought to improve circulation in the ill, only because she believed the pain hastened her path to holiness. By the Lenten season of 1897, she was too weak to stand at times, and became unable to hold down any nourishment due to gangrene in her intestines. As the condition of her lungs worsened, she experienced a feeling of being suffocated, and would repeatedly cry out Je souffre (I suffer) and insist that Céline, now her closest caregiver, respond, Tant mieux, or “all the better” each time. She died on September 30, 1897, and her last words were accompanied by a glance at the crucifix in her hand, “My God I love you,” according to Harrison's book
The Story of a Soul
In the months before Thérèse's death, Pauline had asked her sister to write her memoirs, hoping to record the memories of their happier childhood times before the death of their mother. Thérèse wrote out three distinct sections: one that chronicled those early years, a second that described her own personal spiritual struggle between 1877 and 1886, and a third section detailing her religious awakening prior to entering the Carmelite convent. Pauline had it printed and sent out as an obituary notice to other Carmelite orders in France, but Springtime Story of a Little White Flower was also available to the public and was soon in great demand. A new version was published as L'histoire d'une âme (The Story of a Soul), and was widely read by Roman Catholics around the world after its translation into dozens of languages.
In The Story of a Soul, Thérèse writes of the difficulties she experienced on her spiritual journey, and the doubts about her faith that befell her at times. “I've got to take myself just as I am, with all my imperfections,” she wrote, according to Joel Schorn in U.S. Catholic, “but somehow I shall have to find out a little way, all of my own.” She also declared that her life's mission was “to scatter flowers—to miss no opportunity of making some small sacrifice … always doing the tiniest things right, and doing it for love.” This became known as the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse, who is sometimes called “the Little Flower of Jesus.” This story of an ordinary teenager from a French middle-class home, who strove to reach spiritual bliss, seemed to resonate among the faithful, and many began to send in letters to the Vatican, the seat of the Church in Rome, claiming that they had prayed to Thérèse to intercede on their behalf and that a miraculous recovery or other extraordinary event had transpired because of it.
The Roman Catholic Church dictates a 50-year waiting period after death before the beatification and canonization process may begin, but in 1910, only 13 years after Thérèse's death, the process was officially opened. Thérèse was beatified in 1923 and canonized on May 17, 1925, by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939), who dubbed her book and the extraordinary response to it a “hurricane of glory.” On the centenary of her death, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) named St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, a tremendous honor usually reserved for saints who have been important teachers of the faith. It placed her among ranks that included such theologians as St. Augustine (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), and she was just the third woman in the history of the Church to receive the designation. That same decade, the relics of St. Thérèse made an eight-year-long world tour, and thousands came daily to venerate them in dozens of cities. Her feast day is October 3, and she remains one of the most popular saints of the modern era. Writing in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, P. T. Rohrbach attempted to explain her appeal. “In the bull of canonization, Pius XI said that she fulfilled her vocation and achieved sanctity ‘without going beyond the common order of things.’ This phrase is the key to understanding her message and popularity. Her life was simple, devoid of the drama and major conflict that characterize the lives of so many saints, but in the framework of that simple life she achieved sanctity.”
Harrison, Kathryn, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Lipper/Viking, 2003.
Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, volume 13, second edition, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
New Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 13, second edition, Gale, 2003.
Catholic Insight, January-February 1998.
U.S. Catholic, November 2005.
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Thérèse of Lisieux
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