Thérèse de Lisieux, St.
THÉRÈSE DE LISIEUX, ST.
French Carmelite nun celebrated for her autobiography; b. Alençon, France, Jan. 2, 1873; d. Lisieux, Sept. 30, 1897.
Early Life. Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin was the youngest of nine children born to Louis and Zelie (Guérin) Martin, two boys and two girls having died before her birth. Louis was a successful watchmaker and jeweler, while Zelie was a craftswoman. Their last child, Thérèse, was a sickly infant and had to be boarded with a wet nurse for the first year of her life. As she was a warm and affectionate child, deeply devoted to her family, her mother's death constituted a traumatic experience in her young life and plunged her into a state of sadness and sensitivity that she endured for eight years.
Thérèse, in her autobiography, divided her own early life into three distinct periods: the first was the happy and untrammeled period of her infancy before her mother died; the second, the eight years from 1877 to 1886, her "winter of trial," as she called it, a time of sensitivity and weariness and occasional religious scruples; the third was the period between 1886 and 1888, beginning with what she called her "conversion" and terminating with her entrance into the convent.
The family moved to Lisieux in 1881, and Thérèse was enrolled in the Benedictine Abbey school as a day student. She was a bright, retentive student, but shy and somewhat withdrawn, and consequently found school life unpleasant. In 1883 at the age of ten she contracted a strange illness during which she suffered a mixture of convulsions, hallucinations, and comas for three months. Finally, while earnestly imploring the help of the Blessed Virgin, she was instantaneously cured. Thérèse always believed her cure was miraculous and that the statue of Our Lady of Victories, before which she had been praying, actually smiled at her.
On Christmas 1886, Thérèse experienced her "conversion," an instant change which marked the inception of a new maturity and a more intense religious program. The actual occasion of this experience was simple. She had just returned from midnight Mass, and her father made a depreciatory remark about the festivities arranged for his youngest daughter. Ordinarily she would have been deeply hurt by the careless remark but, as she wrote: "Thérèse was different now, Jesus had changed her heart." Her sister Céline stated: "I was a witness to that sudden change, and I thought I was in a dream. That transformation was not limited only to a new self-possession but, at the same time, her soul could be seen to develop and grow in the practice of zeal and charity." From her earliest years Thérèse had been extraordinarily religious; in fact, she remarked near the end of her life that from the age of three she had never refused anything to the good God. She had been diligent at prayer and extremely conscientious in the practice of virtue. But the experience of Christmas 1886 marked a new stage in her religious development, as she acquired an intense interest in the apostolate, conceived a desire to suffer for God, and began to make immediate plans for entering the Carmelite convent in Lisieux.
A Carmelite. Her two older sisters, Pauline and Marie, had already entered the cloistered convent of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Lisieux, and it was there that Thérèse wished to serve God. At one time she had wanted to become a foreign missionary but she finally concluded she could help in the conversion of even more souls by joining a contemplative order. She was only 14 when she made application to the Carmel, and while the nuns were willing to receive her, the Abbé Delatroette, ecclesiastical superior of the convent, felt she should wait until she was 21. Thérèse, accompanied by her father, visited Bishop Hugonin to petition her early admission to the Carmel. The bishop took the matter under advisement; and while waiting for his ultimately favorable reply, she and her father and her sister Céline embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. During a general audience Thérèse was presented to Leo XIII, and despite the prohibition to speak she asked him to allow her entrance into Carmel at the age of 15. He gently assured her she would enter if it were God's will.
On April 9, 1888, at 15 she entered the Carmelite convent, spending the remaining nine-and-a-half years of her life in the red brick building on the Rue de Liverot. All was far from serene in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux during the years that Thérèse lived there, and the major part of the difficulties can be ascribed to her superior for most of her time in the convent, Mother Marie de Gonzague, a woman of mercurial temperament, jealously guarding her position of authority and allowing the convent to be split into two factions. Thérèse abstained from the inner politics of the convent and concentrated on her own life of prayer. She was intensely faithful to the rule of the order, quietly performing the duties assigned her; the full heroism of her life of fidelity and closeness to God was not even comprehended by most of the nuns in the convent until her memoirs were published posthumously.
In 1893 Thérèse was appointed acting mistress of novices, an office she held for the last four years of her life. During that time she articulated her "Little Way," that attitude of approaching God that Benedict XV said "contained the secret of sanctity for the entire world." There was nothing essentially new about her "Little Way," but it was a fresh and vigorous restatement of basic Christian truths. Pius XI defined it by saying "it consists in feeling and acting under the discipline of virtue as a child feels and acts by nature." Her "Way," therefore, is not a single virtue or a slogan, but a whole attitude of soul, the basis of an entire relationship with God.
The first manifestations of a tubercular condition came some 18 months before her death, but she continued the monastic observances as well as she could for more than a year until she was finally placed in the convent infirmary. During her final illness she was often fatigued, racked with pain, and plunged into a bitter temptation against faith. Shortly before her death she said: "I did not think it was possible to suffer so much." Her final words were: "My God, I love You."
Autobiography. One year after her death a form of her autobiography was published privately and mailed to a number of other Carmelite convents in lieu of the traditional obituary notice. There was an immediate demand for additional copies and a general printing was ordered. In the next 15 years it was translated in countries all over the world and more than a million copies were printed. Thérèse did not originally intend to compose an autobiography, and it was only in the last months of her life, when she realized she had a mission to teach others her "Little Way," that she asked her sister to collect and edit her writings. The first section of the memoirs was written as a feast day present for her sister Pauline, the second as a short spiritual essay for her sister Marie, and the third for the prioress, Mother Gonzague. The document is epistolary in form and baroque in style, thus the language often appears coy and saccharine. Thérèse, writing in the full stream of the late Romantic movement, used the only language she knew, but she wrote with a complete honesty and candor that is the ultimate appeal of these amazingly successful memoirs.
Cult. Worldwide reaction to the young French nun was impressive. Pius XI called it a "hurricane of glory." As Thérèse's autobiography gained popularity, letters began to inundate the Carmel of Lisieux and there were countless reports of favors, spiritual and material, granted through her intercession. The Holy See waived the usual 50 year waiting period, and allowed the investigations for beatification to be inaugurated. She was beatified in 1923 and canonized May 17, 1925, less than 28 years after her death. John Paul II declared her a doctor of the Church in 1997.
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.
Feast: Oct. 3.
Bibliography: thÉrÈse of lisieux, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations, trans. j. clarke (Washington, D.C. 1977); Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence 1 and 2, trans. j. clarke (Washington, D.C. 1982 and 1988); The Poetry of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. d. kinney (Washington, D.C. 1995); The Prayers of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Act of Oblation, trans. a. kane (Washington, D.C. 1997); Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. j. clarke, 3d rev. ed. (Washington, D.C. 1996). p. ahern, Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love (New York 1998). p. descouvement, Thérèse and Lisieux, trans. s. sciurba and l. pambrun (Toronto 1996). Experiencing Saint Thérèse Today, ed. j. sullivan, Carmelite Studies 5 (Washington, D.C. 1990). g. gaucher, The Story of a Life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. a. m. brennan (San Francisco 1987). j. guitton, The Spiritual Genius of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. f. leng (Liguori, Mo. 1997). p. o'connor, Thérèse of Lisieux, A Biography (Huntington, Ind. 1983). Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Life, Times, and Teaching, ed. c. de meester (Washington, D.C. 1997).
[p. t. rohrbach]