Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

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Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

French Carmelite nun who, in her brief 24 years, left behind "the little path" for the devout to follow. Name variations: Saint Therese of Lisieux; Thérèse de Lisieux; Teresa of the Little Flower; The Little Flower of Jesus; St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face (Soeur Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus et de la Sainte Face). Pronunciation: LEEZ-yair. Born Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin in Alençon, Normandy, France, on January 2, 1873; died of tuberculosis at age 24 on September 30, 1897; seventh daughter of Louis Martin (a watchmaker) and Zélie (Guérin) Martin (a lacemaker).

Soon after the death of Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, many attested to spectral sightings of her—soldiers on the battlefield, those at the bedside of the seriously ill—and many cures were made in her name. Some claimed seeing white roses; others claimed an awareness of the flower's lingering fragrance. Though her corporal time on earth was brief, her impact was far-reaching. Her slight autobiography, The Story of a Soul, published in France in 1898, has undergone numerous translations and printings. In an unusually short interval for the Vatican, rare in the annals of the saints, Thérèse of Lisieux was beatified on April 29, 1923, and canonized on May 17, 1925. When she died, she was 24 years old.

Born on January 2, 1873, Thérèse of Lisieux was the seventh daughter of Louis and Zélie Martin . Louis, a religious man who loved to travel, wrote home often of his many pilgrimages. Coming from a military family, he relished duty and a sense of responsibility. Before he married, he had wanted to join the monastery of St. Bernard, high in the Swiss Alps, but was refused because of his lack of scholarly languages and poor health. Instead, he set out to live the life of a pious man in a secular world and apprenticed for seven years to learn the trade of a watchmaker. Following youthful travels, he set up shop in the town of Alençon in lower Normandy and eventually owned the house above his shop. Louis devoted his time to charity, continued pilgrimages, attended church all day Sunday, and took long walks in the forest; when he arrived home burdened with fish from sitting happily beside a stream for a day, he took his catch to the Convent of the Poor Clares in Alençon. It was not until Louis was 35 that he married Zélie Guérin.

Zélie had come from a parsimonious household—materially and emotionally. "My childhood and youth," she wrote her brother, "were shrouded in sadness, for if our mother spoiled you, to me … she was too severe. Good as she was, she did not know how to treat me, so that I suffered deeply." Well educated in Catholic academies, Zélie had also been thwarted from a religious calling and life in a convent. Accepting this reversal as the will of God, she too set out to live the life of a religious in the lay world; she took up lacemaking and after several years as an apprentice became so skilled that she opened a shop in her home in Alençon, a town famed for its Point d'Alençon lace. Zélie would design the work, acquire the inventory, and deal with the sales, while farming out assignments to home-workers. Soon, Zélie's lace was considered the finest around, selling for 500 francs a meter (around 39 inches).

From 1853 to 1863, Zélie took orders from the Parisian firm of Pigache, at first with her sisterMarie Louise Guérin , "the soul of her soul," serving as business liaison. Marie Louise was also sternly religious, and so harsh on herself in her puritanical strivings that she suffered from ill health. Even so, in 1858 Marie Louise was accepted into the convent of the Visitation at Le Mans, taking the name Marie Dosithea.

Within three months after their initial meeting, Zélie and Louis were married at the Church of Notre Dame, on July 13, 1858. With Zélie's dowry of 5,000 francs, personal savings of 7,000 frances, Louis' properties, business, and savings of 22,000 francs, the couple started out in extremely comfortable circumstances. Eventually, Louis would abandon his watchmaking and join her in the lacemaking business. On their wedding day, however, when the couple visited Marie Louise in the convent, Zélie broke down in tears, longing for the path her sister had chosen. For the next few months, Zélie would visit her sister at the convent and know peace, only to return home to sadness. Because of his own longings, Louis understood.

At first, Louis proposed they remain celibate, and Zélie had agreed. After ten months, a confessor convinced the couple that marriage was not only for mutual support but also procreation and sanctity. When their children arrived, both parents began to experience some serenity. Their first was Marie Louise , followed by Pauline, Léonie , and Hélène who was farmed out to a wet nurse in 1865. In 1869, Céline was born and in 1870 Mélanie Thérèse, who was also handed over to a wet nurse. But the nurse was negligent, and during the parents' frantic search to find another, Mélanie Thérèse died. Their five-year-old daughter Hélène died around the same time. As well, two sons had died shortly after their births. Zélie mourned the losses greatly, but claimed that in her sorrow she found grace.

Throughout her life, Zélie was an ardent correspondent, writing to her daughters, brothers, sisters, and sister-in-law. (Zélie's brother Isidore had married a 19-year-old girl, also named Céline, and had started an apothecary in Lisieux.) All of Zélie's letters, which were saved, chronicle the joy found in her daughters, except for those to her sister Marie Louise.

In 1870, with the Franco-Prussian war at its height and the Prussians descending on Alençon, half of its population of 17,000 fled. The Martins remained, however, and Louis was conscripted to help hold the line, three miles out of town. When the city fell, nine Prussian soldiers were billeted with the Martins. Zélie wrote her sister of their demands, the threat of reprisals, the loss of cattle for milk for her newborn: "In short, the business of the town is stopped. Everyone is weeping except myself." As soon as the war ended a year later, there was rioting in Paris, a class war over living and working conditions for the poor. Since the Catholic Church took the side of the monarchy, priests were murdered. Wrote a pregnant Zélie in 1874: "All that is happening in Paris fills my soul in sorrow. I have just learned of the Archbishop's death, and of the sixty-four priests shot yesterday by the Communards. I am utterly dismayed."

Zélie was over 40 when her daughter Thérèse was born in 1873, the ninth and final child. As with all her children, Zélie loved her dearly, but this one was different, even in the womb. "When I am singing, she sings with me," she wrote her sister-in-law. "I tell it to you in confidence. No one would believe it." But the newborn was ill with intestinal trouble following her birth. After the loss of so many of her children, Zélie became apprehensive. When a doctor recommended breast feeding, she set off one daybreak for a town six miles away to find "Little Rose," a peasant who had been a wet-nurse employed previously by the Martins. Initially, Rose was reluctant to leave her own four children but finally returned with Zélie to Alençon, to find the baby worse. Though Rose had little hope, she suckled the infant. Miraculously, Thérèse revived and was taken back to the home of Rose for 15 months.

Eight years before, in 1865, Zélie had discovered a lump in her breast. Now the lump was larger and painful. Consulting a doctor, she was given little hope. For consolation, she went to visit her beloved sister at the convent of the Visitation, but Marie Louise had contracted tuberculosis two years earlier and was gravely ill herself; she died one month later, in February 1877. Zélie than packed up Léonie, Marie, and Pauline and went on pilgrimage to Lourdes. Though it was an exhausting trip and no cure was forthcoming, she returned to Alençon at peace. After a few more months, Zélie died in great pain on August 27, 1877, age 45. Amazingly, little Thérèse, four and a half years old at the time, would remember much of her years with her mother, as well as her mother's death, in detail.

The family moved to Lisieux to be near Isidore and Céline. Louis gave up his work and stayed home with the remaining children (Marie, the eldest, was now grown up). Outwardly, Thérèse was full of life. Before her mother's death, she had a happy nature, loved "far distances, wide spaces and trees," but by age three, "virtue began to appeal to her." Thérèse, who claimed that, for her, the age of reason arrived when she was two and a half, wrote that the saddest part of her life began after the death of her mother and lasted until she was 14. However, she loved their new house in Lisieux, loved growing flowers in the garden, decorating the little house altar, and taking walks with her father. She was a serious child and, like her sister Léonie, had enormous compassion when she encountered the poor.

Thérèse would always have a profound sense of guilt. She made her first confession at age five and then set about to ward off the attraction of worldly things. A pretty girl, she had to fight an awareness of it. "She was tempted to vanity and wept," writes Dorothy Day , "and then wept because she had wept." Obsessed by scruples, she became convinced that life would be hard for her, but she felt such profound consolation in the thought that "suffering became my treasure."

Taught at home until age eight, Thérèse was then schooled by the Benedictines in Lisieux as a day student for the next four years. It was a sad time. Because she was first in her class, she suffered the enmity of some of the girls. Thérèse was so filled with love, she longed to find someone to bestow her affection on, but she was a little too pious for her classmates. Not many French girls of the time played "hermit" with their cousin, pretending to pray while the other tended the garden. Hungry for love, Thérèse longed for filial affection from the nuns but was clearly never a favorite. Then one day she was rebuffed by a friend. "I felt this very keenly," wrote Thérèse, "and I no longer sought an affection which had proved so inconstant." She would later write:

Lucky for me that I had so little gift for making myself agreeable; it has preserved me from dangers. I shall always be grateful to our Lord for turning earthly friendships into bitterness for me, because, with a nature like mine, I could so easily have fallen into a snare and had my wings clipped.… It was only God's mercy that preserved me from giving myself up to the love of creatures; without that, I might have fallen as low as St. Mary Magdalen did.

Lonely at school, she found solace at home in the bosom of her close family. Thérèse adored her older sisters; Céline, the next in line, was her favorite. Céline was more docile than Thérèse and more easily controlled.

For five years, from age nine to fourteen, Thérèse went through mental agony. Huddled within the family, she became shy and touchy, often close to tears. At nine, though she continued her schooling, she had come down with a mysterious illness, accompanied by severe headaches. This occurrence seemed to be tied with the loss of Pauline who entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux in 1882. When Thérèse heard that Pauline was going to be a nun, she decided that she too would be a nun and never veered from that decision. There would be other occasions for the headaches, generally times of sadness. In 1883, when an uncle discussed her dead mother, Thérèse had another attack so severe that she went through a period from October 1883 to May 1884 of being nursed by her sisters. At one point, the family held out little hope for recovery. Thérèse wrote in her autobiography:

I do not know how to describe this extraordinary illness, I said things which I had never thought of; I acted as though I were forced to act in spite of myself; I seemed nearly always to be delirious; and yet I feel certain that I was never, for a minute, deprived of my reason. Sometimes I remained in a state of extreme exhaustion for two hours together, unable to make the least movement, and yet, in spite of this extraordinary torpor, hearing the least whisper. I remember it still. And what fears the devil inspired! I was afraid of everything. My bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; nails in the wall took the terrifying appearance of long fingers, shrivelled and blackened with fire, making me cry out in terror.

Thérèse was too ill to attend school, and Marie was in constant attendance. It was Marie's prayers and a smile from the statue of Our Lady in the sick room that Thérèse claims affected a cure. But when she told of the miracle to the nuns of the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, they gazed at the ten-year-old with such skepticism that she began to doubt what she thought she had seen and viewed herself with "contempt."

For more than a year the symptoms went away. At 11, she made her First Communion and prayed that God would make all things bitter for her, so that she would not want for the sweet things of this life. She wrote in her autobiography:

What comfort it brought to me, that first kiss our Lord imprinted on my soul! A lover's kiss; I knew that I was loved, and I, in my turn, told him that I loved him, and was giving myself to him for all eternity. It was a long time now since he had made any demands on me; there had been no struggles, no sacrifices; we exchanged looks, he and I, insignificant though I was, and we had understood one another. And now it wasn't a question of looks; something had melted away, and there were no longer two of us—Thérèse had simply disappeared, like a drop lost in the ocean; Jesus only was left, my Master, my King. Hadn't I begged him to take away my liberty, because I was so afraid of the use I might make of it.

At 12, an obsessive attack of scruples—called a "nervous, neurotic state" by Dorothy Day—made her wretched. The headaches recurred daily, and she was anxious and cried easily. At 13, Thérèse again left school, this time for good, to be tutored at home. Her father encouraged her governesses to bring her into contact with the outside world. "Visitors were often shown into the quaintly furnished room where I sat surrounded with my books," wrote Thérèse, "and though conversation was carried on, as far as possible, by my governess's mother, I did not succeed in learning much while the visits lasted. Though seemingly absorbed in my work, little escaped my attention, even of what it would have been far better I should not hear."

She had a love for reading and knew the Imitation of Christ by heart. In the convent, while still in her teens, she would read all the words of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila . The Bible, however, would be her only reading later on.

"I remained in this unhappy state for nearly two years. It is not possible for me to describe all the sufferings it entailed.… Every thought, every action, even the simplest, was a source of trouble and anguish." When her beloved Marie, at 26, entered the same Carmelite convent, "I made troubles out of everything.… If I unintentionally offended anyone, far from making the best of it, I fretted until I became quite ill, thus increasing my fault instead of repairing it." The episode ended as abruptly as it had begun, a week before her 14th birthday on Christmas eve, 1886. She called it the day of her conversion: "I have been happy ever since," she wrote.

Though she desired to be a saint, at 14 Thérèse gave up her dreams of doing noble deeds like Joan of Arc who, at the time, had yet to be canonized. Thérèse was convinced that God was going to make her a great saint because he wanted it. "Our Lord made me understand that the only true glory is the glory which lasts forever; and that to attain it there is no necessity to do brilliant deeds; rather should we hide our good works from the eyes of others, and even from ourselves, so that 'the left hand knows not what the right hand does.' Then, as I reflected that I was born for great things, and sought the means to attain them, it was made known to me interiorly that my personal glory would never reveal itself before the eyes of men, but would consist in becoming a saint."

Some months after her illness, on a stroll with her father in the garden, Thérèse told him she longed to join Pauline and Marie at the convent at Lisieux; she wanted to do penance and save souls and pray for priests. He reluctantly consented and stooped to pick a little white flower; noting it was fragile and complex, he compared her to it. "She took the flower and pressed it in her prayer book and since the roots had come up with the stem," wrote Day, "she thought of herself as being transplanted" to the Carmelite convent. "Later, when the stem broke, she took it as a sign that she was going to die young, as she did."

After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.

—Thérèse of Lisieux

The prioress at Lisieux, Mother Marie de Gonzague , was sympathetic, but the Canon Delatroette, a Carmelite superior, held that Thérèse could not enter the convent until she was 21, unless the bishop of Bayeux agreed. Accordingly, she wrote to the bishop, but received no reply. Accompanied by her father and Céline, Thérèse made a pilgrimage by train to Rome, intending to put forth her request to Pope Leo XIII. On Sunday morning, November 20, when it came time for the pilgrims to meet the pope, the vicar general of the Martins' diocese expressly forbade anyone to speak when called to come forward and kiss the pope's slipper. But when it was her turn, Thérèse, with the prompting of Céline, addressed the pope timidly, "Most Holy Father, I want to ask a great favor." After hearing her supplication, the pope left it to God and her superiors in France. Thérèse was grief-stricken, convinced that her mission had failed.

On her return, she again wrote the bishop. Her perseverance finally paid off. On April 9, 1888, at age 15, Thérèse Martin was welcomed into the cloistered walls of the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, where she and 20 other nuns shared little food, slept on beds made of planks, did the wash in stone washtubs outdoors in winter, and had no heat, save one stove in a communal room, during the harsh French winters. Though she was always called "little," Thérèse had grown quite tall and slender, and had great dignity for her years.

Finally in the convent, a peace passed over Thérèse that remained even throughout a demanding novitiate. The prioress Marie de Gonzague took the new postulant under her firm and moody wing and set about to prove the old saw that if virtue is to be virtue it must be tested. Thérèse, aware that Mother Marie was not popular with many of the nuns and suffered from their silent censure, determined to heal her wounds. Indeed, she once again fought within her a need to place her filial affection on the prioress.

During November–December 1891, an influenza epidemic took its toll on the convent, killing a former prioress, the infirmarian, and two other nuns. Since all the nuns had been felled by the disease, care of the sick was added to the formidable tasks of Thérèse, who had only a mild case. She did this and all else cheerfully. The life of a Carmelite nun is unceasing routine from 5:30 am to 11 pm. Fatigue is the order of the day. The hardships of convent life were all endured without comment, save for the bone-chilling cold.

Outside the convent, there were other sad events. Her father, who had already endured a stroke, suffered a second, and in February 1889 he underwent recurring bouts of amnesia and a compulsion to run away and had to be put in the mental institution Bon Sauveur at Caen. Three years later, following another stroke which confined him to a wheelchair and made him incapable of running away, he was allowed to return to the home of Zélie's brother, Isidore Guérin.

Shortly thereafter, in February 1893, Pauline, now known as Mother Agnes of Jesus, was elected the new prioress at Lisieux, and Mother Marie de Gonzague was made novice mistress, with Thérèse as her assistant. That summer, Louis Martin died. Six weeks later, Céline entered the convent as one of Thérèse's postulants, and Thérèse set about to instruct her cherished sister. In 1896, Mother Marie de Gonzague was again elected prioress. That April, on the eve of Good Friday, Thérèse was undressing in the bitter cold in the dark of her cell when she began to cough, suffering a hemorrhage that soaked a handkerchief with her blood. At first, she was overjoyed at the prospect of a journey to "another and most beautiful country." Then for months she was "plunged in thickest gloom"; she had a heightened awareness of others who did not have faith and hope, others tortured by despair. "My God, if that table which they profane must be purified by one who loves Thee, I am willing to remain there alone to eat the bread of tears until the day when it shall please Thee to bring me to Thy kingdom of light." Informing Marie de Gonzague, she requested permission to continue working, despite the application of the usual remedies of her day, blistering, cupping, cauterizing. Thus, Thérèse went on washing windows and clothes and sewing, at all times sitting and standing straight, because a Carmelite leans on nothing but God.

Thérèse had long been a good storyteller. Before her illness, while Pauline was prioress, Thérèse was asked to regale the community with stories of her childhood. She was also told to put her narrations in writing, most especially to record what Thérèse called the "little way," a child-like spiritual path of total abandonment and confidence. By the time Pauline's term of three years was up, Thérèse had written eight chapters for her autobiographical Story of a Soul. After re-reading the chapters, and aware that her sister had not long to live, Pauline asked prioress Marie de Gonzague to order Thérèse to write something more serious, about her life in religion. It took Thérèse a month to write 50 pages. The last lines were written in pencil for, by then, she was too weak to endure the heft of a pen.

To the community, Thérèse seemed at peace, but her last writings tell a different story. In order to hide her suffering, she wrote poems of joy, but did not feel it:

When I sing of Heaven's happiness, of what it is to possess God forever, I feel no joy. I simply sing of what I want to believe. Now and then, I must admit, a gleam of light shines through the dark night, to bring a moment's respite, but afterwards, its memory, instead of consoling me, only makes my night darker than ever.… Yet I realize as never before that the Lord is gentle and merciful; He did not send me this heavy cross until I could bear it. If He had sent it before, I am certain that it would have discouraged me, but now it merely takes away from me any natural satisfaction I might feel in longing for Heaven.

For more than a year from the onset of her illness, Thérèse kept the Carmelite routine. But she became gaunt, and gangrene set in, as well as tuberculosis of the intestines. When she could no longer keep up, she was put in the infirmary and wheeled out into the garden in summer, where she wrote the last chapters of her book. Since May, Pauline had been writing down the sayings of her sister, which would be published as Novis-simaVerba. "I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth," Thérèse had said. "After my death I will let fall a shower of roses."

Hers was an agonizing death. Finally, on September 30, 1897, at 7 pm, Thérèse of Lisieux breathed her last. Wrote Pauline:

During the long agony of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a multitude of little birds took their station on a tree beside the wide open window of the Infirmary, where they continued to sing with all their might until her death. Never before had there been such a concert in the garden. I was rather depressed by the contrast between so much suffering within and the joyous notes without.… And although September 30, 1897, had been a dark and rainy day, nevertheless, towards seven o'clock in the evening, the clouds all dispersed with surpassing rapidity and soon the stars were shining in a bright, clear sky.

Thérèse was so successful in the outward show of ordinariness that her sisters were at first hard-pressed as to what to write of her life, for externally it seemed uneventful. Thérèse of Lisieux was determined to walk the ordinary path, to be an example to the world that piety was available to everyone, that the joys she knew in her spiritual life were joys that everyone could experience.


Day, Dorothy. Thérèse: A Life of Thérèse of Lisieux. Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1960.

suggested reading:

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Thérèse of Lisieux. NY: Sheed & Ward, 1954.

Gheon, Henri. The Secret of the Little Flower. NY: Sheed & Ward, 1944.

Görres, Ida. The Hidden Face. NY: Pantheon, 1958.

Petitot, O.P. Sainte de Lisieux: A Spiritual Renascence. London: Burns Oates.

Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul.