Thérèse de Lisieux: A Life of Love

Therese de Lisieux (book cover)By Jean Chalon (Ligouri Publications, 1997). Translated from the original French (excerpt pp. 177–86).

Chapter 40, The Intrepid in Carmel (14 September 1894)

Like her illustrious contemporaries Pierre Loti and Anna de Noailles, Thérèse suffered from being unable to stop time. She was overwhelmed by the brevity of existence, by the sense that everything is ephemeral, even the century and even Louis Martin, who had just left it. “My life is but one day that is escaping from me and fleeing,” she wrote in a poem entitled “My Song of Today.” Shortly after her father’s departure, Thérèse wrote, in August 1894 and for herself alone, “Prayer of the Child of a Saint.” The child was herself, and the saint was Louis Martin. In this poem, she enumerated the kindnesses that Louis had done for his five daughters. Each verse was imprinted with nostalgia for the lost treasures of paternal tenderness.

In this very personal text, which she signed with one of her nicknames, “The Orphan of Berezina,” Thérèse reviewed the situation, for herself and for her sisters. In the stanza that she devoted to Céline, she evoked her possible arrival in Carmel. Céline had remained in the outside world only to care for her father. Freed of this obligation, she could at last satisfy her religious aspirations.

Fr. Pichon, who had been informed of this, secretly urged Céline to become a nun in Canada. Canada or Normandy? The question tormented Céline; she asked her three sisters, who temporarily abandoned their dignified poise of eminent Carmelites to stamp their feet in indignation. How dared Céline ask such a question? As if she did not already know the answer…. It was in Normandy, it was into Carmel of Lisieux that she must enter!

Mother Agnès de Jésus, Sister Marie du Sacré-Coeur, and Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus had to call upon all of their capacities for Christian charity not to malign Fr. Pichon, guilty of trying to break up the circle, the clan, the cocoon of the Martin sisters, united as the fingers of the hand. True, Léonie was in Caen. But Caen was not Montreal! Confronted with her sisters’ indignation, tears, and pleas, Céline capitulated and gave up Canada.

When she announced to the Guérins her intention of entering Carmel of Lisieux, they looked put out, especially Jeanne and husband, Doctor Francis La Néele. According to them, Céline did not have a vocation: She had been born to be the mother of a family, following the example of her mother, the unforgettable Zélie.

Faced with the small effect produced by this argument, Jeanne and Francis then accused Céline of being nothing more than an ingrate. Why leave them so quickly! All of Lisieux would immediately think that she had not been happy with them…

More conciliatory than his daughter and son-in-law, Uncle Isidore soon gave his consent. Now Céline had to obtain the agreement—decisive—of Carmel’s prior, Fr. Delatroette, who was not far from thinking that the Martin girls had been put on earth only for his torment. “I fear that the admission of a fourth sister into Carmel would be against the spirit, and even the letter, of the Rule. We will examine this serious question, which is so important, with the concerned parties,” the prior answered Céline solemnly.

“The concerned parties” meant the bishop of Bayeux, Monseigneur Hugonin, who also must have wondered what he had done to the Lord to be perpetually disturbed by a young Martin daughter wanting to enter Carmel. Well, let her enter, and let there be no more talk about it. If she was refused, Céline would be capable, like Thérèse, of going to throw herself at the pope’s feet. Against all expectations, concerned with preserving his tranquility and avoiding a new scandal in the Vatican, Monseigneur Hugonin acquiesced. In turn, Fr. Pichon hid his disappointment and gave his blessing.

In Carmel of Lisieux, one of the nuns, Sister Aimée de Jésus, was fiercely opposed to the admission of a fourth Martin sister. Abruptly, she changed her mind, without anyone understanding this abrupt turnaround. Anyone except Thérèse:

One day when the difficulties seemed insurmountable, I said to Jesus during my thanksgivings: “You know, my God, how much I want to know if Papa went straight to heaven; I am not asking you to speak to me, but give me a sign. If my sister Aimée de Jésus consents to Céline’s admission or does not obstruct it, that will be the answer that Papa went straight to heaven to be with you.”

No sooner was the request formulated than it was granted. At the end of her thanksgiving, the first person Thérèse met was precisely sister Aimée de Jésus, who no longer wore her fierce look and who spoke of Céline’s imminent arrival with tears of emotion.

Thanks to this sign, Thérèse knew that her father had gone straight to heaven. She was even more strongly convinced of it because she had asked her king to intervene on her side to overcome Fr. Pichon’s hesitation and Fr. Delatroette’s opposition: “At last, from up in heaven, my beloved king, who on earth disliked delay, hastened to straighten out his Céline’s affairs, so muddled, and on 14 September she was reunited with us!”

On 14 September 1894, Céline, whom her father had nicknamed “the Intrepid,” entered Carmel. Thérèse could no longer contain her joy. “The most private” of her desires was fulfilled. Thérèse and Céline would breathe the same air, sit at the same table, sleep under the same roof, as in the past at Les Buissonnets. Who said that happiness is not of this world? On this 14 September 1894, the Orphan of the Berezina and the Intrepid knew felicity.

Chapter 41, Thérèse at the Stake (21 January 1895)

It was Thérèse, assistant novice mistress, who guided Céline’s first hesitant steps through the rules and the customs that had to be observed at all times in Carmel. For Céline’s part, she defined her functions this way: “I am a little hunting dog, it is I who run after the game all day long.” And in the evening, Thérèse, exhausted from having watched over her novices, fell asleep during the orison. She admired Céline’s vitality all the more!

The Intrepid was twenty-five years old. She had spent more time in the outside world than her Carmelite sisters and had known, at the Musse, what was called “château life,” with its comfort, its ease, its frivolities. She radiated youth and beauty. She had refused several marriage proposals.

Before entering Carmel, Céline had described to Thérèse the boredom of such an existence. “We spend our days giggling so much we could collapse, and it gives me a thirst for solitude.” She, too, had thirsted for martyrdom, and she had feared she would depend too much on her sister, to whom she had written: “My Thérèse…Oh! How I have pondered over you, over the affection the two of us share…it seemed to me that…you were too indispensable to me—but guess the rest!” The servant of God guessed, understood, and reassured: “Fear nothing; here you will find more than anywhere else the cross and martyrdom! We will suffer together…Never, never will Jesus separate us…if I die before you, do not think that I will go away from your soul, never will we have been more united.”

In entering Carmel, Céline brought the echoes of the outside world, a little of the modernity that was in the air of the times and that was symbolized by the camera she was allowed to keep. Carmel was in a flutter: They were going to take pictures!

Thanks to Céline, today we can look at the face of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. These are the only photographs that we have of Thérèse, who considered the posing sessions lost time. She was more interested in the notebook that Céline brought, which contained numerous passages of the Old Testament that she had copied into it. When Thérèse read these texts that she had previously not known, and for a reason, since they had been forbidden in Carmel, it was an illumination for her. She happened upon a verse of the Book of Proverbs: “If someone is very small, may he come to Me.” The very small one was her, small one was her, Thérèse, who had never ceased proclaiming her smallness.

To reinforce her certainty about absolute smallness, she found another passage, this one by the prophet Isaiah: “As a mother caresses her child, so will I console you. I will carry YOU and I will balance you on My knees.”

Intoxicated by these two messages, Thérèse exclaimed, “Oh! My God, you have exceeded my expectations, and I want to sing your mercies.”

For the servant of God, there was no longer any doubt, these two passages of the Old Testament showed her the path to follow, that of childhood and of abandon. She no longer wanted to be anything but a child who abandoned herself in the arms of her Father. Thus, when Doctor Francis La Néele was again called in consultation to cure her persistent hoarseness, it was as a child that she listened to him and took the prescribed medicine. And after all, was not the best remedy Céline’s presence? Sometimes the four Martin sisters got together and rediscovered their intimacy of the past, at Les Buissonnets. Thus, at the end of 1894, Sister Agnès de Jésus, Sister Marie du Sacré-Coeur, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and Céline, who had taken the name Sister Geneviève de la Sainte Face, were gathered in the only heated room in the convent, besides, of course, the infirmary. It was recreation. Carmelites were free to speak. Thérèse recounted a few childhood memories. Then Sister Marie said to Mother Agnès: “How is it possible that you allow her to write little verses for everyone’s pleasure, but she has written nothing of her childhood memories for us?” Mother Agnès hesitated, then ordered Thérèse to write the account for her name-day feast, that of Saint Agnès, on 21 January. Nothing would be ready by the appointed date. Thérèse wrote as she could, when she could. Thus she would take a year, from January 1895 to January 1896, to write this text, which wou1d be the first part of L’Histoire d’une âme.

At this end of 1894, Thérèse had to prepare the Christmas presentation, of which she was in charge. Anticipating this, in October she had already composed a recreation entitled The Angels at the Crèche, which portrayed her inexhaustible wonder before the child Jesus.

She played one of the principal roles, that of the Child Jesus’ angel, surrounded by angels of the Holy Face, of the Resurrection, of the Eucharist, and of the Last Judgment. All celebrated the beauty of their Master and the greatness of His mercy, which triumphed unequivocally over the exterminating angel who was going to punish ingrates and the lukewarm. The final extermination did not take place. God in His mercy, the infinity of which filled Thérèse with joy, forgave. Here are Jesus’ final words, which made the angel of the the Last Judgment concede defeat:

And so in the Holy Land

My Chosen Ones will be glorious

In communicating my life to them

I will make them like so many gods!

Divine love could do everything, even change a man into a god. It is not certain that Carmelites of Lisieux, on this Christmas night of 1894, grasped the audacity, and the novelty, of the message that Thérèse was sending through these verses, and through this final choir of angels who wanted to become children.

The servant of God turned the most certain beliefs of her time upside down, destroyed the Last Judgment, and abolished the punishment of the wicked, without anyone in Carmel complaining. Carmelites had heard angels fly that were not exactly the ones Thérèse had put on the stage. Blessed incomprehension, which can be thought of as the miracle of this Christmas night. For if the nuns, so full of fear of the Lord, had understood this message of mad love and liberation, the scandal would have been even greater than the one she had caused in the Vatican.

On 2 January 1895, Thérèse celebrated her twenty-second birthday by sending her best wishes to Léonie, in Le Mans:

My beloved little sister[,]

It is with great joy that I come to offer you my good wishes at the beginning of this new year. The one that has just passed has been very fruitful for heaven, our darling father has seen what “the eye of man cannot contemplate.” He has heard the harmony of the angels…and his heart understands, his soul enjoys the rewards that God has prepared for those who love Him!…Do you not find, as I do, that the departure of our darling father has brought us closer to heaven? More than half of the family is now enjoying the sight of God, and the five exiles on earth will not be long in flying off toward their home. This thought of the brevity of life gives me strength, it helps me to tolerate the strains of the road.

And what strains! Thérèse worked like a convict. Incapable of refusing a favor, she added to her own tasks those of others. The servant of the Lord was also that of the Carmelites. Despite this incessant labor, she found the time to write, for the feast of Mother Agnès de Jésus, not her childhood memories as she had agreed, but her third theatrical work, Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission, which can be considered a sequel to her Mission of Joan of Arc.

It was, of course, Thérèse who incarnated Joan. She wore a skirt of dark blue wool trimmed with fleurs-de-lis, and over it armor of silver foil. Céline played the role of Saint Catherine, and Marie incarnated France, appearing at the end, her arms laden with chains. the three Martin sisters achieved a great success; it was “general enthusiasm,” all the greater because Thérèse, like her heroine, had almost burned to death. It was Sister Marie des Anges who told of the incident: “She almost was actually burned alive, following an imprudence that lighted the beginning of a fire, but on an order from Our Mother not to move from her place, while we did our best to put out the fire around her, she remained calm and immobile in the middle of the danger, making the sacrifice of her life to God, as she said afterward.”

A fine example of obedience to her mother superior and an example as well of confidence in God. If she had perished at that stake, Thérèse would have earned a few lines in the local press and would have been listed in Carmel’s records as the author of some poems and of three recreations. The other Thérèse was yet to be born.

In the evening of 21 January, as a “great silence” reigned in Carmel, the servant of God believed herself to be, for an instant, “at the summit of glory.” Then she felt immediately “an ineffable light on the vanity of everything here below.” At age twenty-two, Sister Thérèse of the child Jesus and of the Holy Face already possessed the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and could repeat after it, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It was true that she had just stared death in the face and would not soon forget the flames that could have engulfed her like Joan at the stake.