St. Theresa of Lisieux

Author: Giovanni Ricciardi


Giovanni Ricciardi

It was 1907. Pope Pius X was sitting at his desk leafing through a Carmelite nun's diary. It was the diary of Theresa of the Holy Child, who was born Theresa Martin and who died at the end of the 19th century at the age of just 23 in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux in France, home to three of her four sisters: Pauline, Marie and Celine. The pontiff was so impressed by the diary, <Story of a Soul>, that he decided her canonization process should be launched as soon as possible and it was completed in record time. She was proclaimed saint on May 17, 1925 by Pius XI. Two years later, it was the wish of this same pontiff that this girl who had not left the confines of her convent for seven years, be venerated together with Saint Francis Xavier as patron of missions.

And yet it could be said that this diary, now considered one of the most important texts in the whole history of Christian spirituality, was composed by chance. She wrote it in whatever little spare time she had, in the evenings, by the light of an oil lamp. The pages are so closely written upon that they suggest that Theresa's primary concern was not to waste a line of her notebook. Theresa had begun to keep the diary two years before she died. It had been an act of obedience she owed the mother superior who at the time was her elder sister Pauline. This was the account Pauline herself gave during the beatification process: "At the beginning of 1895, I was with my two sisters (Marie and Theresa) one winter's night and Theresa was relating many episodes of her childhood to me. Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart (the other sister, Marie) said to me: 'Mother of mine, what a pity that we cannot have any of this written down. If you were to ask Sister Theresa of the Holy Child to write her childhood memories down for us how happy we would be'. I could wish for nothing more, I answered, and turning to Sister Theresa of the Holy Child who was laughing as if at herself, I told her: 'I order you to write down all your childhood memories for me'."

Theresa was born in Alencon, a borough of northern France, on January 2, 1873. She was the ninth born to her parents although four of the children had died young. Louis and Zelia Martin were left with five daughters and the last born, Theresa, grew up surrounded by a special kind of affection, especially on the part of her father and her elder sisters. Her diary dwells on her first years. The style Theresa uses is charged with images and tender, childlike paragons which make for an emotional story rich in detail. Theresa seems to have had an extraordinary memory of the objects and emotions of her very earliest years. She quotes from long letters from her mother describing Theresa's temperament. She emerges as a highly sensitive child but hardheaded, too, and nervy: "I am forced to reprimand the poor little one who throws some fearful tantrums", writes Zelia Martin in 1875. "When things don't go her way, she rolls around on the floor in desperation and in the conviction that all is lost. At times, this is stronger than she is. It is as if she is suffocated by it. She is a very nervous child but she is tender and very intelligent. She remembers everything". The letter is addressed to Pauline who was the first of the Martin sisters to choose to become a Carmelite generating a desire in Theresa, too, even as a young child, to embrace the religious life. Theresa herself also constantly stresses the fragility and extreme sensitivity which were features of her personality. Commenting on this letter from her mother, Theresa adds that her inquietude never left her even at night when, tossing and turning in her bed, she would waken in tears because she had banged her head on the bedpost. Her mother had to tie her to the bedpost with Celine's help and Theresa concludes: "This method was very successful. <I became wise as I slept">. Already those few words seem to hold the essence of what Theresa, having entered the convent, would call her "small way" of arriving at Jesus. At the end of her experience, after years of prayer in the convent, she would write: "In truth, I am far from being a saint and this in itself is the proof; instead of being glad at my barrenness I should attribute it to what little fervor I have and to my scarce fidelity. I should feel desolate because <I have slept> (for the past seven years) during my orations and my thanksgiving. Well, I am not worried about this, I think that small children please their parents when they sleep as much as when they are awake. I think that in order to perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep. Finally, I think that 'the Lord sees our fragility and he is ever mindful that we are just dust'."

Together with her heightened awareness of her own fragile sensibility, Theresa manifested an immediate perception of being loved in a special way even though she had no particular merit. This perception was primarily born of Theresa's veneration of her parents (whose cause for beatification is under way). Her father, Louis, was a man of profound Christian faith who as a young man had considered the religious life. He was her "king", as Theresa called him as a child, and she felt her father loved her as his favorite. Theresa relates: "What could I ever say of all those winter eves, especially the Sundays? How sweet it was for me, after a game of chequers, to sit with Celine on Papa's knees. In that beautiful voice he had, he would sing airs that filled the soul with profound thoughts or, like a sweet lullaby, he would recite poetry on eternal truths. Afterwards, we would go upstairs to say our prayers together and the tiny queen would be alone at the side of her king: <all she had to do was watch him to learn how to pray to the saints> ... Then, we would line up according to age, and file past wishing Papa goodnight and getting a kiss; the queen came last, naturally, and in order to embrace her the king would take her by the elbows, and she would say all in one breath: 'Goodnight, Papa, goodnight and sleep well' ... In truth, the whole world smiled upon me. I found a flower every step I took and my easy nature helped to make life pleasant for me. But a new period was dawning for my soul ... Just as the flowers of spring start budding under the snow and bloom at the first rays of the sun, the humble flower whose memories I am writing down had to live through the winter of suffering".

This happy season, in fact, was to end in a traumatic way with the death of her mother of breast cancer which had set in when Theresa was not yet five years old.

Thus began a second phase of Theresa's life, "the most painful of the three phases ... This is the period between four and a half and 14, until the time, that is, when I found my childlike nature again even though I was embarking on the serious phase of my life".

Little Theresa chose her sister Pauline as her adoptive mother and it was Pauline who would be her mother superior in the Carmelite Convent during her three years there. In November 1877, the Martin family moved from Alenc, on to Lisieux where one of Theresa's uncles and his wife, Isodore and Elise Guerin, lived. This meant that Louis Martin would be assisted in bringing up his five daughters. In Lisieux, the Martins rented Les Buissonnets, an attractive house with a garden. Over the years there Theresa's vocation grew as a result of several circumstances and first among them was Pauline's entry to the Carmelite Convent in 1882. In a chart at the end of one of her diaries, Theresa lists the most significant dates in her life. They include May 10, 1993, the day of the "Blessed Virgin's smile". That was the day Theresa was suddenly cured by Our Lady's intercession of a serious illness. The dates continue until Christmas 1886 when Theresa's whole nature changed. She was no longer excessively sensitive and inclined to weeping and noted that the sudden transformation was by the certain hand of the grace of God. In the chart, Theresa called it the day of her conversion. "That night when Jesus became weak and suffering out of love for me, he made me strong and courageous and he vested me with his weapons ... The source of my tears was dried and only sprang again rarely and with difficulty ... Little Theresa had found that strength of spirit again that she had lost at the age of four and which she would keep for the rest of her life ... I felt charity entering my heart and the need to forget myself in order to please others and I have been happy ever since".

In June 1887, Theresa heard about Enrico Pranzini, a multiple murderer sentenced to death. One of his victims had been a child. Theresa began to pray every day for the salvation of Pranzini's soul and her prayers were answered. A few days after his execution, Theresa read a newspaper report saying that, just before he mounted the scaffold, Pranzini asked for a crucifix and kissed it three times. After that experience she decided to offer her life definitively for the conversion of sinners.

That was the first decisive step Theresa took towards the convent. It was so decisive that she immediately told her family of her intention to enter the convent there and then despite her young age.

When ecclesiastical superiors objected strongly Theresa took them all by surprise by setting off for Rome in November 1887 with her father on a pilgrimage to the Pope, the austere and by now elderly Leo XIII. Just 15, she knelt before the Pontiff for the ritual greeting and then suddenly spoke to him "Holy Father, I must ask you to grant me a great favor by allowing me to enter the Carmelite convent at 15". The Pope was startled. Theresa relates "My voice was trembling with emotion so much that the Holy Father turned to Monsignor Reverony (the prelate accompanying the group) who was looking at me in wonder and displeasure. Then the Pope said to him 'I don't think I've understood'. 'Most Blessed Father' the vicar general said, 'this <child> wants to enter the Carmelite Convent at 15 but the superiors are examining the question'. 'Well, daughter', the Pope replied, 'do what your superiors tell you'. Then, resting her hand on his knee, she made one last attempt and begged him 'O, Most Blessed Father, if you were to say yes everyone would agree'. He stared at me and enunciated every syllable of the following words: 'Very well, very well. <You will enter if it is God's will'.>" The guards had to drag her bodily from the room.

Theresa was shocked and speechless. "In my heart of hearts I felt a great peace since I had done everything I could to respond to what God was asking of me but that peace was there in my heart yet <bitterness filled my soul because Jesus was silent. He did not seem to be there. There was nothing to indicate his presence".>

At this point, Theresa introduces the image of the "ball" into her diary and this would be a feature of numerous pages of her convent life story: "I had offered myself to the Holy Child some time before. I told him not to use me as a plaything for the worthy but as a little ball of no value that he could throw on the ground, kick, pierce, leave in a corner, hold close to his heart, as he wished; in a word, I wanted the Holy Child to play, I wanted to please him, I wanted to abandon myself to his childlike caprices ... In Rome, Jesus <did pierce> his plaything. He tried to see what was inside it and, having seen, he was happy with his discovery. He let the ball fall and fell asleep . .. ".

The reader might wonder at the childish way Theresa speaks of her bond of belonging to Jesus. But all her wisdom is contained in this "childlike" state, abandoned to the grace of God. When her experience ended, Theresa had a highly lucid consciousness and her formula for it would be her "little path": "I have always wanted to be a saint, but alas, I have always seen when I compare myself with the saints that between them and me there is a difference as great as the difference between a mountain, whose peak gets lost in the sky, and the grain of dark sand, trampled upon by the feet of passersby. But instead of being discouraged, I told myself: 'The good God cannot possibly inspire desires impossible to fulfill so although I am only a small thing, I can aspire to holiness; it is impossible for me to become physically <bigger>. I have to endure myself just as I am, with all my imperfections. However, I want to find a way to go to Heaven by a direct route, by one that would also be <very short>, a little path that is totally new.

"We are living in a century of invention. <It is not worth the bother to climb steps today.> In the houses of the rich there is an advantageous lift instead. I, too, would like to find a lift that would take me up to Jesus because I am too <small> to climb the steep steps of perfection.

"And so in sacred books I sought a pointer to the lift, the object of my desire and I read these words as they were said by eternal Wisdom: 'Who is simple? Let him come this way' (Proverbs 9, 4). So I came thinking I had found what I was looking for, and that I might know, O my God, what you would do with a simple person who answers your call. I continued my search and this is what I found: 'As a mother comforts a child so I shall comfort you'. I will carry you in my heart and hold you on my knee (Isaiah 66, 13)".

Soon Theresa was given the permission she so desired and she entered the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux in 1888. She made her perpetual profession two years later, on September 8, 1890. "I came", she said on that occasion, "to save souls and, above all, to pray for the priests".

Ever since she entered the convent until she fell ill, she lived every moment of her life as a continuous, secret offering of self for the salvation of sinners. She undoubtedly bore the scars of great suffering. The first was the news of the illness of her father, who progressively lost his mental health, spending the last three years of his life in a clinic where he died. The second and perhaps more incisive was a repeat of a profound spiritual barrenness which would lead her in 1896 close to a crisis of faith. At the time she wrote: "I would like to express what I'm thinking, but I don't believe it possible. To understand the darkness, we need to have travelled this black tunnel . .. When I try to relieve my heart of the darkness that shrouds it, by remembering the luminous land to which I aspire, my torment doubles ... I think I have fulfilled more acts of faith over the past year than throughout my whole life ... The veil of faith is no longer a veil for me but a wall raised in the heavens, covering the stars".

Despite this, Theresa would never stop living exclusively by the grace of God in the way He wished her to live, abandoned to his will and without looking for surrogates or some kind of mystical exaltation dictated by her own desires: "If Jesus wants to sleep, why should I stop him? I am only too happy that he feels so at ease with me ... and if He seems to forget me, well, he is free to do so because I am no longer my own person but his ... <He will tire of making me wait more than I will tire of waiting for him ".>

Three months before she entered the Carmelite convent, Theresa had already decided to give herself over to a "serious and mortified life ". But she added: "When I say mortified I do not want to give the impression of making penance, for, alas, <I never did.> I am a long way from those beautiful souls who practiced every kind of mortification since their childhood while I was not attracted by this at all ... I have always let myself be wrapped in cotton wool like a little bird which has no need to do penance". It was on this level that Theresa, although she was never stained in her life by mortal sin, felt particularly close to grave sinners who are shown mercy: "My protectors, in Heaven, my favorites", she wrote in a letter, "are the ones who stole it. Think of the innocent saints and the good thief. I want to be like the thieves. I want to win heaven with my wits, with the wits of love which will open the door to me and to all the poor sinners. The Holy Spirit encourages me because <Proverbs> speaks of 'teaching sound judgement to the simple' (Proverbs 1, 4)".

During her life in the convent, Theresa's heart was entrusted to Jesus from whom she received great graces in a daily round of routine tasks. There was nothing out of the ordinary, although she was tempted to doubt and despite the trial of complete spiritual darkness. Remembering the beginnings of her monastic life, Theresa wrote "With what joy I would repeat these words: 'For ever, I am here for ever ...'. This happiness was not ephemeral. It would not vanish with the illusions of the early days ... God granted me the grace to have no illusions when I entered the Carmelite. I found the religious life exactly as I had imagined it. No sacrifice surprised me and yet my first steps encountered more thorns than roses . .. For five years that was my path; but on the outside there was nothing to reveal my suffering, and it was all the more painful because I alone knew it". But, after relating those five years, she concludes "In the course of the past few years, I have understood many mysteries which had been unknown to me until then and the Lord has treated me with the same mercy he showed King Solomon. It was not his will that I harbor only one desire that would remain unfulfilled, not just my desires for perfection but also those desires whose futility I understood although I had no experience of it". There follows a long list: the falling snow on the day she took her vows, the possibility she had of painting and writing poetry even in the convent, the discovery of the same flowers in the Carmelite garden as the flowers in the garden of her childhood at Alencon: "There was also a little flower, a cornflower, that I had never before found the whole time we were in Lisieux. Well, that flower of my childhood, the flower I picked in the Alenc, on countryside, came to smile upon me at the Carmelite, and to show me that <the Lord>, in little things and great things, <already gives a hundred-fold in this life> to sours who left everything for Him".

In the last period of her life, Theresa was to correspond with two missionary fathers sent to Canada and China respectively, and her prayers always accompanied their missions. This was one of the reasons why Pius XI wanted her to be associated in 1927 with Francis Xavier as patron saint of the missions.

Thus Theresa, having totally offered herself to the merciful love of Jesus for the conversion of sinners, embarked on the last brief itinerary of her life, on Holy Thursday of 1896. This was when her tuberculosis became manifest and increasingly acute. It eventually caused her death, on September 30 1897, amidst her community of sisters.

The mystery of this girl throughout this century has been vested with the spectacular glory of miracles and conversions, many after reading <Story of a Soul> which was immediately distributed worldwide. Testimonies to this glory were the thousands of letters of thanks to the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux down the years. Moreover, her story is told in that moving book by Roth. But perhaps Theresa herself sums it up in the first pages of her "diary" "This, precisely this, is the mystery of my vocation, of my whole life, and in particular the mystery of Jesus' privileges regarding my soul. Jesus does not call those who are worthy but <those he wants>, or, as Saint Paul says: 'I am gracious to those to whom I am gracious and I take pity on those on whom I take pity. So it is not a matter of what any person wants or what any person does, but only of God having mercy' (Romans 9, 15-16)."

In the last pages Theresa draws even closer to us, accompanying us on our common path as Christians and showing us again her own "little path" as something open to everyone. And so we conclude with Theresa's own last words in <Story of a Soul>: "Since Jesus ascended to Heaven, all I can do is follow the traces he left but they are such luminous traces and so perfumed. If I even just glance at the Holy Gospel, I breathe the perfume of the life of Jesus and I know where to run ... I don't head for the nearest place, but the farthest: instead of placing myself in the forefront with the prayer of the pharisee, I repeat, full of trust, the humble prayer of the publican and, more especially, I follow the example of the Magdalene. Her amazing, or rather, loving courage which enchants the Heart of Jesus, also seduces mine. Yes, I feel it even if I had all the sins it would be possible to commit on my conscience, I would go, my heart broken in repentance, and throw myself into the arms of Jesus".