By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
This is the first of two articles on the life, death, and influence of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was born at Alençon in Normandy, in northern France, on January 2, 1873, to Louis and Zélie Martin, the last of nine children. She lived a very hidden life in the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, entering at the early age of 15 and dying when she was only 24, in 1897.
After her death, devotion to her grew at a prodigious rate and still, to this day, she is one of the most well-loved saints in the Church. She became posthumously famous particularly through her very influential autobiography, The Story of a Soul, and also through her profound spirituality, that of the “Little Way.” This seeks divine union not through rigorous mortifications but by offering up the small sacrifices and sufferings of life to God, in a spirit of self-oblation.
Many graces and miracles were obtained through her intercession, and she was beatified in 1923, and canonized by Pope Pius XI only two years later. Pope Pius X (1903-1914) had called her the greatest saint of modern times, an astonishing accolade for one who had lived such a hidden life.
Her parents were very devout, and her father, Louis Martin, had wanted to become a religious, but this was not possible due to difficulties with Latin, and so he settled on a career as a watchmaker. Zélie too had wanted to become a religious, but finally became a lacemaker. They met early in 1858, and married only three months later. Initially, they had decided to live a life of continence together, but following advice from a priest, they embraced the marital state fully and eventually had nine children, of which five daughters survived.
Apart from Thérèse, three of her elder sisters, Marie, Pauline, and Céline, became Carmelite nuns while the other sister, Léonie, became a Visitandine nun.
Both parents sought to pass on their strong Catholic beliefs to their children, who were brought up firmly, but with great love and affection. Thérèse, the youngest, was the particular favorite of her father, who called her his “little queen.” Her parents attended daily Mass very early in the morning, observed the feasts and fasts of the Church, and prayed that one of their children would become a saint. In fact Louis and Zélie exhibited all the signs of sanctity themselves in the selfless manner in which they lived, and in the way they brought up their large family. They were beatified at the behest of Pope Benedict XVI by José Cardinal Saraiva Martins, the papal legate, in October 2008, in the Basilica at Lisieux.
Thérèse was close to her other sisters but particularly Pauline, the second daughter, especially after the early death of their mother from breast cancer, in 1877, at the age of 45, when Thérèse was only four. Ultimately, when Thérèse entered the Carmel of Lisieux, Pauline was there to welcome her as prioress of the community. After Zélie’s death, the family moved to Lisieux to be near her brother’s family, the Guerins.
Thérèse was strong-willed, even stubborn, as a child, which was a cause of concern to her mother, so she was encouraged to make little sacrifices as a way of conquering her self-will. After her mother’s death, though, she became somewhat shy and withdrawn. The family members were very close, however, and the eldest daughter Marie tried to take the place of her mother as head of the household, even though she was only 13. It became Pauline’s task to give the younger girls religious instruction, until she entered the Lisieux Carmel when Thérèse was nine.
Her sisters’ vocations stimulated a strong desire to emulate them, but Thérèse continued her education at the Benedictine convent of Notre-Dame-du-Pre, where she was not particularly happy due to harassment from fellow pupils and her reserved nature.
The loss of Pauline to Carmel was a big blow to Thérèse, and she became seriously ill, only recovering in May 1883, when a statue of the Blessed Virgin smiled at her. In Thérèse’s own words, “Mary’s face radiated kindness and love.” In May 1885, Thérèse entered a period of scrupulosity for a year and a half, which was so trying that she later described it as a type of martyrdom.
Marie entered Carmel in October 1886, and that Christmas, after Midnight Mass, Thérèse reached a decisive turning point in her life. Thanks to a special grace, she was able to put her childhood fears behind her, and her sadness since the time of her mother’s death, and devote herself completely to loving God. She later described this moment as her “conversion.”
The next summer, in May 1887, when Thérèse was 14, she told her father that she too wanted to enter Carmel. He broke down in tears at this news, but recovered himself and plucked a little white flower and gave it to her. She understood this was symbolic of her life, and how God had preserved her for Himself.
She applied to Lisieux Carmel for entrance but was turned down because of her age. Later that year, however, Louis took Thérèse and her sister Céline on a pilgrimage to Rome. They arrived there on November 20, 1887, and were able to take part in a general audience with Pope Leo XIII. When Thérèse’s turn came to approach the Pope, she knelt before him and asked the favor of being allowed to enter Carmel at the age of 15. He replied that she should do what the superiors decide, and that she would enter if it was God’s will.
Events on the pilgrimage had taught her about the dangers of the world, from which she had hitherto been sheltered, and she returned to Lisieux more determined than ever to become a Carmelite. Finally, in April 1889, she was allowed to enter the Carmel, and became a postulant while only age 15, taking the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
She immediately felt a great sense of peace, a peace which in the main stayed with her to the end of her life, despite all the trials and difficulties she would have to endure. She adhered to the Carmelite rule with great exactness, and although her two eldest sisters were already installed in the Carmel, Thérèse deliberately kept her distance from them, denying herself the pleasure and support of their company; she generally only saw them during recreation.
She ended her postulancy in January 1889, and then became a novice taking the brown Carmelite habit. From this point on she tried to intensify her life of prayer, especially for priests, and to practice the virtues in numerous little ways. Thérèse also read the works of St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite reformer of the 16th century, deriving much benefit from them.
She developed, too, a devotion to the Holy Face of Christ during her novitiate, that face bruised and swollen during His Passion, and at the ceremony of taking the veil, she added the words “and of the Holy Face” to her name in religion, to become Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. Here in this name we have a synthesis of the spiritual focus of her life: to be humble and little, like the Child Jesus, but also to be one with Him in his sufferings.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)