ST THERESE OF LISIEUX (1873-1897): HER LIFE AND MESSAGE
Therese Martin was born in Alencon, in Normandy, the ninth of her parents’ nine children, of whom four died in infancy. In 1925, a mere fifty-two years after her birth, Therese was declared a Saint by Pope Pius XI. Since the she has also been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, that is someone whose life and writings are a source of profound treasure for those seeking to love God with all their heart.
THERESE’S EARLY LIFE
Therese only lived in the house where she was born, on Alencon’s rue Saint Blaise, until she was four and a half years old; this is excluding a period of roughly twelve months when she lived at the home of Rose Taille, a wet nurse in Semalle. Family life in Alencon was happy for a while, but this was not to last as Therese’s mother, Zelie, died from breast cancer in November 1877. Less than three months after Zelie’s death, Louis Martin, now fifty-four years of age, and with five daughters to raise, moved his family to Lisieux.
Their new home, Les Buissonnets, has been visited by countless pilgrims to Lisieux over the years, and it was much loved by Louis Martin and his daughters. When she was eight and a half, Therese became a pupil at the school run by Benedictine Sisters, and she later described this period, which lasted until she was thirteen, as the unhappiest in her life. Perhaps the teasing of some of her classmates and the loss of her sisters, Pauline and Marie, who had joined the Lisieux Carmel, combined with the absence of her mother did cause Therese much inner pain. She made her first Holy Communion and was confirmed during this time, and her spiritual life began to deepen.
On 10 May 1883, when she was ten, Therese was healed of a very serious illness, which she always believed had much to do with the devil.
THERESE LEAVES CHILDHOOD BEHIND
On Christmas Eve 1886, Therese was liberated from the oversensitivity of her nature, and she began to forget herself; concerning herself only with God and with other people, she discovered true happiness. She writes: “On that night of light began the third period of my life, the most beautiful, and the most filled with graces from heaven… I experienced a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners, a desire I hadn’t felt so intensely before.”
THERESE BECOMES A CARMELITE
By Christmas 1887 Therese was certain that she wished, like her sisters Pauline and Marie, to become a Carmelite Sister. Her father gave his permission and the Carmelite community in Lisieux was strongly in favour; however, the diocesan authorities were not sympathetic, given Therese’s young age. Still, Therese did enter Carmel on 9 April 1888, aged just fifteen years and three months. The community which she joined on that day consisted of twenty-six religious, their convent approaching the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.
One month after entering Carmel, Therese wrote to her sister, Celine: “A day passed by a Carmelite without suffering is a day lost.” St Teresa of Avila had laid down a balanced way of life for her communities of Sisters, composed mainly of work and prayer, with love absolutely taking precedence over all else, and mortification being merely a means of deepening love for God and for others.
In Carmel Therese spent the last nine years of her life and it is here that she composed, in rare free moments, what came to be seen as her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul. For the last eighteen months of her life Therese suffered very much from the tuberculosis that was to cause her death. By April 1897 she suffered vomiting, acute chest pains and frequent coughing up of blood. By July, she was confined to bed and suffered fever, suffocation, constipation, insomnia, bedsores and gangrene of the intestines. At the same time she endured great spiritual torments, but, despite all this, she lived out to the full her way of love and complete confidence in God. Therese died on 30 September 1897, her last words being: “My God, I love you”.
A wooden cross was placed over her grave, in the Carmel plot in Lisieux cemetery. It bore the name of Soeur Therese de l’Enfant Jesus and the mysterious words: “Je Veux Passer Mon Ciel a Faire du Bien Sur La Terre. (I wish to spend my heaven doing good upon earth).
In 1898 The Story of a Soul was published and, in the next fifteen years, the Lisieux Carmel sent out more than two hundred thousand copies. Translations were made into various languages, including English, and, as early as 1907, St Pius X stated that Therese was “the greatest Saint of modern times.” The diocesan beatification process began in the summer of 1910 and Therese was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He kept her picture on his desk at all times and prayed to her before making any important decision. In 1927 he proclaimed Therese Patroness of the Missions, alongside St Francis Xavier.
THERESE’S “LITTLE WAY” OF LOVE AND CONFIDENCE
In 1896 Therese wrote of her “little Way” in a letter to her sister, Marie: “…to love Jesus, to be His victim of love, the weaker one is, without desires or virtues, the more apt one is for the operations of that consuming and transforming love… It is trust and nothing but trust that must bring us to love.” Therese described her little way as a way of spiritual childhood, trust and total surrender, similar to a child’s total dependence upon its mother or father. It is a way which calls for us to practise the virtues at all times, and to realise that we are always, in Scriptural terms, “unprofitable servants”, totally dependent upon our Master’s love and care. Therese’s little way is suitable for everyone and, if we wish, we can all share her vocation, to be love in the heart of the Church. Therese helps us to realise that God loves us in spite of our weakness and sins and that He is nothing but love and mercy.
– This article by Andrew J. Wilson was published in “Helping the Missions side by side with St Therese, issue no 79, to commemorate the visit of St Therese’s relics”, by The Little Way Association. Contact the Association for more information, donations etc. at: Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 0PR.