Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Thérèse has been a highly influential model of sanctity for Catholics and for others because of the "simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life". Together with Saint Francis of Assisi, she is one of the most popular saints in the history of the church.  Pope Pius X called her "the greatest saint of modern times" while his successor ]Pope Pius XI accorded her as the Patroness of the Gardens of Vatican City on 11 May 1927, granting her the title as the  Sacred Keeper of the Gardens

Her’s should have been an obscure life, hidden away in the cloistered convent in which she lived. She was born on January 2, 1873, baptized Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin, and grew up in a deeply religious home filled the second youngest of six sisters. She felt a strong desire from an early age to join her older siblings into the religious life into the cloistered Roman Catholic Discalced Carmelite community of Carmel at Lisieux, Normandy. This she did on 1888 at the early age of 15, taking the name of .Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, O.C.D.  After nine years as a Carmelite religious, having fulfilled various offices such as sacristan and assistant to the novice mistress, and having spent her last eighteen months in Carmel in a night of faith, she died of tuberculosis on September 30, 1897, at the age of 24her life reflecting her deep love of God she died of tuberculosis . Her feast day is on October 1. Thérèse is well known throughout the world as The Little Flower of Jesus. The resting place of  incorruptible body of The Little Flower, is in the Basilica of Lisieux,  the second largest place of pilgrimage in France after Lourdes.

 

Over the next few weeks we will share Theresa’s story in anticipation of our Patrinal Feast. Today in our first reflection we view the early part of her life. I hope that many of you will obtain Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 DAYS TO MERCIFUL LOVE: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine, and do the private retreat. I also hope you will also participate in the Nine Day Novena to Saint Theresa. May this autumn be a season of spiritual renewal for us personally and our parish as well.

Fr Michael

The Story of St. Theresa of Lisieux

Thérèse felt an early call to religious life, overcoming various obstacles, and in 1888 at the early age of 15, she two of her elder sisters in cloistered Carmelite community of Lisieux, Normandy. Other of her family finally joined them. This is her early story.

 

Family Background

Thérèse was born in Rue Saint-Blaise, Alençon, in France on January 2, 1873. She was the daughter of Marie-Azélie Guérin, usually called Zélie, a lace maker and Louis Martin, a jeweler and watchmaker. Both her parents were devout Catholics. Louis had tried to become a canon regular, wanting to enter the Great St Bernard Hospice, but had been refused because he knew no Latin. Zélie, possessed of a strong, active temperament, wished to serve the sick, and had also considered entering consecrated life; but the prioress of the canonesses regular of the Hôtel-Dieu in Alençon had discouraged her enquiry outright. Disappointed, Zélie learned the trade of lace making. She excelled in it and set up her own business on Rue Saint-Blaise at age 22.

Louis and Zélie met in early 1858 and married on July 13 of that same year at the basilica Notre Dame of Alençon. Both of great piety, they were part of the petit-bourgeoisie, comfortable Alençon. At first they decided to live as brother and sister in a perpetual continence, but when a confessor discouraged them in this, they changed their lifestyle and had 9 children. From 1867 to 1870 they lost 3 infants and 5-and-a-half-year-old Hélène. All 5 of their surviving daughters became nuns: Marie (February 22, 1860, a Carmelite in Lisieux, in religion, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, d. January 19, 1940); Pauline (September 7, 1861, in religion, Mother Agnes of Jesus in the Lisieux Carmel, d. July 28, 1951); Léonie (June 3, 1863, in religion Sister Françoise-Thérèse, Visitandine at Caen, d. June 16, 1941); Céline (April 28, 1869, a Carmelite in Lisieux, in religion, Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face, d. February 25, 1959); and finally Thérèse.

Zélie was so successful in manufacturing lace that by 1870 Louis had sold his watch-making shop to a nephew and handled the traveling and bookkeeping end of her lace making business. Thérèse's parents were canonized on October 18, 2015.

 

Birth and Survival

 

Louis Martin, father of Thérèse. " He was a dreamer and brooder, an idealist and romantic...To his daughters he gave touching and naïve pet names: Marie was his diamond, Pauline his noble pearl, Céline the bold one..But Thérèse was his petite reine, little queen, to whom all treasures belonged."[24]

Soon after her birth in January 1873, the outlook for the survival of Thérèse Martin was very grim. Enteritis, which had already claimed the lives of four of her siblings, threatened Thérèse, and she had to be entrusted to a wet nurse, Rose Taillé, who had already nursed two of the Martin children. Rose had her own children and could not live with the Martins, so Thérèse was sent to live with her in the forests of the Bocage at Semallé. On Holy Thursday April 2, 1874, when she was 15 months old, she returned to Alençon where her family surrounded her with great affection. She was educated in a very Catholic environment, including daily Mass attendance at 5:30 AM, the strict observance of fasts, and prayer to the rhythm of the liturgical year. The Martins also practiced charity, visiting the sick and elderly and welcoming the occasional vagabond to their table. She wasn't the model little girl her sisters later portrayed, Thérèse was however very sensitive to this education. She played at being a nun. One day she went as far as to wish her mother would die; when scolded, she explained that she wanted the happiness of Paradise for her dear mother. Described as generally a happy child, she was emotional too and often cried:  Céline is playing with the little one with some bricks... I have to correct poor baby who gets into frightful tantrums when she can't have her own way. She rolls in the floor in despair believing all is lost. Sometimes she is so overcome she almost chokes. She is a very highly-strung child. At 22, Thérèse, then a Carmelite, admitted:  I was far from being a perfect little girl.

Since the mid-1870s, Zelie had experienced health issues. From 1865 she had complained of breast pain and in December 1876 a doctor told her of the seriousness of the tumor. Feeling the approach of death Madame Martin had written to Pauline in spring 1877, You and Marie will have no difficulties with her upbringing. Her disposition is so good. She is a chosen spirit. On August 28, 1877, Zélie Martin died of breast cancer, aged 45. Her funeral was conducted in the basilica Notre Dame of Alençon.  Thérèse was barely 4 1/2 years old. Her mother's death dealt her a severe blow and later she would admit that the first part of her life stopped that day. She wrote: Every detail of my mother's illness is still with me, especially her last weeks on earth. She remembered the bedroom scene where her dying mother received the last sacraments while Thérèse knelt and her father cried. She wrote:  When Mummy died, my happy disposition changed. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and oversensitive, crying if anyone looked at me. I was only happy if no one took notice of me... It was only in the intimacy of my own family, where everyone was wonderfully kind, that I could be more myself.

 

Three months after Zélie died, Louis Martin left Alençon, where he had spent his youth and marriage, and moved to Lisieux in the Calvados Department of Normandy, where Zélie's pharmacist brother Isidore Guérin lived with his wife and their two daughters, Jeanne and Marie. In her last months Zélie had given up the lace business; after her death, Louis sold it. Louis leased a pretty, spacious country house, Les Buissonnets, situated in a large garden on the slope of a hill overlooking the town. Looking back, Thérèse would see the move to Les Buissonnets as the beginning of the second period of my life, the most painful of the three: it extends from the age of four-and-a-half to fourteen, the time when I rediscovered my childhood character, and entered into the serious side of life.  In Lisieux, Pauline took on the role of Thérèse's Mama. She took this role seriously, and Thérèse grew especially close to her, and to Céline, the sister closest to her in age.

 

Early years

 

Thérèse discovered the community life of school something for which she was unprepared. She wrote later that the five years of school were the saddest of her life and she found consolation only in the presence at the school of her dear Céline, Céline cherie (photo: Thérèse aged 8, 1881).

Thérèse was taught at home until she was eight and a half, and then entered the school kept by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre Dame du Pre in Lisieux. Thérèse, taught well and carefully by Marie and Pauline, found herself at the top of the class, except for writing and arithmetic. However, because of her young age and high grades, she was bullied. The one who bullied her the most was a girl of fourteen who did poorly at school. Thérèse suffered very much as a result of her sensitivity, and she cried in silence. Furthermore, the boisterous games at recreation were not to her taste. She preferred to tell stories or look after the little ones in the infants class. The five years I spent at school were the saddest of my life, and if my dear Céline had not been with me I could not have stayed there for a single month without falling ill.  Céline informs us, She now developed a fondness for hiding, she did not want to be observed, for she sincerely considered herself inferior. On her free days she became more and more attached to Marie Guérin, the younger of her two cousins in Lisieux. The two girls would play at being anchorites, as the great Teresa had once played with her brother. And every evening she plunged into the family circle.  Fortunately I could go home every evening and then I cheered up. I used to jump on Father's knee and tell him what marks I had, and when he kissed me all my troubles were forgotten...I needed this sort of encouragement so much. Yet the tension of the double life and the daily self-conquest placed a strain on Thérèse. Going to school became more and more difficult.

 

 

Les Buissonnets, The Martin family house in Lisieux to which they moved in November 1877 following the death of Madame Martin. Thérèse lived here from November 16, 1877 to April 9, 1888, the day she entered Carmel.

 

When she was nine years old, in October 1882, her sister Pauline who had acted as a second mother to her, entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux. Thérèse was devastated. She understood that Pauline was cloistered and that she would never come back. "I said in the depths of my heart: Pauline is lost to me!" The shock reawakened in her the trauma caused by her mother's death. She also wanted to join the Carmelites, but was told she was too young. Yet Thérèse so impressed Mother Marie Gonzague, the prioress at the time of Pauline's entry to the community that she wrote to comfort her, calling Thérèse, my future little daughter.

 

Illness

At this time, Thérèse was often sick; she began to suffer from nervous tremors. The tremors started one night after her uncle took her for a walk and began to talk about Zélie. Assuming that she was cold, the family covered Therese with blankets, but the tremors continued; she clenched her teeth and could not speak. The family called Dr. Notta, who could make no diagnosis. In 1882, Dr. Gayral diagnosed that Thérèse reacts to an emotional frustration with a neurotic attack. An alarmed, but cloistered, Pauline began to write letters to Thérèse and attempted various strategies to intervene. Eventually Thérèse recovered after she had turned to gaze at the statue of the Virgin Mary placed in Marie's room, where Thérèse had been moved. She reported on 13 May 1883 that she had seen the Virgin smile at her.[ She wrote:  Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am. However, when Thérèse told the Carmelite nuns about this vision at the request of her eldest sister Marie, she found herself assailed by their questions and she lost confidence. Self-doubt made her begin to question what had happened. I thought I had lied– I was unable to look upon myself without a feeling of profound horror. For a long time after my cure, I thought that my sickness was deliberate and this was a real martyrdom for my soul. Her concerns over this continued until November 1887.

In October 1886 her oldest sister, Marie, entered the same Carmelite monastery, adding to Thérèse's grief. The warm atmosphere at Les Buissonnets, so necessary to her, was disappearing. Now only she and Céline remained with their father. Her frequent tears made some friends think she had a weak character, and the Guérins indeed shared this opinion.

Thérèse also suffered from scruples, a condition experienced by other saints such as Alphonsus Liguori, also a Doctor of the Church and Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. She wrote:  One would have to pass through this martyrdom to understand it well, and for me to express what I experienced for a year and a half would be impossible."]

 

Complete Conversion: Christmas 1886

Christmas Eve of 1886 was a turning point in the life of Therese; she called it her complete conversion. Years later she stated that on that night she overcame the pressures she had faced since the death of her mother and said:  God worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant…  On that blessed night … Jesus, who saw fit to make Himself a child out of love for me, saw fit to have me come forth from the swaddling clothes and imperfections of childhood.

On Christmas Eve 1886, Louis Martin and his daughters, Léonie, Céline and Thérèse, had attended the midnight mass at the cathedral in Lisieux—but there was very little heart left in them. On December 1st Léonie, covered in eczema and hiding her hair under a short mantilla, had returned to Les Buissonnets after just seven weeks of the Poor Clares regime in Alençon", and her sisters were helping her get over her sense of failure and humiliation. Back at Les Buissonnets as every year, Thérèse   as was the custom for French children, had left her shoes on the hearth, empty in anticipation of gifts, not from Father Christmas but from the Child Jesus, who was imagined to travel through the air bearing toys and cakes. While she was going up the stairs she heard her father, perhaps exhausted by the hour, or this reminder of the relentless emotional demands of his weepy youngest daughter, say to Céline,  Well, fortunately this will be the last year! Thérèse had begun to cry and Céline advised her not to go back downstairs immediately. Then, suddenly, Thérèse pulled herself together and wiped her tears. She ran down the stairs, knelt by the fireplace and unwrapped her surprises as jubilantly as ever. In her account, nine years later, of 1895:  In an instant Jesus, content with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do in ten years. After nine sad years she had recovered the strength of soul she had lost when her mother died, and she was to retain it forever. She discovered the joy in self-forgetfulness and said;  I felt, in a word, charity enter my heart, the need to forget myself to make others happy—Since this blessed night I was not defeated in any battle, but instead I went from victory to victory and began, so to speak, to run a giant's course (Psalms 19:5).

Thérèse instantly understood what had happened to her when she won this banal little victory over her sensitivity, which she had borne for so long... she had been vouchsafed a freedom which all her efforts had been unable to win. A long, painful period of growth lasting almost ten years was now over; ...freedom is found in resolutely looking away from oneself. and the fact that a person can cast himself away from himself reveals again that being good, victory is pure grace, a sudden gift..It cannot be coerced, and yet it can be received only by the patiently prepared heart. As her biographer Kathryn Harrison put it; After all, in the past she had tried to control herself, had tried with all her being and had failed. Grace, alchemy, masochism: through whatever lens we view her transport, Thérèse's night of illumination presented both its power and its danger. It would guide her steps between the mortal and the divine, between living and dying, destruction and apotheosis. It would take her exactly where she intended to go.

 

The character of the saint and the early forces that shaped her personality have been the subject of analysis, particularly in recent years. Apart from the family doctor who observed her in the 19th century, all other conclusions are inevitably speculative. For instance, author Ida Friederike Görres whose formal studies had focused on church history and hagiography, wrote a book that performed a psychological analysis of the saint's character. Some authors suggest that Thérèse had a strongly neurotic aspect to her personality for most of her life.  As Kathryn Harrison, concluded in her biography, her temperament was not formed for compromise or moderation...a life spent not taming but directing her appetite and her will, a life perhaps shortened by the force of her desire and ambition ]

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