Catholic Activity: Therese of Lisieux — Stubborn Saint
Life of St. Thérèse presented for parents and children, particularly to help with stubbornness.
Thérèse Martin was a darling child. She was also spoiled. She says she was not but then she is a poor judge because, when you have been spoiled by gentle, loving parents and sisters, it never quite looks like spoiling, or being spoiled, and you find other words for it.
It was to be expected. Even the Martins suffered a certain prejudice in favor of their youngest and let prudence be the victim of indulgence and possessiveness humor misbehavior. The Martins could spoil their youngest without meaning to just like everyone else.
This is intensely interesting and helpful to families trying their best to raise saints, for it shows that faults and defects existed in even such a child as Thérèse Martin and that is not what one has been led to believe. Though the faults of a saint should not be of undue concern when it is their virtues we are supposed to imitate, nevertheless to know they had some is a relief to us who have them also. It is also interesting to see that many of the lovely childhood virtues assumed to have been exclusively hers are common to almost all small children and common to childhood. Our children share with St. Thérèse the riches of the baptized and will be given as good a chance to be their kind of saint as she was to be hers. God does not so much want more St. Thérèses as He wants more saints. This has to be understood, or parents cannot search her life for practices that helped form her with any conviction that they might also help form their children. Their children have more in common with St. Thérèse than they ever dreamed.
What was she like?
She was very pretty, very intelligent, had captivating ways and was the youngest of nine, the one God sent them in answer to their prayers for a priest. For a family dedicated to the raising of saints, this meant the attention, love and effort of all were focused on this one child in an intense way. She was everybody's darling. "I had always been the most petted and loved by my parents and sisters, and if they too [her two brothers and two sisters in heaven] had remained on earth, they would no doubt have given me the same proofs of affection."
She sometimes was naughty and at other times, although perhaps not deliberately naughty, she was certainly surprised by imperfection. She tells of these things herself. Even her remarkable spiritual perception, her feats of self-denial, did not change her temperament, and faults cropped up clearly enough for her to remember them when she looked back.
She was almost exclusively in the company of her parents and older sisters, and because of this she learned many things other children quite as intelligent might not have occasion to learn until later. It is important to remember that although other children are not as spiritually gifted as St. Thérèse, many are as intelligent. Hers was spiritual genius: the genius to love God heroically. It is not to be confused with a high I.Q. This undoubtedly she possessed but it is not especially pertinent. The point to make is that had her spiritual training been neglected by her parents, she might not have been a saint This poses a question: how do we know we have not had more spiritual giants in the potential? Perhaps there have been thousands of souls with such promise who have not become giants because no one bothered to teach them how. Indeed, St. Thérèse wrote later that had she not been raised by her parents, with their fine sense of duty toward the care of her soul, she might have become a hardened sinner. She said the soul of a child is like softened wax, waiting to receive the imprint of good or evil from the parents who care for it.
That the love of parents is the medium through which the love of God is taught is perfectly demonstrated by the following tale. When Thérèse learned that heaven was the best possible place to be, she immediately wished both her father and mother would die and go there. (This is not unusual; many children say the same thing.) But what about herself? Would she go to heaven too? Her mother said she would if she were good. But if she were not good? Would she go to hell? Without waiting for an answer she said:
"I know what I will do — I will fly to you in heaven and you will hold me tight in your arms and how could God take me away then?"
Her mother wrote: "I saw by her look she was convinced that God could do nothing to her if she hid herself in my arms."
What power parents have! God is at their mercy. They may reveal Him to their children or not, as they wish. We need not worry about His loving them. We know He does. The danger for us lies in taking such love for granted and doing nothing about it when it wants teaching, illustrating, pointing out Thérèse's family saw everything in relation to God. When they were not consciously teaching it, they were unconsciously teaching it. She wrote of many things in her childhood that show the effect of this. She used to go to the river with her father to fish, and while he fished she spent the day picking flowers, sharing a picnic lunch, day-dreaming about life and death, earth and high heaven. This kind of day-dreaming is common to childhood. Children who have talked much about God and thought much about Him, will daydream about Him. "See the bug God made? See the flower God made?" One child, picking stones from the brook, said: "See the stones God made that He washed for me?" This is not especially remarkable from a child who has been taught to see.
We must leave children time for such things. It is so easy to over-organize them. One mother said recently with amazement, "I have just realized that my daughter belongs to so many organizations that she no longer has left an afternoon to take a walk." No time is left for solitude, for meditation. Yet everyone says at one time or another, "I have the best times when I am alone." Children say it often, revealing one of their important needs — a healthy, necessary aloneness. Who knows what secret things God works in them when they are alone with Him?
One child said: "When I am alone and having a good time outdoors, sometimes I think about God and that makes hot tears come to my eyes." And this child is no saint! Neither is this an imagined experience, nor something he says to attract attention. He is like every other child God made who is still unspoiled by the world. It is a sign of the homesickness in his soul, the instinct for heaven. It is also one of those hasty, embarrassed confessions small boys are apt to make to their mothers or godmothers or favorite aunts, or teachers, and afterward they are sorry because it probably "sounded dumb." Such avowals embarrass grown-ups and they are suspicious of their sincerity because they no longer know what children are like, nor the quality of the child-likeness we must reacquire if we would enter the kingdom of heaven. How rarely we stop to consider the reality of God dwelling in our children. But the Martins never forgot!
The first time Thérèse saw the sea, she sat with her sister Pauline on a rock and watched the sun sink leaving a path of gold across the water. She gazed for a long time on this symbol of grace lighting up the way for her tiny ship with its white sails. She promised never to steer out of sight of Jesus so as to sail on in peace to the homeland of heaven. Too sentimental? Not at all — it is exactly what she did.
But her family, while cultivating her piety, did not neglect doctrine nor asceticism, both of which are necessary if piety is to last and put on flesh. Doctrine is essential for a strong faith and self-denial whets the appetite for God. Her mother wrote of her at the age of three: "Even Thérèse is anxious to practice mortification. Marie has given her little sisters a string of beads on purpose to count their acts of self-denial, and they have really spiritual but very amusing conversations together. The other day Céline asked: 'How can God be in such a tiny Host?' and Thérèse answered, 'That is not strange because God is Almighty.' 'And what does Almighty mean?' continued Céline. 'It means,' said Thérèse, 'that He can do whatever He likes.'"
Not all three-year-olds would give such an answer, but they could if they had been taught it. We must not conclude that since Thérèse became a great saint she came into the world knowing the answers. That was not necessary. She had a family to teach them to her. Other children have families to whom the answers are available, and who have the same obligation to teach.
Another time, when she was several years older, she was upset to learn that not all souls enjoy the same glory in heaven. This did not seem right. (Questioning to see if God is really as fair and as good as He is supposed to be, as fair and as good as they, is constant from young children.) Pauline told her to get her thimble and her father's water tumbler and fill them with water. She asked Thérèse which was fuller. But neither was fuller than the other; one simply contained more because it was bigger. Oh! That was it. Each soul in heaven is filled to its brim and can hold no more; each, being full of God, is completely happy. "My Father's house has many mansions."
Mme Martin continues from her letter about the string of beads: "But it is still more amusing to see Thérèse continually putting her hand in her pocket and pulling a bead along the string for every little sacrifice."
St. Thérèse wrote of these self-denials later (she counted them into the hundreds) and was quite honest about the ease with which she accomplished them. She despised the quasi-humility that pretended it had received no great gift when it had. "I made it a practice never to complain when my things were taken, and if at any time I were unjustly accused, I preferred to keep silence rather than attempt an excuse. There was, however, no merit in all this for it came to me quite naturally."
Still, she was not quite perfect. When discipline was called for, her mother was the disciplinarian; her father was hopelessly her slave. Her mother used to say laughingly that he always did whatever Thérèse wanted, and he would answer, "Well, why not? She is the Queen!" He called her his Queen, the Queen of France and the Queen of Navarre. Yet Thérèse did not think he had spoiled her. But there is a fine line between spoiling and not-spoiling and parents must always be on guard. One day Thérèse was swinging when her father passed by and called out, "Come give me a kiss, my little Queen." Contrary to her usual way, she did not stir but answered rather pertly: "You must come yourself for it, Papa!" He took no notice of this and went into the house. Thérèse thought this very wise of him. Speaking as a parent, I disagree — or should I disagree as a mother? It is exactly the kind of thing doting fathers will do, and mothers will protest. Marie in her motherly way thought it needed notice also. "You naughty little girl, to answer Papa so rudely!" And the reproof took effect. Immediately Thérèse jumped down from the swing and ran into the house, crying out to her father that she wanted to apologize.
The desire to run quickly and beg pardon may not be developed in all children but it is in them. It is in everyone. Some need to save face so badly they must be coaxed to apologize — but even then they want to be coaxed. Often children will act on their need to "make things right again" quite spontaneously, but where there is a situation which is tense and they are caught off balance, they must have help. The immediate confession of faults and a sincere apology must be encouraged not only for the obvious reasons, but because it prepares a child for one of the sweetest of all his relationships with Christ — that of penitent.
Thérèse seems more like our children when we discover what faults she confessed so quickly. "Mamma, I smacked Céline, I pushed her once. I am sorry and I will not do it again." Once she pulled some wallpaper off the wall "without meaning to." My! That's familiar.
But even Mamma, with her keen eye for little signs of petulance and pride, sometimes capitulated to the utter deliciousness of this child. She wrote this when Thérèse was quite small: "The dear little thing will hardly ever leave me; she is with me continually. She loves to go out to the garden but if I am not there, she cries till they bring her back to me." This sort of thing is so flattering to us! No wonder parents miss the little fault in it. She was not to overcome these baby tears — indeed, they were baby tantrums — for a long time. The weakness of human nature cost her, as the rest of us, and she had to struggle. She wrote that to her great displeasure on their Sunday walks her father thought it wise for her to return before the others lest she be overtired, but she obeyed nevertheless. Céline used to bring home a basket of daisies to reward her on their return.
Yet her statement that she had never denied God anything from the time she was three has made it seem to most parents that, past three, she was not only faultless and sinless but without any need to struggle with even the slightest weakness. This implies it was no fight for her, but if it was no fight, how is she a saint? Sanctity is heroic.
She never consciously denied God anything, then; but in her as in the rest of use there were reflexes that reacted to certain stimuli and it was a long hard battle to unseat these. In her comfortable home, among her parents and sisters, the ever-present love and admiration could not help but make her vulnerable to suffering which would not even be suffering to those less accustomed to the atmosphere of approval. She was like a little hothouse flower. Her struggle for holiness would be increased a thousandfold because the chill winds outside would be so much chillier to her. How differently God permitted the childhoods of St. Bernadette and St. Maria Goretti to form them! But not everyone is asked to suffer public disgrace, or destitution, or martyrdom in attempted rape.
Each one is asked, however, to suffer the agonies of trying to live with self, with others, to survive hurt feelings, self-pity, misunderstanding, judging, the battle with softness, and so on — and on and on and on. In the Martin family God was preparing a sheltered, loved, admired child to be the saint of the "little way," not a way with only a little suffering, but a way in which there would be terrible suffering from little things — or so they would look beside such poverty and disgrace as the Soubirous', or such a terrible death as Maria's.
Thérèse would go to Love taking Him sufferings which in other lives are not even felt. Maria was probably as cold, as tired, more hungry and certainly more outrageously insulted than Thérèse ever was, but this — with the exception of the final, terrible surprise — was about what she expected of life, and the same was true of Bernadette — at least for a while. They accustomed themselves to it and accepted, hardly murmuring. But Thérèse was different. One dare not try to measure whose suffering was the greatest. No ruler exists to measure suffering. One of the things we must renounce is the comparing of sufferings, mine to yours or his or hers. Suffering is God's gift, His invitation. Each one's is exactly right. God makes no mistakes, giving too much to one, neglecting to give enough to another. Each one is free to suffer it willingly, or to hate suffering it. St. Thérèse has made entirely credible the possibility of crucifixion at the hands of insignificance. After her, we may never judge suffering. The value of it does not lie in our measure of the suffering but in God's — and the measure of the love that accepts it.
Thus, one does not rejoice to discover her weaknesses but to discover the roots of her suffering because they are so familiar. The suffering in all lives — as in hers — that costs us most is the denial of our own will. She wrote later: "My God, I choose everything — I will not be a saint by halves. I am not afraid of suffering for Thee. One thing only do I fear, and that is, to follow my own will. Accept then the offering I make of it, for I choose all that Thou willest!"
This is what our children are made for: to choose God. If only we would always remember, we would care so much more about preparing them!
"I had another fault," Thérèse related, "that of strong self-love." And she told of the episode of the long sleeves and bare arms which showed the seedling of self-love in even this little girl. The family was going to the country and her mother asked Marie to dress Thérèse. "Be sure her arms are not bare because of a possible sunburn." Thérèse said nothing while she was being dressed, "but in my mind I was thinking, 'I would be much prettier with bare arms.'" Anyone but a saint would underestimate self-love in its baby form, but a saint knows. This saint in particular knows, for her whole battle was with this weakness. It is the enemy. It lost us Paradise. It is not wise to ignore the first signs even in the little ones. As for bare arms, they are not quite the threat to modesty and reserve they were once held to be, but we do have our customs and they must be resisted on better grounds than bad taste.
Our nature is spoiled. Surrenders to it call only for more surrenders. It is no cliché to say that if you give human nature an inch, it wants a mile. It is a bald comment on the state of man after original sin. We have disapproved of certain improprieties on general principles, yet when the local customs include bare midriffs, baton twirling (in itself inoffensive but not so its prancing and its costumes) and daring formals, we have capitulated weakly because "everybody wears them," and "they're such nice girls." It is not because they are not nice girls that they should be modest, but because, as nice as they are, they are weak as all of us are weak and it is possible for them or someone else to think or do or say or be far from nice — for blinking this weakness. The very statement "I trust my child" is overconfidence. The most "trustworthy" child in the world is born into it with Adam's weakness, and that cannot be trusted. Our strength is in Christ. Only if we keep His word, ask His help, imitate His life, will we be strong; only if we will be Christian.
St. Thérèse as a little girl pouting because she could not have bare arms was in the mood of our daughters when they want to wear something that is not appropriate to their vocations as Christians. And Mme Martin was wise. She understood very well that even her good little girl was not safe from the danger of a devouring pride. Once she offered her a penny if she would kiss the ground and the stubborn little thing would not, even for a penny. Imagine the spectacle had such pride and will and genius been turned in the direction of self instead of God.
Books, reading, reading aloud helped to form this saint. They were an important part of the Martin's family life. Thérèse loved being read to. This is absolutely universal among children. She loved especially liturgical readings that explained the feasts and seasons of the Church year. Like all children, she loved to celebrate the feasts. "The feasts! What precious memories these simple words recall. I loved them and you (Pauline) knew so well how to explain the mysteries hidden in each one." And she loved Sundays.
"What a glorious day . . . Almighty God's feast and a day of rest." Every Sunday she went to High Mass with her father. When she was still too little to follow the Mass, he would lean over and whisper to her from time to time, pointing out things of special interest. "Listen attentively, little Queen. He is speaking of your holy patroness." All children love the stories of their patron saints.
The first sermon she ever understood was about the Passion. She was five and a half, an age when children are quick to fill with anguish, even weep over it, vowing if they had been there they would not have let it happen. She remembered watching her father's face at Mass and thinking how great his love for God must be when it could make him look as if his soul had already taken flight. How much we teach at the times we do not know we are teaching!
She received a profound love of the poor from her parents, who gave alms generously and showed the greatest reverence for even the least admirable of God's family. One time her father helped a drunken man to his feet in the street, took his bag of tools, and supporting him on his arm led him home. Another time he gave alms to a poor epileptic stranded in the railway station, then begged alms in his own hat from the passers-by until the man had enough money for a ticket home. One time Thérèse was walking with her father when they met a poor old man painfully dragging himself along on crutches. Thérèse, accustomed to give alms to the beggars they met on their walks, quite innocently offended him by offering a penny. He smiled at her sadly and shook his head. A few moments later her father bought her a little cake, and with all her heart she wished she might run back to him with it. She turned to look; he was at that moment turning to gaze at her. She vowed to remember him on her First Communion day because it was said that God grants all the wishes a child asks on that day. Five years later she did.
This tremendous sympathy is another of the properties of childhood. The hearts of children are vast, willing to receive anyone, any cause. Grownups are fond of observing how cruel they are to one another, but this need not be. Children are as quick to be compassionate. Which they will be depends entirely upon the teaching of their earliest years. What giant steps they could take with their sympathy if we would teach them from the beginning to see Christ in all men. Parents have but to accept the standards of the world to pass them on to their children. The communicating of values is, for the most part, a process that is not even seen. A child who wanted to give away his mittens to a poor boy hesitated for fear of displeasing his parents. How marvelous if he had been sure his parents would be pleased, knowing he had seen Christ in his friend. What might have happened in the souls of the two boys had the mittens changed hands for Christ's sake? The desire in the heart of the one was precious and pleasing to God, but how visible it would have made Christ's love had he felt free to act!
Thérèse was four years and eight months old when her mother died of cancer. An incident that occurred just before her mother's death makes an important point about family prayer. Thérèse and Céline went each morning to spend the day with a family friend and one morning Céline wondered if they should tell their hostess they had not said their prayers. "Certainly!" said Thérèse. When Céline timidly made this known, the lady replied: "Well, children, you shall say them," and led them to a large room where she left them alone. They were amazed! Thérèse exclaimed, "This is not like Mamma; she always said our prayers with us. . . ." The warm, happy, togetherness of family prayer (and the togetherness even during the sessions that are not perfectly warm and happy) prepares a soul for prayer alone. God invites each soul to a life of prayer. Family prayer prepares the climate where the habit of prayer will grow.
Her mother's death marked a new period in Thérèse's life, "the most sorrowful of all." "I became timid and shy, and so sensitive that a look was often enough to make me burst into tears. I could not bear to be noticed, or to meet strangers, and I was only at ease with my dear ones at home. . . ."
Life at home, however, seemed to be quite sunny. She did not like dolls much, but she loved to mix colored potions from seeds and the bark of trees and when they "turned out pretty," she would pour some into a little teacup and offer it to Papa. She played hermit with her cousin Marie (the way other children play priest and nun) in a "pretend" hermitage in the back of the garden. One would potter about the "pretend" vegetable patch, while the other would pray (not pretend). One day coming home from school they decided to imitate the hermits' custody of the eyes. Jeanne, her cousin, and Céline were walking behind; little did they know the two in front had their eyes closed. Crash! They had run into a display of merchandise on the sidewalk. The shopkeeper ran out bawling, the hermits, now wide-eyed, took off on the run and Jeanne, panting behind them, filled the air with scolding. After a lifetime of hearing none but the most saccharine stories of the Little Flower, it is a joy to discover this little scrape. As a punishment for their folly Marie and Thérèse no longer were allowed to walk together; it was Céline with Marie and Jeanne with Thérèse thereafter. Thérèse had referred at one point to "union of will" between Marie and herself, so she closes this little story with the humorous comment: "This mishap put an end to our union of wills. It was all for the best anyhow that partners were changed because the two elders (Céline and Jeanne) were never of the same mind and used to dispute all the way home. So now the peace was complete."
Her sister Pauline prepared her carefully for her first Confession which she made long before First Communion as was the custom. "You had told me, Mother dear, that it was not to a man but to God Himself that I was going to tell my sins, and this truth so impressed me, that I asked you seriously if I should tell Father Ducellier I loved him 'with my whole heart,' since it was God I was going to speak to in his person." This story should never be left out of any child's preparation for Confession.
After her Confession was finished, she passed her rosary to Father Ducellier so he might bless it, and on the way home she stopped to look at it under a street light. "What are you looking at, Thérèse?" asked Pauline. "I am looking to see what a blessed rosary is like."
When she was ten, she became ill with a malady that has been described in various ways, from something diabolically inspired to a severe nervous breakdown. The saint herself thought of it as an "illness in which Satan assuredly had a hand." Satan would be interested in such a soul as this. A nervous breakdown would be a very good way to disturb it. She was seriously ill, sometimes semi-conscious and rigid, sometimes delirious, imagining about her all kinds of weird shapes which filled her with fear. Prayers, a novena of Masses, all seemed unavailing. She only grew worse. One Sunday as she lay in a more desperate state than ever, unable to recognize her sisters when they spoke to her, they threw themselves on their knees and prayed fervently before a small statue of Our Lady. Thérèse with her last strength begged Our Lady to have pity on her, and instantly the statue seemed to her to become living and smile. She was cured instantly.
She prepared for her First Communion by following a plan written by Pauline and published later as Two Months and Nine Days Preparation for First Communion, by Mother Agnes of Jesus. The plan could be adapted to the imaginations of boys and girls in a number of ways. Thérèse imagined she was filling her soul with blossoms to make a bower for the Christ Child. "Every day . . . I made a number of little sacrifices and acts of love which were to be transformed into so many flowers: violets, roses, cornflowers, daisies, forget-me-nots. . . ." Marie talked long and earnestly with her every evening, training her "as the warriors of old trained their children in the profession of arms. . . . She spoke . . . of the imperishable riches which are within our daily reach, and of the folly of trampling treasures under foot, when one need but stoop to gather them." It was a preparation that bore fruit in a sublime First Communion day, and a ceaseless longing for the Holy Eucharist afterward. The plans, the rehearsals, the catechism lessons, the finery — these are not the whole of it. It cakes long intimate talks such as these to nourish the heart in its anticipation of the Bread of Life. Parents can do this.
At this time she told Marie she would like to be taught the practice of mental prayer but Marie discouraged her, not realizing that she had been at it for a long time, unknowingly. This should be a fairly common thing in children who have been taught about the love of God. It is not unusual to hear a child say he has been thinking of God. If he has, it is mental prayer, "lifting the heart and the mind to God." The reveries of childhood are very close to it. In answer to one of her mistresses at school, Thérèse described the process exactly. Sister had asked her what she did on holidays at home. "I often hide in the corner of my room, where I can shut myself in with the bedcurtains and then I think." "But what do you think about?" Sister asked, laughing. "I think about God, about the shortness of life, about eternity — in a word, I think," She continues, "It is clear to me now that I was really engaged in mental prayer."
During retreat before her solemn Communion, she fell prey to severe scruples which lasted two years. This was a period where melancholy and insecurity with people, at school, in the world outside her home, made her so ill she had to be taken from school. This is known, in our time, as "failure to adjust to the group." (It is interesting and credible to hear St. Thérèse credit this with the preserving of her vocation.) And she felt sorry for herself too. "True, I sometimes felt sad because of the indifference shown me, but I would console myself by repeating this line from a beautiful poem Papa often recited for us: 'Time is thy barque and not thy home.'"
M. Martin may have been hurt by his daughter's failure to shine amid her associates at school but he did not waste any time trying to ensure it. He was concerned most of all with her eternity. For that matter, even if one does not have the same preoccupation with eternity, how do we know all children are supposed to adjust to groups? Who said the normal and right adjustment for every child is popularity? How much of the suffering of "ill-adjusted" children might not be part of a tender and solicitous plan by which God wishes to protect them for more important work than being popular? Some are designed to adjust to groups and they will and their work will be as apostles in the groups. Some have other work to do. If we would start implanting this conviction in children from infancy, we could eliminate much of their seeming need to follow the pack.
Then Marie entered Carmel and Thérèse resigned herself to weeping. "I no sooner heard of her determination than I resolved to take no further interest in anything here below, and I shed abundant tears. But tears at that time were nothing unusual; they flowed for the most trivial cause. I was most anxious, for instance, to advance in virtue, yet I went about it in a strange way. I had never been accustomed to wait on myself or do any housework, and Céline always arranged our room."
And this, without doubt, was a terrible mistake. It is incredible that a family that took so seriously the training of a soul should neglect work. The role of the Christian is servant, in imitation of a Master who acted as servant. The neglect of this surely accounts for many of her difficulties. It explains, for example, the enormous heroism of her acceptance of the splashings in the face at the laundry at Carmel. Instead of reproaching the one who splashed her, or indicating her displeasure, she accepted this despoiling and offered it as an act of love. But what is so difficult about that? The mothers of babies, washing diapers, have been splashed in the face with far worse than water in which the handkerchiefs were washed!
But — Thérèse had never done any washing.
She continues: "Now, however, with the intention of pleasing Our Lord, I would sometimes make my bed, or, if Céline happened to be out, I would bring in her plants and cuttings. Since it was for Our Lord's sake that I did these little things I ought not to have looked for any return. But alas! I did look for thanks, and if, unfortunately, Céline did not seem surprised and grateful for my small services, I was disappointed, as my tears soon showed."
This should be one of the most valuable passages of all for us, because it shows the terrible imbalance that can grow in a child who has not been taught to work for the love of God. Undeniably, St. Thérèse was indulged by God as well as by her family, and given many graces other children do not receive, yet even this did not overcome, in her life at home, the lack of training in work. Work was the one thing the Martins overlooked.
Thérèse learned that "love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness" are the ways to happiness. Nothing teaches this better than work. If we would have our children learn this, we must give them, together with the other things that make up the Christian life, tasks at which they are obliged to work hard and well for the love of God.
"Again, if I unintentionally offended anyone, far from making the best of it, I would weep like a Magdalen, thus increasing my fault instead of repairing it. Then when I began to be reconciled to the blunder, I would cry for having cried."
This is a great comfort to the parents of adolescents who go from brightest sunshine to intense gloom with the speed of light. Adolescence, even in the saints, looks like nothing quite so much as adolescence.
The cure of her sensitivity and inclination to tears came on Christmas eve in 1886. "I was far from meriting the graces showered upon me by Our Lord. I had a constant and ardent desire to advance in virtue, but how numerous were the imperfections that were mingled with my acts! My extreme sensitiveness made me almost unbearable. . . . All arguments against it were simply useless. I could not correct myself of this miserable failing . . . and how then could I entertain the sweet hope of entering Carmel soon since I was still in my swaddling clothes! . . . I must tell you here the circumstances under which I received the priceless grace of my complete conversion. On reaching home after midnight Mass, I knew I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner. During our childhood, this custom filled us with such happiness that Céline now still treated me as a baby, being the youngest in the family (she was almost fourteen) . . . but the hour had come when Our Lord desired to free me from the failings of my childhood, and even its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa (fatigued by the long midnight Mass), instead of indulging me in his usual way, should feel annoyed and as I went upstairs I overheard him say: 'Well! — let this be the last year!' These words cut me to the very heart, and Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: 'Don't go down just yet, you would only cry if you looked at your presents before Papa.' But Thérèse was no longer the same — Jesus had transformed her. . . ."
She went down, opened her gifts, praised them and never hinted that she had heard her father's remark. Céline was amazed. It was so unlike her! "But happily it was a sweet reality and Thérèse had once and for all regained the strength of mind which had left her when she was four and a half (the time of her mother's death). . . .Satisfied with my good will, Our Lord accomplished in an instant the work I had not been able to do after ten years of effort. . . . Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took complete possession of my heart, and thenceforward, how happy I was!"
Good will — that is what God wants. If we will give Him that, He can do something with us. Here is the key to the relation of the faults to the gifts. A great disservice has been done to the Little Flower and the generosity of God by ignoring her faults (such as they were) and writing of her as though she had been entirely perfect from her cradle on. What her faults teach especially is that faults are as nothing to God if we give Him our hearts. Parents worry so over faults, and rightly too (one cannot ignore them), but a child's love for God is far more important than his faults, and the love can be the remedy for the faults. All the while we are watching carefully to help them prune away their faults, we should be watching twice as carefully for opportunities to feed their love for God.
Not long after this a picture of the Crucifixion brought to a climax all the desires that had been forming and becoming clearer in Thérèse as the years drew on. "I was consumed with an insatiable thirst for souls; this time it was not priests' souls that enkindled my zeal but the souls of great sinners, whom I longed at any cost to snatch from the everlasting flames of hell." She asked for a sign from God approving her desire for souls (a practice we should not encourage in our own children's imitation of the saints). The sign she wanted was the conversion of a notorious criminal, Pranzini, condemned to die on the guillotine. She prayed and made sacrifices for him daily and waited anxiously for the day of execution. "My prayer was granted to the letter. Though Papa never allowed us to read the newspapers, I did not consider it an act of disobedience when, on the day following the execution, I hastily opened the paper, La Croix, and looked for the part concerning Pranzini. . . ." He had repented at the last moment and kissed the Sacred Wounds three times.
I confess that when I first read this passage I thought to myself, "But that was disobedience!" I was grateful to learn that her father, hearing about the incident later, was glad Thérèse interpreted his wishes rather than the letter of his prohibition, and I rejoiced to discover why he forebade their reading newspapers because I think it is a principle that we must apply to radio, television, movies, popular magazines, and the offerings of the entertainment field. He excused her seeming disobedience thus: "But the motive was in this case a spiritual one and, timid as she was at the time, it would have embarrassed her to be obliged to disclose the reason for wanting to read about Pranzini." His explanation of the prohibition appears here: "She realized that I did not want them (his daughters) to be wasting their precious time reading the news of the day — a cause of distraction." So often our concern over the good or evil or indifference of radio, television, movies, certain forms of popular music and entertainment gets trapped in an attempt to analyze the offerings themselves, and we fail to see that even if we had the very best in all these fields, we would have to discipline our use of it.
M. Martin was not condemning newspapers in themselves — inevitably useful to him as a means of keeping track of the affairs of his day — but he was implying that the first use of the mind is to listen to God in order to be led to the contemplation of Him. Understanding this, one constantly must be on guard against "wasting precious time" for God in fruitless diversion, whether it be entertainment in newspapers, magazines, radios or television sets. These things are made to serve man, but man is not made for them. His end is God and he must spend more of his time developing this relationship than any other. We defend so often our legitimate need for relaxation, recreation — not quite saying, but almost saying, that we even need to get away from God once in a while! This is not true. He is the source of the peace, rest, joy, relaxation, recreation we need. "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28-30). This is a promise to us — if we will give up distraction.
Freed from her extreme sensitivity, Thérèse developed a passionate desire for learning. She read and studied furiously, learning more in a few months than she had in the whole of her formal school life. "It was to history and science that I devoted many hours. . . . The chapter from the Imitation concerning such study often came to my mind at this time but in spite of that warning, I managed to continue all the same, persuading myself that at my age, it was my duty to study and therefore I was doing nothing wrong. I do not believe now that there was any offense to God in all this but I do admit that there was a good waste of time because I set myself a limit of time (to which I was faithful) so as to mortify my desire for knowledge." The chapter she refers to is Against Vain and Worldly Learning. . . . "When thou shalt have read and shalt know many things, thou must always revert to the one beginning. I am He Who teacheth men knowledge, and Who giveth a more clear understanding to little ones than can be taught by man. He to whom I speak will quickly be wise and will profit greatly in spirit."
She had loved the Imitation of Christ for years and knew most of it by heart; now this and books of spiritual reading became her food. Thérèse and Céline, confidantes in their teens as in their baby years, had long intimate conversations about God as they gazed nightly at the stars out their wide window. "The practice of virtue gradually became sweet and natural to me. In the beginning my looks betrayed the effort, but little by little self-sacrifice grew easy. . . ." It was work. But she had been preparing for this "conversion," as she called the Christmas eve experience, ever since childhood. Everyone has such conversions, and each time the old truths seem brand new, as though one had just understood them. "Oh! That is what it meant!"
Now she determined to enter Carmel. She was not yet fifteen and her plan met strong opposition. Her father fell in with her, as always, and Céline, the older and therefore the one entitled to go first, generously stepped aside and encouraged her as did Pauline in the convent. But Marie, also there, was determinedly against it and "did everything possible to thwart my plans." Her uncle declared that "to enter such a severe order at the age of fifteen seemed contrary to all human prudence," and said that nothing short of a miracle would make him give his consent. Thérèse prayed for the miracle and he changed his mind. Thinking that with her uncle's consent the point had been won, she was shocked to discover that Canon Delatroitte, the ecclesiastical superior at Carmel, thoroughly disapproved of her entry before she was twenty-one. "Of course," he said, "I am only the Bishop's delegate; should he allow you to enter, I shall have nothing to say."
Thérèse was cast into the depths and "Papa was at a loss to console me." He offered to take her to Bayeux to see the bishop. That morning in October 1887 she put up her hair for the first time in order to look very mature, and in answer to the bishop's question about how long she had wanted to enter Carmel, she said, "A very long time, My Lord." The vicar general doubted it had been all her fifteen years, had it? She answered solemnly: ever since she was three. But the bishop thought perhaps she should stay home a while longer, to which her father replied that he supported her in her determination, adding that they were going to Rome on pilgrimage and if the bishop should not give his permission, they would not hesitate to speak to the Pope. When the bishop said he would not give his decision before he had spoken to the superior of Carmel, Thérèse began to cry. Taking her head he placed it on his shoulder and caressed her, "in a way, I was told later, he had never done with others." And they returned to Lisieux. "It seemed to me as though my future were forever shattered, for the nearer I drew to my goal, the greater my difficulties became. Yet all the time, deep down in my heart, reigned a wonderful peace, because I knew I was seeking only God's will."
Those who did not know why the Martins were going to Rome suspected it was in an effort to change Thérèse's mind about Carmel. A trip to Rome was that worldly. Not that the Martins undertook it in the spirit of the world, but their traveling companions seem not to have been entirely dedicated pilgrims. They were people of rank, moneyed, very gay, reasonably devout, and Thérèse says the whole affair would have injured a vocation less firmly established than hers. But she was not dazzled. It only increased her desire for the cloister. She wanted to be at the business of saving souls. During this journey she discovered the need to pray for priests. She understood for the first time that for all the grandeur of the priesthood priests remain men and subject to human frailty. She was beginning to understand her vocation.
Passing through Switzerland, she marveled at the Alps and promised herself to remember these splendid heights later when life in the convent shut out all but a little space of sky. "I will recall this day and it will encourage me. I will make light of my own small troubles by thinking of the greatness and majesty of God; I will give my heart to Him alone and avoid the misfortune of attaching myself to fleeting trifles. . . ." She was in her teens. It is true she was not a "typical" teen-ager, but one whose baptismal innocence had never been lost; alas, this seems not to be typical. But in her cannot one see one's children's zeal and dedication to causes usually far less exalted mirrored as they might appear had these children's growing-up been guided and nurtured as carefully, as sacramentally?
Perhaps, if Thérèse comes anywhere near being "typical" of anyone, she is typical of those children who discover they have a vocation to religion, who discover they are in love with God. How sad that, with a few exceptions, this kind of love seems not to be typical of the rest. Thérèse was certainly gifted and graced in unique ways, but it was not to Thérèse alone that the invitation to live an intensely spiritual life has been given. We have all been invited. Is this how — granting her unique role was different — our teen-agers might tend, did we try as hard to teach as her parents did, to love as her parents did, to be holy as her parents did? Would their great passion for their causes "come out like this" if their lives had been lived as consistently on a supernatural plane as hers? It is easy to say no, she was different. That is no answer. We do not know if our children are not as different in their way as she was in hers. There is only one way to know: by bending all our energies to knowing and loving and living for God as they did. If we would have the supernatural life be the reality for them, it must be for us.
Rome next, and still on the morning of their audience with the Pope no word from the bishop. Thérèse determined to speak to His Holiness, Leo XIII, on her own behalf, when, unexpectedly, the vicar general of Bayeux announced in a loud voice that he absolutely forbade anyone to address the Holy Father. Thérèse panicked. Céline whispered: "Speak." And she did, asking that she be allowed to enter Carmel at fifteen in honor of the Holy Father's jubilee. The Holy Father did not understand what she was saying and asked the vicar-general what this was all about and he, in turn, said the matter was being looked into by the superiors of the Carmel. Thérèse spoke again: "Holy Father, if only you were to say 'Yes,' everyone else would be willing." (Was there ever a more stubborn child!)
The Pope looked at her affectionately and said, "You will enter if it be God's will." Thérèse was about to coax again when she was told by two of the Guards to rise and move on. When she refused to leave, they had to take her by the arms, lift her to her feet and lead her weeping to M. Martin!
Her original plan had been to enter Carmel on the Christmas before she was fifteen because it was the anniversary of her "conversion." She entered at the age of fifteen and three months, on the following April 9.
Out of the context of religion, without sanctifying grace and the obvious operations in her soul of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, she might have been a prodigy of another order acting typically fifteen. The same determination and passionate dedication are seen in the lives of child tennis stars, child actresses, child singers — and also in their parents. Thérèse's gifts, her mind, her heart, were trained first on God, as her parents' were before her, and she was determined to give them to His service. It happened that He wanted her a nun, but this kind of concentration on God is not only for those who will become nuns. She had a number of gifts; indeed, she ended by writing a book. To look to God for direction is the only way to go about discovering how to use one's gifts whatever they are, and if they are playing tennis, or acting, or singing.
From the time she was a little girl, Thérèse felt she was "born for great things." She understood that her "personal glory would never reveal itself before the eyes of men, but would consist in becoming a saint — a great saint." But this is in everyone, not just those who know that God is man's end. Man is the center of his own universe first of all. He knows in his heart that he is meant for something great. He waits for it momentarily. If he doesn't discover it, if it doesn't "happen," he tries to prove it anyway and then he ends up in sin — or sickness. But he is right all the time: he is created for union with God and this is greater than his wildest dreams. However, if he is not taught it is this, he will try union with everything but God, knowing ecstasy is to be found somewhere. It is to be found lastingly only in God. It is terrible not to know.
And it is terrible not to understand these things when we are raising children because it explains so much about them. Especially, it explains teen-agers who are sometimes driven to such heartbreaking or ridiculous ends in their effort to find something but they don't know what. People say "to find themselves," and in a way that describes it, but then no one has really failed to find self. We are full of it. It is more to the point to say we need to get rid of self, or to know what to do with self. It is useful and fills a need, has a work. Teen-agers suspect they are important and they are quite right. Since the Redemption they are needed by God to help with the work of bringing all men to Christ. Whatever their individual vocations, this vocation is common to all. Only this is worth giving yourself away for. "I will give my heart to Him alone and avoid the misfortune of attaching myself to fleeting trifles." What they need most of all is a cause. Lo — they have one, but too often no one has told them what it is.
Thérèse was tempted to spend the last three months before her entry into Carmel leading a life less strict than usual, but she resolved to be even more mortified. "When I say mortified, it is not to give the impression that I practiced corporal mortification. I have never been attracted to such penances. Far from resembling those heroic souls who from their childhood practiced all kinds of mortifications . . . I made my mortifications consist simply in checking my self-will, keeping back an impatient answer, rendering a small service in a quiet way, not resting my back when seated, and so on. . . ."
She entered Carmel on April 9, 1888, to pray and suffer for souls.
Trials began immediately. Spiritually arid, she suffered much at the hands of Mere Marie de Gonzague, the superior. She was excoriated publicly for leaving a cobweb in the cloister, for going daily to the garden to weed (she was under obedience but it looked like "taking the air"), and for her "slow ways and want of thoroughness." When she spent an hour with the superior, she was scolded most of the time. Her struggle to please — and nothing was so certain but that nothing would please — was like a child trying to please a difficult teacher, a wife trying to please a difficult mother-in-law, a mother-in-law trying to please a difficult wife, an employee trying to please a difficult boss. She was learning to work for Jesus alone.
"I thank God for having provided me with so sound and valuable a training: it was a priceless grace. What should I have become . . . if I had become the pet of the community? Instead of seeing Our Lord in the person of my superiors, I might have considered only the creature, and my heart . . . would have been ensnared by human affection in the cloister."
This is the answer for all the rebels, whether in their tens or teens or twenties — or sixties. It is the invitation to cut the heart free of dependence upon human approval. It is terribly hard anyway — and for her it was more than that. She had lived the entire fifteen years of her life surrounded by approval.
To be told at the close of her novitiate that she could not be professed for another eight months was a bitter disappointment and very hard to accept. But one day at prayer she was given the grace to know "that my too eager desire to take my vows was mingled with much self-love." For a long time she had thought of herself as Jesus' plaything, a little ball, to amuse Him as He pleased. Now she saw that "since I belonged to Our Lord and was His little plaything to amuse and console Him, it was for me to do His will and not for Him to do mine." This is a great triumph for anyone — and especially for a girl whose wishes had been granted in abundance so many times in her life. She decided she would use the months of waiting to make a wedding garment of love and self-sacrifice, much as she had prepared in her soul the bower of blossoms at the time of her First Communion.
She discovered this: "He does not disclose everything at once to souls, but as a rule gives His light little by little." Self-knowledge comes rapidly — whether to parents or their children — once we begin to surrender our wills. "At the beginning of my spiritual life — between the ages of thirteen and fourteen — I often wondered what greater knowledge of perfection could come to me later on, for I thought it impossible to acquire a better understanding of it than I then had. (Oh, the thirteens and the fourteens — they know it all!) It was not long, however, before I learned that in this matter the more one advances, the farther one seems from the goal, and now I am not only resigned to seeing myself always imperfect, but the thought of it even affords me joy."
She had liked having nice things about her as a postulant. Now she began to work at breaking her desire for such satisfactions. She would once have pitied herself, she wrote, if someone took her lamp by mistake and she had to sit in the dark, but God taught her that the meaning of true poverty was, "being deprived of not only what is convenient, but what is necessary. . . ." It made her happy to spend her hour for work sitting in the dark. (Not long ago a young mother wondered how, even in holy poverty, one justified the neglect of trips to the dentist St. Thérèse touches it here.)
She grew in her preference for the least rather than the most, the worst rather than the best, frightening lessons when read from St. John of the Cross but quite within reach as St. Thérèse demonstrates them. The point, of course, is not to be miserable but free from self-love and more happy than ever (the effect of being freed from self-love). For example, she was glad when a pretty water jug was taken from her cell and replaced by a large, badly chipped pitcher. A tiny thread it was, an attachment to pretty things cut. She crushed the head of a pretty pin for the same reason, another thread cut. It was not necessary, of course. Neither the pin nor the water jug were occasions of sin. Neither does this mean that every Christian seeking perfection must cease to take pleasure in pretty water jugs nor crush the heads of pretty pins. These are but two examples of what were probably thousands of such acts performed by Thérèse in her determination to stamp out self-love. Each child, each adult, will meet as many thousands of opportunities to counter self-love, and each vocation frames them differently. Her example here is meant, not to set us on our guard with water pitchers and pins, but to show us the minutiae of which the way to perfection consists. It is not for the most part a dazzling display of anything, unless love — but the love is often uncomprehended; it is consistency that is the characteristic of the saint. Long after others have lost their zeal the saint is still stubbornly fighting. She had vowed: "I will not be a saint by halves! I choose all that Thou willest!" So she determined to give all.
She began trying not to excuse herself when she was accused, "but I found this very difficult." The impression has been given too many times that she found it easy. Her first victory cost her a good deal. A jar had been left beside a window and was found broken. The novice mistress was very displeased and believed Thérèse to be the culprit. She scolded her for being untidy and careless. Without explaining, Thérèse promised to be much more careful in the future — but it was hard. She was still very little advanced in self-renunciation, she wrote. One could believe it would be hard for that will to renounce itself. "I found it necessary to console myself with the thought that all would come to light on the day of Judgment." Just like the rest of us.
Most of all she tried to practice "little hidden acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten and being on the alert to render them help." Bless her heart. This is the sort of thing a good housewife does by second nature. Every young girl's training should include such tidiness and consideration merely as part of daily duty and always for the love of God.
She had an attraction towards penance but after a few efforts ended in failure — like wearing a spiked cross that caused infection, and putting wormwood (a bitter herb) in her food — she was not permitted to do anything unusual beyond leading the rigorous Carmelite life. She was not even allowed to keep the fasts until she was twenty-one; therefore, for practically two-thirds of her religious life she was dispensed. "Indeed, the only mortification I was permitted was the overcoming of my self-love, which did me far more good than any bodily penance could have done." With the help of Our Lady she prepared her wedding dress and she was professed at last on September 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.
The following year on retreat she learned something important to the making of her little way. She frankly admits she did not enjoy preached retreats, but this retreat master was an exception. Not only did he launch her "full sail upon the ocean of confidence and love which had so long attracted me," but he also told her that her faults did not grieve Almighty God. She had never before heard that it was possible that faults should not give pain to God, and the idea filled her with joy. It fitted her picture of Our Lord's tenderness. She had felt He must be more tender than even a mother, and she knew — having had many a "mother" in her short life — how ready a mother is to forgive the involuntary small faults of her child. It was a key. "Fear makes me shrink, while under love's sweet rule I not only advance — I fly."
At the end of her eighteenth year an epidemic of influenza struck Carmel and Soeur Thérèse helped nurse the sick and bury the dead, working endlessly, exhaustingly. During this period she was able to receive Holy Communion daily, a rare privilege at this time. But far from increasing her consolation, there never was a time when she felt it less. Now, however, she did not care, for it was her desire to give satisfaction to Jesus, not receive it from Him. She pictured her soul as a rubbish heap and asked Our Lady to raise a pavilion there to receive her Son, calling on the angels and the saints to come and praise Him with her. Yet even this did not stay the distractions or the drowsiness, so she practiced making thanksgivings all day long — to make up for having done so badly in choir. "You see . . . my way is not the way of fear; I can always find means to be happy and to profit by my failings, and Our Lord Himself encourages me to do so. . . . How sweet is the way of Love! True, one may fall and be unfaithful to grace, but Love knows how to draw profit from everything, and quickly consumes whatever may be displeasing to Our Lord, leaving in the heart only a deep and humble peace." This utter confidence of a little child is her way of spiritual childhood.
Now she got no satisfaction from any spiritual reading except the Imitation and Holy Scripture. No matter how beautiful a book might be, it did not help her. More and more Our Lord instructed her from within her soul. She did not "hear" Him in the manner of that mystical grace, but rather learned from Him silently. "The Teacher of teachers instructs without the sound of words, and although I have never heard Him speak, yet I know He is within me, always guiding and inspiring me; and just when I need them, lights hitherto unseen break in upon me. As a rule, it is not during prayer that this happens but in the midst of my daily duties." She is showing busy parents how the interior life works. He is present like this, waiting to speak, in every soul in the state of grace.
But how, Thérèse wondered, could she achieve sanctity when she had so many imperfections? She would have to find a short way, a little way, since she was too weak to climb like the big saints did. She found in Holy Scripture, "Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me," and she knew she could be a saint if she were content to remain as a child, simple, unquestioning, obedient, giving what she could give, accepting what she was asked to accept.
One of the things Thérèse was asked to accept was the role of assistant mistress of novices, with almost entire responsibility for the training of the young nuns. She taught them lessons she had learned painfully herself. Here, strangely enough, she is like a natural parent. She teaches wisdom that applies to family life as well as the convent, lessons we might well learn from her and apply to ourselves and our children. One of the most important concerns dependence upon human affection. It applies to the need for affection and the demonstrations of it which entangle so many young people in both light and serious love affairs. The temptation to seek affection is common to every vocation and the devil will lay a trap for such hunger wherever he finds it, seeking to bar it from reaching its end in God. Although St. Thérèse was teaching her novices that to seek satisfaction for self in human affection builds a barrier to knowing fully God's love, the principle applies to lay life as well as to the religious.
What our society has come to look upon as something due the young, i.e., frequent and heavy dating, involvement in high school and college love affairs as a prelude to marriage, is neither a good nor necessary preparation for choosing a life mate. We have been sold the diabolical idea that sampling many possible partners gives one a better chance of finding the right one, rather than resisting the allure of pleasure with the many, and waiting for prayer and God to lead to the one. Since love is meant to serve God, not merely satisfy man, it makes much better sense to put one's chances for a happy union in His hands. Nor will love satisfy man for long unless it does serve God, because that is how God made it to be. That is one of the laws He made that operates inexorably, whether we like it or not.
St. Thérèse writes of her own relationship to her mother superior in Carmel (and remember, sin is not involved here, but the indulgence of natural cravings for conversations, select friendships, signs of affection and so forth): "I remember when I was a postulant there were times when I was so violently tempted to seek my own satisfaction, some crumbs of pleasure, by having a word with you, that I was obliged to hurry past your cell and cling to the banisters to keep myself from turning back. Many were the permissions I wanted to ask; pretexts for yielding to my natural affection suggested themselves in the hundreds. How glad I am that from the beginning I learned to practice self-denial! Already I enjoy the reward promised to those who fight bravely, and I no longer feel the need of refusing all consolation to my heart, for my heart is set on God. Because it has loved only Him, it has grown, little by little, till it can give to those who are dear to Him a far deeper love than if it were centered in a barren and selfish affection."
These words, written of the love-life of a young nun with God, apply stunningly to the love-life of a young layman. The setting is different but the application to the human heart is the same. "Pretexts for yielding to my natural affection suggested themselves in the hundreds." How exactly her allusion to the affections which could entrap a religious and divert her from the pursuit of God applies to the liberties young people in the world would sanction for themselves and which would divert their attention from God. The object of both vocations — marriage and religion — is God. The means is love: the love of God in marriage, and the love of God in religion. For the religious to spend her love on attachment to persons is a risk which could defeat her purpose in leaving the world. For the lay person to dabble in love affairs is the same risk. The very fact that marriage is his vocation means his struggle will be partly with his body. Both vocations demand, for all their differences, supernatural love. Both have temptations which make the same appeal to natural love: "These are only natural affections, after all . . . it is only reasonable that one indulge them. . . ." The words apply to the temptations in both vocations.
"How glad I am that from the beginning I learned to practice self-denial!" The time for learning self-denial begins just beyond babyhood; it is all the years leading to this.
Her joy, as a young virgin freed of all attachment to self-satisfaction is the same as the joy of the chaste lover: "Already I enjoy the reward promised to those who fight bravely . . . for my heart is set on God. Because it has loved only Him, it has grown . . . till it can give to those who are dear to Him (whether one's Sisters in religion or one's sweetheart, fiancée, husband, wife) a far deeper love than if it were centered in a barren and selfish affection."
She is like a parent speaking to parents when she writes of guiding her novices. "Our own tastes, our own ideas, must be put aside, and in absolute forgetfulness of self we must guide souls, not by our way, but along that particular path which Our Lord Himself indicates. . . . I have been like a watchman on the lookout. . . Nothing escapes me. . . . I would prefer a thousand times to receive reproofs rather than inflict them on others, yet I feel it necessary that the task should cause me pain, for if I spoke through natural impulse only the soul in fault would not understand she was in the wrong and would simply think: 'The Sister in charge of me is annoyed about something and vents her displeasure upon me, although I am full of the best intentions.'" How like family life! We must pray for the grace to correct our children from a supernatural impulse, else they, like her novices, might think: "The mother and father in charge of me are annoyed and vent their displeasure although I am full of good intentions!" We must not confuse blunders with faults, mistakes with sins. Only if our motive is supernatural can we overcome our irritation and always differentiate between them; correction and punishment must be dictated by our concern for our child's soul, not our embarrassment in front of the neighbors!
She was severe. She writes that if they could read how it pains her to correct them, they would say "so far as they can see, it does not in the least distress me to run after them, to point out how they have soiled or torn their beautiful white fleece." She was a real mother. "But in their hearts they know I love them. . . ." They were like all children.
She gives invaluable information to parents about their guidance of the souls of their children. "From the beginning I realized that all souls have more or less the same battles to fight, but on the other hand I saw that since no two souls were exactly alike, each one must be dealt with differently. With some I have to humble myself and not to shrink from confessing my own struggles and defeats; by this means they have less difficulty in acknowledging their faults, being consoled by the discovery that I know their trials from my own experience. In dealing with others, my only hope of success lies in being firm and in never going back on what I have said, since self-abasement would be mistaken for weakness."
Again and again her experience with the novices mirrors family life. One novice said: "You did well to be severe yesterday. . . . At first I was indignant but after I had thought it over I saw you were right. I left your cell thinking all was at an end between us and determined to have nothing more to do with you. Then . . . the light began to shine and now I have come back to hear all you have to say." So the young mistress served "some food less bitter." But she soon discovered she must not go too far! "If I let fall the slightest remark that might seem to soften the hard truths of the previous day, I noticed my little Sister trying to take advantage of the opening. . . ."
But most important of all — parents note — was prayer. "My whole strength lies in prayer and sacrifice: these are my invincible weapons, and experience has taught me that the heart is won by them rather than by words."
She tells about her prayer: an uplifting of the heart, a glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude, and love, in times of sorrow as well as joy. ". . . there is no need to recite set prayers composed for the occasion [all the time] — were this the case, I should indeed deserve to be pitied!" Aside from the Divine Office, she had not the courage to search books for beautiful prayers. They were so numerous, so beautiful, she could not choose between them; they only made her head ache. "Unable either to say them all or to choose between them, I do as a child who cannot read — I say just what I want to say to God, quite simply, and He never fails to understand me." When she was so dry of soul no good thought would come, she repeated very carefully one Our Father and one Hail Mary and these were her food.
Compliments came to her from the novices and from others for her success with the novices, "but the remembrance of my weakness is so constantly present to me that there is no room for vanity." When she wearied of the oversweet diet of compliments, Our Lord served her "with a salad well-flavoured and mixed with plenty of vinegar." Then He let her novices "see me as I really am and they do not find me altogether to their liking. With a simplicity that is delightful they tell me how I try them and what they dislike in me; in fact, they are as frank as though it were a question of someone else."
A strange and marvelous transformation had taken place in her. She had reached the point of loving that lies beyond the frightening words of St. John of the Cross: "Strive always, not after that which is most easy, but after that which is most difficult . . . not most pleasant, but most unpleasant . . . not after great things, but after little things . . . not after which is higher, but which is lower. . . ." That it has a point seems to elude some. The point of it — the prize to be won — is to be rid of self. She says of herself: "How can anything so contrary to nature afford such extraordinary pleasure? Had I not experienced it I could not have believed it possible!" The writings of St. John of the Cross had always been her favorite, after the Imitation and Scripture. At seventeen and eighteen these alone satisfied her. She had always followed him but she was almost surprised to see that his teaching worked!
What did she do that God should work this wonder in her soul? Here are some of the things.
There was Soeur St. Pierre, the most crotchety of invalids. Someone had to help her into the refectory nightly but no one wanted to — not even Soeur Thérèse. She offered, however, because she could not bear to miss the opportunity promised by Our Lord: As long as you did it to one of these the least of my brethren, you have done it to Me. Even so, it took all her courage. Her help was accepted only after considerable persuasion. "First her stool had to be moved and carried in a particular way, without the least hurry, and then began the journey. Supporting the poor old Sister by her girdle, I tried to acquit myself of the task as gently as I could; if by some mischance she stumbled, I was told I was going too fast and that she would certainly fall; when I tried to lead her more slowly she would say: 'Where are you? I don't feel your hand. You are letting go your hold. I am going to fall! I was right when I said you were too young to take care of me!' "
When they reached the refectory she had to be installed in her place "with some maneuvering." That done, she had to have her sleeves turned back "always according to her own special rubric." Then Thérèse was free to go. But she noticed it was very difficult for her to cut her bread, so she offered this last little service willingly, and old and cranky as Soeur St. Pierre was, she could not help be touched. This last service and her smile won the old nun's entire confidence in the end.
There was a Sister near her in the choir whose presence Thérèse could always identify by a peculiar little noise (which was special to this particular Sister) and during meditation this so irritated Soeur Thérèse that at times she was wet with perspiration from the effort to resist silencing her. She knew she should bear it patiently for love of God to avoid hurting the Sister, so she struggled to find pleasure in the noises. She waited for them, listening as one expecting music, and offered this strange suffering to Our Lord as her prayer.
Another nun was a constant source of annoyance to her and she was sure the devil was accentuating the nun's bad points in her eyes. She knew charity ought not only to be in the heart but should show itself in deeds; so when she met the nun she prayed for her, offered her virtues and merits to God, and tried to do her some little service. If the nun tried her in conversation, she made herself smile and change the subject. Yet sometimes the irritation was beyond endurance. Then she had to slip away quickly in order not to reveal her struggle to be pleasant. The outcome of these tactics was that one day the Sister said, "Tell me, Soeur Thérèse, what it is that attracts you to me so strongly? I never met you without being welcomed with your most gracious smile!" St. Thérèse writes: "What attracted me was Jesus, hidden in the depths of her soul, and I answered that I smiled because I was happy to see her (not adding, of course, for spiritual reasons only)."
One time it was necessary for her to enter the cell of Mère Marie de Gonzague, who was ill, to return the keys to the sacristy. Another Sister, afraid of disturbing the superior, tried to take the keys from Thérèse, who insisted, however, that it was her duty to return them and that she too wanted no noise, and she tried to push her way in. Their genteel tug-of-war over the keys awoke the superior and the blame was laid on Soeur Thérèse who was "burning to defend myself." But it occurred to her suddenly that if she did she would lose her peace of mind, so she "ran away." And this was so hard to do that she had to sit down on the stairs to quiet the beating of her heart. I love this incident, especially. She was partly to blame, and seeing her impulse to defend herself, even so, and save face brings her very close. Before we can begin to take injustices silently, we must learn to accept justice! It is hard to admit you have been wrong.
When starting to paint, if she found her brushes in confusion or a ruler or penknife missing, she was tempted to lose patience and had to firmly resist the impulse to "demand, and sharply demand," her possessions. Then she remembered Our Lord's words: "If any man take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him," and tried to appear glad to be rid of them. If she had to ask them back, she tried to do so as one of the truly poor in spirit who expect nothing, who are content with the role of servant, and who are happy to discover that when one is relieved of his coat and his cloak, he can now run — not merely walk — to God.
She ruthlessly exposes our imperfect poverty of spirit. We are so often kind for the sake of being considered kind, or in the hope that our kindness will be returned; sinners do as much. We take a natural delight in pleasing friends; sinners do the same. We have little ways of showing that we know an imposition when we see one, instead of giving or serving an importunate seeker with a generous heart. And what if we think of something wise or something funny and say it, and we hear someone repeating our words later as though they were their own! Ah, but don't we find an opportunity to let all know that that was our thought first, as though the Holy Spirit, who sent it, could not send us another.
It was hard to love the way she wanted to love. She found the secret of love in the ever-presence of Jesus.
"Oh Lord! Thou dost never ask what is impossible; Thou knowest better than I how frail and imperfect I am; Thou knowest that I could never love my Sisters as Thou hast loved them, unless Thou, O my Jesus, lovest them Thyself within me. It is because Thou dost desire to grant me this grace, that Thou hast given a new Commandment. Oh! dearly do I cherish it, since it proves to me that it is Thy will to love in me all those Thou dost bid me love."
There is our answer. None of this is beyond any of us. The secret of our strength lies in our weakness. St. Paul said that was his secret — for Christ is the strength of the weak ones and we are the weak.
Here is her practical instruction if we would really love: "When I show charity towards others I know that it is Jesus Who is acting within me, and the more closely I am united to Him, the more dearly I love my Sisters. Whenever I wish to increase this love, and the devil brings before me the defects of a Sister for whom I may feel but little attraction, I hasten to look for her virtues and good motives. I call to mind that though I may have seen her fall once, she may have gained many victories over herself which in her humility she conceals, and also that what appears to be a fault may very well, owing to the good intention that prompted it, be an act of virtue. I have all the less difficulty in persuading myself that this is so because of one of my own experiences that taught me that we must never judge."
Then she tells of an occasion when the portress came to ask if one of them would do her a certain service. Thérèse was eager, but she knew her neighbor was as eager, so she deliberately folded her sewing slowly to give her neighbor the opportunity first. The portress noticed the deliberation and said, laughingly, "Ah! I thought you would not add this pearl to your crown: you are too slow." And the community was left under the impression that she had acted imperfectly. Because it showed her once and for all how an act of virtue can look to others like an imperfection, she reasoned that it would be as easy for an imperfection to look like a virtue. It helped her not to judge others. We dare not: "Judge not and ye shall not be judged."
In these lessons taught by St. Thérèse are the remedies for all our problems. There are applications to every child and every grownup. The passion to possess things, to follow fads, to dress as the rest, to do as the rest, all these are treated here. The remedies for pride, stubbornness, smugness, selfishness, respect of persons are revealed here. Strangely enough, these are the answers that suggest themselves to all souls at one time or another in flashes of simplicity (touches of grace), but often they are rejected because they seem too simple, "unreasonable," not in accord with the behavior and customs of the rest of the world. Thérèse's way seems too simple and we pass it by looking for something more complicated. We have become complicated so we reason that God must be complicated too. God is only complicated to us. How we wish it could be this simple!
For example, how often have we wished praying were not so complicated, but there are so many to pray for, so many intentions, so many things we should say in our prayers. Thérèse wrote that she could not possibly remember all the names of those who wanted her to pray for them, nor their intentions, nor the things she wanted to remember herself. She would have been awake most of the night had she tried to remember, and then she might have fallen asleep and forgotten someone (she sometimes did fall asleep at her prayers). So she prayed in the words of Solomon: "Draw me; we will run after Thee to the odor of Thy ointments. . . ." In drawing her, she reasoned, He would draw also all the souls she loved, since she could not separate herself from them.
She thought of those Christians who offer themselves as victims in reparation for sins against God's goodness, and thought that she would rather be a victim of His love, loving Him for all those who do not — who neither know His love nor return it. With her characteristic childlikeness, she assumed the position of the heart in the Mystical Body, reasoning that if each one is some member of the Body, she would choose to be the heart for she wanted to love all the members and feed love to all the members. Her prayer, her life, she would pour out into the entire Body, feeding the missionaries afar, the priests at home, the Sisters, the laity, all, as the heart pumps life into all.
Thérèse put out her arms and gathered up the world and offered herself for each one in it. We can do the same, and we can teach our children to do the same. They are childlike now. We can teach them the way of love before the world has a chance to spoil them.
One of the most poignant of all the episodes toward the end of Thérèse's life was the night she went to bed and felt something hot and thick surge up in her throat. She guessed what it was. "As our lamp was out I knew I must wait till morning to make sure of the happy news, for I suspected that I had vomited blood. Morning was not far off and as soon as I arose, I remembered that I had some good news to learn: going over to the window I found I had guessed right." It does not mean, as some have believed, that she thought it was a good thing to have tuberculosis. It was a welcome portent to her because she longed to go see God, and this meant that it was His will she go soon.
But she died hard. She suffered the black desolation of the night of the soul, the trial of faith that seems to be desertion. The devil tempted her as she lay dying, daring her to believe that there was really a heaven waiting for her and a God who loved her. There was a constant stream of nuns making pointless conversation, asking if she suffered, if she were a saint, repeating bits of community gossip on the subject of her sanctity or lack of it. Thérèse heard one nun wondering what the Prioress would write of her when she was dead, since "she had done nothing." She heard another say, after she declined some beef tea, that not only had Thérèse done nothing, but she was not even a good religious. The Sisters brought the straw mattress for her corpse downstairs, put it in the hall outside and she saw it. The artificial lilies arrived for her funeral and she asked to see them also. She answered questions about her supposed sanctity in various ways: "No, I am not a saint;" again, "No, I am not a great saint;" and once, "You know very well you are nursing a little saint." She did not say she had had a revelation but she might have been divinely inspired, nevertheless; she might have been speaking of the state of sanctifying grace; and she might have been speaking as a soul who has tried to live in union with the saints. More than anything else, it sounds like the remark of a child who has put her trust in holy Hope and has taken God at His word. He can make such souls saints, if they will become as little children.
She endured horrible agonies during the last three months. Hemorrhages, violent intestinal pain, fits of choking, coughing, suffocation. Almost daily she maintained a high fever in the afternoon and again and again she said she felt herself in Purgatory. Finally, her lungs were entirely gone. "My little Mother," she said to Pauline, who describes her last illness, "I should despair unless I had faith. I can well understand how it is that those without faith kill themselves when they suffer as much as this. Take good care not to leave any poisonous remedies within the reach of any sick people you look after if they suffer such agonies as these. For I assure you that when pain reaches this pitch, one could lose one's reason any moment"
Finally, on the evening of September 30, 1897, reduced to a little, emaciated, burned-out bit of a thing, she died, saying: "Oh, I love Him. . . . Dear God, I love You!"
Long before when she was very tiny her mother had written letters about her in words that should warm the heart of every father and mother, words to store away against the time when things have gone all wrong and bitter discouragement makes them wonder if their children could possibly "turn out right." Her mother had written about her pretty ways, her tiny mouth, her gaiety, her fond nature, but she also wrote the following about her disposition:
"I find it necessary to correct our poor baby who, at times, goes into dreadful tantrums. Whenever she is crossed, she rolls herself on the floor like someone in despair who believes that everything is lost. There are times when she almost suffocates from emotion. She is a very nervous child."
And she wrote this: "Céline is naturally inclined to be good . . . as to that little puss, Thérèse, one cannot tell how she will turn out, she is still so young and thoughtless. She is more intelligent than Céline but has not nearly so sweet a disposition as her sister. Her stubbornness is almost unconquerable. When she has said No nothing will make her change; you might leave her all day in the cellar without getting her to say Yes. She would rather sleep there than do so."
So her stubbornness was an important part of it all. Stubbornness built upon by grace, together with immense love, is what St. Thérèse is made of. What made the difference? What happened to transform the stubbornness this way? I think the answer is to be found in one line she wrote about her childhood:
"As I grew older, my love of God grew more and more, and I frequently offered Him my heart, using the words Mamma had taught me: O my God, I give You my heart: take it, I beseech You, so that no creature might ever possess it but You alone, O my sweet Jesus."
Activity Source: Saints and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York; reprinted by TAN Publishers, 1958