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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 1 — by Henri Gheon

 St. Therese of Lisieux

Table of Contents

  1. The Initial Resistance
  2. A Spoilt Child
  3. Pride Transfigured
  4. Teresa at School
  5. Scruples and Vocation
  6. First Trials in Carmel
  7. The Holy Face
  8. The Little Way
  9. "The Story of a Soul"
  10. Sickness
  11. Teresa Is Glorified


It needs more than intelligence to understand holiness, more than sensibility to recognize it, more than a nicely balanced judgement to criticize it: a whole lifetime can be spent in the study of the Church's wonders, of spiritual books, and of the manifestations of sanctity without coming anywhere near its hidden reality. Indeed, to look at it in that way, from the point of view of a research-worker or of a dilletante, is a sign of complete blindness in its regard.

Now that I am on the threshold of the marvellous life of Sister Teresa of Lisieux I find myself face to face with the great M. Renan. He looks me up and down, he pities me. He is fully aware of the superiority given him by his learning, his ecclesiastical training, his subtle art, and his apostasy. He tends to think himself infallible and is not afraid to prophesy. He still has a certain taste for religious matters, but of religious experience he has retained only the affecting memory of a rather sickly emotional state, which gives his writing that greasy quality we call "unction." According to him, the Catholic religion is only a form of sentimentalism and so, with its rites and its music, its poets and its heroes, it must submit to the law of all such and be assigned its place in a museum of grand and alluring anachronisms: here, in company with the temples of ancient Egypt and the Homeric poems, with the enchantments of Shakespeare and the day-dreams of Rousseau, it will be a source of pleasure to the curious and the aesthetic. The Church has had its day, and he accepts this fact. Even holiness is not spared his mournful condemnation; hear M. Renan: "Holiness is a kind of poetry which, like many others, is finished and done with."

Then he adds, rashly: "Rome will go on canonizing saints [Of course; isn't that her business?] but there won't be any more canonized by the people.''

Soon after that-so soon that he might have known her personally-the little nun of Lisieux was being acclaimed by the whole Catholic world, without waiting for the verdict of the Father of the Faithful. But M. Renan was dead, so he did not have to acknowledge his mistake.

When learned men make expeditions into the realm of souls they should remember the saying of Christ to the woman of Samaria as he sits at the water-springs which they think they have sealed: "If thou didst know the gift of God." Holiness is "a kind of poetry" which wells up endlessly, for its source is not in literature, or in fancies, whether of the heart or of the senses, but in the very womb of the God of Life.

We should have to go back to the heroic ages of Christianity to find another saint so spontaneously and unanimously acclaimed and so quickly recognized by the Church as Sister Teresa. She attained the altar almost before she was in the waiting room: the intervals which Rome requires before confirming the virtues of even the best qualified of her children were shortened for her, and only fifty years elapsed between her birth in 1873 and her glorification in 1923. For the last twenty years of this half century the whole world, its heart full of joy and its hands of gifts, had hailed her and called upon her with unparalleled steadfastness. And to the question what great events, what heavenly favours, what miracles, prophecies, visions during her life account for this extraordinary popularity, the answer is, her silence, her obscurity, her very inexistence. She lived hidden, unknown except to a few friends and relatives, and to her dying day her apostleship remained a secret within the walls of a convent. That is the greatest, the clearest, and the most overpowering of her miracles, or of the miracles done on her behalf. There is no purely natural explanation to be found for the acclamation which she received. Moreover, no such explanation would suffice; not even, in my opinion, the Story of a Soul, that record of her confidences which was translated into almost every language the day after her death.

I don't want to underestimate its value or importance or influence but, whatever energy was expended in making it known, whatever appeal it has made to souls, whatever its material success throughout the Christian world, could this humble little book, in outward appearance so like innumerable other "pious books," have had the power to raise such a tide of fervour and enthusiasm, to set a match to so many tares, or rather mines going off all at once in every quarter of the inhabited globe, unless God had a hand in it? The first and sufficient cause of the popularity of this child was that God himself slipped a rare grace between the pages of her book, like a pressed flower that has not lost its fragrance, a grace immediately efficacious and capable by its very presence of opening hearts to her teaching. But, if it is a matter of grace, is it not simpler to suppose that God acts directly on the featureless crowds of those who must be led, enlightened, and directed? Perhaps it was decided in the counsels of the Almighty Wisdom that not only should no lesson from the pen of Sister Teresa be wanting in its effect but also, and above all, that her sufferings, sacrifices, and prayers, the treasury of love and expiation of her short life, should all of them be poured out again, and poured out at once, over this needy world. Persecution was rife, war was coming on with giant strides. We were threatened with terrible trials for soul and body, and hungered and thirsted after these graces.

A girl dies when she is twenty-four years old at a small Carmel in the heart of Normandy-a province not noted for its mysticism. The people there live well and drink better. Trouville is a couple of yards away, and Deauville just beyond, where the prince of this world is in charge and has already become dramseller on a large scale to the peasants as well. The body of Sister Teresa was taken to the municipal cemetery, accompanied by a few friends; nobody else took any notice. The grave was scarcely filled in when the fragrance of her goodness found its way out; everybody began to talk about her, first in one province, then in another, in France and all over Europe, in the Old World and in the New; her name was on the lips of believers and infidels, those who could still say the name of Christ and those who had forgotten it. Why should she have been chosen when there were so many others who had died about that time whose virtues had been demonstrated concretely and in public, servants of the poor, missionaries, apostles, martyrs, godly men and women of all kinds? "Teresa! Sister Teresa!" It was all Teresa. But what had she done for us during her life? Anything we could see? Anything we could touch? Nothing. Or nothing that we knew, anyway. And yet everybody was calling to her. It was enough that she had said, "I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth." That saying was snatched up repeated, broadcast. But could it be believed? It was believed; it had to be. Why did it have to be? That is a matter of love, and love cannot be explained.

Before going any further I have to make an admission. I have begun to venerate the second Teresa only lately. Moreover, I am writing this book primarily for all those, Catholics or not, who resist her attraction, as I once did. It is difficult not at once to make common cause with an unanimous verdict of the faithful; on the other hand, a delayed acquiescence gives time for reflection and allows the mind to make a less superficial examination of her whom we are asked to regard as holy. Not that I claim to say anything new, how ever trifling, on a subject that has already received so large a tribute of ink, but the confession of my personal experience may be useful to others.

At first I knew Sister Teresa only by the statues of her. Obviously the sight of crudely coloured and mawkish plaster figures could not entrance a new convert who, even in his faith, was full of futile aesthetic prejudice. In those days I Iooked to the Church for beauty as well as for truth; I had yet to learn that truth is essential but, so far as this world is concerned, beauty is not, however helpful it may be to prayer. Then I read the Story of a Soul.

I don't know whether I came to this book too soon or too late. It did not bore me-but it did not captivate me; here and there it irritated me (may I be forgiven!). At the first reading I was not attracted or moved or even instructed. It may be that I was still incapable of appreciating the worth of the "little way" that it teaches, but it is more likely that I had already found it for myself in the lives and writings of other saints, or simply in the Gospels themselves, for they teach it in every line. Spiritual writers only restate in words, and saints only re-live in deeds, those things which Christ said and did; and His saying and doing are incomparably better than theirs, in accordance with the inherent perfection of His being. When He said "Unless you become as little children" He pointed out the "way of childlikeness" of Giles the abbot and the Poor Man of Assisi and the Cure of Ars and Germaine the shepherdess; Teresa of the Child Jesus comes after them, does what they did, and restores this primordial teaching that we are prone to neglect to its place of honour. One of the principal duties of the saints throughout the ages is to incarnate anew, to dress in contemporary clothes, such ancient truths as are likely to be overlooked precisely because of the appearance they have worn too long. So we see St. Francis dress himself in sackcloth, M. Vianney in a moth-eaten cassock, Teresa Martin in a first-communion frock of the fashion of 1885-and an astonished world suddenly recognizes the humbleness, the poverty, and the innocence that have for twelve, eighteen, nineteen hundred years been visible though not always seen beneath the white tunic of our Lord. So Teresa taught me nothing about simplicity, renunciation, and childlikeness that had not already been shown me by St. Germaine, St. Giles, St. Francis, St. John-Baptist Vianney, and many others. If I had read her book to the end it might have taken hold of me; unfortunately, I let it slip from my fingers.

I was neither disappointed nor sorry. I reminded myself that we must revere all the saints, but that among so many we are free to exercise a preference and to choose specially certain ones according to our time and country, our position and age, our character and temperament. Teresa was not for me. I could not deny that she was for my time, but on this point I was not of my time. The tinselled and sugary manifestations of devotion to the "little saint" (the abuse of this diminutive drove me frantic) had successfully hidden from me the greatness and perhaps originality that was surely hers. There were too many roses, too many flowers of all sorts. I could see nothing but roses; a few thorns underneath them, of course, but then any saint without thorns is an impossibility. I reverenced her in her statue-from afar.

However, her miracles made me think a bit. I knew sick bodies that she had cured, souls that she had changed, scholars who knelt at her feet, persons of high spirituality, used to the heights of St. John of the Cross and the first Teresa, who nourished themselves on her words; I saw that she was the refuge of very dear friends who came to Christ only through her or lived in Him better by her. It required a strong effort for me to try again. I went at last to Lisieux, the Story of a Soul under my arm, resolved to see everything, to read everything, and to dare everything-even the chapel of her shrine.

I know that I am now going to upset many people, and I apologize in advance. But I must point out the stumbling-block that is the way of persons like myself; if I don't, they will not follow me and I shall have failed in my object. The others may be shocked by me, but their convictions about St. Teresa will remain unharmed. And that is what matters.

The chapel of the Carmel at Lisieux is at the end of a narrow courtyard and has a frozen look outside. On entering one strives hard to find some attraction in it. Were it plainer, it would not be half bad; there is a crushing excess of ornament, as useless as it is bad, yet this might be overlooked. But on turning to the right to venerate the holy relics, we are at once up against the masterpiece of hideousness and stupidity that has the high honour of sheltering them. The pseudo-renaissance cupola and its worthless stained-glass windows are the least of the absurdities. The shrine itself is showy, clumsy, quite without beauty: let that, too, pass. And I am not particularly offended by the brocade and velvet with which the recumbent image of the saint is dressed up in its gold and crystal cage. Certainly it would be preferable for this flesh-aping marble, polished, tinted, "idealized" beyond words, to be habited in woolen serge; but then in Italy and Spain the most obscure martyrs can be seen covered with jewels and glittering fabrics like stage princesses: they are in glory, so why not glorify them? What I cannot tolerate are the shrine's supernatural guardians, two gigantic angels and a child musician: they are carved so flabbily in a marble so white and soft that they seem to melt like sugar while you look at them; the child has a harp in one hand and a flower in the other, and with the flower it plays the harp. To complete the crime, the sculptor (doubtless an "eminent" one) has set out on the steps several things like marble-sugar in the form of scattered roses and-to crown the horror-from a dense oily cloud there rises a ponderous bronze cross. I will not dwell upon the decoration of the walls, pale blue "draperies" made of stucco and dripping with roses in relief. The uniform spirit of the repository, pretentiousness, jingling poeticalness, and pious adulation give a confusing unity to the whole thing. The Madonna by Bouchardon, a little affected but good, which hangs at the back and once smiled upon the saint, is hardly noticeable amid its expensive surroundings. And remember that this gilding will never be dulled, this stucco never fade, this marble never lose its shiny surface-for the lighting of candles is forbidden: bulbs of electric light have superseded them. We are among the new rich, whose drawing-room furniture has cost too much not to be kept like new.

It would be laughable, if one could find the heart to laugh. It makes the visitor ashamed of his country and of his century, ashamed that he lingers among such enormities. He feels the spirit of the image-breakers rising within him. He is sorry for Teresa and asks her forgiveness for these outrages.... Shut your eyes. Recollect yourself. Think. Forget that sculptor; forget those who, with the best possible intentions, gave him his orders and directed his hand. Smell the real roses that cover the floor: they are fresh every morning. Catch the fragrance of goodness that somehow breathes from those bones. Be humble about your likes and dislikes, humble yourself even to the extent of accepting ugliness.... But reason persists: why does God allow it? Why does Teresa allow it? Why has God let the devil have this triumph, that this holy place should be in the front rank of monstrosities of Catholic ecclesiastical art in the twentieth century? Does the soul no longer inform the body, and the spirit the flesh?

After a long time of reflection and resignation it must be conceded that the cultus of Sister Teresa is associated with other external things besides these. There is also in Lisieux a superb cathedral. There is the touching house Les Buissonnets. There is the cemetery, with its little enclosure for the Carmelites, on an apple-covered slope in the greenest of the valleys. Above all there is the devotion, the true devotion, of the humble folk who fill and transfigure the chapel at every hour of the day. In the presence of that lowly child and of her God these deformities and insufficiencies, the images, rosettes, and pious ditties do not matter. They are only a means: prayer goes far beyond them. Yet the surrender we are longing to make must wait for one more argument: Was all this stuff really necessary? Could we not have done without it?

No. Probably we could not. Those of us who are put off by it are only a small minority. Teresa was given to her own times; humanly speaking and in her earthly aspect she was made a standard for them, and the devotion she excites has taken the external form which it required. If it was to find its way gently to the burning secret of her soul her age had to have this unreal display-the cheap scents, the romantic poetizing, the Christmas-card roses, the statues kin to the marble groups that adorn the more expensive hotels. We need not try to explain it away, for it does no wrong to Teresa. The Lisieux way of doing things, the taste of her devotees and of the worthy nuns who cultivate "accomplishments" in honour of their sister, was her own, that of her family and of her "world." Where and when could she have learned anything better? It is supreme everywhere throughout Europe and America, and is lovingly fostered by a huge bourgeoisie. Its reign is far from over, for it makes headway among the mass of the people and successively contaminates each new level of the middle-classes. It cannot be denied that most people like it. God bequeathed it to Teresa-and she uses it.

I do not mean to say that we have the saints we deserve; we never deserve the saints we have. But we are given the saints whose outward appearance is most likely to attract us. Are souls then to suffer because appreciation of art has been withdrawn from society through the fault of the bourgeois Republic? Jesus Christ did not die for artists and men of good taste alone: they can go to Chartres and some of them will come back converted. The crowds that descend on Lisieux and carry away its trash as well as its graces to the ends of the earth find themselves quite at home; everything there astonishes and delights them. The atmosphere of complete at-homeness invites their enthusiasm and confidence, till they are free, without knowing it, from the pretty-pretties that have led them on. As they pray they find the real Sister Teresa underneath the sugar roses and cheesy clouds, behind the platitudes and pet-names that take all the salt out of her most heroic story: Teresa, the ascetic of the wasted body and bruised heart and unbending will whose sacrifice was ceaseless, who lived on and died from a love that was all pain. That is what lay behind her smile; I have read the Story of a Soul again, and it is beyond question. Some jam must be mixed with the powder if the multitude is to take so bitter a medicine. She mixed a little herself. The convent of Lisieux has added more, perhaps too much; but doubtless they did well, since so many faithful souls have found the physic palatable.

I am speaking for the others, those who are sickened by the jam, deterred by the sham art, driven to flight by the rain of roses; and for their sakes I erase the garlands from the margins of the book of her unutterable confidences, take that distressing pastry stuff away from the walls of her chapel, reject the photographs that have been touched up, deliberately or involuntarily, to "give her a more suitable expression." I wish that I could go further and display in these pages nothing but her consumed and conquering soul-the equal in warmth and energy, if not in poetic genius, of that which made another Teresa the glory of Spain: its superior, if superior be the word, in firmness, even hardness-for to my judgement the first Teresa had a greater tenderness. But I cannot write only of her soul because, to make her comprehensible, she must be put back into her fleshly integument and shown in her own time and place, among those lower middle-class folk who provide the means by which she pleases them and whom, by a fair exchange, she recalls to their highest duties. To this I must resign myself, and my own origins are an advantage, for I resemble Sister Teresa of Lisieux in that I was born of the petite bourgeoisie, in a provincial town, and at about the same time. If I had never left that town perhaps I should have shared the taste in religious art of her family, her convent, her followers-in other words, her own. It might be better for me if I did.

 (from Secrets of the Saints, Image, 1963, translated by Donald Attwater)

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