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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 10 — 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

10. SICKNESS

Sister Teresa thought she ought to tell Mother Agnes of Jesus of divine Love's high ravishment of her, but her sister seems not to have been impressed. Nor did she take any notice of the Storv of a Soul when it was faithfully delivered to her on bended knee as the nuns were going into choir on the eve of St. Agnes. It was put aside to be read another time, for Mother Agnes had plenty of other things to think about. Her three years of office were nearly over and all her attention was required to superintend the election of a good and prudent successor. Prayer alternated with confabulations, and a taste for intrigue showed itself among the less worthy religious. There were two parties: one-I will not call it the "Martin party," for, as I have said above, there was no such thing-was in favour of the re-election of Mother Agnes; the other (indubitably anti-Martin) wanted Mother Mary of Gonzaga back again, because of her age and experience. It is quite likely that the former prioress was not at all content with having had to play second fiddle; indeed, she let both Mother Agnes and Sister Teresa know more than once that she did not regard herself as superseded and was still "all there." At the election there were seven scrutinies, and eventually Mother Mary of Gonzaga gained the required majority of votes. It may be asserted that Teresa voted for her, for she was always on the side that looked from a human point of view less favourably disposed towards herself. That Mother Agnes was not reelected was providential, for it would never have done for her to have been in a position to ease Teresa's last years and then bring forward the cause of her beatification: malicious tongues would certainly have alleged that the Martin sisters under the direction of Pauline had conspired for the glorification of one of their family.

Mother Mary at once demonstrated her impenitent "imperialism." She decided to retain the name and office of novice-mistress, though delegating its direct exercise; she did not remove Teresa, whom she valued, but kept her well under her hand, and as prioress her will was again law. So did Sister Teresa continue on the road of her sanctification.

Au monde, quel bonheur extreme!

J'ai dit un eternel adieu. Eleve plus haut que lui-meme Mon coeur n'a d'autre appui que Dieu. Et maintenant, je le proclame, Ce que j'estime pres de lui, C'est de voir mon coeur et mon ame Appuyes sans aucun appui.

(Poesies de Soeur Therese: Glose sur le Divin, d'apres St. Jean de la Croix (1896))

The first onset of illness was fierce, but when it came it caused Teresa no surprise. Her body had shared the fatigue, the privation, and the suffering of her soul, with other burdens added. It was only to be expected that such a life would be too much for the physical constitution of a young girl, however robust she might be: fasting, the discipline, choir-office, hours of kneeling; household work, going up and down steep staircases twenty times a day, the enduring of heat and cold (the house was very damp); she might not lean against anything when she was tired or lie down even in her own cell, and had to keep a bold and cheerful front, at the same time refusing to ask or accept any dispensation or relaxation; on top of all this she had less food and sleep than she needed. This daily overworking gradually bore Sister Teresa down, but when she realized it she could not make up her mind to admit it. When going upstairs and not seen by anyone she clung to the banisters, she fell asleep during her prayers, and was short of breath and sweated and was frozen by the slightest draught. She was cold, always and everywhere, for the whole seven years that she was in the convent except for a month or two in summer (only in the depth of winter was there a fire in the recreation-room, and she wouldn't go too near to that); seven years of cold, overwork, and nervous exhaustion was the record of her body, and she had so carefully hidden its effects that nobody put her under obedience to take some rest.

She endured two months of the trying rule of Mother Mary of Gonzaga, who had again given her the sacristy work. Then, in the night of April 3, after the long offices of Maundy Thursday, at a moment when she thought she was "stronger than ever," she heard "a far-away sound telling her of the coming of the Bridegroom." That is a figure of speech; the plain fact is this: seeing that she was tired, the prioress forbade her to watch all night before the altar of repose and sent her to bed at midnight. Teresa's head was hardly on the pillow when she "felt something very hot and wet rise into her mouth." She thought she was going to die and "her heart jumped with joy," but she did not light her lamp and, "restraining her curiosity till the morning," went quietly to sleep. When she got up at five on Good Friday she found that her handkerchief was soaked in blood. She assisted fervently at Prime and the chapter meeting, and then went to tell the prioress: she was feeling neither ill nor tired. Mother Mary was doubtless rather disturbed, but she gave permission to Teresa to go on with her Holy Week observances and she bore the Good Friday fast and offices without apparent harm; she even cleaned the windows, refusing the proffered help of a novice who was frightened by her pallor. The next night she brought up more blood, but she went on with her work without troubling about it.

Early in the morning of May 10 she had a dream. She seemed to be walking in a gallery with the prioress, when they met three Carmelites wearing their great veils and white cloaks. They seemed to have come from Heaven. One of them lifted her veil, and Sister Teresa recognized her as Mother Anne of Jesus, the companion of St. Teresa and foundress of Carmel in France. Her lovely face seemed to be "lit up with its own light," and Teresa asked her, "Is God going to fetch me away soon?"

"Very soon," replied Mother Anne.

"Doesn't he ask anything of me except my poor little deeds and intentions?"

"Nothing else."

"Is he pleased with me?"

"Very pleased."

Mother Anne leaned forward to embrace her and Teresa woke up.

So far she had told none of her three sisters of her threatening health, but when she developed a hard insistent cough they soon noticed it, warned the prioress, and two doctors were called in. One of them was Joan Guerin's husband. Their examination detected nothing seriously wrong; their treatment got rid of the cough, colour came back to her cheeks, and for a few months Teresa was able to carry on with her duties. "You ask news of my health," she wrote to Leonie on July 12. "Well, my cough has quite gone. Does that satisfy you? But it won't prevent God from taking me when he wills. I do my best to be nothing but a little child, so I don't have to make a lot of preparations. Jesus himself will pay my fare and the cost of going into Heaven." In the same letter she quotes the Song of Songs: "How is it possible to be afraid of him who tells us that his heart is held 'with one hair of our neck'?"

She tried to be as patient as she could. "The road of sickness is a very long one," she said to a novice. "I rely solely on love."

When she was freed from the cares of office Mother Agnes of Jesus had been able to find time to go over the manuscript which had been written for her. She was only half convinced by it, but it at least made clear the exceptional quality of the soul she had formed, OT at any rate inspired, in the old days at Les Buissonnets. Presumably she showed that precious exercise-book to her elder sister, for during September Mary, with permission of the prioress, asked Teresa to set down for her an account of the "little way." The request did not have to be pressed, and Teresa wrote straight off those burning pages that make up the eleventh chapter of the Story of a Soul, which in order of time comes nine months before the two preceding ones.

After a graceful compliment to the godmother who had given her to the Lord at the font, she hymns the fiery furnace of love and the sole path that leads thereto-abandonment of self into the arms of God. "Love is proved by deeds. What are a little child's deeds? It offers flowers, which it finds among the thorns and in the grass of its tiniest actions. God gives us his love extravagantly, but what extravagance can be expected from a tiny creature made to crawl about on the ground? She must wed herself to the 'folly' of God and borrow from the Eagle his own mighty wings and with them fly up to him one day. This is not a rash ambition. Nothing is too small for the Infinite Mercy, and were it possible for God to find a poorer soul than hers he would fill it with correspondingly greater blessings, provided it was entirely given up to him."

Sister Teresa had a special veneration for a young martyr in Tonkin, whose simplicity had attracted her, Blessed Theophane Venard (d. 1861), and she was joined in friendship with two young missionaries, ordained together, who had appealed for her help. She prayed for them, wrote to them, and joined from afar in their labours. The idea of the conversion of the whole world had always obsessed her. Now she learned that two months ago there had been a requisition for a capable nun to be sent to the Carmel at Hanoi in French Indo-China-and her name had come up for consideration. The notion of taking her prayers and sacrifices and love into the heart of a heathen land and perhaps risking martyrdom was indeed a temptation, and when the matter was mooted again she began to hope to get better enough to go and die there. This was in November, and she began a novena to Blessed Theophane; but before it was finished a sudden relapse showed that God willed otherwise.

She could not digest her food and was continually feverish, but neither fever nor exhaustion could make her falter. She took part in all the community exercises and would excuse herself from none of her personal observances, keeping up the struggle on two fronts at once, against her soul and against her body; wherever and whenever she was needed, there she was, punctual and cheerful. No one thought of pitying her any more than she thought of pitying herself. So she got through the winter up to the Epiphany of 1897, when she made a cantata on the Flight into Egypt to the air of Les gondolieres venitiennes and the Credo from the opera Herculanum. She still taught and smiled on the novices, and encouraged her sisters, of whom even the elder ones now came to her for advice.

But her strength was going rapidly and the ability to keep up its semblance suddenly left her. Her heart failed at "the violent effort she had to make to stand up and chant" at the evening office; soon she was unable to go upstairs by herself, stopping to get breath on each step; it took her an hour to undress; she lay awake most of the night, her teeth chattering with fever; and every morning she faced afresh the relentless rigour of the rule she had chosen. She persevered until Lent and then all at once collapsed completely.

The doctor knew Teresa was doomed, and said so, and Mother Mary of Gonzaga had at last to submit to the evidence. A last medical effort was made; she was still allowed downstairs, but had to pass long hours in her cell' where she was subjected to a very painful treatment.

"Does it hurt you very much, Sister Teresa?"

"Yes; but I've always wanted to suffer." And she preferred her cell to the infirmary, for there she could suffer alone. "When I'm pitied and spoilt I'm no longer happy," she declared.

The whole convent knew that Sister Teresa was going to die. She heard the kitchen-sister wondering what the mother prioress would find to write in her obituary notice. "She came here, she lived here, she was taken ill, and she died," and that indeed was all there was to be said-except that those things were or would be done in the perfection of charity.

Mother Agnes of Jesus had become absolutely convinced that Teresa was a saint, and she now noted down from day to day the more striking of her sayings; later on these formed the most precious book of Novissima verba. From May 1 to September 30 it is like a spiritual diary, but only of as much as a strong and sensitive soul was willing to say. The worst was kept for herself and God: she told of her poor little joys and was silent about her real troubles. By trying to read between the lines we may be able to get some idea of the depths in which she was.

She welcomed our Lady's month with a smile, and tried to be serene. Somebody had spoken of man's ingratitude. Teresa looked for no earthly recognition, but "the hope of heavenly reward? She would have no more in Heaven, for she was with God already." "If God renders to every man according to his works he will find her a difficult problem.... He will have to render to her according to his own works." "Really it would be better if God did not know whose was the little love she had given him, so that he wouldn't have to reward her for it."

She had hoped to be faithfully in harness to the end, but now all her duties had been taken from her and she kept some small piece of work always near by so as not to waste her time. One morning she had two small difficulties, which account for her cheerfulness. "Was she afraid of death? She was not at all sure of herself. Anyway, she did not rely on her own thoughts: God would either give her fear or not. She had tried to show she was brave by keeping on telling him that she was. One must not make people tell lies."

She knew exactly when the attempted medical remedies were useless, and sent them in spirit to sick missionaries who had neither time nor means to look after themselves.

On June 4 Teresa thought the end had come and said farewell to her three sisters. For their sake she would have liked to have a "beautiful death," but feared she ought not to-"See how our Lord died!" She was ready to welcome anything, even death without the sacraments, for everything may be a means of grace.

But she recovered a little and, as she could swallow better, was allowed communion. After this she found again the gift of tears that she had lost for so long; sitting in the garden she watched some chicks beneath the wings of a white hen and wept gently, for they reminded her of our Lord's words in the temple before his passion. Then she was able to walk again, and offered up her walking for the missionaries.

Towards the end of May she had made a first allusion to a "test of her soul," namely, temptations against faith, and a month later they were much worse. "My soul feels banished. Heaven is shut to me." But by a curious contradiction it was at this very time that she said, "You will not lose by my death, for I shall send down a shower of roses."

Mother Agnes of Jesus had told the prioress that she had a manuscript of Teresa's memories that would one day interest the community, and suggested that they should be finished by the addition of some riper reflections on community-life, if Teresa were not too weak to do it. The prioress agreed and, when Teresa asked what she should write, told her to write about charity and about the novices.

So she set to work, sitting in a bath-chair under the chestnut trees in fine weather, writing what came into her mind, slowly, in big letters, wide spaces between the lines. It was her last testament, and forms the ninth and tenth chapters of the Story of a Soul. With humility and forgiveness she addresses them to Mother Mary of Gonzaga, thanking her for the severity that had caused her so much pain. She confesses her only ambition, "to be a saint," the disproportion between her abilities and her ambition, the impossibility of attaining it by greatness and the consequent necessity of making use of small things: seeing it was an age of inventions she would go up to God "by the lift." We already know part of her story, that of her illness; these pages lighten up the depths of her soul wherein the supreme test or trial was going on.

She had always longed for the "world to come," the promised land of the faithful and patient and humble and loving. A fleeting smile from our Lady had showed her a glimpse of it. Later on, a lightning-flash to her heart had made her experience for a moment a little of the ecstasy of love that is the portion of the righteous: the flame had gone out but she could still dream of it. Her glowing steadfast faith had enabled her to enjoy Heaven without seeing it and without receiving any enlightenment, encouragement, or sensible sweetness. That faith itself was now hidden, lost in mists that covered her soul so that she could no longer even see the "reflection of her dear heavenly home." Her heart, "weary of darkness," endeavoured to find some rest "in the strengthening remembrance of an eternal life to come," but the darkness itself "borrowed the voice of the wicked" and mocked at her: "Do you dream of light and a fragrant home, the eternal possession of the almighty Creator? Go on! Go on! Death will lead you to yet deeper night...." It will be "the night of nothingness."

Teresa stopped; she was on the verge of blasphemy. God forgive her! She had not "the delight of faith," but every day she did its works. "I have made more acts of faith during the past year than in all the rest of my life."

She fled from the tempter to Jesus; she was ready to give her life in confession of the faith that eluded her; she even declared that she was happy-since it was her Lord's good pleasure-"not to be able to contemplate on earth the beauties of the Heaven that awaited her" even with the eyes of faith.

Teresa did not exaggerate this night of the spirit. "It is no longer a curtain, it is a wall between me and the starry firmament." "I feel no joy when I sing of the happiness of Heaven and the eternal possession of God, for I am singing only of that which I want to believe."

An occasional ray of sunshine, "a very little ray," relieved this heavy night, but it would pass at once and "leave the darkness thicker than before." Nevertheless, she continued in peace. She now believed only by an effort of will, but she believed. Love actually increased, and so did hope. "They [the angels and saints] want to see just how far my hope will stretch."

And charity towards her neighbour flourished. There was a certain nun whom Teresa found disagreeable in every way. Not content with overcoming a natural antipathy, she set herself to treat her just as she would one of whom she was very fond. Whenever they met, Teresa prayed for her; she did for her whatever services she could; if the nun was vexatious, Teresa gave her a charming smile and changed the subject: and all so convincingly that the nun asked one day, "Sister Teresa, won't you tell me why you are so drawn to me?" Presumably Teresa was able to satisfy her curiosity without offending and without Iying.

It is difficult to speak of "little actions," "little sacrifices," a "little way," in the face of supernatural heroisms of this sort, and this was only one among very many. Martyrdom is less exacting, for it calls for only one triumph over the protest of the flesh. It may be said that the essence of the "little way" is to put "great deeds at the service of small things." Teresa explains that it involves "denudation" when a soul feels itself at breaking-point; the giving-up of everything one has of one's own, even intellectual goods (personal expressions or ideas used without acknowledgment by somebody else) and spiritual goods, for it is of their nature to be a source of grace to others; patience in improvement, because God bestows his light only by degrees; the renouncement of all happiness, even spiritual happiness. Sister Teresa was perfected in fulness, for she had absolutely nothing.

She wrote at length of her novices and all she had learned from them, of her two missionary "brothers," and the supreme revelation she received from Heaven upon the apostolate: the true apostle does not trouble about such and such a method of gaining souls; if he really loves God, running after him, as the Canticle says, "to the odour of his ointments," souls will follow him, for love attracts love.

At the beginning of July the work was interrupted, for Teresa became too weak to hold her pen and both words and thoughts were failing. Renewed blood-spitting caused her to be taken to the infirmary, to the white-curtained bed in which she was to die, and she joyfully gave up her beloved cell-she had still something to give, after alll She ransacked her conscience in expectation of receiving the last sacraments: when she came to sins of the senses she accused herself of having once when travelling used "a bottle of eau-de-Cologne with too much pleasure"-perhaps that was why she was suffering so much now! When the superior came to see her she received him with such a bright and reposeful face that he decided the last sacraments were not yet called for, while some of the nuns did not believe she was likely to die at all.

People kept on asking her questions. Did she fear eternal punishment? "Little children are not damned" she murmured. Was she glad of the benefit that individuals would certainly draw later on from her books? "Obviously everything comes from God, and if I derive any glory from it the credit won't be mine." She was ready for her writings to be thrown into the fire. "What would you do if you had to begin life all over again?" somebody asked. "It seems to me that I should do just what I have done," she replied simply. This was not self-satisfaction and incurable pride, but enlightenment-truth proceeding from the mouth of a babe. Her bruised and disturbed spirit gave vent to flashes not her own, as when she declared with stunning assurance that "God will have to do whatever I want in Heaven because I have never followed my own will on earth!"

Surely never to have done one's own will, without a shadow of material constraint upon it, is a supreme triumph for that will.

Her assurance went further yet.

"You will look down on us from above?"

"No. I shall come down."

By the eve of the feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel Teresa was a living skeleton; "How glad I am to see myself being destroyed!" However, she would be able to receive communion to-morrow. Would she be called after that? Did anyone think so? "Shall I leave my little way in order to die?" On July 17 there was more light: the conqueror, chosen by God from all others, became conscious of her election and the powers that he had given her.

"I believe that my mission is about to begin.... If my wishes are granted my heaven will be spent on earth till the end of the world.... I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.... I shan't be able to rest so long as there are souls to be saved. But when the angel says 'Time is no more,' then I shall rest and be happy, for the tale of the chosen will be complete." What a prophecy in so small a mouth! "Would God give me this wish if he did not intend to realize it?" She was a "very brave soldier" and it was not pleasure at the prospect of release from the trials of life that drew her on, but "To love and be loved, and to come back to earth to make Love loved."

In this expectation and certitude Teresa continued to expend the fruits of her charity-devoid of the consolations of faith-upon her superiors and companions and novices. It was washing-day, and very hot. So! She must suffer much in order that their burdens might be eased....

The haemorrhages were so much worse by the end of the month that at last she was anointed and given the viaticum, asking forgiveness of all the community for her trespasses. Afterwards, the inopportune visit of several nuns interrupted her thanksgiving. When our Lord withdrew to pray by himself, crowds followed him and he did not send them away. So then did Sister Teresa leave her God that she might greet her importunate sisters pleasantly.

Somebody saw fit to bring into the infirmary the pallet upon which her dead body was to be laid out. Teresa burst out laughing. She had never been comfortable in her body and always found it a nuisance: it was high time she was out of it.

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


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