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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 11 — 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


The disease was developing-constant vomiting, suffocation, loss of consciousness. Still Teresa struggled on. Was she dying of not being able to die, like her Spanish namesake? That is nature's instinct, but grace murmurs "May God's will be done." Oh, she never thought herself a great saint! It had been God's good pleasure to make her the vessel of certain things which did good, and would go on doing it: good to herself and to others, especially others. It was not her business to look further. Her happiness was to recognize her imperfection; but she was anxious to know whether she really was humble of heart, and to get that certainty she wanted to go on being humiliated and ill-treated.

Sister Genevieve (Celine) had thoughtfully been made assistant infirmarian to be near her sister, and Teresa was afraid that her incessant cough would wake her up at night-that was all she had against the spasms that tore her. On August 6 she was so bad that she could only say "If one only knew! . . ." and "What would it be did I not love God?" They thought she was patient. Not she! She had never had a minute's patience in her life. That patience was not hers. She did not hide her atrocious sufferings; if at least she were bearing them well!

A fortnight later she received the viaticum for the last time. The low sound of the Miserere alone was enough to make her faint. She felt she had "lost her ideas," and called on our Lady to hold her head in her hands. There was not a bit of her body that was not in agony, and she begged for prayers. But immediately they were said she refused their effects, offering them instead for those sinners who needed them so much more. When her sufferings were beyond human endurance she recanted and accepted them with a sense of shame. What could she complain of? Was not God giving her "exactly as much as she could bear"?-of which the best proof is that she bore it.

On the 25th she fell suddenly into a state of unspeakable distress. "We must pray for the dying! Oh, if people only knew!" and then "I am making a terrible fuss-but I don't want to suffer less." Thirst was added to her afflictions. Jesus had said, "I thirst," and when she was offered iced water Teresa said, "Oh, how I want this! . . . No, only a drop. My tongue is not parched enough!"

Two days later she pointed out a dark hole in the garden under the chestnut trees. "I'm in a hole like that, soul and body.... The darkness is awful; but I'm at peace." She had hardly the strength to make the sign of the cross. "O God, be pitiful to me! I've no more than that to say." But God seemed to have no pity.

On the anniversary of Teresa's profession (September 8) a friend sent her a bunch of wild flowers, and a robin, flying in at the window, delighted her by hopping about the bed. She platted two wreaths of cornflowers for the picture of the smiling Madonna. Then she received violets ("Ought she to smell them?") and next day a rose, the petals of which she scattered over the crucifix that never left her side. Then it was that she spoke those prophetic words, "Keep these petals carefully, sisters, and don't lose any of them. Later on they will be useful to you for making people happy." "Now, I hope and believe, my exile is nearly over," she added, and when one evening a dove perched cooing on the window-sill Pauline and Celine were reminded of the words of the Canticle: "Winter is now passed, the rain is over and gone. The voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come!"

These were only small exterior alleviations. The disease kept on its implacable way, till on the morning of September 29 there were signs of imminent death.

"Is this the end?" Teresa asked the prioress. "What must I do to die? I shall never know how to die."

Pauline read the office of St. Michael the Archangel to her and the prayers for the dying. The doctor came and confirmed the impression of the prioress.

"Is it to-day, mother?"


When she heard one of the nuns say that "God is going to be very happy to-day," Teresa exclaimed "So am I," but her joy soon went; all that day she was torn with pain and fear of death, and the last night was awful. But in the midst of it she was heard to sigh, "O God, yes, yes! I will all this."

She had reached perfection. The greedy snatching of her childhood was turned against herself, against her own will and self-esteem. She chose all this suffering, bodily torture, faintness of heart, spiritual uncertainty, without any ulterior motive of expected reward. She had attained the uttermost point where everything in her was pain, deprivation, nothingness. The house was empty, the whole of it at the disposal of divine grace.

She prayed in vain; it was "unalloyed anguish, without a trace of relief or comfort," and it lasted through another day. She was restless, sitting up in bed, clinging to life with all her strength. "Perhaps this will go on for months! It will be worse to-morrow. All right then-so much the better!" Then she fell back again.

"If this is the prelude, what can death itself be like? . . ."

"The cup is full to the brim...."

"O God, you are so good! Yes, I know you are good...."

About three o'clock in the afternoon she stretched her arms out crosswise, with her eyes on an image of our Lady of Mount Carmel, and said to the prioress, "Present me to our Lady, quickly, and get me ready to die well."

Mother Mary of Gonzaga calmed and reassured her, speaking of trust in God's loving-kindness and of her own humility: this time Teresa did not deny it but said with lovely simplicity, "I do not regret having given myself up to Love." The very next minute pain drew from her the cry, "I would never have believed it possible to suffer so much." "I can't breathe and I can't die," and so hanging between life and death she renewed her offering, "I am quite willing to go on suffering."

About five o'clock Mother Agnes, who was then alone with Teresa, saw a sudden change come over her face. She had the passing-bell rung, and the whole community hurried to the infirmary. Teresa smiled at each one and then turned her eyes to the crucifix; she was plainly in extremis, but the agony was long. When the Angelus rang at six she looked up beseechingly at the "smiling Madonna"; at seven the prioress dismissed the bystanders.

"Isn't it the end yet, mother? No matter! I don't want to cut short my sufferings," and she turned again to her crucifix: "I love him.... O God, I love you...

The next moment her head fell gently backwards. She seemed to be dead, and the prioress summoned the nuns. As they knelt around the bed Sister Teresa's face "regained the lily-whiteness that it had when she was well"; her eyes were fixed but still alive, looking upward and shining with an unearthly happiness. "She made certain movements with her head," says Mother Agnes, "as though she were several times struck by a shaft of love." It would certainly seem to have been an ecstasy, and lasted the space of a Credo. Then Teresa closed her eyes, and died. It was about twenty past seven in the evening of September 30, 1897; she was twenty-four years and nine months old.

Once when shown a photograph of herself Teresa had said with a smile, "Yes, that's the envelope. When will anyone see the letter inside? I should like to see that letter."

Now at last she knew. That letter, inspired, worked over, and finished off by her Lord, was before Almighty God, and it seems that it was his will that its message should be at once spread throughout the face of the earth; the young warrior, victor over herself, was given the whole world in which to enlarge her conquests. From her brown scapular as from an apron she scattered roses like rain-not roses of paper or plaster or china or marble, but living ones, white or blood-red, roses of suffering and sacrifice and innocence (any self-respecting artist would hesitate at representing them); and in her hand she bore a banner with two devices, the smiling face of the Child and the agonized face of the Crucified. She did not call for a mawkish veneration, she did not put forward a soft and feeble example: everything was strong; she was of the stock of Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc, and her "little way" was an heroic way-nothing less than plenary love of God and total surrender to him down to the least thoughts and actions; to become as a little child is to put oneself through the mill.

Imitation flowers and sham simplicity, products of an emotionalism that becomes sheer sentimentality, ought to be stripped from the devotion accorded to one from whom

God withheld sensible consolation for almost the whole of her life. The figure of the "shower of roses" has served its turn, and served it well in winning over the many who have a taste for the romantical and pretty. But these "roses" are in fact graces, and grace is not carried easily: for complete fruition it requires a martyrdom of the soul.

Wrapped in her big white cloak, a chaplet of white roses on her head and a palm branch in her hand, the body of Sister Teresa lay with face uncovered behind the chapel grating, where her relatives and friends, known and unknown, could see her for the last time. The death of a cloistered nun is not very important, but in a small town, even in one of religious tepidity like Lisieux, it is quite an event, especially if the nun was young and a native of the place by birth or residence. During her conventual life Sister Teresa had been misunderstood by many of her fellows and an object of jealousy and petty persecution for two or three, but her lingering death and final triumph had made a sensation among them. Some thought they could smell the fragrance of lilies and violets around the body; a lay-sister, who had treated her rather badly, in a paroxysm of remorse pressed her forehead against the dead feet, and was straightway cured of an acute anaemia. Doubtless this was bruited in the town, and it is probable that for some time the kitchen-sister had been unable to refrain from chattering about "our little saint" when she went shopping. She may have been believed or not, but the fact that the dead nun was the youngest child of M. Martin, who had given five daughters to religion and this one when she was only fifteen, was enough to provoke sympathetic interest and curiosity, at any rate among the devout. Many visited the chapel and their medals and rosaries touched the holy body, but only a few, apart from relatives and some of the neighbouring clergy, followed the coffin up the steep and tree-lined road to the municipal cemetery. While the Carmelites prayed in choir, Sister Teresa was taken from them and buried in a corner of the plot reserved for religious on one of the upper terraces. A wooden cross was set over the grave inscribed with her name and her promise: Je passerai mon ciel a faire du bien sur la terre. To-day its place is taken by a cenotaph, for of course the body is no longer there, but it is a good place to go and meditate, amid the peace and richness of that lovely part of Normandy. For a time the mother earth which Teresa had loved so much, and whose joys she had renounced, was in possession of her frail body; but within two years petitions, offerings, and thanks were accumulating on the grave in the form of letters, crosses, rosaries, and other ex-votos. It was there that her public cultus was born.

Her death was transfiguring the Lisieux Carmel. The mistrustful were convinced, the hostile disarmed, and in their grief the nuns recovered a sisterly unanimity. The character of the prioress herself was modified. She was now quite sure of Teresa's holiness and asserted that, while praying before her picture, Teresa spoke to her. The prioress tells us no more about this, except that "I alone know all I owe her!" Instead of the ordinary obituary notice to all the other Carmels, Mother Mary of Gonzaga decided to send out copies of the Story of a Soul, with an account of Teresa's last hours added. It was accordingly printed, and in the following October the book began to tell her name, her life, and her promises to Carmelites throughout the world. It was translated and circulated, and there soon came a day when there was no friend of Carmel who did not know of God's gift to that order which had been born beneath the mantle of Elias and reformed by the great Teresa. So it was decided to make the book public.

Its effect was swift and strong, and a stream of postulants began to flow to Lisieux, from France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, the Argentine. It was more than could be coped with, and many of them overflowed into other convents. There were some remarkable souls among them: Lisieux will not forget Sister Mary Angela, Sister Teresa of the Eucharist, or Sister Teresa of the Sacred Heart, the first of whom became prioress. The clergy were no less impressed, everywhere they were talking about this holy child; but the inspirations and miracles of her world-wide apostolate were already spreading in advance of them. She had said "I will come down," and she had spoken truly.

I do not intend to sum up, even briefly, Teresa's "second life" on earth and her intimate relations with the living during the past thirty-six years. Up to date, the succinct accounts of marvels of help, healing, conversion, forewarning, vision, kill seven volumes, entitled Showers of Roses-and they form only a drop in the torrent of testimonies that ceaselessly flows into the convent at Lisieux. Sister Teresa is everywhere and her solicitude passes nobody by: a male religious of considerable spiritual attainments in his sixty-sixth year begins his apprenticeship to perfection all over again, under her guidance; a young priest is instantaneously cured of advanced tuberculosis and henceforward has perfect health; a blind girl sees Sister Teresa and at once recovers normal sight; the prioress of an Italian convent, unable to meet her bills, finds sufficient money in an empty desk; a Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh is led by her into the Church and goes to live in her old house at Alencon; an English industrialist, unjust to his workmen, becomes their friend and benefactor, and even their religious teacher, overnight; a child is saved from fire and a motor-car held back on the edge of a cliff by people calling on Teresa; one of the petals from her crucifix banishes a cancer of the tongue; here, she comes in person to give a snowdrop to a child in pain and to save its mother from death; there, her statue in a hut encourages a number of Negroes to cast down their idols. There is scarcely a country which has not seen her benefactions or where her name is not invoked: her holiness is clear, her miracles undeniable. The voice of the people is heard crying out on every hand.

In August, 1910, an "informative process" was begun by the episcopal curia of Bayeux, which lasted a year. On December 10, 1913, the Congregation of Sacred Rites approved Teresa's writings. On June 10, 1914, Pius X, that holy pope, "introduced her cause." War broke out, and Teresa was not wanting. She also was in the trenches, protecting here, consoling there, prompting this man to leave his dug-out a moment before it collapsed, taking the hand of that one when he went "over the top." She encouraged the ranks, counselled the leaders, bent over the dying; thousands believe

they owe their life to her, and still more their faith: flyingmen, foot-sloggers, gunners, stretcher-bearers, French for the most part. No one will grudge her love for her own country and solicitude for its people when they were threatened. But a soul is a soul and a man is a man. A Bavarian who had lost both legs was dying among his opponents, and the French chaplain suggested he should ask for the intercession of Sister Teresa; the man had never heard of her, but complied with alacrity. Teresa showed herself visibly to his eyes, and his life was saved. Thus she made an apostle who carried the evidence of her benefits back from France to his own country.

Strengthened with new matter, the cause was continued after the war. On August 14, 1921, Benedict XV declared that Sister Teresa had manifested heroic virtue. On February 1l, 1923, Pius XI authorized the decree of approval of miracles, and on April 29 her beatification was proclaimed amid wild enthusiasm: Rome had suspended the regulation which stood in the way of so quick an official recognition. Hence forward Blessed Teresa would have her feast-day and its appropriate Mass in all the churches depending on Bayeux and every Carmelite church and chapel in the world.

That was not enough for her; she could not agree to limit her ambition to the particular welfare of a small diocese or even of a great order. She had said, and she still said, "I choose all." The faithful at large wanted effect to be given to her importunity, she was multiplying miracles as she had multiplied penances, and at the end of two more years a further process ended with her solemn canonization (May 17, 1925). From 1927 the liturgical cultus of this young girl is observed, on October 3, in Catholic churches, under the name now deathlessly inscribed in Heaven of "Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face," and as patroness of foreign missions and of all works for Russia. The first letter of her name really shines among the stars: she has overcome the world.

There is no need to speak of the celebrations at Lisieux and the honours there accorded her, of the invasions by pilgrims, of the transformation of the convent chapel. The huge basilica, which will make manifest the enduring spiritual force of the "new Teresa," is as yet hardly visible above ground; it will dominate the town (and unfortunately the railway station), but it is still too early to estimate its beauty and fitness. The harm done by commerce to religion at Lisieux is a price that every place of pilgrimage has to pay; as for more tangible uglinesses, it is pointless to refer to them again. Nevertheless, very many people find they never pray better than they do at Lisieux, for there they find the special help of the greatest saint of the modern age who, like another St. Francis, has given us a new gospel without modifying by jot or tittle the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Unless you be converted and become as little children." . . . "We are no longer children," is the reply, betraying our self-sufficiency, which has got to be broken. Teresa will help. She broke her own self-sufficiency and complacency, and her very existence; she broke her soul, spirit, heart, and body-with divine aid.

When Teresa's coffin was opened on September 6, 1910, her body was not found to be incorrupt, as it is with so many saints; only the bones were left, and even they were already wasting, as if the destructive violence of her disease had attacked them too. But some of the witnesses of the exhumation experienced a fragrance arising from this human dust, and it hung about the earth of the grave for several months. These relics were officially authenticated in 1917, and on March 26, 1923, they were translated with solemnity to the town in the presence of fifty thousand pilgrims. Before they were taken up a woman from Angers set her paralytic child on the coffin; the little girl at once jumped up and was able to follow the procession, singing. There were three more miracles during its passage. Thus the "nothingness" of Sister Teresa came back to occupy the forever famous convent wherein Love had burnt her up, there to await in peace the victory of the last day.

Finished at Maisonneuve on October 18, 1933, being the Feast of Luke the Evangelist, painter, writer, physician of bodies and souls.

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

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