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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 2 — 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


Approaching Alencon from the railway station by the rue Saint-Blaise there is to be seen on the right-hand side a fine sixteenth-century mansion with a courtyard in front; it was formerly the town house of the Guises and is now the residence of the chief administrative official. Opposite it on the other side of the street is a small house, also built of brick and stone but as modest as the other is grand; yet with a certain style about it. Its front is broken on the ground floor by a door and two windows, and on the upper storey by three nicely bowed French-windows opening on to an iron balcony. When too freshly painted the house looks like a new toy. A modern chapel, reminiscent in its false elegance of the one at Lisieux, fails to spoil the whole. It was here that Teresa was born.

Visitors are courteously welcomed by a charming old lady who lives in the house and looks after it with the greatest care. She is the widow of a Scots clergyman who received an inward intimation from the saint that he was to enter the Roman Church. At the end of a flagged passage is the narrow steep staircase, with polished mahogany handrails, where the little girl used to count each step and stop every time to call to her mother till she answered. There is a marvelously fresh atmosphere about the big downstairs room where Mme. Martin used to sit by the window, designing patterns for the precious lace which was made for her by outside workers. That same spotless white curtain filtered the light on to her work and guarded the recollection of her prayers: she would have tempted the brush of Vermeer of Delft. At the back a movable glazed partition still cuts off the dining-room, and at celebrations this partition would be opened to make room for the extra leaves of the oak table, which were necessary when the whole family was to sit down together. There may be a few alterations in detail, but nothing has grown older; Teresa's times are still our times, for in this quiet corner of France things move very slowly. All the furniture and appointments are ordinary, solid, and simply designed; everything keeps its spirit: it is held there by a prayer. Passers-by are few, and there is a great weight of silence, the unalterable quietness of the provinces; they say that it hides plenty of wickedness, but it certainly collaborates with God in the making of saints.

I suppose it is necessary for me to mention the room in which Teresa was born, sacred to a wedded love which ever sought to be nothing but a duty. It is upstairs, behind the elder sisters' bedroom, and somebody has had the pious idea to connect it with the adjoining chapel. It is a shock, as one goes towards the flickering lamp that burns before the altar, suddenly to discover on the other side of a grating a sort of furniture-exhibit, in the style of the Tottenham Court Road before the emergence of the so-called modern style (which is not much better). In a dazzling light and against a blinding background is upreared one of those great old-fashioned beds which, comfortable and dignified no doubt, are yet neither beautiful nor ugly and emphatically demand a decent dimness. This one has no respect for tradition. It shows off, preens itself, flaunts its new clothes: the counter pane, canopy, and curtains are of currant-red silk plush, decked out with pompons. A window with a lace blind and more currant-red curtains backs it up, and two chairs (one a child's) and an Empire table are disposed around.

In the presence of such an outpouring the imagination collapses. The relentless decoration kills the smiling Madonna whose haloed picture hangs under the canopy above the bed. The walls are freshly repainted, and so tell us nothing; the parquet floor, scraped or re laid, does nothing but shine with polish-it looks as if it had never been trodden by a human foot. We are a long way from M. Vianney's room as it is kept at Ars. And, I may add, we are a long way from the room in which Teresa Martin first cried aloud before Heaven. The piety of that date was capable of results less scandalous than this; here its aberrations have reached their limit, and I shall not refer to them again. But it must not be forgotten that the germ of these things was in the Martins themselves and affected their daughter from her cradle.

Nevertheless, M. and Mme. Martin were not in all respects like their neighbors. They shared the tastes, prejudices, and habits of their class on many points, but as Christians they were rather different. I do not mean that religion was a matter of complete indifference to their fellow-townsmen. Thanks to centuries of experience, to their natural earnestness, and to constant contact between town and country, the people of the western provinces of France have long been fortified against the propaganda of "new ideas." Under the July Monarchy and the Second Empire the Church took her bearings and regained almost all the ground that the Revolution had taken from her and which the Empire and the Restoration had tried to recover by politics rather than by conviction. In spite of the crimes of official dechristianization there can still be found in the French countryside not only isolated rocks of religious enthusiasm but also, as it were, great alluvial deposits, scarcely covered with sand, wherein the convictions of their forbears endure and only need a turn of the plowshare to bring them to light. The middle-class people of Alencon were practicing Catholics. At Corpus Christi they hung flags outside their houses, and officials regarded it as an honor to carry the canopy at the procession; the men went to the high Mass every Sunday and most of them fulfilled their obligations at Easter; there were few "freethinkers" among them. But Christians of the quality of the Martins were certainly rarer, and they were a cause of inverted scandal. The refrain is always the same: "They exaggerate"-there is nothing less bourgeois than exaggeration.

M. Martin's father came from Athis in the departement of the Orne. He fought in Napoleon's wars and stopped on in the army after Waterloo, often changing his station. That is how the third of his children, Louis, came to be born at Bordeaux in 1824. When Captain Martin retired he settled down at Alencon, not far from his birthplace, because it was convenient for his children's education. He was as good a Christian as he was a soldier and never trifled about duty; everything had to be exact, and he would allow no deviation from rules. This piety which he passed on to Louis may well be called military, and with it went a soldierly bearing which his son never lost. Louis was a tall upstanding fellow, always looking straight before him; at twenty he was the handsomest young man in the place. But he was never a soldier. He went to some cousins at Rennes, and there he adopted Breton dress and became a clock-maker, perfecting himself under a friend of his father at Strasburg. This quiet and precise trade suited him well: it encouraged him to meditate on the shortness of life. He had a poetical turn of mind, and his childhood's habit of looking at everything from the angle of eternity led to a liking for high places, where he could feel nearer to God and worship him in his creation (he was especially fond of watching sunsets). Accordingly, when he was twenty, he set out for the Alps, travelling partly on foot and partly by stagecoach, half tourist and half pilgrim, till he came to the snowclad solitude of the Austin Canons in their monastery on the Great St. Bernard. He did not know enough Latin to be accepted there; so, with his father's approval, he decided to take up serious studies. They were stopped by sickness. Then, disappointed but resigned to disappointment, he went back to clock-making, and after a short residence in Paris opened a small shop at Alencon. It was in the rue du Pont Neuf, a few yards from the river. The name Martin can still be seen on the signboard, surrounded by watches and clocks and rings and necklaces, for later he added a jewellery business to his trade. Here he lived a bachelor's life till he was thirty-five.

People did not know what to make of this monkish watchmaker. He was good-looking, with a full well-kept beard, reticent in manner, educated; he never went outside his shop without putting on a frock coat and bowler hat. As he went about the streets he did not look at women, even out of the comer of his eye, and seemed to think as little about getting married as he did about recreation. When he found a man drunk in the gutter he would help him up and lead him home. He was at Mass every morning, and his house was a meeting-place for several devout old men, who discussed with him the best way of helping the needy and sinners and of forwarding the work of missionaries on behalf of the kingdom of God. This haunter of churches was so well thought of by everybody that he quite upset the accepted opinion that a man "given to good works" must necessarily be sour in disposition or a hypocrite. It must be added, to place him exactly, that he was a keen angler.

At this same time there lived in the house in the rue Saint-Blaise already described a certain Mademoiselle Zelie Guerin, together with her old father (a retired police officer), her brother Isidore, and a sister. She was a local girl and had been to school at the Adoration convent. An irresistible sympathy for human sufferings had prompted her to seek admission among the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, but the superioress of the Hotel-Dieu had refused her, without reason given. Where Louis Martin had failed, so Zelie Guerin failed too. This rather remarkable coincidence has not been invented afterwards as a frill to a pious legend: those are the facts, solidly established. M. Guerin had very little money, so Zelie became a lacemaker. Thenceforward she could be seen at her window, putting together squares of point d'Alencon or making charming designs on paper for the discharge of the orders which came in such marvellous numbers. She wrapped herself in contemplation, and God was always with her. She mused on the possibility of serving him more fully by marrying a husband who would be no less concerned for His glory, and bringing many children into the world who should be consecrated to His service.

These two craftsmen, the clock-maker and the lacemaker, lived in different parishes and their families were not acquainted. The two did not know one another. They waited. How they met one fine day on St. Leonard's bridge, like Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate; how he made way for her, and she passed him; how they looked at one another; how Zelie recognized unerringly that this was the companion intended for her by &oaf: all this is a secret which Heaven has kept well. We only know that there was mutual understanding and delight, that the families met, and that the two were married. Louis Martin was careful for his own maidenhood and believed that it was his wife's wish too to shelter hers under the fine veil of a purely spiritual union; and there is documentary evidence that they lived together for a year as brother and sister, like St. Valerian with St. Cecily. This awesome and superhuman paradox might have subsisted their whole lifetime, but Teresa would not have been born, and it would seem that in the plan of divine providence this marriage had no other object. Zelie told her husband that she wanted children, that he and she should found a family of saints in accordance with his own desire. Her wishes were fulfilled: of her nine children, four went to God between the ages of six months and six years; the other five all became nuns.

For their first christening-name all were called after our Lady, and there were successively Mary Louisa, Mary Pauline, Mary Leonie, Mary Helen, Mary Joseph Louis and Mary Joseph John Baptist, Mary Celine, Mary Melania Teresa, and lastly she who was to be Saint Teresa of Lisieux. Helen, Melania, and those longed-for sons the two Josephs, who they had hoped would be missionaries, died in childhood. Of the surviving daughters, Mary Louisa, who by privilege of the firstborn was called simply Mary, was not quite fourteen when the youngest, Teresa, was born.

Zelie Guerin's practical aptitude was as keen as her faith, and her lacemaking business, which she had continued to carry on, became so prosperous that in 1870 her husband gave up his own shop in order to help her with the increasing work; as his father was dead there was nothing to keep him in the rue Pont Neuf. Meanwhile war had broken out and they underwent the miseries of the German invasion; had it not been checked, his age would not have prevented Louis from serving with the volunteers. His father-in-law also being dead, he inherited the house in the rue Saint-Blaise, and the family settled down there, where they lived for seven years. So we come back to the birthplace of the saint. I am reminded of the traditional account of the birth of our Lady from Joachim and Anne.

After the death of Mary Helen, when she was five and a half, Mme. Martin's sister, a Visitation nun at Le Mans, wrote to her with innocent simplicity: "I can't help thinking that you're privileged to give these chosen ones to Heaven, where they will be your joy and your crown. And one day your unfailing trust and faith will have a tremendous reward.... You may be sure that God will bless you, and the consolations that are now withheld will be the measure of your bliss. For if our good Lord is so pleased with you that he sends you the great saint that you have wanted so much to honour him with, won't you be well repaid?"

Mgr. Laveille, one of the best writers about Teresa, compares these words with those that Mme. Martin herself wrote to her sister-in-law at Lisieux when she had suffered a similar bereavement: "When I have to close the eyes of my dear little children and follow their bodies to the grave of course I am utterly miserable, but my sorrow has always been resigned. And I don't regret the trouble and care that they have been to me. Everybody says, 'It would be much better if you'd never had them.' I can't bear much talk. It doesn't seem to me that pain and difficulties can be put into the balance against my children's eternal happiness."

That letter shows the quality of Zelie Martin's faith. It is alleged that she often received graces out of the ordinary, so sensitive was her spirit-foreknowledge, supernatural advice and enlightenment. And all the time she nursed her idea of giving a "great saint" to the world.

The two elder girls went to school at their aunt's convent in Le Mans. The third, Leonie, was delicate and a source of worry. Celine began to walk. Little Mary Melania died. There was no sign of the long-desired, perhaps promised, saint. Then in 1872 another pregnancy raised fresh hopes, and again a daughter came to fill the empty cradle. She was born on January 3, 1873, when Mary and Pauline were home for the new-year holiday. Their mother's suffering kept them awake, till at midnight M. Martin tapped at their door and told them that they had a baby sister.

Next day Mary Frances Teresa Martin was christened in the church of our Lady. It is the most beautiful church in Alencon, with a triple gothic porch, strong and delicate, a very garden of carved stone: this was her doorway into the world of grace. The font whereat she received the spirit of God is in the first chapel on the south side, which has been thoroughly "restored" in the modern manner but less badly than any other of the neoteresian sanctuaries. Her eldest sister, Mary, was godmother, but the name Teresa prevailed over tile others.

The troubles of life began at once. Her mother could not feed her, so Teresa was put out to nurse with a peasant, Rose Talle, "little Rose," at Semalle, a few miles away. She nearly died twice, and malignant typhoid threatened the life of her sister Mary. Prayers and pilgrimages were undertaken for them, and both recovered. Spring completed the cure, and at four months Teresa weighed fourteen pounds; at ten months she could stand upright and by her first birthday was walking by herself. Her mother thought she could discern destiny written upon the child's bright face, and had her back home. M. Martin was making pilgrimages of thanksgiving to Chartres and Lourdes, and Zelie took more trouble than ever with the new baby.

The Martins worshipped their last-born. Everything she did was right, everything she said was clever, everything that happened to her was miraculous. When she was eighteen months she clambered on to the swing, with no fear at all except lest she should not go high enough. She fell out of that big bed without hurting herself or even waking up-angels must have carried her. The fact was that her stay in the cottage at Semalle had made her a sturdy little peasant, proofed against hard knocks. She was good-tempered, lively, sensitive, and was passionately fond of her mother. She would cry if Mme. Martin could not come into the garden with her; she would run out into the pouring rain to meet her coming back from Mass. The piety in which she was trained became in her equally violent and exacting. She would not leave out a word of her night-prayers; "That's not all," she was wont to say to her father, she had to "pray for grace," too.

"Dear little mother!" she exclaimed, "I wish you would die, because then you'd go to Heaven." That wish was fulfilled. And in her "exuberance of love" she wanted her father to die too. She got on well with her sisters. Mary was the serious one, who hoped to go back to the convent where she had been at school, while Pauline was the more gifted and steady, and was accordingly a little pleased with herself. Teresa was less attached to Leonie, who was always ailing and difficult, though good-hearted and persevering. These were in her eyes the "grown-ups," who were to be imitated and envied and treated with respect. Her bosom-companion was the gentle charming Celine, who was devoted to her little sister. At getting-up time Teresa would slip into Celine's bed and snuggle down to her. When the nurse came to dress them, she was greeted one morning with the remark, "Go away, Louisa. Can't you see we're like two little white hens who can't be pulled apart?" The fowl-run and flowers and singing birds meant a lot to Teresa, and she was able to absorb every sort of interest.

Mme. Martin did her best to restrain the extravagances of Teresa's affection, but she often had to own herself beaten. I have alluded to her habit of going upstairs one step at a time, calling out "Mamma!" at every one. Mme. Martin was expected to reply, "All right, my darling!" each time, and if she failed Teresa's stopped where she was till the answer came. M. Martin called her his "little queen," played ridea-cock-horse with her, showered presents on her. Her collection of toys shows that in this respect she was certainly spoilt, and for a long time she fancied that everything was hers by right: she had only to say "I want it."

Teresa was eager, intelligent, headstrong, and almost unbelievably stubborn: when she had said "No" nothing could move her. Sometimes when her father wanted to hug her or her mother came to kiss her in bed she pretended not to know them: she wanted them to want her. She was a woman. She liked to have her arms bare because she looked prettier that way, and she would pose to herself before the mirror. The story of the penny gives an idea of her amour-propre. Her mother told her that if she would kiss the ground she should be given a penny. "No, thanks, mamma. I'd rather not have the penny," replied Teresa.

The importance of her childhood's exploits must not be exaggerated, although she has confided them to us; there was another side to them. She was not afraid to give trouble to her father and mother and to oppose them; that was in accordance with her high-spiritedness. The second stage was when her guardian angel moved her to self-reproach and shame and to beg pardon. Then she would cry for hours, and it was not easy to comfort her.

But there was one person whom she would on no account grieve when he came to her mind (and already she thought about him a lot): that was the child Jesus, who was very much alive for her. She lived partly in the mysterious world of supernatural reality familiar to her parents. Once when she was in the garden she saw, or thought she saw, near the summer-house, "two horrid little spirits on the rim of a lime barrel, dancing like mad although there were iron chains on their ankles." They looked at her "with blazing eyes" and dived inside the barrel as if they were frightened; then they took refuge in the linen-room. Seeing they were so nervous she looked in at the window to see what they were going to do. "The poor little demons were running about the tables not knowing where to hide from her eyes...." Was she calculating the strength of her innocence and did she suppose she could overcome the Evil One without coming to grips with him? She did not yet know the oppositions within her own nature and the weapons which these could lend to Satan. At four and a half years old this is not surprising.

The most disquieting feature of Teresa's early childhood, referred to above, can hardly be overemphasized; it characterizes her, it sums up her temperament, her possible destiny, her actual destiny. The watchful Satan pounced on it and began to hope.

Celine and she were playing with their dolls, when Leonie came up with hers, "laid in a basket full of dolls' clothes, nice bits of stuff, and other desirable things."

"'Here you are,' she said. 'Choose."'

"Celine had a look and took a ball of braid. I considered for a minute and then, exclaiming 'I take the lot!' I snatched basket and doll and everything."

Telling this incident fifteen years later Teresa adds a devout reflection: "When the way of perfection was shown to me I learned that to become a saint a person has to suffer a great deal, always to look for that which is more perfect, and to forget self. I learned that there are many degrees in holiness and that each soul is free in its response to our Lord's invitation to do much or little for his love-in other words, to choose from among the sacrifices that he asks for. Thereupon I said as in my childhood's days, 'O my God, I choose them all."'

True enough; but it is not the point here. We have not yet got so far. We are trying to grasp the very human inner weakness of Teresa's nature. Long before she was a saint, the little four-year-old, who seized the whole basket under the nose of her sisters, displayed a rapacity, an egoism, a spirit of conquest, in a word, an "imperialism," of quite remarkable energy; and this would one day have to be given an entirely new direction and transmuted into a tragical stripping away of self. It was a revelation, nay, an explosion, of Teresa's nature, a nature that had to be broken-in like a thoroughbred to bit and saddle, if she was not to run the risk of being carried down to the depths of revolt rather than up to the heights of holiness. That cry of hers was not a Christian cry: Nietzsche would have roared his approval; a limitless "will to power" was written all over it-and over her own authentic characteristics.

Look carefully at a photograph of St. Teresa. Not one that has been touched up and prettified or where she has been made to look soft and "ecstatic," for the least suggestion of pose is deceiving, but one of the snapshots where her face has been caught by surprise among her sisters in the cloister; better still, the most suffering and characteristic of three taken in 1897 in which she is holding against her breast images of the Holy Face and the Child Jesus. The reserved smile, the gentleness, the serenity cast only a thin veil over the face of one who is firm and strong, tough and obstinate, imperative and victorious, who knows what she wants, who will want it till death, and who will not yield an inch from having her own way. Fiat!

As she was, so she remained. When she was four her developing natural vitality "chose the lot," good and bad together. At the age of reason this temper would have worked for evil had divine grace and her environment not been in the opposite scale. In the end, her spirit clarified by instruction, by prayer, and by the inpouring of the Holy Ghost, she chooses the good, all the good, the sovereign Good, the Absolute in all his fullness. We must not be blinded to the ambition which was the dominant note of her character by the means that she uses for overcoming it (they are of a disconcerting humbleness). Bit by little bit she traces her own will on the will of God. That is the drama of her life and the miracle of her destiny. Both are undervalued by the whittling away of the part either of earth or of Heaven in this relentless struggle: her story becomes commonplace and her personal significance shrinks. It must be emphasized over and over again that Teresa was not an obscure, sober little schoolgirl who for small sacrifices deserved the reward of being carried off suddenly amid a profusion of choice blossoms. She was a creature of passion and strong will, marked to be the prey of the pride of life; and Eternal Love subdued her without any lessening of her power and strength, and led her in the ways he willed.

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

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