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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 3 — 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


Mary Martin had given to each of her sisters a special sort of rosary that was used by the pupils at the Le Mans convent to keep count of their "good deeds." Each time they voluntarily did without something they wanted, or helped somebody in distress, or kept their temper in trying circumstances, one of the beads could be separated from the rest and added to the string of self-denial. Children are attracted by any devotional practice that is like a game and at the same time smacks of heroism, especially if, as in this example, there is an element of competition. So Teresa, whose pride could not bear to be beaten by Celine, entered on the path of self-denial; she found that on these terms there was a certain pleasure in being good. The asceticism of these two small girls urged them on to own up when they had done something wrong (or thought they had), to bear punishment without complaining, to refrain from justifying themselves at the expense of the real culprit when they were wrongly accused. They found all this exciting and thrilling, and it was not very difficult. The habit of self-sacrifice and going without became second nature, and they surrounded their virtue with a mysterious secrecy that increased its worth in their eyes.

One Sunday Teresa came back from a walk with a glorious bunch of wild flowers-and once she had got hold of anything she did not easily let go. And now her mother, quite unconscious of how much she was asking of the child, claimed the bouquet for our Lady's May-shrine. Our Lady cannot be refused, one's mother cannot be refused: Teresa gave it up. She did so with great unwillingness and sickness of heart, but her disappointment and her tears were hidden and only Celine guessed them. In spite of her rather morbid sensitiveness a time was to come when she would not even cry.

A few months after the death of her sister, Mother Mary Dosithea, who had taught the elder girls at Le Mans, Mme. Martin was struck down by a disease that she had kept hidden for sixteen years. Acute and increasing pain made her admit that she was suffering from a tumour in the breast. She was operated on, but it had been left till too late and it only hastened the unavoidable end. Her strength was quite gone, and she had to resign herself to "giving up her lace and living on her investments." Would Heaven deny her the happiness of seeing her younger children grow up? Leaving them at home with their father she joined a pilgrimage from Angers to seek health at Lourdes where, in the overpowering heat of June, 1877, she plunged four times into the icy water. She came back to Alencon worn out and murmuring the words of our Lady to Bernadette: "I promise to make you happy in the next world, but not in this."

As Mme. Martin gradually sank, Celine and Teresa were boarded with a neighbour to spare them the daily sight of their mother's agony. The last time she got up was to "preside" with M. Martin at a make-believe prize distribution, arranged by Mary in her bedroom. Celine and Teresa were dressed in white to receive the books and gilt paper crowns from their mother's hands. Viaticum was brought on August 26, and Teresa was present at this last communion and anointing. Soon it was all over. Teresa was dry-eyed when she kissed the cold forehead; but she stayed a long time by the coffin in the passage. She had not imagined that death could cleave so great a gulf. Nevertheless, she stood up to loss and grief; her small daily sacrifices enabled her to face more cruel ones without betraying her inward desolation. Quite apart from the action of grace and her absolute certainty of her mother's happiness in Heaven-had she not wanted her to be taken there quickly?-there was a vitality and essential joyousness in Teresa that nothing could destroy.

When, after the funeral, their nurse poured out pity on the motherless children, Celine threw herself into Mary's arms, exclaiming, "You will have to be mother now!" But Teresa was not so sure, although Mary was her godmother. She looked at the sad face of Pauline, who perhaps was a little jealous at having no one to look after, and said as she buried her face in her lap, "No! Pauline shall be mother!" Is it too early to see a spiritual significance in this new bond, so spontaneously fashioned? For it was Pauline who was to open the door of Carmel to Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus.

They had to leave Alencon, that town of quiet streets hardly touched by commerce, with its humped little bridges over the Sarthe and the Brillante, its pleasant garden-bordered streams and pools, the pale severe walls in the market place, the solemn still churches, the gracious sedate life of the grey countryside. It is impossible not to love Alencon; its sole industry is a fairy game, and while it works its threads it dreams and prays: and it induces others to dream and pray. It was the framework of her own day-dreaming that Teresa minded leaving more than anything else: the house, the square of garden behind with the swing and the fowl-run, the summer-house that M. Martin had hired to muse in undisturbed while the children larked around, the grass paddock where she loved to hide when the moondaisies and cornflowers were in bloom-this "poetical" aspect of her nature must by no means be ignored. Soon she would be growing and unfolding in a neighbourhood that is more rich and luxurious and therefore more sensual and disturbing to the will; but by that time suffering would have done its work.

Mme. Martin's brother, Isidore Guerin, was a druggist at Lisieux. He had a wife as good as Zelie and several good-natured and well-brought-up children) he himself, after some youthful divagations, had settled down as a worthy man and a "militant" Christian. Mme. Martin on her death-bed had urged her husband to look for help and support from his brother-in-law's family rather than from relatives or friends in Alencon, and when he was asked, M. Guerin at once set himself to find a house for the Martins near Lisieux. It was called Les Buissonnets, and the children moved in before the end of the summer; their father joined them in November. Of all the places connected with Teresa which are open to her devotees, this house is the most eloquent of her, the most intimate, and the least spoiled. Apart from the school hours with the Benedictines and the time spent on a visit to Rome, it may be said that she passed in it the whole time of her childhood and adolescence, from the age of four and a half to fifteen. With its two gardens it was the most important factor in her formation and perfecting before she became a Carmelite. We find her footprints everywhere, hardly touched by our own.

But before the visitor can give himself to recollection without mishap, he has to stomach the sight of two disagreeable objects by which the garden has been dishonoured. Near the gate there is a clumsy cherub flourishing a shabby banner. And on the lawn behind the house there is a quasi-photographic group in staring white marble representing Teresa and her father, bigger than life-size, sitting together in a confidential attitude. This thing, which would be refused by a provincial town hall, is actually supposed to recall the hidden and heartrending moment when M. Martin heard the first avowal of his daughter's vocation.... The house itself has been respected, except that they could not resist turning the child's room into a chapel. This is nearly always done: it is the same with St. Catherine's room in the dyers' quarter at Siena, and with St. Benedict Joseph Labre's near Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome. This is not the way to bring us close to the saints and make them real. Surely it could be managed so that the honours given to them in the very place where they slept and woke, prayed and meditated, should at least safeguard the physical appearance of their private surroundings. In the present case, however, the distraction is lessened because the rest of the house is almost intact.

The road from Lisieux to Trouville is an expensive-looking boulevard. The visitor to Les Buissonnets leaves this road on the right, taking a shady footpath that winds upward among orchards and terraced villas till he reaches a door in a blank wall; it has stone steps and a small grating. This is it. Within, a curving gravelled path leads through the sloping lawn and oval flower-beds to the front of the house. It is a pleasant redand-white villa, with an attic and two dormer windows, surrounded by trees that are worthy of a district whose trees are royal. The garden at the back is rather higher and half is given over to kitchen produce: there are cherry trees, currant bushes, and rows of peas, firs and spindle trees, more turf, and thick curtains of laurel and ivy suggesting secret passages and fine hiding-places. Against the wash-house wall somebody has reconstructed one of those tiny cribs that it gave Teresa so much pleasure to build of pebbles and shells and bits of straw and wood; and a small plot near by was "my garden," where she grew crocuses and blue periwinkles and ferns. Here indeed she can be seen and touched, and when you go into the house she goes with you.

It is gloomy compared with the one at Alencon. The only authentic thing in the first room, which was the kitchen, is the red-brick hearth where the children put out their shoes on Christmas Eve. But on the right one looks straight into the past: the dining-room, an unimpeachable piece of evidence. This old-fashioned furniture has kept all its memories, and they agree with ours. Such furniture can be seen anywhere; we had foreseen it here, it had to be here. There is the sideboard with twisted columns, introducing (as is only fitting) two shooting trophies carved in oak, partridges, pheasants, and rabbits. Similar columns adorn both the tall narrow armchairs and the dining-chairs. There is a thick round table supported on a single massive leg that blossoms out into four feet covered with acanthus leaves. The mirror above the fireplace would not be fulfilling its duty did it not reflect two glass chandeliers and a gilded bronze clock under a glass cover. On the walls there are two engravings "of the period," of ecclesiastical or biblical subjects, after David or Girodet. To crown all, impenetrable window curtains wrap everything in a semiobscurity according to custom. It is a perfect harmony of the proprieties, a museum specimen of genuine nineteenth-century provincial middle-class comfort, in all its plainness and solidity, as it was displayed once for all in the place in which one ate. I am not laughing at it, for I find it rather touching. Granted the aesthetic premises, there is not a fault to be found with that room.

It is the same upstairs, in M. Martin's bedroom. I must admit that I like the mahogany furniture and the material of the bed-canopy and the curtains and the seats of the chairs, which makes one think of thick undergrowth of green, blue, and black leaves undisturbed by a breath of air. The room is dim and thoughtful, but not sad. The panelled one where Teresa lay at the time of her illness, and was given back health of soul and body by a smile from our Lady, is cheerful and lightsome; white muslin curtains frame the recess where an altar now takes the place of a bed. It was the elder sisters' room. Previous to this Teresa and Celine occupied the one at the back, level with the garden, in which statues and medals are now sold. There are displayed (under glass) her bed, her dolls and other toys, and the desk with the ebony and ivory crucifix which she used to question when she was doing her lessons. You can see her skipping rope, her shrimping net, her sailing boat, her dolls' kitchen, her draughtboard, her cottage piano, her gift books, her favourite bird's cage. It is a good thing to be reminded that she was once a child like any other and that her soul was, in its measure, nourished on the small things of childhood.

A special permission is required to go up to the attic room. It was M. Martin's study and oratory, and he might only be disturbed there to give an account of the day's doings. It was as it were "an high place," sealed with blue and white panes, whereto the father withdrew to listen to the counsels of the Holy Spirit. It was his substitute for the Great St. Bernard.

That is a sufficient description of the house; the things that happened in it will fall into their right places of their own accord. Teresa explored it with uncontrollable delight. With her thick hair flying and a black satin bow floating like a butterfly on her head she ran about the garden, picked a belated gooseberry-then stopped suddenly, and her face fell. She went back with Celine into their room, fell on her knees, and burst into tears.

Her bravery was of short duration. She had restrained and hidden her sorrow so as not to sadden her father and as a test of the strength of her own will and faith. Then the journey from Alencon, the moving in, and the novelty of the new place had made her forget for a time. When she realized this she did not spare herself: she called herself fickle, unkind, ungrateful to her mother, heartless. Her natural sensitiveness had been held in check for too long and it overflowed; she cried and sobbed and abandoned herself as only an impressionable child can. This crisis passed, but the child who had been so lively and roguish and hard to please gradually became shy, gentle, and nervous, quiet and unobtrusive. She no longer wanted to have notice taken of her and would run away from strangers; simply to be looked at made her cry. That was the first thing that Lisieux did for her.

Mary and Pauline looked after the house, Leonie and Celine were day scholars at the Benedictine convent. Teresa had less time for play, and went on with her lessons under the supervision of her "little mother," Pauline. M. Martin had aged a lot, and his hair and beard were already white. As he had retired he could devote his whole time to his children and his hobbies and his religious life, and his day was regulated like a monk's: daily mass at the Cathedral, gardening, reading, rosary, dinner; prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, at Notre Dame or St. James's or the Carmelite chapel or St. Desideratus, often with Teresa, a walk by the river with rod and line, a call on M. Guerin, return home, supper, evening prayers with the family. Teresa's time was divided in the same way between lessons, the garden and fields, and prayers. Religion was always with her: God wanted her to learn for his sake, to be good for his sake, to smile at beggars for his sake. For him she built rustic altars and of him she dreamed on the river bank while her father fished. She would sit on the grass in some hidden spot, letting the multitudinous sounds of nature sink in; then the blare of a bugle from the barracks would recall her to "the world" and, in her own words, sadden her heart. She liked the rain as much as the sun; a thunderstorm right overhead pleased her; she would have bathed in dewy grass had not her sense of modesty held her back. A complete young pagan? Most certainly not. Such a one as poor Anne de Noailles, drunk with nature and earthly love, feels her limitations and can only fall into despair. Teresa Martin can see further. This world contents her and disappoints her too, but for quite another reason-because it speaks of, pre-figures, and at the same time is not, Heaven.

Without morality there can be no true mysticism, where there is no personal virtue there is no prayer. Teresa once hurt a poor man by offering him a penny as though he were a beggar. She thought that the cake she was just going to eat might be more acceptable to him, but did not dare to offer it for fear of another refusal. How could she reconcile sensitiveness with love? Then she recollected that she had heard that no gift is withheld on one's first communion day: she would wait till that day came and then she would pray for him. She remembered her resolution for six years, and when the time came carried it out. To have a brotherly charity that neither grows slack nor dissolves into useless sighs is a trait among a thousand.

As the fields have their seasons so has the Church. In his Annee liturgique Dom Gueranger, the restorer of Solesmes, has shown how every day they bring a fresh blossom or a new fruit to our daily prayer. On winter evenings M. Martin was wont to listen to the reading aloud of this invaluable book, and so Teresa learned to know the Christian seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, with their changing hues of green, violet, white, and red, and the never-ending procession of saints across them. On Sunday morning she found again the God of flowers and brooks and tempests in the solemn Mass at the cathedral church of St. Peter, where the family assembled in a chapel on the epistle side quite close to the high altar. It was there that a sermon, the first she could understand, showed her the God-Man nailed to the cross, suffering, dying, and she never forgot it. When at six years old, she found herself inside a confessional for the first time-she was so small that the priest could not see her or she him-she had no difficulty in realizing that her God was there, for she knew that it was to him that she was confessing. By grace and prayer the thought of God hardly left her mind: she was entering step by step into the reality of Christ.

Meanwhile, she was growing up; the woman began to show and to become aware of her own attractiveness. On Sunday evenings at M. Guerin's she received a lot of notice and petting and small flatteries, for she was the living image of her mother. When she went for a short stay at Trouville people used to stop her on the promenade to admire her brilliant eyes and smile and fair ringlets, and her popularity there might well have woken up a dormant coquettishness. But her self-respect and pride were too much for that; they had not weakened in the least, and were playing in quite a different key.

One evening she was walking back with her father from the Guerins, her eyes fixed on the stars in a sky of limitless depth. Presently she noticed "a cluster of golden jewels" forming the letter T-Orion's belt. She found this manifestation of the first letter of her own name an omen and very delightful ("Queues delices!" is how she refers to her feelings when recollecting this occasion), and she stopped, exclaiming, "Look, papa! My name is written in the skyl" This was not a child's joke; she firmly believed it. She could see no disproportion between the honour done her by the heavens and her diminutive person, and doubtless there was none between it and the spiritual ambition of her love. "I didn't want to look at the horrid old world any more," and she asked her father to lead her home by the arm. She went into the house with her head lost in the stars, sanctified, blessed, canonized by her own self-that is, already filled with certainty that she would be one day. M. Martin entered into the game and did not for a minute consider rebuking her lack of humility; his daughter's presentiment agreed exactly with his own, and he was answerable for it. He lent himself with complete simplicity to what seemed to be God's will.

Holiness can be grafted on to pride, just as grace is grafted on to nature. There is a right pride as there is righteous anger. The last end of holiness is not so much a renunciation of the human personality as the possession of God.

Teresa Martin can be left with what may still be called the illusion of future glory. It will soon be clear that it was not an illusion and at what price she gained the authentic reality. Anyone may say "I will be a saint." But holiness must be willed wholeheartedly, with a will stronger than the might of nature and of sin, with a resolution equal to that of the grace which can bring down the "dark night" upon us for our own good. Teresa was to know those long starless nights, but at the moment she smiles at the sky and the sky seems to smile back. Before it opened its gates Heaven was to crush her with all its weight of love.

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

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