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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 4 — 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


Of course I shall be accused or exaggerating the part of man and proportionately lessening the part of God in the formation of Teresa. But God is behind all human actions; he suggests them or allows them and makes use even of our mistakes. I am concerned solely to get at the truth, and I put down nothing here that I do not think is true. Now it seems to me that all the evidence points to their having set out in utter good faith to make a great saint at Les Buissonnets. With the connivance of Heaven, M. Martin deliberately tried to form the character and soul of his favourite daughter according to the pattern which seemed to him loveliest and most desirable, and he never missed an opportunity of talking about her glorious namesake, the heart-pierced Maid of Avila. The elder girls backed him up, especially Pauline, Teresa's "little mother," who, as I have said, was in charge of her lessons. She brought as much strictness as gentleness to her task and exacted obedience without appeal; from her Teresa learned to overcome the little weaknesses of everyday life, absent-mindedness, whims, foolish fears. "Sometimes you would send me alone after dark to fetch something from a room at the other end of the house, and would allow no refusal. That was very good for me, otherwise I should have become very timorous. It is not easy to frighten me now."

Once a thing was settled Pauline never altered it; Teresa had got to learn to deserve, which is the a, b, c of the love of God. "Have I been a good girl to-day? Is dear Jesus pleased with me?" she would ask before going to sleep. And if she had to be told "No" she would sob in her dark room for hours, try as she would not to shed those accusing tears. Every year there was a prize-giving, specially for her, when her father put into her quivering hands rewards exactly proportioned to her progress. It was "like a rehearsal of the Last Judgement."

Pauline listened to her confidences, resolved her doubts, explained the eternal mysteries; she was full of questions and an answer was always forthcoming. "Why doesn't God give the same glory to all his chosen?" Pauline sent her for her silver mug, hardly bigger than a thimble, and for M. Martin's big tumbler; then she filled them both to the brim to illustrate how all the blessed receive full measure according to their capacity. Teresa in her heart of hearts wanted to be a large vessel, but she resigned herself to her littleness and soon made a virtue of this necessity.

From his attic room, whence he could see a great distance over the tops of the trees in all directions, M. Martin arranged and directed the life-work of those committed to his care. Pauline would become a nun, and possibly Mary would follow her, Leonie was more doubtful, but Celine was promising. As for Teresa, he felt her to be such a part of himself, so perfectly at one with him in thoughts and ideas, that he gave her as he gave himself, without suspecting that in ten years' time, when the hour had come, he would find his promise most hard to keep.

He looked forward expectantly to the visit of his "little queen" every evening, and would keep her with him a long time. Up there between heaven and earth they talked lovingly together about the beauties of this world and the glories of that which is to come, and sometimes about the evils of the times, France, her difficulties, her future-M. Martin was not yet out of the flesh. Though he was a bit of a dreamer, after the kind of Chateaubriand or Rousseau, with something of the Promeneur Solitaire about him, he was nevertheless level-headed enough, a sensible solid Frenchman. The politics which he would apply to his country's affairs were drawn from the Bible; he made suggestions and proposed remedies. Teresa was lost in admiration of his lightest word. "If you talk like that to the great men in the government they will take you away and make you king sure enough, papa dear. And then France will be happier than she's ever been before.... But then I shouldn't have you to be my king all to myself. I think I'd like it better that they shouldn't know you." A lover's jealousy. Her father would smile and kiss her.

Teresa would watch her father at prayer-a saint could not pray better-and she tells us that when there was a sermon in church she would look at him more than at the preacher: his beautiful sad face said so much to her. He seemed to be rapt in another world, an angel on earth-and an angel cannot die. Her love for him bordered on worship, till she was recalled to reality by a bitter warning. When she was six she had a vision about her "darling king."

I must say in passing that phenomena of this sort were very rare in her life; there were none while she was a Carmelite and I have found only three altogether. There had been the sprites dancing on the barrel at Alencon, and there was to be the smiling statue that would raise her cured from a sick bed. And in between there was this ominous spectre. Teresa was not a visionary, and did not expect to see Heaven opened to her every other minute. The objective value of her evidence is unusually convincing; when she says what she has seen that is what she has seen, and we must believe her. I will let her tell the story herself, only emphasizing that this occurrence took place in broad daylight and when she was wide awake.

"My father was away from home and not yet expected back. It was about two or three o'clock in the afternoon of a sunny day, when everything was looking lovely. I was alone at a window opening on to the garden, my mind full of pleasant thoughts, when I saw in front of me, against the wash-house, a man dressed exactly like my father, of the same height and with the same walk, but stooping and much aged. I say aged to explain his general appearance, because I did not see his face, for his head was heavily veiled. He was moving slowly, with regular steps, along the edge of my little patch of garden. An unearthly fear came over me and I called out loud in a trembling voice, 'Father! Father!' But the uncanny person did not seem to hear, and went on without making a sign towards the clump of firs that broke the main garden path. I was waiting to see him come out on the other side of these trees, but the prophetic vision had disappeared!"

Mary and Pauline, startled by the distressing cry, came running to ask why she had called their father when she knew he was not at home. Teresa explained what she had seen, and Mary said at once that the nurse had tried to frighten her by hiding her head with her apron. Victoire was called, but she had not been out of the kitchen, and anyway she was not the sort of girl to play tricks of that kind. So they ran out into the garden and looked for the mysterious visitor, under the firs, among the bushes, in the wash-house. There was nobody to be found. Teresa let them run about and talk; for herself, she was certain that she had seen and recognized her father, him and no one else.

The hidden meaning of that premonitory shadow will be seen later on. Meanwhile it had bitten into Teresa, body and soul, and the memory of it remained like an unhealing wound. It was borne in on her that her beloved father was not invulnerable; perhaps harm had already come to him. Must she give up everything and tear even him from her heart? M. Martin came back in safety from Alencon and was welcomed most joyously, but Teresa's too human love had henceforward taken the veil, the thick veil that covered her father's face.

Life went on. The impressionable child waited for the threatened misfortune, and none came; there were games, day-dreaming, prayer, headaches, fits of crying, plenty of little trials, but happiness was unbroken. Les Buissonnets was a garden of Eden, where they loved one another and loved God. The Benedictine nuns were preparing Celine for her first communion. On the evening before, Teresa sat in a corner at home and listened to the further guidance given by her elder sister. From that she learned that from this great day one must "begin a new life," and she resolved to renew hers from Celine's day. When she was eight and a half she began to go to school at the abbey of Notre Dame du Pre, which Leonie had just left. Celine was already in a higher class, and Teresa could only see her from afar. She did not at all like going away from Les Buissonnets, but every evening the maid, or more often M. Martin, fetched her back to her loved ones, her dreams, and her bed.

To reach the school she had to go right across Lisieux; past rows of respectable middle-class houses, through the park, with its trees and terraces, that surrounds the museum (a handsome building in the style of Versailles), and past the cliff-like towers, one romanesque and one gothic, of St. Peter's cathedral in the square where M. Guerin lived; then through the narrow, picturesque, and dirty streets of timberframed houses, with little square panes to the windows, and lastly through the workingmen's quarter in which the Benedictine convent seems to be lost. Lisieux is like a cow in a meadow, a quiet, gloomy, heavy, sleepy town, without the friendly sociable look of Alencon; it is traversed by inky rivulets and dark sordid alleys on which the factories leave a permanent deposit of thick soot, and the place only comes to life, with a raucous laugh, on market days or when a fair is on. The Teresian pilgrimages will bring about its modernization one day, but they will not spiritualize it or even succeed in making it quite clean; they only increase its commonplaceness: it is a show-place for tourists and a spa for the pious.

I do not think Teresa at all liked having to plunge into the old quarters of the town, although she only went into their churches and convents. The abbey had high grey walls and was a place of bare courtyards, sickly lime trees, and nooks that hardly saw the sun. Did she like it? . . . When she entered there she had to leave flowers and fields as well as home behind her. Did she still have at least the joys of God?

She had a companion, her cousin Mary Guerin, who was fond of her and, it seems, admired her. They were both of an age and shared the same taste for prayer and quiet. But when one is not used to it, it is difficult to be recollected in the middle of a crowd of more or less wild little girls, who in class do the bare minimum that will keep them out of trouble and in play-time go right off their heads. The common life of a school was very distressing to so rare and fastidious a spirit, shy as much from pride as from modesty. Teresa had no idea of human society; she was a hot-house plant, sheltered from all contradiction. Here she found jealousies, rudeness, spite, disputes, in their childish guise, and into that hurry-burly she was thrown.

She was put into the green class, so called because its members wore a green ribbon for badge, and though she was the youngest she was also the most advanced. As she worked hardest as well and was most anxious to get on-to please God and her father and herself-she was top in everything except spelling and arithmetic. "I found it very hard," she says, "to learn things word for word." The nuns who taught never noticed this, but they soon detected the spirit of perseverance and obedience behind her gravity; they recognized a chosen soul, already used to referring all to God, and took her to their hearts. It is possible that they showed an unwise favouritism towards her, but there was no need of that to excite envy and malice against Teresa: her success in class was a sufficient reason. A big girl of fourteen, stupid and probably plain, angry at being beaten in everything and hearing her praises always sung, stirred up the others against Teresa and made her pay for her good looks, her charm, her hard work, and her success. It is easy to imagine the sneaking contempt, the teasing, the sneers, the nasty little lies, with which they tormented their victim; she was powerless to resist and could take refuge only in tears.

She got less fond of play, especially noisy games, and preferred reading, soaking herself in heroic or doleful tales, the Life of Joan of Arc and La Fleur du Prisonnier. Still, she had to take some part in games or she would have been disobedient to the rules. She also turned her attention to the youngsters in the infants' class, gathering them round her to tell them the adventures of Puss-in-Boots; she was a splendid story-teller, but a mistress put a stop to this pleasure. With Mary Guerin or some other faithful friend she would walk quietly round the playground, saying the rosary under her breath, and sometimes she would find a dead bird and give it decent burial in some corner. Not Christian burial-Teresa knew better than to mix up the order of nature with the order of grace in that way-but as one of God's creatures; it had been made by him to live and be happy, and its body deserved honour as a testimony of his handiwork and his goodness.

During play-time the children were at liberty, if they wished, to go and pray before the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel. Teresa never missed this opportunity, and as she went through the nuns' cloister she would kiss the pierced feet of the great crucifix on the wall. One day she took aside one of the older pupils and asked her (much to the girl's embarrassment) to teach her how to "make a meditation." Teresa told her that on holidays she used to hide herself in the corner between the wall and her bed, wrap one of the curtains round herself, and stop like that for a long time.

"What do you do there?" asked the elder girl.

"I think."

One of the mistresses was told the same thing, and asked what she thought about.

"Why, about God, and how quickly the days go by, and eternity; I just think."

In spite of the kindly care of the nuns she had to bear the burden of loneliness throughout her school days. It hurt her and she revelled in it. Without seeking it she served her apprenticeship under conditions that were contrary to her expansive nature but favourable to the ambition which was maturing and refining in her heart. She often played at hermits with her cousin Mary: while one tilled the ground, the other tilled her soul by prayer; and to maintain a custody of the eyes suitable to solitaries they would walk to school with their eyes shut, hugging the fronts of the houses-they knocked over a grocer's stall or fruiterer's basket more than once. Teresa longed for the wilderness from the bottom of her heart, and discovered that Pauline had the same ambition. It seemed to her obvious that they should seek it together.

Presently she was promoted to the violet class, and began to prepare for her first communion. At catechism she sat among inattentive companions and drank in the chaplain's words. She asked him questions, and difficult ones, too. She did not agree, for example, that children who die without baptism enjoy only a natural happiness, without the sight of God. Why should this be so, since they have not sinned? She was desperately anxious that everybody should be saved, whether they wanted to be or not. She found free-will a stumbling-block. "I wanted God to force everybody to be good, because he was able to." If not, then she would do the forcing, she, little Teresa. Her will to power and her will to conquest had found their object.

Then one day she heard Pauline tell Mary that she had made up her mind to enter Carmel as soon as possible. That was the wilderness that she had talked about and that Teresa was to share with her. And now she was going to leave her behind! "In a flash I experienced the reality of life," she writes; "I did not yet know the happiness of sacrifice.... I was weak, just weak."

She actually thought she was going to die. Pauline comforted her and explained the cloistered life: Teresa was at once enamoured of it. She stopped crying and felt a new and strange joy filling her heart: she knew quite certainly that God was calling her too to Carmel. She told her sister at once, and Pauline let her carry her news to Mother Mary of Gonzaga, who was the Carmelite prioress. So it came about that Teresa for the first time entered the house which she was so greatly to honour. She was only nine, and a postulant must be sixteen. The prioress pretended to believe in her vocation, and Teresa began to consider what name she should adopt in religion. Her own was already taken by another, and worthily: "Teresa of Jesus." But she was unwilling to give it up. Why not Teresa of the Child Jesus, since she loved him so much? Certainly that should be it. Before she left the prioress said to her, "When you join us, dear child, you shall be called Teresa of the Child Jesus." Such a happy coincidence of thoughts delighted her, but she had scarcely reached the street when her pleasure was dashed: "Pauline is going away. She will be lost to me!"

This devastating thought soon became an obsession. Pauline went into the convent on October 2, 1882, and Teresa was allowed to catch an occasional glimpse of her for a few minutes in the parlour: she hated that room, with its grating and curtains. She did not eat, she did not sleep, and by the end of the year the disconsolate child was suffering from a series of chronic headaches that put a stop to her schooling. It was the beginning of a bad breakdown, whose nature denied medical diagnosis; Teresa, in the Story of a Soul, attributes it to the malevolence of the Evil One.

Was it a nervous disorder or a case of possession? The Devil is fond of making a dead-set at saints, especially when they are in embryo and relatively frail. Being unable to harm the soul directly he wreaks his malice on body and brain; hidden powers control his victims, who break out into physical contortions and terrifying cries, uttering unintelligible nonsense, they have shocking hallucinations, and eventually collapse into a deathlike prostration. That is an exact summary of Teresa's condition. With wild eyes and dishevelled hair she got up in bed, jumped over the rail, and fell heavily to the floor without hurting herself. She was put back, and had to be held down. Her bed was beset with precipices, nails in the wall were "big black burning fingers," her father's hat was some monster-then a hoarse scream and the collapse into stupor. Was it Teresa doing these things, or was it "another"? She assures us that in the worst attack she always remained conscious of what was going on around her and that she kept the use of all her faculties. The doctor confessed that he knew neither how to treat the disorder nor how it was likely to develop.

Pauline's clothing with the Carmelite habit drew near, and this brought a few days' respite to the sufferer. She got rid of her "double," and asked that she might be taken to the ceremony. She went in a cab, and was able to pray and cry and smile, to hide under her "little mother's" veil, and to nurse the hope of one day wearing it herself. But the very next day the mysterious seizures came down on her again and more violently than ever. Her condition seemed desperate, and it was feared that if she did recover her mind would be permanently deranged. A novena of Masses was arranged in the church of our Lady of Victories at Paris, and her father and sisters, her uncle, aunt, and cousins, the Carmelites and the Benedictines, joined in the prayers from afar with the passionate fervour of a forlorn hope. Observe what happened.

Teresa had been moved into her sisters' room in the front of the house, where she could see the sky and the trees and the little statue of our Lady, her feet on the serpent, stars around her head, which she had known since her earliest years; it stood on a bracket near the white curtains of the bed. The day was a Sunday, May 13, 1883, and Teresa seemed to be sleeping. Mary and Leonie were sitting with her, and seeing that she was quiet Mary went out of the room for a moment. Suddenly Leonie, who was reading at the window, heard Teresa call out softly, "Mary!" She took no notice. Then Teresa sat up and called with all her might, "Mary! Mary! Mary!" The elder girl heard her and hurried back in alarm, but when she approached the bed Teresa did not recognize her. Instead, she kept on calling out her name, glancing wildly about as if looking for her. This phenomenon was quite new, and the frightened Mary, after a word of instruction to Leonie, left the room to try a plan. Leonie, soothing the child as best she could, carried her to the window and showed her Mary, who was standing in the garden calling to Teresa with outstretched arms. Teresa could see somebody, though it was not her elder sister but some evil being that had come between them, for again she failed to recognize her. They put her back on the bed. The child was in a frightful state, and aware that something extraordinary was happening. Mary and Leonie were now joined by Celine, and the three, kneeling before the image, called on our Lady with tears to intercede for their sister who, conscious of her unhappy state but unable to explain it, added her weeping and prayers to theirs.

"All of a sudden," Teresa tells us, "that statue came to life. Our Lady became beautiful, so beautiful that I have no words to describe her heavenly loveliness. Her face was unutterably kind and gentle, but what impressed me to my very soul was her winning smile. In a minute all my sufferings were gone, and two big tears rolled down my cheeks." They were tears of unalloyed and heavenly joy.

"Our Lady came towards me, still smiling.... How happy I am, I thought, but I won't say so to anyone, for then my happiness would go away. Then without any effort I turned my eyes and saw my dear Mary; she was looking at me lovingly and seemed very moved, as though she guessed the grace I had received."

Mary had indeed seen the reflection of that divine smile in Teresa's eyes, and had a presentiment that she was healed. She was, completely healed. Within a few seconds her malady -the malicious one, if you prefer-had gone.

Teresa was so closely questioned by her sister that she told Mary what she had determined to tell nobody, and, as she had foreseen, her delight was soon at an end. For Mary saw fit to relate the miracle at the Carmel. Teresa was fetched thither and, unless she was to be rude, she could not do less than try to answer the nuns' questions.

"Was she carrying the holy Child?" "Were there angels with her?" It is easy to imagine it all. The colour of her gown, of her girdle, of her eyes, how she was, or was not, shod-they wanted to know everything. And as they had their own ideas on all these matters they even anticipated the answers. Teresa was fussed and hurt and would not say more than "Our Lady seemed to be very beautiful."

The nuns were dissatisfied. Some began to fancy that she had not looked properly or had seen wrongly, even became suspicious that she was Iying or keeping something important to herself. The next thing was to decide that she was unworthy of the grace she had received; finally, to cast doubt on the vision itself.

"Our Lady allowed me to be thus tormented for my own good," she writes, "otherwise I might have become conceited. Instead of that, I was so humiliated that I could not think of myself without extreme disgust."

She wrote this a long time after, and it may well be that she exaggerates. Nor would it be surprising if she carried away from this visit a not very favourable idea of Carmel from a human point of view. All the more reason for her to enter it.... What is certain is that in the end she paid for her miraculous cure with redoubled suffering, which was now spiritual. The expression, or simply implication, of doubt about the truthfulness of her evidence revived an affliction from which she had already suffered and which was still latent, the affliction of a scrupulous conscience. Clouds closed over our Lady's smiling face, and they opened only twice again during the rest of Teresa's earthly life.

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

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