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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 5 — 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


There could be no question of sending Teresa back to school at once after this serious warning. She must have a long rest and plenty of diversion: there was indeed a tendency to overdo it. Several old friends invited M. Martin to stay with them near Alencon. He hated "the world" but was very fond of travelling about, and he would not deny his daughter this opportunity of sharing his pleasure. She went to country houses at Saint-Denis, at Grogny, perhaps at Lanchal, where she entered into society, wore fine clothes, and mixed with fashionably-dressed ladies; she listened to their gossip and flatteries and was much petted and admired. All these luxuries and conveniences, grand rooms, expensive food, well kept-up gardens, crowds of smart servants, were enough to turn the head of a child who was only just enjoying sunlight and peace-and in her beloved native country-after emerging from an atrocious nightmare. If she had been willing to give herself up to it she could in time have become a leader in this elegant and futile world. All these people were serving God, or thought they were (without ever giving up a single one of their pleasures); and yet no one ever seemed to think about death: that was what puzzled Teresa. And probably it was this consideration that kept her from slipping down the path of easy-going enjoyment. "All earthly things are vanity," she declared in after years when she remembered these enchanting days.

She had not forgotten that our Lord was waiting for her, over a year already, at his altar, and on her return took up her preparation with increased fervour, first at home and then at school. Mary now took over the instruction that had formerly been given by Pauline. The last-named sent Teresa an album in which she could keep a record of her "good deeds" in an exclusively "poetical" form: to each act of love or self-denial there was a corresponding floweret, daisy, cornflower, violet, rose, forget-me-not. It is a tradition (quite a hundred years old!) of the Carmelite and some other orders to clothe the most serious ideas and the most vigorous actions with a garment of pretty-prettiness, and the young nun sought to instil this practice into her sister. It was confirmed by much that she saw and heard among the Benedictine nuns (for neither were they averse from flowers), and Teresa received an indelible impress. The fact must be accepted. To these worthy nuns what was not sentimental was not nice, and what was not nice could be neither beautiful nor religious. We have seen beneath this veil, and we know that in Teresa it sheltered solid determination and energy.

Mary was not so keen on this sort of thing. She was less imaginative and "artistic" than Pauline and did not put so much sugar into her guidance and advice. Teresa had rather misunderstood her eldest sister but now became greatly attached to her, for all that some of her inclinations were sharply curbed. Mary was suspicious of "meditation," fearing the child would lose herself in day-dreams, and allowed her to make only vocal, "set," prayers.

The secret of the smiling Madonna had been well kept by the Carmelites, so nothing was known about it at the abbey, where Teresa made her retreat before first communion. She always remembered this as a blessed time. Every night the sister directress came to the dormitory with her little lamp, drew aside the bed curtains, and kissed her.

There is no need to describe the child's feelings when at last, pale and trembling and in a dress like flakes of snow, she walked up the nuns' chapel to the high dark screen dividing the nave from the choir. It was a superb setting for this first embrace with God: austere, very grand siecle, a little jansenistic. "Teresa looked more like an angel than a human being," said the prioress. She was crying at the altar, much to the surprise of her fellows, who supposed that she had some qualm of conscience or was missing her dead mother or the absent Pauline. They knew nothing about weeping for joy. A deep and unutterable happiness had in fact swept across her and overflowed from her eyes.

"O my God, I love you. I am yours for ever."

That was all she could think and all she could say. She asked nothing of her Lord, he asked nothing of her; there was a reciprocal gift, without conditions. It was more than a kiss, she said, it was a making-one. The drop of water was absorbed in the limitless ocean: Teresa surrendered her own will and joined her weakness to the almightiness of her King.

The new communicant went to visit the novice Pauline, and the day ended with a family party at Les Buissonnets. She was given a watch for a present. It did not seem to her the most important thing.

The Bread of Life brings hunger at the same time that it nourishes. Teresa made her second communion, with her father and Mary, on Ascension Day, but afterwards had to wait a long time, till other big feasts came round, and the time went very slowly. Confirmation, on the following Whit Sunday, brought her a new grace, the strength to suffer, and she was soon to be in need of it. Soon after she had an example of human fickleness and unreliability. A friend of whom she was very fond went away for a time, and her return was looked forward to with quivering excitement. When she came back she had forgotten Teresa and hardly looked at her. Teresa tried to work off her abounding affection on this or the other of the nuns at school, but they did not lend themselves to it, and indeed did not seem to understand what she wanted. It is hardly to be expected that they should, for reserve and diffidence paralyzed her tongue before it could give any hint. So she continued to be lonely. This was a good thing on the whole, for it probably saved her from worse disappointments and she already had enough ties to break without adding to them.

She was approaching the anniversary of her first communion when scrupulosity, which had been troubling her imperceptibly, became disturbingly apparent. The attack lasted for nearly two years.

The sinner has no scruples because he has no conscience, or else because he has trained it not to be upset by anything. Scrupulosity always indicates a desire for perfection, even when it bewilders and leads astray. It is a sort of hypersensitiveness of the conscience that ferrets out the by-ways of the soul; it probes into actions and motives, analyzes them, isolates them, lays bare what it finds-and then what it does not. It leads to a chronic shortsightedness which makes everything doubtful and suspicious, so that there is no certainty even of a good intention. From being unable to judge, the scrupulous person becomes unable to act, and wears himself out with self-torment and self-reproach. Unless he can get over it-and abandonment of oneself to God will restore sanity-he is done for: despair and suicide lie in wait for him. This form of mental alienation is always a hell for the victim of it in its acute stage; but it may also lead to a complete purification of mind and will and affections, even to the degree where God thinks, wills, and loves through his creature.

Teresa was now nearly twelve, and from the day when she was first able to grasp the idea of cause and effect she had learned to value the least of her thoughts, words, and deeds in terms of worth and worthlessness; by constant practice she had become more and more skilful and sharp in the discernment of the real motives behind her actions. Of course she had a confessor, but children of her age do not have a special director, and she referred her difficulties to Mary, in default of Pauline who might have understood them better. But could Mary be relied on? Teresa reached the stage of doubting others as much as herself. It was useless for grown-up people to try and reassure her, for whenever she examined her conscience-and she was always examining it-her every deed seemed sinful.

During the holidays her aunt took her to the seaside for a fortnight. Wasn't it rather frivolous to amuse herself with donkey-rides and shrimping? She was given a pretty blue ribbon. Ought she to take it? Ought she to tie up her hair with it? Ought she to look in the glass and think that it suited her? But all the girls were wearing blue bows. All the worse, for perhaps they ought not to. She would have refused it, but that would have been unkind to her aunt. Moreover, to refuse it might be a sin of pride, an affectation of simplicity, an arrogation of moral superiority to all the other little girls. But what if it was wrong to wear it, after all? What was the truth about it all?

When she had not scruples of her own they were gratuitously suggested to her. She often had headaches, but as she never complained nobody pitied her. Her cousin Mary had them too, but she made a fuss and was coddled accordingly. "Why don't you do the same?" Teresa asked herself. "No, my child, you're shamming. That won't do." This is harmless enough, but the humiliated and mortified child judged herself to be always wrong and probably ended by believing that she hadn't a headache at all. The result can be guessed.

It was even worse at school, where association with others raised so many delicate problems. Teresa could never get out of her mind the painted pin-box, which she had seen in the hands of a companion, who had given it to her to please her. If she had not shown so much admiration for that little box her friend would not have been deprived of it; she had taken advantage of her kindness. But wouldn't it offend her generosity and make things worse to give it back? . . .

These apparent trifles wrung Teresa's soul. Ordinarily they ended in tears, but soon she would be reproaching herself for them: to whatever sin she had committed she was now adding that of weakness, she must be more brave. In the end she was crying for having cried. Her work suffered by all this, so did her health, and even her prayers. M. Martin took her away from school, but being at home did not effect a cure; she pestered Mary with childish and insoluble "cases of conscience." As she grew up she became more and more pretty; people were not slow to tell her so and she was annoyed with herself at knowing it. But she saw herself already sunk in profligacy-if she knew what the word meant. "What should I have become," she asks later on, "if the world had smiled on me from my birth . . . if my heart had not been so soon turned towards God?" Mary did her best to comfort her, but the next minute Teresa would fall back into an agony of uncertainty.

She used to go to her former school to take part in the meetings of the Children of Mary sodality. "I would work away quietly at my allotted task, and then, when I had finished and nobody was taking any notice, I would slip into the gallery of the chapel and stop there till my father came to fetch me. It was there that I found my only consolation; wasn't Jesus my best friend? I could talk happily only to him: my spirit was oppressed by conversation with people, even about religious things." To talk alone with God was her saving refuge.

At this period of her life she seems, whether out of shy respect or for fear of troubling him, to have been reticent with M. Martin about her interior trials. When therefore Mary also went into Carmel and Teresa accordingly lost her only confidante she turned towards the innocent souls of the little brothers and sisters who died before her birth. Surely, she thought, those who are living in peace and happiness before the throne of God, who never came even within the shadow of the wings of the Prince of this world, must pity her distress and be able to enlighten and relieve her. An answer came on the night of Christmas, 1886: the newly-born Babe of babes, without utterance or showing of himself, changed her darkness into "torrents of brightest light"; he who was made weak that she might be made strong gave her back her weapons of love. As usual, she had put out her shoes in the hearth (doubtless she had no illusions about this proceeding, but it was very nice to have presents and surprises, whether they were brought by little Jesus or by her father and sisters). When she came back from midnight Mass she overheard her father say, "This is much too childish for a big girl like Teresa. This will be the last time." The apparent reproach might have upset her grievously, but in fact her heart was changed. She kept back her tears, and was unaffectedly pleased with the presents that she found in her shoes; her simplicity of outlook had come back and henceforward she was able to get the better of her sensitiveness and scruples. "The source of my tears dried up and afterwards flowed only occasionally and with difficulty." She had learned from the Child in the manger that all her troubles arose from self-sufficiency and self-esteem, from a vainglorious concern about her own reactions and the inordinate value that she put on herself. What God actually asked from her was simply good will. She had got to forget herself and carry his care and love to others.

"Charity came into my heart . . . and from then on I was happy." We shall see for how long.

One day a card slipped partly from her missal, disclosing a single nail-pierced hand of the crucified Saviour. That precious blood runs down to the earth and nobody comes forward to gather it up; who will stand by the cross to receive the life-giving stream and pour it out upon the multitudes? "I will," said Teresa; "that is my vocation." Her Well-beloved thirsted, and the more he emptied himself the greater was his thirst; he shed his blood only that we might thirst and be filled, till our souls are running over and he too may drink thereat. A longing to drink at this fountain had taken hold of Teresa, to drink and to enable others to, a longing to wind all round the world that river of grace that flows from the divine side and must return to it. It is impossible to think of oneself when one is drowning in the blood of God.

At fourteen Teresa had left the frontier state of childhood and reached a balanced condition of reason stayed by faith. She knew that work is an indefeasible duty, but she never cared for household jobs and was always dispensed from them, being looked upon as something special, marked for a very high destiny. She would not refuse to help her sisters, but was eaten up with a greed for learning that absorbed all the time she did not give to prayer. She was given formal lessons by a lady in the town, and added to them "special branches of knowledge" that she studied by herself. She had "poetical" sensibility and appreciation of beautiful things but did not cultivate any "accomplishments"; this was as well, for when people of her social class adventure among the arts they rarely escape the accepted "idealism" of the bourgeoisie. In a spirit of self-denial Teresa had refused to learn drawing. She only took it up in the cloister, "taught by the Holy Ghost," as some biographers assert. In my opinion, it is better not thus to commit the Spirit of God, and I shall confine myself to a consideration of the intention of her later pictures (as of Pauline's and Celine's). Her religious understanding developed and deepened. Her bedside book was the "Imitation," probably the only one that was any good to her, and she knew it almost by heart. She tells us that modern work about "the end of this world and the mysteries of the future life" enabled her "to add plenty of honey and oil to the pure flour."

When Celine left school she again became Teresa's constant companion, her confidante and the "sister of her soul." They would go up into the attic room in the evening and together try to learn the secrets of the kingdom behind the stars. "It seems to me that we were given great graces." There is no doubt that the chief one was the regular practice of charity and renouncement. And the more she gave the more she had, according with the word of the gospel, "For he that hash, to him shall be given, and he shall abound." She did not even ask her confessor to allow her to make more frequent communions. But God prompted him to suggest it himself, even to the extent of several times a week, and her cup of happiness was filled. But the call of the wilderness, of Carmel, was every day clearer and more insistent. The only person who gave her any encouragement in this connection was Pauline. She had now been a nun for five years and had exchanged the white veil of the novice for the black of the professed; she had tasted the hardships and the solaces of the religious life, and was clear-sighted enough to be reasonably sure of the reality of her sister's vocation. Mary would not hear of it, and Celine knew nothing about it-she would have been jealous at the suggestion of a younger sister preceding her into a convent. As for M. Martin, Teresa realized what a blow it would be for him and put off indefinitely the bad moment when she would have to tell him. Moreover, he had just recovered from a first stroke of paralysis and had to be carefully looked after. Meanwhile time was getting on. Teresa had fixed on the following Christmas as the latest date for her entry into religion, ten days before the fifteenth anniversary of her birth. She had said "I wish it," and it must be.

On Whit-Sunday she was given some of that flaming courage that came down upon the apostles in the upper room. She besought God to impart it also to her father, and after Vespers she went to look for him. He was sitting in the garden behind the house, at the spot now spoiled by that frightful commemorative monument. It was a lovely day, promising a long mild evening; the cycle of the liturgical year was once more accomplished and the promise kept: I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, the Spirit of truth. There was now nought to do but to worship and to join oneself to the fulness of the Spirit. Teresa approached, her eyes full of tears and her heart of resolution, and sat down on the seat beside her father. He looked at her, drew her head tenderly down on to his shoulder, and asked her gently, "What is it, my little queen?"

As he got no answer he rose to his feet and with his arm still about her led her slowly among the trees. Then Teresa told him everything, simply and in detail: the fruit of grace was ripe. M. Martin burst into tears, but he did not protest and the only objection he put forward was that she was still very young to make so serious a decision. This was not difficult to overcome, for he had himself waited and wished for this consummation. He pulled himself together and spoke to her like the good man he was. Picking a tiny lily-like flower from the wall he gazed at it considering the care with which God had made it take root and thrive there; yet it could go on growing, perhaps even better, in another soil, for its roots were not severed. That flower was a figure of his daughter, whom he must uproot from his heart and replant in the garden of God.

M. Martin having acquiesced, so did the prioress of the Carmel. When Uncle Guerin was consulted he took his stand on human prudence; he was listened to with respect and the cogency of his arguments admitted. From being at the gate of paradise, Teresa found herself in the garden of affliction. Her agonized uncertainty lasted for three days and then M. Guerin, quite spontaneously, changed his mind and agreed with his brother-in-law; he too was a good man. It only remained to approach the authorities. But the ecclesiastical superior of the Carmelites, Canon Delatroette, declared at once and most definitely that no girl could join them till she had completed her twenty-first year unless she had a dispensation from the bishop. This was the biggest blow as yet, and a difficulty that nobody had foreseen.

A Teresa Martin is not easily discouraged; her stubborn nature was positively immovable when she had God on her side. She would go and see the bishop; if he gave her no satisfaction she would go to the Pope; if he was not acquiescent, then God would make him yield: that was her attitude. God wanted what she wanted, and he would have the last word.

Meanwhile she doubled her prayers, her self-deprivations, and her alms-deeds: the time when she would take refuge in tears had gone by, and the picture of her as a little weeping flower was never more false than it was now. She went to church and she visited the needy. When a poor mother was taken ill she looked after her small children and taught them their catechism; she took an endless delight in imprinting her spirit on their docile souls and her mark was ineffaceable. And then there were the souls of sinners-but how could she reach them and had she any power over them? Would they be lost in that pit from which no act of love ever rises? She wanted God to be loved even in Hell, and for that end she would go down into it. When someone asked her, "What is a soul?" she answered without the slightest hesitation that it is "a spiritual being created solely to love God."

Newspapers were hardly ever read at Les Buissonnets, for they are full of nasty things that should be of no interest to Christian girls. But M. Martin took in La Croix, from which he kept his daughters informed of passing events. During that summer of 1887 "The crime in the rue Montaigne" was agitating public opinion. A low adventurer called Pranzini, receiver, thief, and pimp, had murdered a well-known courtesan, together with her maid and the maid's little girl, and had been arrested at Marseilles when trying to dispose of the woman's jewellery. There was no redeeming feature about this man or his life: he was a barefaced and bestial ruffian, but a handsome ruffian, with an infinite capacity for seduction-hence the interest taken in him by the world in general and women in particular. He protested his innocence but was found guilty and condemned to death, a penalty that he deserved even had he killed nobody. His callousness suggested that he was certainly a lost soul. That soul Teresa coveted. How and why, God alone knows. She knew nothing about him except his crime, his stubborn impenitence, and his threatened fate, but among so many sinful souls she chose the one that seemed the worst and most hideous to implore God's mercy for it. This was the first that she reclaimed, using every spiritual means imaginable; herself, all the resources of the Church, the boundless merits of Jesus Christ, were offered for Pranzini's ransom.

"I felt certain within myself that I should be heard, but to get courage to go on with my attempted conquest of souls I made this prayer: 'O my God, I am sure you will forgive this unhappy Pranzini, and I have such trust in your infinite mercy that I shall still be sure even if he does not ask for a priest or show any sign of repentance. But this is my first sinner, and because of that I ask you for a sign of his salvation to encourage me!"'

On the day after the execution she could not refrain from opening her father's newspaper, hoping to find in it the sign she had asked. She read that at the very moment when the wretched man, unrepentant, unshriven, unabsolved, was led beneath the guillotine, he had pushed the executioners aside, seized the crucifix from the chaplain's hands, and kissed the sacred wounds several times. Teresa slipped away to hide her tears; she had a right to cry. When we consider the filthy lips of her "first child" (that is what she called the criminal) we can feel no surprise at the numberless conversions that she has obtained and still obtains; but in this crusade for souls her first victory remains unsurpassed.

In spite of her apparent excitement when the time came, it was a mere nothing for the saver of Pranzini's soul to present herself before a bishop to ask for a dispensation. She went to Bayeux for this purpose on October 31. So that she should look less young she put up her hair for the first time and wore a saucy little hat with two white feathers: it was not easy to recognize the schoolgirl with dainty features framed in a cloud of gold. Now her hair was drawn back en chignon her face was seen to be clear-cut and strongly marked, her expression determined, almost brutally frank, and of a baffling guilelessness: a face such as painters give to Joan of Arc and the great Teresa. She wept before the bishop, but spoke up plainly and fearlessly, keeping back nothing of what she had meant to say. She made so strong an impression that instead of discouraging her he counselled patience; her father had made up his mind to take her to Rome and that visit would strengthen her vocation. The bishop furthermore promised that he would himself take the matter up with the chaplain of the Carmelites at Lisieux, and would let her father know the result of his efforts. M. Martin showed himself as anxious to give his daughter as she was to give herself.

Three days later she set out for Rome, together with her father and Celine and a party of rather aristocratic pilgrims. Her piercing insight soon detected the spiritual insufficiency which lurked behind some of these high titles and great names and certain of the cassocks. This last discovery perplexed her; she had not as yet realized why the reformed Carmelites had been appointed, as their first duty, to pray for the clergy. It was a sad disillusionment. If the best among them were so ineffectual, what could be said of the rest? There could not be a more noble work than to bring back enthusiasm to the lukewarm and to lead on the ardent to yet greater efforts, to be a custodian of the savour of the salt of the earth.

They visited Paris, and at our Lady of Victories Teresa received strong interior confirmation of the smile whereby she had been healed four years before; on Montmartre she consecrated herself to the Sacred Heart. As might be expected, she admired the monuments in the cemetery at Milan, realistic lachrymose sculptures of the most disagreeable kind set up by the wealthy in memory of their dead. At Venice she was struck by the melancholy of the place; at Padua she venerated the Franciscan Antony, at Bologna the Franciscan Catherine, at Loreto the Holy House; Loreto pleased her especially and she received holy communion there. At Rome she risked her neck to kiss the blood-soaked earth of the Colosseum (it was not so accessible then as it is now); she lay down beside Celine in the empty resting-place of St. Cecily in the catacomb of Callistus, visited her house under the church in the Trastevere, and acquired a deep devotion to her; from the basilica of St. Agnes she brought away a tessera of mosaic for Pauline (now Sister Agnes of Jesus). Eventually she found herself at the feet of Pope Leo XIII.

The vicar general of Bayeux, M. Reverony, who had accompanied the pilgrims and had his eye on Teresa from the start, was standing beside the Pope, having warned the people that they must not speak to him. Teresa spoke.

"Most holy father," she said, raising tear-filled eyes to his, "I have a great favour to ask you."

Getting no reply, she went on: "In honour of your jubilee, let me go into Carmel when I'm fifteen."

"The superiors have the matter in hand, your holiness," interposed the vicar general.

"Very well," said Leo; "do as the superiors decide."

But Teresa tried again. "If only you say yes, holy father, nobody will raise any difficulty."

Surprised and moved, the Pope looked searchingly at her and answered impressively, "You will enter if it is God's will."

Then two attendants raised her from her knees and Leo stretched out his hand to her lips. Teresa went out sick with grief, but deep in her heart there was the peace that comes from a good conscience.

She tells us that before leaving Rome she offered herself to the Child Jesus to be his "little toy." There was still much of the child in her and her ingenuous offering was surely accepted.

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

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