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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 6 — 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

6. FIRST TRIALS IN CARMEL

From Rome they went to Naples, then to Assisi, and back home by Florence, Pisa, and Genoa, staying all the time at the best hotels. Teresa was enchanted by all that she saw, and was continually trying to free herself from the delight of the eyes. She was suffering, but with superb obstinacy refused to give in and went on willing her consolation, namely, the certitude that she would go into the convent at Christmas. As a distraction or to gain time M. Martin suggested a pilgrimage to the Holy Places. But that would have been only a poor makeshift: the door she wanted to open, and at once, led to a Jerusalem "which is above."

When they got back to Lisieux Teresa, on the advice of Pauline, wrote to the bishop. The superior of the Carmelites was still against her, and the prioress for her. Better still, she had succeeded in winning over the vicar general during the pilgrimage, and he now supported her with all the means at his command.

Decidedly, she thought, God is on my side; the thing is as good as settled; and she anxiously watched the post. But God seemed to be in no hurry; he kept her on tenterhooks, doubtless thinking it well to test such assurance to the utmost. Christmas came, and still there was not a word. As usual, Teresa went to the midnight Mass at St. Peter's cathedral; sad, perhaps a bit put-out and reproachful of the holy Child. Three days later, on the feast of the Innocents, she had a letter from Mother Mary of Gonzaga.

The bishop had yielded and left the decision to the discretion of the prioress. She had only to say the word and Teresa might enter Carmel tomorrow.... But the prioress thought, not at once: Lent would soon be here and she feared what might be the effect of its special hardships on a young postulant; no matter if she were mistaken, another three months' patient waiting would do no harm. So Teresa would be received in April, on the day on which the feast of the Annunciation was to be kept that year.

There might have been a certain danger in this further delay. "What is three months now? She will have the whole of her life to practice penance in the convent. Let her have some fun and collect as many happy memories as she can to take in with her." Just so do we hear of some prospective bridegrooms "making hay while the sun shines." Whoever whispered such an idea into Teresa's ear underestimated the strength both of divine grace and of her own spirit. The bride of Christ was not going to lose a minute from preparing herself for service in the austere cell that is the ante-room of the bride-chamber; it was fitting that she should enter it garbed in penitence and charity rather than in human joys and regrets. Day by day and hour by hour she spent her last "holiday" breaking what was left of her own will into little pieces. She thwarted the least slackness and the tiniest whim; she looked away when her eyes fell upon things that were dear; she forbade herself all argument and answering back; she was always at hand unostentatiously to do any little thing for people and acted at once on the least hint of what anyone wanted; in fact, she made herself the perfect servant.

On the evening of April 8, 1888, the family at Les Buissonnets assembled in the dining-room which I have described. The chandeliers lit up the table, and it was spread with plenty of food, as befits a great festival in the house of a well-to-do bourgeois, even if he is a saint. But that food was only nibbled, for they were celebrating Teresa's departure for Carmel. M. Martin was freely willing to give her up; she was experiencing the sweetest moment of her life. That does not mean that she was not deeply moved by human sadness: it would have been monstrous otherwise.

Next morning Teresa looked smilingly upon the furniture in the house and the trees in the garden for the last time, went down the gravelled path in the front, and made her way to the convent chapel, past the old church of St. James, and by the narrow dingy rue de Livarot which crosses the Orbiquet over a little bridge. Her relatives followed her in and they all assisted at Mass together; at the communion Teresa heard sobbing all around her: she was the only one that did not cry. But the pounding of her heart nearly stifled her when she moved towards the enclosure door. She kissed them all, knelt to receive her father's blessing, and walked in without a backward glance. The door was shut upon her, and she was embraced by the prioress, by her two sisters in the flesh and in religion, and by all her new sisters.

The formidable superior, M. Delatroette, was there and, undeterred by any fear of discord, he said sharply and loud enough for M. Martin to hear, "Well, reverend mothers, now you can sing your Te Deum. As delegate of his lordship the bishop, I hand over to you this fifteen-year-old child in accordance with your wish. I hope she will not disappoint your hopes; but I would remind you that if she does the responsibility is yours." His tact was as meagre as his perspicacity. The fifteen-year-old child went quietly and resolutely to her cell; there was as it were a sort of majesty joined to her modesty which at once called forth the respect of her sisters.

The Carmel of Lisieux stands beside a dark rivulet. It is surrounded by high walls, and a cloister runs round the tiny garden; in the middle is a large cross. The house itself is built of gloomy brick, roofed with slate, and has dormer windows and arched doors; it is icily plain and is even more leafless than the school at the abbey. The inside is made up chiefly of straight whitewashed passages and cold cells, bare of ornament except for the reminders in black-painted letters above the doors: "Watch and pray"; "To suffer and to die." From the prioress's table at the top of the refectory the eye-sockets of a skull observe the nuns as they eat. From their choir they get a faraway view of the altar and its tabernacle through the closely-set bars of a double grille, and in the parlour the shadow and the voice of friends are occasionally discerned. Such was the paradise that Sister Teresa had chosen.

"Everything in the convent seemed to me delightful," she writes. Her long dreamed-of wilderness was realized to perfection by the nine-foot square cell with its single window; it was furnished with a straw mattress on a bed of boards, a jug and basin, a stool, a table, and a plain wooden cross. "Now I am here for always," she said over and over to herself. With God; far from the meanness and weakness and temptations of the world; among the perfect. This last was an illusion of which she would be cured. Wherever there is human kind there is the world; a convent is a part of the world. God has arranged it like that.

A postulant's dress is not becoming: a skimpy black gown and bonnet have neither the dignity of a nun's habit nor the pleasant homeliness of a lay-sister's clothes. However, it is not meant to be attractive, but rather to be a test and a discouragement to any romanticism that may be lurking in the vocation. The postulant finds herself the poor relation of a not very large family (a Carmelite community rarely numbers more than twenty), every member of which has her own duties, assigned and supervised by the prioress, who is charged with the maintenance of the Carmelite rule; she has surrendered all liberty of speech, of action, of use of time: she is free only to obey.

The day, from 5 A.M. to 10:.30 P.M., is divided between psalmody in choir (the whole Divine Office, unabridged), Mass, conferences on the rule, study of Latin and the Holy Scriptures, reading in common, manual work, dinner and supper, meditation and private prayer. Everything is done in silence, that is, without a sentence or even word that is not required by the circumstances or in reply to a question. Twice a day a recreation of one hour's duration allows this observance to be relaxed. These recreations are presided over by the prioress (or novice-mistress, her delegate among the junior sisters), so that order may be kept and charity maintained among the varied characters and dispositions whose welfare has been entrusted to her; she has indeed to be a mother, combining love and strictness. But as a prioress has her own personal temperament and idiosyncrasies (only the greatest saints are entirely delivered from the domination of these) she is still liable to error, imprudence, and even injustice; she is a human being, and so are her daughters. Accordingly, the thorny and humanly insoluble problem of family life and human relations is present in a convent as much as anywhere else. Natural incompatibilities, misunderstandings, conflict of personalities or policies are necessarily there in a latent state; they are concealed by the daily discipline, modified by the force of brotherly love, but they are there, and often strengthened and exasperated by the unescapable propinquity of one to another. For the stronger souls they are a source of further strength and improvement.

The ladies of Lisieux discussed the latest news.

"Fancy that little Martin girl burying herself like that at her age! I'm sure she won't stop. You see!"

"Do you think not? She's very headstrong and far too proud ever to admit that she was mistaken about her vocation. She'll have a bad time, but she'll stop. They always stop there for pride-not because they want to."

Mme. X-is better informed, and puts her oar in: "People take their pleasure where they find it. Believe me, these Carmelites don't have a bad time. To start off with, they've got nothing to worry about; everything is arranged for them beforehand. You go back to your childhood and let yourself be led, and it takes very little to please you."

"Aren't they always praying then?"

"Of course not. Between the services they chatter and amuse themselves, and the better-class girls do things: you know, watercolours and poetry and all that. Why, on feastdays they have plays."

"Plays?"

"Yes, indeed. My cousin Marguerite told me so. These good nuns wanted a pet so they've taken Teresa, and they'll make a plaything of her. Don't forget they've already got the two elder ones, and you can guess whether they're spoiled or not!"

Their minds being thus set at rest, the ladies began to coo. Were it not for their imperative duties to society they would all go off and join Teresa Martin.

The reality was very different. Not as regards enjoyments, for it is true enough that the Carmelites amused themselves with a childlike zest at recreation and on feast-days-nuns are nothing if not human. But if it had occurred to one of those "good nuns" to pet the fifteen-year-old postulant, the mature gravity of her expression would have been sufficient warning not to try. On the other hand, Teresa should have been able to count on a certain tenderness on the part of the prioress who had helped her so kindly in difficulties besetting her vocation. But the time of trials was not over and what Teresa had suffered hitherto was only the beginning of what was in store for her. When she entered the convent door she lost the privileges which had been hers outside, and the prioress made her see this plainly enough.

Mother Mary of Gonzaga was fifty-four years old and had been governing the community for two years. She belonged to a good family of the provincial nobility, which made her a little unapproachable, but she was lacking neither in kindness nor charm; she was an energetic, enterprising woman, somewhat tactless, subject to fits of depression, and, according to Mgr. Laveille, rather inconsistent. She had sudden moods and would change her mind at a moment's notice, but was nevertheless so sure of herself that she expected to be followed exactly. It can hardly be supposed that she lost all her sympathy for Teresa directly she came into the convent; it is more likely that she reasoned somewhat in this fashion: Here is a girl who has never been outside her home, the youngest of the family and much coddled. She has been about a bit, certainly, but only with decent people among whom life was easy and everything corresponded to her wishes and often to her fads. She believes that she has been favoured with special graces, and even a vision. She is strong-willed, so she won't be easy to deal with. She has put her pride and ambition into the hands of God; that means that she has still got them. In spite of her desire for perfection she imagines that everything will make way for her and all will be plain sailing because she has two sisters here. She has got to learn that that isn't so, and the kindest thing to do is to teach her.

And so poor Teresa met the unmoved and severe expression of a superioress instead of the smiling motherly face that she had expected. It is quite likely that the postulant's clumsiness in her work about the house was irritating and that her immoderate anxiety to remedy the least fault aggravated rather than pleased the prioress. I must emphasize that she was capricious and authoritarian, though otherwise a very good woman.

The new ordeal began with coldness and went on to rebukes. Teresa is very reserved about the persecutions, real or imaginary, which she underwent, but she narrates something of those which she declares were far from being the most cruel, and tells us shyly that the mother prioress "gave it to her" every time they met. Thus: Teresa, broom in hand, had just finished sweeping out the cloisters but had overlooked a cobweb in a dark comer. Naturally this was the first thing that the prioress saw. Her sharp voice drew everybody's attention.

"It is easy enough to see that our cloisters are swept by a child of fifteen! It's shameful!" Teresa wished the floor would open and swallow her. "Sweep away that cobweb and be more careful in future!"

The situation was complicated by the fact that the prioress took no notice of orders that had previously been given by the novice-mistress, who was Teresa's immediate superior, so she did not know whom to obey. During her noviciate-a year later, her ordeal was long-the novice-mistress would send her into the garden to gather vegetables. She obeyed, trembling, for it always happened that she met the prioress, who would exclaim, "This child does absolutely nothing! What is a novice that she should be sent for a walk every day!"

"And she used to be the same with me about everything," adds Sister Teresa. "On the rare occasions when I was with her for an hour on end I was scolded nearly the whole time . . . and the worst of it was I did not understand how I was to correct my shortcomings."

These shortcomings were supposed to be principally "slowness" and "inattention during divine office." Doubtless Teresa was thinking or meditating or simply dreaming. While the minds of the other younger sisters were concentrated on their work, hers was wandering about or thinking of something else. Too much imagination . . . or perhaps too much prayer. A time came when the prioress had to admit that the misery which her severity caused to Teresa had never fumed her aside from perfect obedience. It must have cost her something!

The novice-mistress, Mother Mary of the Angels, was a cross of another kind. She had known Teresa from childhood and was very fond of her, and when given charge of her continued to show it. She at once recognized a continual correspondence with grace on the part of the new postulant, and took great care of her. But she talked too much, while Teresa loved silence and cultivated it so that she might try to talk with God. This never occurred to Mother Mary, and she overwhelmed her with monotonous homilies and dreary explanations: Teresa came almost to prefer the admonitions of the prioress. Nevertheless, carefully avoiding any criticism, she spoke to Mother Mary of all her troubles. The latter was warmly sympathetic, and to make up imposed certain relaxations of the rule, the opportuneness of some of which Teresa might well have questioned, while of others she certainly felt the need; for example, it was a good thing that she should be excused from Matins, for she was not getting enough sleep. But it was an excessive kindness when this relaxation was suddenly, without any special reason, prolonged for a whole fortnight. "This young lady is making herself soft!" thought the prioress. It was a pity she did not keep the thought to herself; instead, even the consideration she received was made to recoil on to Teresa's head.

From time to time the junior sisters would visit Mother Genevieve of St. Teresa, a former prioress, whose infirmities kept her to her cell and often to her bed. She was a holy woman, who had attained a high order of prayer and is said to have received the gift of prophecy on more than one occasion. It is to be expected, then, that she would have seen into Teresa's soul and divined her remarkable future. But it was hidden even from her. She did no more than encourage her, not without being sometimes startled by Teresa's spiritual audacity, and moved to put a damper on a love that seemed to flame too high. At the only opportunities which Teresa had of going confidently to a nun who was reputed a saint her trust was ignored, repulsed, or frozen up.

What about her sisters? They both loved her dearly, but Teresa had not left friends outside only to recover yet closer friends in the convent. It seemed to her that natural affection, and especially family affection, ought in the cloister to give way entirely to the mutual and equal love of all the nuns in God. And she did not merely resign herself to this view, she rose above it. She was aware of the truly spiritual quality- though perhaps a little too mixed with the human-of the joy which she would have got from frequent association with her eldest sister and godmother, Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, and with her "little mother", Sister Agnes of Jesus. had the mother prioress permitted it, and she had no doubt of the efficacy of the help which their tenderness and experience never failed to suggest to her. When she had been snubbed, wounded in her pride, or, worse, in her good will, she longed to run to them and escape from this onslaught of pain, pain about which she must keep silence because no one was wilfully responsible for it. But by an almost superhuman act of will she refused this most natural outlet to her feelings, and made it a rule never to seek the company of her sisters on any pretext. If one of them was not well she would even wait till someone else had been before she went to see her. "At recreation she used to sit down by whomever was nearest her, unless she noticed anyone who had not a companion." Mary and Pauline had not yet reached their sister's degree of self-abnegation, and it may be that they thought her egoistic and ungrateful. Her deliberate reserve did not conduce to understanding and some involuntary coolness was the result. But they understood her in the end.

So Teresa kept her troubles to herself, there being no one to give her enlightened advice or competent direction. When it came to choosing a director all her confessors failed her, whether from insufficiency or lack of understanding. The chaplain of the convent, Father Blino, a Jesuit, was not equal to his task; he treated her ambitions very cavalierly.

"I want to be a saint, father," she told him. "I want to love God as much as St. Teresa of Avila did."

"Be content to correct your faults and not to offend him any more."

"But it's not a rash wish," she persisted. "Didn't our Lord say 'Be you therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect'?"

She took the gospel literally. Come, come now! Father Blino could hardly believe his ears.

Another Jesuit, Father Pichon, arrived at the convent to give a retreat when the difficulties of her postulancy were at their highest, a moment when she was undergoing a crisis of doubt. For Teresa used to doubt.... Would these trifling contradictions and feeble human disappointments have hurt her so much if God had mingled with them some healing grace that she could feel? She had scarcely entered the convent when he was hidden from her eyes; the ordeal of abandonment by God came upon her at one blow, the very first day, and for no apparent reason; and it lasted for months on end, without intermission. "My spiritual daily bread was a bitter dryness." This was no exaggeration, for she wrote to Celine a month after going to the Carmel: "It is hard entering on a day's work when Jesus hides away from one's love. What has become of that kind friend? Doesn't he see our misery and the burdens that we have to bear? Where is he? Why doesn't he come and encourage us?"

But immediately she hastened to reassure her lonely sister: "Don't be afraid, Celine; he is there, quite close, and watching us. He begs these trials and tears from us because he wants them for souls-for one's own soul; and he is preparing a great reward. I am sure he hates giving us this gall to drink, but he knows that it is the only way of preparing us to know him as he knows himself and to become as gods ourselves.... We have to rise above everything that happens and keep this world at its distance: the air is cleaner higher upl Jesus may hide himself, but he can always be found." But if he persists in hiding? Teresa courageously put a good face on things. Her sister should never be allowed to suffer as she had done.

The injustice and persecution of her fellow-creatures were of no importance, she told herself. She had come to this house of religion to seek her God, the Lord Jesus; and since she had already found him outside, where she prayed so badly and loved so little, surely she would meet him infinitely more closely and constantly under this chosen roof. But the Bridegroom did not come to the meeting-place he had appointed. Teresa had entered Carmel for the sake of Jesus-and Jesus was not there. How could he be made to show his face?

A dry heart, dry eyes, prayers without savour and even without meaning, a diabolical aridity. Perhaps this was hell. No, it was only an anteroom of it. She did not yet deserve hell on earth, and it must be deserved to be inflicted. Teresa began to wonder if she had not incurred the wrath of God; she questioned the worth of everything she did; she felt the tide of scrupulosity surging up again within her. At this juncture Father Pichon came to the rescue.

Teresa had met him the year before, in the parlour when she was visiting her sisters; she had mentioned her determination then, and he had encouraged it. He remembered her well and expected to find her a good little nun, "of childlike fervour," following a "smooth road." She confided in him only partially (she tells us that she found an "extreme difficulty in unburdening her soul"; this is a characteristic to be borne in mind, for it throws light on her life and destiny), but when the priest looked into the half-opened abyss he was able to appreciate the dreadful depth of grace in suffering that was already hers. If she had not remained half closed up it is probable that he would have understood her completely. As it was, after a general confession in which Teresa went over all her deficiencies, levities, and childish faults, he was constrained to declare with all solemnity "before God, our Lady, the angels, and the saints" that she had never been guilty of a "single deadly sin"-"but without any merit on your part," he added. For the rest, he declined to give an opinion. It is possible that the secret which she withheld from him, whether from shyness, modesty, or lack of words to express it, was beyond his competence or the little of it that his humility would allow to him. He told her that she was being tested. But he saw the work of the Holy Ghost in her, and ended his instruction with the words: "My child, may our Lord always be your prior and novicemasterl"

Teresa rejoiced at the assurance that no sin had "soiled her baptismal garment" and without any merit on her part (she had attributed none to herself). She believed that peace had returned to her and that she had found a true spiritual father. But Father Pichon was sent to Canada.

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


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