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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 7 — 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


Teresa could no longer find her well-beloved either in prayer or in communion, but she learned to discover him in the superiors who disappointed her and were a stumbling-block -for they could disappoint and harass her only in his name. She had entered Carmel primarily that she might be of service to the souls of others; it was therefore only fitting that she should not simply endure suffering, but seek it, welcome it, and love it. She had learnt from her Lord that souls can be saved only by the cross, by crosses, great or small; and now the more she encountered, the more ready she was to take them up. This revolution in her soul, of which there had been premonitory signs from her childhood, was brought to pass by contemplation of the sacred face of Jesus.

The smiling features of the holy Child were suddenly superseded in her heart by a pale and blood-stained face, worn out of recognition and humiliated almost to nothingness. He was the most beautiful among the sons of men: the most darling in the manger, the best at the carpenter's bench; in youth and manhood one look from his eyes would enthrall hearts; the unutterable beauty of the Godhead shone through his naturally perfected humanity. That divinity was hidden, that humanity let itself be destroyed. He-who-Is elected and required himself to become as nothing in order to conquer us, to have us as his own, to reign unrivalled over us in the glory of a common redemption. Whoever wants to conquer, to possess, and to rein must first put himself to school. The greedy, proud, ambitious Teresa, the little girl who took everything and nothing less, soon knew what was left for her to do-she must conceal and utterly empty herself. The key, the only key, to the possession of Being is not-to-be. And since that which is not has nothing to expect, hope for, or want, so Teresa ceased to expect, hope, and want-or did so for the time being as little as possible, seeing that she had not yet attained the perfection of complete nothingness.

She set out to diminish herself, and it became her chief preoccupation; as her ambition and vehemence for conquest increased she made herself less and less. The word "little" that she uses so much, both of her "way" and herself, is not an affectation or a literary trick; it expresses exactly the hardest and most heroic resolution that so forcefully spirited a being could ever conceive and carry through.

It is natural that, after the more or less trite moral tales and other devotional books (the Imitation excepted) that she had to be content with in her childhood, she should now look for spiritual nourishment in the most powerful works of mysticism. For two years the writings of St. John of the Cross were her constant companions. She also read St. Teresa, but apparently less readily and consistently, consequently with less profit; the strong mental processes of her namesake were not suited to her intuitive nature. So there were seven mansions in the interior castle, were there? And four degrees of prayer? That did not matter much provided she could attain them. The first Teresa knew how to love Jesus; the second asked only for the secret of that love. These hidden things were made clear to her by the shaded light, the enlightening obscurities, the impassioned and tender ardours of the poems and treatises of St. John of the Cross, which did not call for a systematized method-her understanding was not incapable of such, but it cramped her spirit. She threw herself into the fire, so to speak, and assimilated the element directly: to pray and pray, to love and love, to reduce herself to nothing and nothing and again nothing. She learned the same detachment from Father Surin's Fondements de la Vie Spirituelle. Later on she would meditate solely on the sacred Scriptures, wherein can be found all truth, all wisdom, and all love. Teresa had that simplicity of outlook that can seize the spirit that lies behind the letter directly, without groping or uncertainty: a single word was enough--Jesus; or an image-the holy face. For this reason she was providentially kept from confidential advisers and spiritual directors. She struggled along the path of perfection more and more by herself, more and more simply, more and more stripped. "Who hath believed our report? . . . There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness.'' Teresa used often to say over that word of Isaias: it sums up the mystery that she clung to, considering and testing it for the space of five years.

If God still remained hidden-and it was only by a tour de force that she found him in the image of the Man of Sorrows-yet the world was always there to add to Teresa's adversities. The links which bound her heart to human creatures had not slackened; she was not forgetful of her father or of her sisters who cherished their memories of the old days. After an unsuccessful postulancy with the Poor Clares, the diffident Leonie had come back home, much against her will. Celine had promised to join Teresa, and meanwhile felt that she was living in an exile to which duty held her; the letters which Teresa wrote to her during the early years in Carmel seem to me the most touching of her writings. I believe them to be the most direct and spontaneous documents about herself that she has given us; they seem a product of necessity, and are gentle, eager, and radiant without a trace of conscious literary composition. She who found it so difficult to talk about herself and who "had not much to say" to her elders in the convent turned to her old playmate, and in the parlour it was chiefly to Celine that she unbosomed herself and spoke of spiritual things.

So at Les Buissonnets Celine wanted to be a saint too, and M. Martin continued his upward path. He had almost recovered from his stroke, and after he had treated himself to a short holiday he appeared one day at the convent in an unusual state of exaltation. His three daughters listened behind the curtained grille while he told them in general terms of the wonderful things that had happened to him in the church of our Lady where Teresa was baptized at Alencon. He had been well repaid for his sacrifices, too well. His happiness was so great, he declared, that he had protested to God that it was too much; he could not go to Heaven like that; he must suffer something for God's sake. And he added, "I offered myself." It did not seem right to him that his pain should be thus transformed, so he called the Almighty to order. For whom he had offered himself up his daughters never knew, but at his avowal Teresa shuddered, remembering the veiled man by the wash-house. Shortly afterwards he had another stroke.

He got better, however, and was able to lead Teresa to the altar in her bridal dress when she was clothed with the habit on January 10, 1889. Whether he should live long or die to-morrow, he was seeing her beloved face for the last time, on this most beautiful of occasions when a young girl girdled with chastity gives herself to that Bridegroom for whom she will remain for ever maiden. Whiteness had a strong appeal for the candid Teresa and she wished that everything could be as white as her veil and gown, hoping that her friend the winter (she was born in January) would do her the favour of covering the earth with a garment of the snow that she loved so much. But the weather was mild. With his "little queen" on his arm, M. Martin wept and beamed: "It was his great day," says Teresa. He knew that Celine, too, would become a Carmelite and that Leonie would not stay outside a convent, so he had given all his children to God; and God honoured him by choosing these brides from his house. It only remained to give himself- and he was already given.

As Teresa was lost to sight in the enclosure the bishop inadvertently intoned the Te Deum; a priest reminded him that this is sung only at professions, but he saw fit to continue the hymn of praise. Meanwhile, through the window behind the statue of the child Jesus which, as usual and more than usual, she had decked with flowers, Teresa saw that the cloister-garth was covered in snow.

She compares this day of exaltation with Palm Sunday; for her father as for her heavenly Bridegroom the moment of triumph had to be swiftly followed by a passion. While she was putting on the brown tunic and novice's white veil she saw ahead the hard road which the veiled man must tread. Almost exactly a month later M. Martin had a third stroke and had at once to be taken to hospital, where general paralysis destroyed his will, his memory, and his understanding, leaving perhaps suflicient consciousness to make him aware of his state.

The blow had fallen. Teresa repeated the homesick line of St. John of the Cross: "The dewy unspoiled dawns are gone." There was no longer anything but suffering to be looked forward to in this world. And it was not enough to be resigned to it.

Resignation is an enforced acquiescence; it has no depth of generosity, and to be of any use it needs to be reinforced by an attempt to forget or at the very least by a tendency towards a passive state not far removed from indifference. The popular wisdom which men call "being philosophical," and which is well summed up in the short formula "Don't bother," is unworthy of a strong-soured person. It is not a matter of forgetting the ordeal which some loved one has to bear, and which we have to bear with him, but rather the contrary, its reality has got to be deepened. We have to hold to it with all our affective powers, will it in the degree that God wills it, love it as God loves us when he permits the trial to come upon us. Then and only then will it become a joy, a crucifying happiness, in the same measure that it is our cross. All the saints have displayed the paradox of coexisting sorrow and joy, following the pattern of Christ, who knew in his agony the extremes" anguish of a man and the highest exaltation of God.

Teresa never ceased to think of her father, of her sisters lingering in the world, and of those secluded in the cloister; but at the same time she made her own the seemingly cruel will of her Bridegroom and was able to write: "Ours is indeed an enviable lot and the seraphim in Heaven are jealous of our happiness! . . . God must love our father very much. He has begun his martyrdom. We too must go into the arena and offer up our sorrows.... Let us suffer in peace." On this last word she says: "To speak of peace is not the same as to speak of joy, or at least, of joy that is felt." But what is an unfelt joy? Whatever it is, Teresa flourished on it and was satisfied with it; it was like wine to her. She had a frightening artificial willed happiness, which was sustained by a grace which had neither sweetness nor savour. When she was deep in the waters of tribulation, without consolation in heaven or earth, she could call herself, with a sincerity that equalled her audacity, "the happiest of people." Later, she even dared to write of these sad days that, "The three years of my father's martyrdom seem to me the most pleasant and fruitful of our life. I would not exchange them for the most sublime ecstasies."

This reversal of values was gradually being brought about. Teresa was becoming strong because she renounced the use of her strength, because she felt herself weak and wanted to be weak, a little flower blown by the wind, a little grain of sand borne on by the tide. She measured herself now only by God and so day by day became more conscious of her weakness and littleness. It is even a happiness, she says, "to carry one's crosses weakly." If we carry them at all it is only because God helps us, and the less we count on our own strength the more he will give us of his. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" was the cry of Jesus from the cross. Precisely in order that the man in him might give place to God, who brings everything out of nothing, who raises the dead and makes them live again. Teresa would not take her eyes from those of the Man of Sorrows, the despised and most abject of men.

As the prophetic veil which had hidden the face of her mysterious visitor was a figure of the cloud which was now over her father's mind, so Teresa approximated it to the blood-stained mask of tears and sweat that covers the sacred face of Christ; M. Martin had been chosen to receive the marks of Christ's humiliation and be thereby its living image for his daughters. The time had now come for her to add a new title of nobility to that which she proudly bore already. She must henceforward be not only Teresa of the Child Jesus but also "of the Holy Face." The mother prioress, who was watching her develop and increase and who, while continuing to nag at her, valued and loved her ("She is the best of my good sisters, an angel," she declared in private), offered no objection to this wish. This double name of Teresa should not be forgotten, as it often is; it synthesizes the economy of our salvation from Bethlehem and Nazareth to Calvary, and unites in her the perfection of innocence with the sublimity of grief. Moreover, it is from the cross that the "way of childlikeness" takes its beginning.

The time drew on for her profession, which normally takes place a year after clothing. She still received afflictions from the world and dryness from God, living between an abyss and a desert. She persevered in obedience, in humility, in the daily usage of sisterly charity, and the more she suffered the more she corresponded with suffering. As this began to be noticed, people fumed to her in their needs, and when a novice was in difficulties the prioress would send her to Teresa for comfort and encouragement. That she was ahead of her companions was doubted by nobody except the superior, Canon Delatroette. He suffered from the great weakness of insisting that he was always right, and accordingly formally opposed her profession on the due date, demanding that it should be put off for another eight months. This act of injustice was almost too much for Teresa. She had looked forward longingly to her profession, and rightly so, for it would be a token that her offering was accepted and that she was bound for ever. Now she was overwhelmed by despair, at grips with her instinct to rebel....

However, while she was meditating after a reading of Father Surin, she was enlightened by the Spirit of God and saw her error. Her "urgent wish to take her vows" appeared to her to be "mixed with much self-esteem." She discerned in it less desire to please our Lord than satisfaction at going up a step and receiving official and public acknowledgement of her deserts, and also some fear lest people should say "There you are! The little sister who aims at being a saint is not able even to keep up with the others"; for it is very likely that, in spite of her goodness and the severity that was shown towards her, perhaps because of them, she had raised a certain amount of jealousy: there were some who took advantage of her gentleness and thought by being hard towards her to please the prioress. So Teresa resigned herself: she would go on being humiliated, laughed at, and chaffed; she was used to it. It was God's will. He was delaying her profession because she was not yet worthy of it. "I will wait as long as you wish," she told him, "only I cannot bear to think that my union with you should be put off through my fault. I will try my hardest to make myself a glorious garment of diamonds and precious stones, and when you see it is good enough I know that nothing will stop you from taking me for your bride."

She went to work at once and scrutinized her every action relentlessly, congratulating herself on being still so imperfect and having so much yet to do for amendment and purification. She reflected on the three vows of religion and saw that she conformed to them very inadequately, especially in the matter of poverty. Truly she had nothing in her possession except necessaries authorized by the rule, but she regarded them with an affection like that given to old friends. Her bare cell was dear to her and she liked to see it very clean and tidy-with nothing missing. She thought her plain little jug very pretty, in shape, colour, and material, when she came back from Compline she would put her lamp on the table-she was fond of that lamp too-and sometimes read the Living Flame of Love or the prophets or the gospels, and that was an hour of real peace. Now she began to wonder if to take delight in what she had and saw and read was properly compatible with the poverty she had undertaken.

That pretty jug was taken away; so much the better: it was replaced by a heavy cracked one; better still. She extended her love to the "ugliest and most inconvenient things." One evening she could not find her lamp and she had to go without her reading, so she sat in the dark and experienced the joy of having absolutely nothing. She found plenty of such little ways of deepening her spirit of poverty: when she did anything for anybody she hated it to be noticed; she willingly accepted blame that was properly due to others; she folded and put away cloaks that were lying about; when the fault for a broken vase was wrongly put on her she kissed the ground and promised to be more careful. She deliberately attached herself to a very difficult laysister novice, who rudely rejected her kindness, but Teresa persevered with tireless patience and in the end the crossgrained sister became a devoted and gentle friend. In the same spirit she offered to look after old Sister Saint Peter, another lay-sister, who had been soured by ill-health and had to be led to and from the refectory. Nobody volunteered for this job, and Teresa herself hesitated, but the more she disliked the idea of it the more imperious the duty appeared. And it was a business! First of all Sister Saint Peter's seat had to be arranged in a certain way to enable her to get up, which she could not do without help. Then she had to be followed gingerly, supported by a hand on her girdle, and at the least false step she growled, "You're going too fast! You'll have me over and break my neck!" If on the other hand there was an excess of circumspection she would think there was no support, and complain, "I can't feel your hand, you're letting me go! I said you were too young to look after me!" There was more business in the refectory, to get her set down at table and her sleeves arranged, again in a special way. One day Teresa noticed that she had difficulty in cutting her bread, so for the future she cut it for her, and never left her without a sweet smile.

With such jewels as these did Teresa adorn her bridalgown, and the Bridegroom who gave them alone saw them. Nevertheless, her retreat preparatory for profession was an occasion of cruel aridity, which she strove to be content with and to explain. It was her custom to clothe her dereliction in figures and symbols after the manner of the Song of Songs and the poems of St. John of the Cross. She had a keen imagination and doubtless the Holy Ghost energized in it, but it must be carefully noted that the purposes she attributes to God and the communication that she receives from him are drawn simply from her own faith and not from any explicit revelation; they have nothing in common with the real conversations between St. Catherine of Siena and her Lord. The following is a letter she wrote to her sister Pauline (Agnes of Jesus) in September, 1890:

My dearest mother,

Your little solitary must tell you all about her travels.

Before I set out my Well-beloved asked me to what country I should like to go and by which route, and I answered that I had only one wish and that was to reach the top of the Mountain of Love.

Then I saw several roads before me but I did not feel I could choose any one of them wholeheartedly, for each had so many advantages....

So our Lord led me by the hand into an underground passage which is neither hot nor cold and where there is no sun or rain or wind; I cannot see anything except a half hidden glow, and that glow comes from the eyes of Jesus looking down on me.

He says nothing to me or I to him, except that I love him more than myself, and I feel within me that it is so with him for I am more his than my own.

I can't see whether we are getting towards the end of our journey because we are travelling underground, but somehow it seems to me that we are coming to the top of the mountain.

I am thankful to Jesus for taking me walk in this darkness, where I have a very deep peace, and I will gladly pass the rest of my days in this dim underworld-I ask only that my darkness shall bring light to sinners.

I am glad, yes, very glad, to have no consolations. I should be ashamed were my love to be like that of those girls in the world who are always looking at the hands of their fiances to see if they have brought any presents, or study their faces to catch a loving smile that will give them pleasant feelings....

At all costs I must pluck the martyr's palm of St. Agnes, if not by blood then by love.

She says elsewhere: "I do not want love that I can feel; if Jesus can feel it, then that is enough."

On the eve of her profession, just as hope was reviving, a furious storm, the most furious of her life, broke over Teresa's soul: Her "call" was a presence, she was deceiving herself, deceiving her fellows, her superiors, God himself; her vocation was a snare, a dream, idle fancy, a lie told from pride, and it would be sacrilegious to go on. She must leave the convent at once.

She sprang up, surprised the novice-mistress by calling her from the chapel, and poured out her distress to her. Mother Mary of the Angels met this crowning humiliation with laughter, and thereby freed Teresa from the trap that was laid for her. "From the morning of September 8 I was borne away on a flood of peace, and in that peace beyond words I took the holy vows."

On that occasion she asked God to grant, according to his will, all that she had a right to wish for on earth: in the first place, the acceptance of her full offering of herself; then, the welfare of her convent, the good estate of Celine, the entrance of Leonie into the order of the Visitation; finally, at the most solemn moment, that her father should be cured -"because mother prioress told me to ask this," she added humbly. Didn't she want her father to recover? Unquestionably she did. But since he had offered himself she was doubtful if she ought to try and deprive God of his sacrifice.

The lovely weather was suitable to the day. An eye-witness declares that during the procession a great flight of swallows passed over the convent, skimming the walls so closely that some of the nuns with an eye for omens took it to be a sign from Heaven. And Teresa's demands were imperial: she called on her King instantaneously to convert all sinners to him and to call from Purgatory every soul that was detained therein!

A fortnight later she received the black veil, but M. Martin was not present. Night again enveloped her.

The eldest of her cousins, Joan Guerin, got married, and the attention that she lavished on her husband filled Teresa with jealousy and shame. If a woman could do all that for a mortal man what ought she not to do for her Heavenly Bridegroom? To bind herself more closely to him she amused herself with drawing up, on the model of her cousin's wedding card, an ingenuous invitation to the "spiritual marriage of Jesus with Sister Teresa on Mount Carmel.'' She had to divert her mind-with mere childishness, if you will. She must appear happy and cheerful; for the bride of the Most High to go about with a mournful face would be tantamount to a declaration that he was unkind to her-hence the too flowery garlands that adorn the most distressing avowals in the Story of a Soul. It is to be noted that while God withheld everything during the daytime he gave her entrancing dreams at night: again she saw those works of nature that she loved so much, flowers, brooks, and trees, the sea and "pretty little children"; she caught butterflies and birds of unknown species but worthy of the Earthly Paradise. The stroke of five o'clock broke the spell and in the cold and gloomy choir her savourless prayers began again.

The general retreat in 1891 brought peace for a while. Formal retreats did not appeal to Teresa: the preachers' words did not make much impression and her mind had difficulty in following their meaning. She had to be all the time struggling with a sense of constraint of boredom, probably of embarrassment, and she tended to disregard the formal reasons for loving God, for they seemed a limitation of love or even a positive hindrance. But she does not speak of these things very clearly: mortification was making her more and more reticent. However, if a preacher is to be judged by the spiritual enlargement and deepening that he produces among his hearers, Father Alexis, a Franciscan from the friary at Caen, must be accounted to have spoken with the voice of the Holy Ghost, for on this occasion Teresa was touched from the very first word; she felt that she was understood even before she had spoken to him.

For the first time in her life she was able to open her soul to a superior, and the counsels of Father Alexis satisfied and freed her. "He launched me full-sail upon the ocean of trust and love which had called to me so strongly without my daring to venture upon it." What eased her mind more than anything else was to learn that "my faults were not a cause of any sorrow to God." She had vaguely felt that this was so, that God's mercy regards our nothingness and is ceaselessly tempering divine justice, but hitherto nobody had said this to her, or at least not with sufficient authority to command belief. She knew well enough that God would forgive anything in others-but not in her, because of that special love of which she was the chosen object and of which she had received tokens. It was a revelation to her that she need fear God no more. All her troubles had arisen from a certain constraint, but now she was free to love without bounds and without fear. "My temperament is such," she writes, "that fear makes me waver and draw back; but with love I don't merely go forward. I fly."

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

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