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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 8 — 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 was eighteen when she exchanged the white veil of promise for the black veil, crucifix, and large rosary of the wedded brides, but she asked for and was given permission to remain with the novices. She wore a worn-out tunic of rough serge and her feet were protected from the cold only by sandals fastened with hemp. As she never complained, the oldest castoff and patched garments were allotted to her, and when a dish of food was burnt or spoiled it was a standing joke that "that was good enough for Sister Teresa." She did not seem to notice, and nobody ever knew what she liked and what she didn't.

She added almost nothing to the austerities imposed by the rule, but these she observed to the letter, for example, taking the discipline three times a week; she was not afraid to administer this severely-the pain of it for her did not reside in that. At the beginning of her noviciate she was anxious to multiply such mortifications, on which the prioress, being physically strong, was keen. But Teresa discovered that the Devil makes his bit out of them, because after giving oneself sharp correction one reckons to have made full amends, and moreover it is flattering to see oneself as a sort of Father of the Desert. It seemed to her that those nuns who used nettles for their voluntary penances were not always the best religious. So she was content to wear a cross covered with prickles next her skin; but she was not sure that even that was not a source of some vanity, and when it caused a sore to form she gave it up. All that, she thought, had better be left to great saints, who never gloried in it, as such trifles could not satisfy them. Theirs was the "great way," and her pride made her suspicious of it. It was precisely because she was made of the stuff of such as St. Agnes and St. Sebastian and Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena that she tried to be like them only in their smallest, humblest, most hidden ways. She would readily rescue the Pope, save her country, give her life in martyrdom-but she was not asked to. Striking deeds are out of place in a convent, where one's only business is to be pleasing to God and so to save souls, many souls, and if need be to set before them a practical and practicable example fitted to the requirements of the times. After all, she was only an obscure lower middle-class girl, whose life "in the world" had promised no more than a commonplace career consisting of the careful performance of domestic duties, and in that respect there was little enough difference in her present state. Accordingly she found a way of holiness equally commonplace, in the exact observance of the rule, and followed it steadily, weaving her life thread by thread out of insignificant actions that were too small for notice or record. But God saw them and, as each was weighted with love, valued them equally with the martyrdom of St. Cecily, the foundations of St. Teresa, or the triumphs of St. Francis. The very fact that they were too small to be an object of self-satisfaction increased their worth.

That was Sister Teresa's "little way." Actually she had been pursuing it for a long time, ever since that far-off day when her aunt had given her a string of beads wherewith to keep count of her "good deeds." She no longer counted them, for they now followed one another as swiftly as the seconds of time: she was reaping the harvest of her childhood's self-discipline.

While she was a postulant she had been put to look after the linen, and had as well a staircase and dormitory to keep clean and the vegetables to gather and bring in daily. After she was clothed she was assigned to the refectory under the direct supervision of her sister Pauline, with whom she would not allow herself to speak except when necessity required. As she had had little training in housework and was not so strong as she looked, she found the work a strain, but would not let anybody see it. In addition she undertook any unpleasant jobs that the others were glad to avoid: laundering clothes by a hot stove in summer, washing-up in cold water in midwinter, which gave her chilblains and chapped hands (she suffered a great deal from the cold, but nobody knew it till after she was dead). It is said that when a nun clumsily splashed her with dirty water, Sister Teresa did not bat an eyelid. She had learned to control any movement that would draw attention to herself: she would not wipe the sweat from her face, rub her hands together, drag her feet or show any other sign of fatigue, so that no one should see that she was hot or cold, or tired, or ill; she could completely control her tears, and smile or laugh when she felt inclined to cry. She seemed to be the cheerfullest nun in the house, and therefore passed for the happiest. Once when pinning on her scapular a sister stuck a pin deep into Teresa's shoulder without noticing what she had done; Teresa hardly moved and, so as not to make her companion sorry, went about her work as if nothing had happened.

God everywhere and in everything; a constant endeavour to be pleasing in his eyes, and to require nothing of him except the means so to be; the least turning towards him is its own reward. It seems sometimes as if he is not there. But he is there whenever we think of him, in the thinking brain, in the loving heart, in the determination to do his will. In a life whose every sentiment and every action is directed to his service, and consequently filled with him, there is no delight or consolation left to be desired. It is exactly the contrary of non serviam. The soul is led by love as a child by the hand of his father; the child can shut his eyes, it does not matter whether he sees his father or not. Teresa's soul could not see Jesus, but her love found him at every step. But that she loved did not prove to her that she was loved, and when she doubted it she was overcome by a frightful dejection. On one of these black days, only two months after Father Alexis's retreat, she put on a smiling face and went to the infirmary to visit that Mother Genevieve who did not understand her but whom she held in veneration. Mother Genevieve was dying.

"Listen, my child," she said to Teresa, "I've only one thing to say to you.... Serve God in peace and joy; remember always that he is the God of peace." Her cautions and warnings notwithstanding, Mother Genevieve had seen into her soul and spoken the word that was needed.

Teresa was present when she died. It was the first death she had witnessed, and she found it "a beautiful sight." She felt "filled with an unspeakable happiness and elation," as though Heaven had opened and shown her a beam of its light. She soaked up the dying woman's last tear in a piece of cambric. A few days later she dreamed that Mother Genevieve was distributing presents among the nuns; to Teresa she gave nothing, but said to her three times over, "To you I leave my heart." In death holiness had recognized a saint. With such tokens of love had Teresa to be satisfied.

M. Martin's health did not improve, and he was moved from Les Buissonnets to a house in the town near by M. Guerin's. Celine was increasingly alone and clung more and more to Teresa, who took the opportunity to teach her the love that she herself practiced, which never wearied though God ever disappointed her. In the same year, 1891, Teresa had the very great happiness of being removed from the service of the refectory to that of the sacristy. She handled the linen, the vestments, the sacrificial vessels, the wafers that were to become the body of the Well-beloved, with trembling fingers. Before putting the altar-breads into the ciborium she would look at herself reflected in its shining interior, not to see her face but to leave its image there where it would touch him who was to be therein. One day after Mass she noticed a tiny fragment of the consecrated bread left on the patent It was to her a measure of the humility and loving-kindness of the Bridegroom who, wholly and entirely there, had let himself be forgotten expressly for her, in a form infinitely small, the smallest that would yet enable them to meet. She knelt and worshipped; she called her fellows to worship with her.

While Teresa was quietly and unobtrusively fulfilling her responsible duties, towards the end of December, an epidemic of grippe, which was raging under the new name of "influenza," reached Lisieux and attacked the convent. It spared only two of the nuns (Teresa had it very lightly), and the less sick had to nurse the others: the whole house became a hospital. Sister Teresa was in sole charge of the chapel, and the rest of her time she nursed the unfortunate victims. She had to face everything. There were three deaths, one after the other, and she ministered in their last moments first to the sub-prioress, Mother Mary of the Angels, and then to Sister Madeleine, who had no one else to tend her. These sisters answering the call and going to God with a smiling face taught Teresa to love death. She wanted to die like that. Throughout the epidemic she was allowed to receive holy communion every day, a privilege rare at that time when daily communion had not yet become customary. It might be supposed that in an atmosphere of danger and of active charity and prayer, with those serene and glad deaths before her eyes, her love would have expanded and blossomed, but she found herself incapable of really fervent thanksgiving for the daily coming of her Lord. She expressed it in her actions but not in her heart, so she called on the angels to supply in her for what she was doing so inadequately. During this time the awesome Canon Delatroette was able to see Sister Teresa in action and his prejudices vanished, but she was now beyond appreciating any approbation which did not come direct from Heaven.

When this trial was over and normal community life began again Teresa returned to her "little way," helping her sisters, encouraging Celine, neither more nor less happy than before. This is how she speaks of her latest discovery, fruit of the community retreat of 189Z, taking as text the words of our Lord to Zacheus, "Make haste and come down, for this day I must abide in thy house."

"Jesus tells us to come down. Where then are we to go? . . . Our Lord wants us to take him into our hearts, which are doubtless empty of created things. But alas! mine is not empty of myself and that is why he tells me to come down. And I want to come down, low, very low, so that Jesus can rest his divine head on my heart and know that he is understood and loved." Teresa humbled herself to get away from self, and met self at every turn. She gave her "we" a hard time of it. But she had to come down still further, till she reached an infinity of lowliness.

In June, 1892, another sacristan was appointed and Teresa was for the time being out of work. The prioress suggested that she should try her hand at painting, and it is likely that Sister Agnes coached her, for Pauline had a schoolgirl's gift for painting, especially miniatures, of a kind suitable to a "magazine for young ladies." I have said what must be thought about these unpretentious efforts, which were just to the taste of the bourgeoisie at its worst and consequently equally acceptable to both sisters. We must look at their intention. As I have shown, Teresa had exceptional sensibility, which had she been better informed and directed might have blossomed fruitfully, if not in painting then in poetry. She knew how to think in images, her senses were keen, and she had something to say. So, in accordance with orders, she took pencil and brush and astonished everybody by producing quite good coloured pictures, "nice," carefully finished off, in which flowers rained and cherubs fluttered. She had never studied the works of "the masters" in picture-galleries or had any training of mind and eye and she remained faithful to the ideals of her schoolmistresses, innocently imitating the things she had seen and had had recommended to her as worthy of admiration-collections of pious pictures, magazine illustrations, first-communion cards. They were such a success that she was entrusted with the decoration of an oratory and was assigned to work in the studio, where she remained four years, at the same time being in charge of the hatch. Her modest pictures were works of art only in the eyes of the nuns; for us they are relics, things into which she put much love.

A year later she was revealed as a poetess. Nobody can deny that she could write. When her prose is stripped of its pious rhetoric and deliberate childishness, the wreaths and cascades of flowers, it is found to be strong, clear, straightforward, and to the point, showing the influence of the Bible and sometimes lit up by lightning-flashes like those of St. John of the Cross-when they are not taken directly from him. This easy and harmonious style is the vehicle of high thought, as a re-reading of the end of the Story of a Soul and especially of her letters shows. I shall come back to this, for at the moment I am considering her verse. Sister Agnes rimed as well as painted, hymns, occasional pieces, and so on, and as no one could miss Sister Teresa's poetical fancy -you had only to hear her telling stories-the prioress told her again to emulate Pauline. She did not have to be told a second time.

The first of her extant efforts, dated February 2, 1893, is called "Divine Dew, or Mary's Maiden Milk," and was written to be sung to the well-known tune Noel d'Adam. They are nearly all like that. The musical repertory of the Carmelites at recreation on feast-days extended from carols to laments and from laments to romantic "ballads," from Plainte du Mousse to Petit soulier de Noel, even, in their boldness, from the most risque songs of Medermeyer to Holmes, from Ambrose Thomas to Massenet, from the air Connaistu le pays? to Serenade du Passant, songs that were then current at provincial parties and even in Paris. It was these tunes of very doubtful merit that had to sustain Teresa's religious inspiration and carry the praises of God to Heaven. It is understandable, up to a point, that the asceticism in music imposed by their rule for the choir-office-all the psalms are monotoned-led to a reaction at the times when the nuns were free from this discipline: there was a debauch of sentimentality and worldly frippery and the young ladies of the community sang the songs that they knew in the way they had learned when they were "in society"; however, God looks at the heart. But poetry was bound to suffer in such circumstances, and it would be highly unjust to judge Teresa's verse simply as poetry; it is verse that was meant to be sung, and sung to unsuitable, not to say inappropriate, airs that were mostly commonplace and devastatingly sentimental. In my opinion it is a marvel that she was able occasionally to safeguard the real gift of poetry that she had implicitly fostered since her childhood. She displays excessive slickness, maddening wordiness, and a complete lack of discrimination in her use of words, phrases, rimes, and images; on the other hand, there is her will to say out the things that were in her heart and to express the vigorous and exact thoughts that she had drawn from Christian doctrine, the Bible, and the writings of the mystics, deepened and enriched by her inner use of them. There is always disproportion between her songs and their poetic substance, but suddenly the purring stops and the thing becomes untrammelled and clear, nothing but the thought is left: she has momentarily found its form, its literary equivalent. She does not reach the incomparable starkness of Racine's Cantiques spirituals, but you are reminded of them and are sorry that Teresa had no competent and careful guidance when she wrote, for she might have excelled some of the acknowledged poets in the France of her day.

Au nom de Celui que j'adore, Mes soeurs, je viens tendre la main Et chanter pour l'Enfant divin, Car il ne peut parler encore....

Il ne peut parler . . . he did not speak to her: Teresa sang for him; and to her dying day she sang his songs, however poor and inadequate those songs might be. At times of aridity, when she had no strength left to pray, the faith that was slipping from her and the love that she did not feel were rekindled by the necessity of making a carol or a cantata for some "occasion"-Christmas recreation, the prioress's nameday, the lay-sisters' festival, or the profession of a novice. When her spirit was emptied, her songs filled it; when it was too full, they enabled it to overflow. They were a grace that God gave when all others were withheld, and it is easy to see how she came to write so much verse in four years. It was produced with little effort, and she made no boast of it she was "allowed to do good to a few souls" by it. That was the explanation and indeed the only object of her writing. Later on she told the novices, "to answer directly you are called is worth more than thinking about beautiful and holy things or writing books about the lives of saints"-to say nothing of writing poetry!

Sister Teresa took up no superior attitude about external works; she had dreamed of being a missionary, converting the heathen by word and deed, and Celine tells us that she hesitated before choosing a contemplative order. But from now on she put a far higher value on the efficacy of interior works, self-denial and prayer. "The most difficult task of all is the one that has to be undertaken within oneself, self-conquest.... That living death is worth more for the salvation of souls than all the others put together."

She spoke truly. The disdain in which some Catholics hold the contemplative orders shows a complete incomprehension of the hidden economy of the universe. Prayer is its centre, and prayer involves love and selflessness. The posthumous apostolate of Sister Teresa of Lisieux is a striking proof. Meanwhile, she went on, still going down in order that we might go up.

The priorate of Mother Mary of Gonzaga came to an end in February, 1893, and Mother Agnes of Jesus was elected in her place. She saw fit to appoint the former prioress novice-mistress, both as a graceful compliment and to give scope to her energy (which, as we have seen, was devouring). But Mother Agnes had her doubts about Mother Mary's rough and capricious ways in an office that requires a delicate touch, and so named Teresa as her assistant. That shows what Pauline thought of her sister, but it also put Teresa in a most unenviable position, between the devil (so to say), Mother Mary, and the deep sea, the novices. Would the new mistress, full of years and experience, put up with a twenty-year-old sister taking a part in the training of her novices? It is true that Teresa's perseverance had softened Mother Mary, who admired and was fond of her, while Teresa, so far from having any grudge, was grateful for her needful severity and added a real affection to the respect in which she held Mother Mary. Nevertheless, these amiable dispositions were no guarantee against collisions, and there was ample opportunity for Teresa to demonstrate that submission to God's will brings daily help in difficulties. It is not known how she was able to adjust her views to those of her superior without damage resulting to the souls they had to care for together. That she had much to suffer is certain. We are assured that she alone was effectively the novice-mistress, and we must believe it. But it seems all but impossible that Mother Mary of Gonzaga should have abdicated into her hands. She must have guided from afar and from time to time swooped down suddenly on her charges, producing a confusion that only the Holy Ghost could repair.

Sister Teresa now had five daughters, five souls for which she was responsible, and on the day of her promotion she was overcome by a sense of her insuffficiency. She put herself in the hands of God. "You see, Lord, that I am too small to bring up your children. If it is your will that I should give them what they need, fill my hands and I will give your gifts to all who come to me for nourishment, without leaving your arms or even turning my head," "When I understood," she adds, "that I could do nothing by myself, my task seemed more simple. Interiorly I occupied myself with becoming more and more united to God, knowing all the rest would be added to that." She returns again and again to union with God by lessening of self, and she taught it and made it real to her novices.

I have emphasized that during these long years of convent life Sister Teresa not only experienced no ecstasies, raptures, supernatural communications, or interior consolations, but most of the time even had no sense of God's presence. Nevertheless, she remained united to him. It can hardly be supposed that her human will to believe, to hope, and to love was alone sufficient to keep her in health of mind and heart on this implacably austere road: God's grace upheld her faith, hope, and love from moment to moment. Her loving contemplation of him may not have brought her any sensible joy, but it filled her with vigour, and the more she mortified herself the more life-giving was the grace she received: all the gifts of the Holy Ghost were freely hers, especially wisdom and fortitude. She made full use of them, without hesitancy or premeditation. She had learned to be strong and wise without desperate labour, but that was not enough if she was to weather the storm. There is a certain point of forsakenness when human wisdom and strength must fail, even though they are solidly based and reinforced by the remembered experience of an absolute reality. Teresa's past life told her that God was her friend, she knew from the Christian faith that he was always with her: but this double reserve of assurance would have been used up long since if the inexhaustible stores of grace had not been at her disposal. Or rather, her spiritual treasury was empty-Tcresa was no miser-and God fed her from day to day "with a new kind of food."

"I found it within me," she writes, "without knowing how it got there. I simply believe that it was Jesus himself, hidden at the bottom of my poor little heart, acting on me in some mysterious way and inspiring me to do whatever he wished to be done at any given moment"-whatever he wished her to do and feel and think and endure and love.

In this way she was able to carry on herself and to direct the paths of others, her novices. To the best of her knowledge and ability, her acts were God's acts, God's thoughts were her thoughts. It can scarcely be said that God was withholding himself.

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

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