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Secrets of the Little Flower
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Chapter 9 — 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

9. "THE STORY OF A SOUL"

The last time that M. Martin was able to be taken to the parlour of the convent he was clearly near his end, muttering incoherently and almost unrecognizable. When the time came to take leave of his daughters he raised his eyes and his hand, one finger outstretched, choking with sobs. So he remained for a long time, able to say only the words, "In Heaven! In Heaven!"

Surely he went straight there. Sister Teresa had not a doubt of it when he died on July 29, 1894, near Evreux, at a house where M. Guerin spent his holidays. Leonie had gone to the Visitation convent at Le Mans, so only Celine was with him. Hope was mixed with her grief: this death broke her last earthly tie and she was free to join Mary, Pauline, and Teresa in Carmel. Teresa took the death of "her king" very bravely; she was glad for his release, and prayed to him as one prays to a saint. She asked him that God would allow her a sign in testimony of her father's heavenly bliss, of which she felt so certain, and that that sign should be Celine's entry into Carmel.

Some of the nuns were not altogether pleased by the prospect of a fourth recruit to reinforce the "Martin party." We have seen how careful Teresa was not to take advantage of having relatives in the convent, and her sisters recognized that this apparent "standoffishness" arose from her desire for perfection and careful conformity with the Carmelite rule. There was therefore no ground for fear that the presence of Celine would encourage the formation of a family caste which might be tempted to control the community. The opposition was led by a venerable nun (her name is not recorded) whose opinion carried weight, and she seemed adamant. It would have been awkward for the prioress, Agnes of Jesus, to plead the cause of her own sister too warmly, so Celine's chances were looking bad, and Sister Teresa turned to God with a fervid appeal that was almost a demand. As she was returning from her thanksgiving after communion she met the hostile nun, who told her with tears that she had reconsidered the matter and that she was strongly in favour of Celine's request being granted. This did away with any hesitation on the part of the bishop and he had only to give his permission. M. Martin had answered; he was living among the blessed.

"What a happiness it is to find him as he was in the old days and more fatherly than everl" wrote Teresa to Celine on August 19. "He has been in Heaven only a month and all your wishes are fulfilled." This was probably the last time that Teresa "used a pen to speak with her dear sister." "Come," she says to her, "we will suffer together," and adds, "Then Jesus will take one of us and the others will stop in exile for a short time."

Was this an obscure foreboding or the effect of an explicit revelation? The disease that eventually carried her off does not seem yet to have made itself felt, but she returns to the subject: "Don't worry about my prophecy; it's only a joke. I'm not ill; I've got an iron constitution-but the Lord can break iron as easily as earthenware."

Teresa compared herself with a "little hound," who "runs after the hare" from morning till night. The prioress and the senior novice-mistress were the huntsmen: they could not "run in the undergrowth," but a young hound like her could "get in anywhere" and she "had a good nose." She kept a close eye on her little hares; she wished them no harm, but while she licked them she "told them all the truth about themselves," trying "to make of them what the huntsman wanted." On September 14 she had one more leveret, called Celine "in the world" and in religion Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face.

Some time before, Celine had accepted an invitation to a ball on the occasion of a wedding; rather against her inclination, certainly, but a girl's inclinations are apt to be deceiving, and one dance is sometimes enough to make her forget that she is already promised elsewhere. A young man asked her for the first dance and they took the floor together. But Teresa was praying. Then an unbelievable thing happened: neither of them could move; their feet seemed to be riveted to the floor. It was an absurd situation and with one accord they gave up the idea of dancing and took a stroll instead. Henceforward Celine was not tempted by the pleasures of the world, and her sister urged her to have no wish at all except to "love Jesus to distraction." The love of God is unquestionably exacting, but, as St. John of the Cross says, it "acts so powerfully that it can draw good from anything"-even from a ball.

In the direction of novices Sister Teresa showed a natural and supernatural common sense and balance, firmness, understanding, that surprised the sisters. She was gentle with her charges, managing them skilfully, and sinking her own personal ideas in order not to hamper any one in developing along the lines that suited her. This cost her something, for she knew by experience that her "little way" was much the best; but when necessary she recommended another, trusting to God to bring the novice round to it by this other road. What hurt her most was to have to watch and correct shortcomings in others when she herself was so imperfect. But it had to be done, and she let nothing pass; as soon as a fault was noticed she waged war to the death against it.

A religious must not form particular friendships, even with her superiors; she must not complain, lest she become an object of complaint; she must not ask somebody else to do anything for her that is not absolutely indispensable; she must do all she can for others without waiting to be asked she must learn to like what she dislikes, bear the unbearable, even be pleased by it and seek it. One of Teresa's neighbours in choir rattled her rosary continuously and the irritating noise made recollection almost impossible, but she came to regard it as a sort of music, favourable to a special kind of prayer; she called it the "prayer of endurance."

She laughed with her novices but scolded them too, fairly and in moderation. She never withdrew a reprimand or worried because she had to give pain-it must be left to have its effect, and "to run after one who has been chidden and console her does more harm than good." If she is left alone she has to humble herself and look to Heaven for help. Sister Teresa said what she thought and did not go out of her way to make herself popular; she was prepared to be misunderstood and misrepresented. She was frank with the novices and expected them to be frank with her, allowing them to reprove her at need and point out her own deficiencies. If her authority suffered, Heaven had to make it good. She let them talk on, even when they hurt her or were tiresome with their boring outpourings.

The girls she had to deal with were often touchy, weak, or obstinate, but she never gave one up. Like Joan of Arc, she was fighting for Heaven: to God were due the victories; to herself, the defeats. A novice boasted of having won her point in a discussion. "Oh!" exclaimed Teresa, "you are after success. That's a thing to be guarded against. It's better to say with our Lord, 'I seek not my own glory; there is one that seeketh and judgeth.' "

She did her duty of argument, warning, and appeal, and then left the intractable or troubled soul to the care of God. She stopped her classes at once when the bell rang, for observance of the rule was more efficacious than any words of hers. Once at the signal for office she cut short the recital of a novice's troubles with the words, "God is calling you. He wants you to bear it by yourself." The poor girl went away in deep dejection, but Teresa's words to her had been a prayer to God, and during the office a strange peace came upon her and all doubts were dispelled. God finished what Sister Teresa had begun.

Little by little her self-imposed simplicity enabled her to be glad at her own insufficiency. When she failed to be of help to one of her daughters hope would increase rather than diminish, for it was an indication that she must stand aside and let grace have free play; so she would aid it with her prayers and the offering up of her own humiliation.

She made enemies for herself-it could hardly be otherwise. There was bitterness and spite and complaints to be endured from her dear daughters as there had been from her dear sisters and dear mothers. She did all she could to overcome and disarm them-with strict attention to the requirements of justice-and sometimes succeeded. All she had to give she gave, and asked in return that everything should be given to God. As the process of beatification shows, her gifts of sympathy and encouragement made for her good friends as well.

"He whom you have taken for your spouse," she would say, "is the perfection of perfectness; nevertheless he has one great infirmity, if I may dare say it-he is blind! And there is one thing he does not know arithmetic! If he could see and calculate properly, our sins would surely constrain him to annihilate us; but instead his love for us makes him positively blind.... But to produce this blindness and prevent him from making a simple addition sum you must know how to capture his heart.... That is his weak side." Advantage must not be taken of this divine weakness to sin with impunity; but if a sin is committed, then it must be trustfully confessed to him with loving generosity, and after that put out of mind, when he will forget it too.

With such lessons as these did Teresa oppose weariness, discouragement, or depression, but it is not at all certain that even the best and most intelligent of the novices appreciated her teaching at its full value. Her lively manner and unexpected turns of speech hid its depth from them. "Isn't she amusing!" was often their comment, and "We shan't laugh to-day" they would say when Sister Teresa was absent from recreation.

At one evening recreation during the Christmas-tide of 1894 Teresa was talking with her two elder sisters, Mother Agnes and Sister Mary, and evoking memories of Christmases that were past. She had an unusual memory and liked to recall events from the old days because they were a testimony of God's marvellous dealings with her. While she related them so vividly her hearers had only to shut their eyes to see the house at Alencon, Les Buissonnets, their relatives and friends, and the little Teresa, with her big blue eyes and flying fair hair, merry and melancholy by turns, emotional and refiective, generous, loving. That child was their sister and it might well be would one day be a saint, as their father had foretold. As she listened, Sister Mary, moved by the recital and perhaps prompted by an angel of good counsel, exclaimed suddenly, "Mother Prioress, she ought to be told to write all these things down!" Why on earth? She would dissipate her mind with so many duties. Wasn't time enough wasted talking about herself without writing it as well? That was Teresa's opinion of the suggestion, and Mother Agnes agreed. But Sister Mary pressed her point: proper piety towards the past, gratitude to the dead, edification of the community, and Heaven knows what else. It is quite certain that she brought forward some weighty argument of which we are ignorant, for eventually the prioress agreed and put Sister Teresa under obedience to use her short leisure in this way. She even fixed a date for the delivery of the manuscript, in one year's time, on January 20, 1896.

First of all Teresa knelt and put this work into the hands of our Lady, "so that she should not write a line that would be disagreeable to her." Then she took a school exercise book, balanced on a small desk on her knee, and, in level precise writing, began the simple autobiography which was one day to reveal her holiness to the whole world. It was not a matter of producing literature; she was only concerned to provide her sisters in blood, and perhaps a few others, with an occasion for loving God more by the perusal of all that he had done for her. With such readers in view, she adopted the tone of a little girl talking to her grown-up elders, and she carried ingenuousness to its limit. The pages are covered with the floweriness that they liked and the sighs, effusions, and pious aspirations which appealed to them and might help their prayers; recollections fall over one another, she pours them out as she goes along, and then has to turn back to finish them; there is no sign of any elaborated plan-it is just the overflowing of a soul.

That is both the weakness and the charm of the first part of the Story of a Soul, which ends with Celine's entry into Carmel, but already towards the end her tone alters and the style becomes more staid. Teresa writes with a different pen and another ink when she continues her reminiscences for Mother Mary of Gonzaga, after that lady had again become prioress. It must not be forgotten that the first part was addressed to Pauline, the "little mother," so that Teresa's affection for her is continually being mixed up with the spiritual outpourings. She had also very little time for writing; she was not dispensed from any of her regular duties, and had at most two hours to spare from choir-office, meditation, the noviciate, attending the hatch, painting, sweeping, writing hymns, sometimes laundry-work, and always interruptions to be reckoned with. What would a "literary gent" say to working in such conditions?

Moreover, Sister Teresa put the whole of herself into what she was doing, whatever its relative interest, difficulty, or importance, persuaded that a floor well scrubbed for his sake is as pleasing to God as a fervent prayer. People have been worn out with less; she wore herself out, she wanted to: she aimed at self-annihilation. At twenty-two Teresa had attained the perfection of a great saint and, however surprising it may be, nobody but her sisters had an inkling of it. She could not be seen "being good," or rather, she seemed to have only to let herself be: it was thought that there was no merit in it, that her nature carried her along. People could not see the strife in which she was still ceaselessly engaged; her equanimity concealed it. Because she was always smiling it was supposed that she was "full of consolations." Some envied her. Others-the few who realized it- were frightened by her abnegation and refused to admire it lest they, too, should be compelled to follow her example. They found it safer to set her down as nice and negligible: a pleasant young nun, careful of the rule-who managed the novices well, told stories splendidly, painted pretty pictures, and wrote pretty poems; there was no question of her being a saint.

Teresa had obtained what she had aimed at: the nuns ignored her. Nor, although he was her sole confidant, did God know her either-or, rather, he pretended not to. That was what made Teresa throw herself at him with such audacity. The more he hid himself the more she wanted him; the more he ignored her the more she made an offering of herself.

On the other hand, her forsakenness must not be exaggerated, for there are certain admissions made privately to Mother Agnes, apparently while Teresa was still a novice. "Several times in the garden in summer," she says, "after the beginning of the 'great silence' in the evening, I have been in so complete a state of recollection, my heart so at one with God, and making acts of love so warmly and yet without any effort, that it seems to me these graces were what our mother St. Teresa calls 'flights of the spirit.' . . . I felt as it were a veil hung between me and earthly reality, and our Lady's cloak covered me completely. I had ceased to belong to this world, and I did all I had to do . . . as if my body were only lent to me for the purpose." Teresa would live in deep peace for several days under the influence of such exceptional graces; then she would "wake up."

During Mass on the feast of the Holy Trinity, June 9, 1895, Teresa made with special fervour her "act of offering as a burnt-sacrifice to the merciful love of our God." Divine justice needs a sacrificial victim-but who ever thinks of trusting to his love? "He is misunderstood and repudiated everywhere." Human hearts turn to other created beings "seeking their happiness in an affection so weak that it cannot endure a moment." "O God, shall your rejected love remain within your own heart?" Would he not joyfully consume souls in its fire and cease to have infinite tenderness confined within his own breast? If he is glad at the satisfying of his justice which regards only this world, "how much more of his love of mercy which reaches to the heavens!" "Jesus," she exclaimed, "may I be that happy victim!"

But a religious is not at liberty to hand herself over in this deliberate way even to God without the permission of her superior. It is possible that Mother Agnes regarded this act of immolation as superfluous and of no importance, a child-like fancy, when she smilingly approved it. To bind herself more surely Teresa wrote down her offering and submitted its terms to the judgement of a theologian, as a will is shown to a solicitor; then she put the paper between the pages of the Testament that she always carried with her.

The glory of God and of his Church, the salvation and deliverance of souls, the fulfilling of the divine will, these were her objects; and to them she added that "she might be a saint." But here Teresa was conscious of her own helplessness and she asked that God "would be himself her holiness," offering the merits of our Lord and of his mother and the other saints, and beseeching Jesus to "take away from her the freedom to displease him." She hoped for Heaven, but would not "collect merits" in order to win it: God's love, God's approval, God's comfort, it was just those that she wanted; she would be the martyr of divine love. "May this martyrdom prepare me to appear before you and at my death bear me straight to the eternal embrace of your merciful love.... I want this offering to be repeated endlessly every time my heart beats, O my Well-beloved, until, when the darkness has fled away, I can tell my love face to face for ever." Her signature is followed by the words "An unworthy Carmelite nun."

She often repeated this act of oblation, but kept it secret except from two of the novices; the others might have laughed.

The fire of love so much desired was to envelop her with a mystical and even some sort of physical reality, like the dart with which the seraph pierced the heart of Teresa of Avila. A few days later, as she was about to make the stations of the cross, she suddenly felt herself "struck so burningly by a shaft of fire that I thought I should die." She could find no comparison to illustrate the "intense heat of this flame. Some invisible power seemed to surround me wholly with fire. What burning, and what delight! . . . A minute, a second, more of it, and my soul would have left my body."

She fell back at once into her accustomed aridity. But Love had come to her, and for the future she could live, in the words of Father Martin, "in the ceaseless exercise of charity" without experiencing its delights. They did not matter, for she was no longer Teresa; Jesus lived and felt in her, and it must be him alone.

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


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