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Three Gifts of Therese of Lisieux
A Saint for Our Times
By Patrick Ahern
The Doubleday Religious Publishing GroupCopyright © 2014 Patrick Ahern
All rights reserved.
The Wounded Psyche
Few saints have enjoyed the widespread appeal of Saint Therese of Lisieux. In the century since her death she has become known and loved throughout the world. Abbe Combes, the author of several highly regarded studies on her, often spoke of her as “the Universal Saint.”
What accounts for such popularity? What makes so many--from scholars to the poorest of poor, from artists to monks--find inspiration in this woman who lived to only twenty-four years old? For me the answer is simple: She captures many hearts because she is so completely, warmly human. People relate to her experiences, which we know about in detail from her own writings and those of her contemporaries, especially her sisters. In her autobiography she reveals personal secrets, which few are so candid to admit. She tells us that she was powerfully drawn to God as a little child, but she also tells us about her struggles growing up and her painful adolescence. She was said to be a stubborn child and impatient, yet also reflective. In the twenty-four short years of her life she reached the heights of spiritual development while struggling not only with the darkest of spiritual nights but also with the physical pain of illness and the frustrations of living with a group of women. To know Therese is to understand that she is one of us. Within the parameters of her family life and then life in the convent, she is a saint within our reach.
In reading her account of her childhood, we learn that a good part of her early years was marked by an excessive sensitivity, which she did not overcome until she was thirteen years old. She showed uncommon courage in struggling with this tendency, but the problem persisted and wreaked havoc on her. She was much too easily hurt, often cried, blushed unaccountably, felt shy with strangers, and found it hard to compete with other children. Although she was very bright, she had to be taken out of school and placed with a tutor, lest the pressure prove too much for her and cause a nervous breakdown. She admits all this in her autobiography with disarming candor. Speaking of when she was thirteen, she writes:
I was really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness; if I happened to cause anyone I loved some little trouble, even unwittingly, instead of forgetting about it and not crying, which made matters worse, I cried like a Magdelene and then when I began to cheer up, I’d begin to cry again for having cried. All arguments were useless; I was quite unable to correct this terrible fault. I really don’t know how I could entertain the thought of entering Carmel [the convent] when I was still in the swaddling clothes of a child!
God would have to work a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant.1
What caused such behavior were the psychological wounds of maternal loss she experienced in childhood. When a child is very young, such a loss can shake his or her sense of security. Therese suffered this loss not once but five times. Although she grew up surrounded by love in a splendid family, a series of sudden separations left her at sea emotionally.
Therese was born into a deeply religious family. Her parents married late in life because they both first considered joining religious communities. Louis Martin felt drawn to the contemplative life and applied for admission to a Cistercian monastery in the Alps, but after serious deliberation he abandoned the idea and instead trained to become a watchmaker. Zelie Guerin, for her part, had an earnest wish to serve the poor in the Sisters of the Hôtel Dieu in Alencon, but after lengthy discussions with their superior she reached the conclusion that she was meant for marriage and raising a family. She took up the art of hand making the famous lace of Alencon. When Louis and Zelie met, each was the owner of a small business--he of a prosperous jewelry shop in town and she of a thriving lacemaking enterprise in the same town.
The story of their first encounter is quite romantic. They met while crossing a bridge one morning on their way to work. They had seen each other before, but on this occasion their eyes lingered in mutual admiration. He arranged to be introduced to her formally, and within three months they were married. Clearly they were meant for each other, and their marriage became a remarkable success.
The Martins were the parents of nine children, three of whom died in infancy and one at the age of eight. The five remaining girls were Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Celine, and Therese. As the youngest of the siblings, Therese was also the darling of the family. She had joyous memories of her early childhood. Zelie’s letters to her older daughters, who were at boarding school during much of this time, are filled with charming anecdotes about their baby sister. She was the prettiest of them all, the happy mother did not hesitate to report. She was gay and quick to learn, outgoing and affectionate, although with a mind of her own. She was “the little imp” and the joy of the family, her mother would say. Therese would recall these years fully appreciative of the love she received. “God was pleased all through my life to surround me with love, and the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses,” she later wrote (Story, p. 17).
The Loss of Her Mother
When Therese was almost four, Zelie discovered she had breast cancer, and she died six months later. In her autobiography, Therese describes the family kneeling at her deathbed, her father bent over with his face in his hands, sobbing. She tells us that, surprisingly, she herself did not cry; nor did she cry when the coffin was brought in and placed outside her mother’s bedroom door. She stood before it lost in thoughtful silence, knowing it would carry Mama’s body away and she would never see her again. It was too much for tears for her. This once joyous and lively child was suddenly quiet and withdrawn. She was entering what she would later call the second period of her life, and the most painful. She became overly sensitive and shy, making her experience at school in a few years very difficult.
Therese’s relationship with her sister Pauline was especially important at this time. When the family came home from the funeral the maid--with intended sympathy but little tact--said to her, “Poor little things, you have no mother any more!” Therese bounded into Pauline’s arms and exclaimed: “It’s Pauline who will be my Mama!” (Story, p. 34). The two at once formed a relationship that became very strong. Ten years older than Therese, Pauline in truth became her mother: said her prayers with her each day, got her dressed in the morning, supervised her education, and put her to bed at night, kissing her fondly as she fell asleep.
The two shared all their secrets. Pauline confided to her that she would one day enter the Carmelite convent on the other side of town. Therese had often passed it on walks and was full of questions about the nuns behind the walls. She told Pauline that she would enter too. Though she was only a child when she said this, she never doubted that her vocation could be traced back to her childhood, not simply to follow Pauline but because of her own desire to give her life to Jesus so totally.
The Loss of Pauline
When Therese was ten she was shocked to overhear Pauline telling Marie, the oldest in the family and now the manager of the household, that she was ready to enter Carmel and would do so very soon. This grievously wounded Therese, though she mentioned it to no one--least of all to Pauline. She kept it to herself for years until she wrote her autobiography when she was twenty-two, a book not written on her own initiative but under obedience to her prioress in the Carmel convent, who happened to be Pauline at the time. In her autobiography she remarked that what hurt her most was not Pauline’s departure, but that she broke the news to Marie without first telling her. For a time there were feelings of estrangement from Pauline, which made Therese’s second maternal loss more difficult to handle.
Not long after Pauline’s departure, Therese had a serious breakdown, an indication of how deeply attached she was to her sister. She was bedridden for eight weeks. Her conduct became bizarre, and she suffered hallucinations. A nail on the wall became a serpent, her father’s black hat an object of terror. She thrashed about wildly in bed and banged her head against the bedposts. Doctors were unable to diagnose this illness. Therese herself suspected diabolic possession, and later in life she spoke of what she felt was the devil’s part in it. While it is not possible to be sure of the true nature of the sickness, it would be unwise to brush aside her suspicion, for she was extremely bright and psychologically perceptive. Whatever it was, Therese was no stranger to suffering, as we shall later see.
It came to the point that the family feared they would lose her, and they prayed desperately for her cure. The girls brought a statue of the Virgin Mary into her room and begged her for a miracle. Suddenly and mysteriously Therese was restored to health. Marie, who had assumed the role of mother after Pauline left for the cloister, was with her at the time and noticed that Therese was staring at the statue just as the cure occurred. Later she asked Therese what she had seen. Therese did not reply, but Marie persisted: “Do tell me what you saw.”
Reluctantly she answered that she had seen the Virgin smile and that her smile was “ravishing.” The words were hardly spoken when she regretted them, feeling she had no right to divulge what should have been left a secret. Marie told Pauline, who told the nuns in Carmel, and the story quickly traveled through Lisieux.
Therese was mortified, another example of her sensitivity. First she blamed herself for revealing what she felt she should have kept to herself. Then she began to question whether she actually saw the Virgin smile. Finally she wondered if she had invented the entire episode: the cure and even the illness itself, just to get attention for herself. Could the whole experience have been a figment of her imagination? How complex her mind was at the age of ten, and how prone she was to question the existence of a miracle! She lived with this state of perplexity for four years until, while visiting the Church of Notre-Dame des Victoires, she became sure that the Virgin had smiled at her and her illness had not been some sort of unconscious ruse. As she prayed in this church before the statue, the doubt quietly went away and never came back.
The Loss of Marie
Further trials were in store for Therese. At the age of twelve, a critical time for a growing girl, she developed a case of scrupulosity, a not uncommon anxiety neurosis that afflicts a person with feelings of guilt about things that do not reflect any wrongdoing or sin on his or her part. In Therese’s case the scruples had to do with sexual images, which kept invading her imagination the more she tried to dispel them. In all simplicity she revealed them to her confidante, Marie, who dismissed them as nonsense. The advice pacified her troubled conscience, but only temporarily. She kept coming back to Marie with the same worry--seesawing is a typical feature of scruples.
In the midst of this crisis, Marie, who was the last person anyone would think would enter a convent, felt called by God to Carmel. She did not for a moment question the call, and she did not delay in answering it. Within a few weeks she joined Pauline in Carmel, where she played a very important role in the mission of Therese.
Once again Therese was devastated by maternal loss, left with no one in whom she could confide her delicate dilemma. Her scruples persisted, and she turned in desperation to her four little brothers and sisters who had died when their lives had hardly begun. She reminded them that she was their youngest sister and she had no one else to help her. She pleaded for their help. Shortly thereafter, without anything dramatic occurring, the scruples quietly disappeared, although her sensitivity would continue to afflict her, as she later would write. It should now be clear that maternal loss was at the root of Therese’s adolescent feelings of insecurity. But a question inevitably arises. Why was Therese so vulnerable to maternal loss that the death of her mother created serious psychological problems that would take ten years to resolve? Others might suffer a similar crisis when they were young without sustaining the damage Therese did. Was there something in her background that made her more vulnerable than the average child?
The Very First Loss
In fact, there was something that made Therese vulnerable to maternal loss, and what it was has not received the attention it deserves. The death of her mother was not her first maternal loss. She had experienced a painful separation twice in her early infancy.
When Therese was only three months old she developed serious pulmonary difficulties, which left her struggling for breath and wheezing alarmingly. Her parents were terrified that they would lose her as they had already lost four young children. The family doctor said their fear was well founded. Alencon was a smoky city, and what the baby needed if she was to survive was to be out in the country air for an extended time, in order to give her lungs a chance to heal and recover fully. He urged Louis and Zelie to send her away.
There was a woman named Rose Taille, a farmer’s wife in Semalle, six miles from where the Martins lived. Therese could stay with her. Once before, Rose had been helpful when Joseph Martin was ailing as a baby. Regrettably he died, but the Martins knew that this was not because of any neglect on Rose’s part. She had done everything possible to nurse him back to health and was heartbroken when he died. Rose had recently given birth to a baby boy, and she would be able to nurse Therese.
The difficult decision was taken, and Therese was brought to Semalle. That was her first maternal separation, and its devastating impact must not be underestimated. It is hard to measure the effect on a three-month-old child who is taken from her mother’s arms and given to a stranger, in a place she has never seen. There was a time when we might have thought that she was only a baby and babies get over shocks like these--they don’t even remember them. But we know better now. The shock (we refer to it as trauma today) does not go away. It remains hidden in the psyche, much to the detriment of the child.
1 Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd ed., trans. John Clarke (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1996), p. 97; hereafter cited in the text as Story.
Excerpted from Three Gifts of Therese of Lisieux by Patrick Ahern. Copyright © 2014 Patrick Ahern. Excerpted by permission of The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
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