St. Therese of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense
| Stephen Sparrow | IgnatiusInsight.com
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense
| Stephen Sparrow
In August 2005, as part of a solo six-week tour of Southern Europe I travelled
from New Zealand to Paris intending to spend five days based in the city.
My hotel was on the edge of the Latin Quarter and quaint but from my window
I could see Notre Dame Cathedral barely three hundred yards away across
the Seine River. Oh and yes the quaintness of the hotel would have sent
shivers down the spine of any self respecting fire safety officer but
it was adequate for my needs. Anyway, two of my five days in Paris I allocated
for day trips outside of the city. Chartres was my first choice and the
second came down to either Versailles (and Napoleons tomb) or Lisieux.
No disrespect intended to Napoleon, but in his day he did leave a lot
of hard feelings, so Lisieux easily won out.
Lisieux is an attractive town about two hours by rail west of Paris and
I arrived there on the same train as two Presentation Order nuns from
India. Sister Lucilde was a registered nurse in a Paris Hospital and Sister
Grace a teacher in Southern India and with shy smiles they wasted no time
in inviting me to share their food and drink before the three of us set
out to explore the town on foot. The Sisters natural courtesy and
lively sense of fun added greatly to a day that commenced with a visit
to the Convent where St Thérèse had lived as a cloistered
nun. A group of German pilgrims with their priest were about to have a
mass in the chapel so we joined them and afterward inspected the Convents
small museum, where among many items may be seen the Saints waist
length blond wavy hair cut off the day she took her first vows.
Next we headed for the large modern Basilica dedicated to Thérèse
an impressive building in white stone with a spectacular hilltop
setting. Large modernistic style murals on walls and arches dominate the
interior décor. After eating lunch in the sun, we made our way
to Les Buissonnets: the former home of the Martin family and now a museum.
Its an uncanny sensation to see displayed there the saints
toys and dolls, or to use the same stairs she would have run up and down
many times daily, and then to go outside and stroll through the garden
with its tall cypress trees; all easily old enough to be the same trees
Thérèse would have played under as a child.
Late afternoon I farewelled my new friends and started walking to the
station to catch a train back to Paris. Being a hot day I entered a pub
for a cold beer. The publican told me he had lived in Lisieux for only
a couple of years having bought the business with redundancy money. He
was curious about what a Kiwi was doing in town and asked if there was
a religious significance to my visit and learning there was, proceeded
to shake his head and say he couldnt understand why people came
from all over the world to visit a shrine honouring an obscure nun who
did nothing except write down some deep thoughts. She did nothing,
nothing at all, he kept repeating. I refrained from pointing out
that if his thinking caught on, the economic outlook for both the town
and his pub would be gloomy to say the least and asked instead if he had
ever read anything Thérèse had written. Not surprisingly
he hadnt, so I told him he might discover something important if
he took the trouble to read her autobiography and urged him to make a
start. The discussion was cut short by the imminent arrival of the train
but it highlighted how much ill informed opinion exists about St Thérèse,
even in the town in which she grew up and lived.
However, for those who have taken the trouble to read
Story of a Soul and they number many millions most
seem to end up with at least one of three viewpoints. Many are amazed
by the humility and simplicity of the saint, others by her radical heart
centred theology, and still others by her courage in facing the doubt
that God even existed. And of course taken together, all three viewpoints
form a sort of Trinitarian blueprint for the spiritual life.
Given the circumstances surrounding the saints birth, we should
consider ourselves fortunate that she didnt die during the first
weeks of her life. Thérèse was born on January 2nd
1873 in Alencon. She was the ninth and last child of Zèlie and
Louis Martin. Four of the couples other children had already died
and only one of those made it to age five. High rates of infant mortality
were characteristic of the time, even in well to do families and although
the Martins were comfortably off, Zèlie, like all mothers of large
families worked hard; not only in the home but also managing her successful
lace making business.
At the time Thérèse was born, Zèlie Martin was most
likely in the early stages of the breast cancer that four years later
would end her life, and that last pregnancy must have accelerated the
course of the disease. Considering her health and age (42) it was hardly
surprising that Zèlie found it difficult to breast-feed her newborn
baby. Thérèse was just not thriving, quite the opposite
in fact and after three months, Zèlie heeded her doctors
advice and bundling up the now ailing infant she headed off in cold weather
on the nine kilometre walk to Semaillé and the peasant home of
Rose Taillè. Rose took over the task of breastfeeding and during
the next twelve months reared Thérèse into a bonny, sun
tanned, precocious toddler.
While Thérèse was fostered out, she wasnt totally
cut off from her family since every Thursday was market day and Rose usually
travelled to Alencon to sell produce and while there would leave Thérèse
at the Martin house until after the market closed. While living in the
Taillè household, Thérèse was frequently cared for
out in the fields while her foster family worked close by, and no doubt
as she grew older she came to enjoy those wheelbarrow rides to and from
the farmhouse. It seems likely that this period in Semaillé with
its open fields and farmyard environment sowed in Thérèse
the seeds of an interest in nature; confirmed later by her love of flowers
and birds, and in her autobiography she recalled sharing with her older
sister Celine a room that contained among other things, a large wire cage
housing a mixed collection of finches and canaries.
Coming back into the family permanently at fifteen months, Thérèse
found herself the centre of attention. However lets be under no
illusions, although love and kindness reigned in the Martin household,
Thérèse described herself as bossy and temperamental and
frequently given to tears when things didnt go her way.
Shortly after the death of Zèlie in 1877, M. Louis Martin sold
the home in Alencon and leased another in Lisieux so that his daughters
could have close contact with the family of Zelies brother Isidore
Guérin. The two families quickly became close, the all girl cousins
being much the same age. Thérèse was now being taken care
of by her two oldest sisters, Marie and Pauline. Not surprisingly she
developed a strong attachment to her father and when he was home would
follow him constantly, especially in the well-treed garden and he in turn
would indulge her frequent whims such as transplanting some small flowering
plant into a new position favoured by her. When a little older, Thérèse
often accompanied M. Martin on fishing trips to local streams and while
he waited patiently for the float to bob under indicating a fish strike,
she would ramble nearby gathering wild flowers.
Spiritual formation of the five Martin girls had always been a priority
for the parents and within a year of the move to Lisieux, Thérèse
had entered the same routine as the rest of the family by attending Mass
with them each morning in the towns cathedral. In her autobiography
(written in the Carmel under obedience) Thérèse told of
how at an early age her thoughts often turned to God and how she could
best serve him, however she did admit that about this time she was also
plagued by religious scruples.
School was not a particularly enjoyable experience and Thérèse
disliked math as a subject but did excel at science, religious study and
French. At this time she owned a favourite blue hat and was so fond of
it she sometimes wondered if it were possible to love God as much as she
loved that hat. Weve already heard about the birds that lived in
her room but she also had a spaniel named Tom and both she and Celine
had bantams given them by Rose Taillè. Thérèse was
not afraid to recall incidents of her bad behaviour and related one occasion
when as a small child she asked the family maid to reach up to get something
from a high shelf and when the request was denied she stood firm and declared,
"Victoire, you are a brat" and then turned and fled while
the excitable maid ran through the house complaining shrilly that Mademoiselle
Thérèse had just called her a brat.
Thérèse wrote how her temperamental and touchy nature dragged
on until she was nearly fourteen when it ended with an event she ascribed
to a special grace from God. Each Christmas Eve it had been a Martin family
custom for the childrens shoes to be filled with small gifts of
sweets which they eagerly pounced on after returning from midnight Mass.
On this occasion however, Thérèse, being the youngest and
the last to be so indulged, overheard her father expressing his relief
that this would be the last occasion he would have to bother with such
trifles. She was close to tears at the remark but recovered her composure
and smilingly unloaded her gift filled shoes in front of her Papa to show
her gratitude. Thérèse recorded in her autobiography how
in that one instant she "recovered the strength of mind that she
had lost at four and a half (when her mother died) and recovered
it for good."
Within eight years of the death of Thérèse mother,
the two oldest Martin sisters had entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux.
Both young women were role models for Thérèse who at the
earliest opportunity was determined to follow in their footsteps; a decision
her father reluctantly but generously agreed to assist with. What was
needed however was permission from the local clergy who were not at all
happy at the prospect of one so young entering an enclosed religious order.
Thérèse persuaded her father they should go direct to the
local Bishop in nearby Bayeux for a decision. In order to look older for
the meeting (she was only fourteen), Thérèse had her hair
put up and wore her best dress. It was pouring with rain in Bayeaux that
day and the Bishop was officiating at a large funeral in the cathedral.
Nothing daunted, Louis Martin escorted his daughter inside to take shelter
and totally mortified her by marching up to the front in a church crowded
with sombrely clad mourners. Thérèse in her light coloured
dress and wearing a white hat knelt in one of the front pews and fretted
over what the congregation must be thinking of her attire. When afterward
they met with the Bishop and his Vicar General, Thérèse
was told the local clergy must be consulted before any decision could
be made, which was a polite way of saying "not just yet Thérèse."
Three days after the meeting with the Bishop, M. Martin took Celine and
Thérèse on a pilgrimage to Switzerland and Italy organised
through the Bayeux diocese, the highlight of which was to be an audience
with Pope Leo XIII in Rome. Although at that time protocol dictated papal
audience members should remain silent when greeting the Pope, this didnt
stop Thérèse from hatching a plan with Celine to ask the
Holy Father in person for permission to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen.
However before entering the room, word was passed emphasizing the importance
of not speaking since the audience would be quite long enough as it was.
Thérèse later wrote, "Before I went in I fully resolved
to speak out; but my courage began to desert me when I found the Vicar
General from Bayeux, of all people, standing next to the seated Popes
right hand." Nervously she turned to consult Celine who in a
loud whisper said, "Speak out."
The next thing she was in front of Leo XIII and when he held out his hand
she clasped it in hers and with tear filled eyes knelt and made her request.
The Pope listened and passed a reassuring comment but when Thérèse
remained kneeling he turned for clarification to the Vicar General who
with thinly veiled irritation attempted to resolve the imbroglio. Thérèse
however refused to budge and still clasping the Popes hand she again
made her plea and this time the Holy Father leaned forward and looking
directly into her eyes said, "If God wants you to enter you will."
At this stage two Papal guards arrived and had to half carry her away
but not before Thérèse managed to kiss the back of the Popes
hand which he then raised in a personal blessing for her and afterward
his eyes remained fixed on her departing figure until she was out of sight.
Thérèse learnt much from that journey. The people on the
pilgrimage were well off and many priests travelled with them as well.
She quickly came to understand why Priests are in need of prayer and the
special role of Carmelites in attending to this need. She wrote later,
"They have their frailties and their weaknesses like other men
such people need our prayers, what about the priests who have gone slack?"
Well as we know, God must have wanted Thérèse to enter the
Lisieux Carmel, although her entry was delayed for several months, due
no doubt to the reluctance of the local clergy to yield ground on the
matter. But, once inside the convent, the spiritual roots of Thérèse
childhood sent up a flower of incredible holiness: a holiness it must
be emphasized that was both well balanced and full of common sense with
its simple theology of the heart, a theology that was in direct contrast
with the Jansenist tainted faith of many Catholics in nineteenth-century
France and Ireland. The very idea of the avenging God of Jansenism was
repellent to Thérèse.
On the second page of Thérèse autobiography is an
astonishing piece on the Mercy of God as she applied it to primitive peoples
who had never heard of Jesus. "Our Lords love makes
itself seen quite as much in the simplest of souls as in the most highly
gifted, as long as there is no resistance offered to his grace
has made the poor savages with nothing better than the natural law to
live by; and he is content to forget his dignity and come into their hearts
too these are the wild flowers that delight him with their simplicity."
Thérèse view was entirely consistent with the Gospel
message that embraces all who either know nothing of Christ or have at
best only a distorted knowledge of Him.
Reacting to news from Les Buissonnets that the family maid was an alcoholic,
Thérèse wrote her sister Celine saying she would pray for
the poor woman but with true humility added that in the maids place,
she (Thérèse ) would probably be still less good and
perhaps, too, the maid would have been already a great saint if
she had received one half the graces granted to herself.
More Theresian wisdom is contained in a letter to Fr Adolphe Roulland,
then serving in Vietnam. Thérèse gently chided the young
priest for doubting that martyrdom (a very real threat at that time) would
gain him immediate entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.
"I know one must be very pure to stand before the God of all holiness,
but I know, too, that the Lord is infinitely just: and it is this justice
that frightens so many souls that is the object of my joy and confidence
As a father has tenderness for his children, so the Lord has compassion
This is Brother, what I think of Gods justice. My way
is all confidence and love. I do not understand souls who fear a Friend
so tender." Reflecting on her own "little way" of trusting
Gods mercy for past peccadilloes, Thérèse told Fr
Roulland, "I know there are saints who spent their whole life
practising astonishing mortifications for past sins but what of
it? There are many mansions in the home of God."
Those brief excerpts come from a couple of the twenty or so letters Thérèse
wrote to two young missionary priests who had asked the Lisieux Carmel
to pray for their vocations. With her obvious spiritual maturity Thérèse
was roped in by the prioress to give personal encouragement to these young
men. It goes without saying that all correspondence both inward and outward
was vetted by the prioress.
Eighteen months before her death from tuberculosis on September 30th
1897, Thérèse experienced the darkening of her faith. She
described it as a trial that God permitted her to undergo. So how did
she fight and overcome this spiritual and psychological ordeal? How did
she beat off these temptations to give in to doubt and fear? In manuscript
C of her autobiography Thérèse wrote:
"Every time the conflict is renewed, at each challenge from
my enemies, I give a good account of myself - by meeting them
face to face? Oh no, only a coward accepts the challenge to a duel.
No, I turn my back in contempt, and take refuge in Jesus, telling him
that Im ready to defend the doctrine of heaven with the last drop
of my blood."
For Thérèse, spiritual combat was not
about the cut and thrust of theological debate, which when boiled down
often reflected nothing other than the pride of the combatants. Thérèse
knew that only Faith could oppose doubt and yet she recognised the proper
relationship of doubt to Faith. After all, for people untroubled by doubt,
faith would be unnecessary: they would have certainty: and certainty ends
inevitably in a sort of fundamentalism.
Thérèse was not alone in suffering from spiritual
insecurity and in the Lisieux Carmel this affliction settled for varying
periods on more than a few of her confreres. These good sisters seemed
to yearn for a return to the time when Christianity so infused society
that the Churchs apparent temporal perpetuity was beginning to appear
as almost a proof of its rightness (triumphalism). Thérèse
would have none of it. By virtue of understanding her own relationship
to God (read that as humility), she was light years away from that viewpoint.
In spite of the darkening of her faith, she was content to endure her
trial knowing it was vastly more important to be where and what God wanted
her to be, rather than to expect to see evidence of Divine Providence
at every turn. For Thérèse, spiritual doubts were not stumbling
blocks; she used them as stepping-stones.
The nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire once observed that
the devils greatest wile is to convince people he doesnt exist.
If we recall the fourteen year old Thérèse reflection
on the frailties and weaknesses of the priests who travelled with her
on the pilgrimage to Italy, we see how well aware she was of this dangerous
mind-set. Little surprise then that the notion of doing spiritual battle
to save souls held a strong appeal for her and although she described
herself as a fragile little flower, Thérèse was certainly
no namby pamby and wrote of being ambitious to pursue numerous vocations.
She dreamed of being a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr, a Crusader:
to plant the Cross on heathen soils, to preach the gospel on all five
continents and the most distant islands all at once, and to go on being
a missionary until the end of the world. Thérèse loved
and frequently referred to that Gospel verse (Matt.11: 12) in which Jesus
said. "It is by violence that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken."
Like a soldier kitted for war she was ready for battle: humility her
armour and love her only weapon. She had a faith of truly mustard seed
proportions (Matt. 17:20) enabling her to perform entire mountains of
charitable acts and near the end of her autobiography Thérèse
spelled out the contentment of knowing and trusting Gods plan for
her by writing, "a heart enfolded in Divine love cannot remain
Related link: Online
Resources for the movie Thérèse
Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes)
for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors
Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese
of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of
Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined
a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married
with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography
and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.
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