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CTS Great Saints Series

Author(s): Vernon Johnson

ISBN13: 9781860821462


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  • Classic biography of St Therese of Lisieux .I dont repent of having surrendered myself to love. Born in 1873 at Alen?ºon in France, Marie Fran?ºoise Thérèse Martin died in 1897 aged 24 of advanced intestinal tuberculosis, at her Carmel convent in Lisieux. 100 years later John Paul II declared her Doctor of the Church. She was canonised as a saint, in record time, only 28 years after her death. She never went to university, hardly travelled, had no academic or other titles. Yet she (through her story and writings) was almost a household name during the Great War of 1914. This authoritative life of Thérèse, a true classic, tells the story of one of Christs true little ones.
  • Vernon Johnson

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    Vernon Johnsons short booklet is a valuable summary of an extraordinary life. Therese of Lisieux is a Doctor of the Church - not because she was learned but because the insights into faith in her writings are so astounding, so profound. She is one of the most loved saints in the Churchs history.

    - Catholic Ireland

  • CHAPTER 1: In the world

    Home and infancy
    On January 2nd, 1873, in a simple house in the rue de Saint Blaise, Alen?ºon, a little child was born whose name was one day to be upon the lips of Catholics the whole world over, and whose prayers and sacrifices were to win souls to God in every comer of the earth. That little child was Marie Fran?ºoise Thérèse Martin, later to be raised to the Altars of the Church as St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, and to be known more popularly as "the little Flower".

    The surroundings of her birth, outwardly at least, gave no indication of the wonderful future that was to follow. Her father, M. Louis Martin, had a small watchmakers and jewellers business in the rue du Pont Neuf, and his wife, Z?®lie Martin, added to the family resources by making and selling Alen?ºon lace. Both M. Martin and his wife were most devout Catholics. Every morning at 5.30 they attended Mass at the Church of Notre Dame, and though daily Communion was not possible they endeavoured to receive the Blessed Sacrament as often as they could. In spite of the fatiguing duties of the household and of the business, they observed the fasts and abstinences of the Church most rigorously, and that at a time when the spirit of mortification among the more comfortably situated families was growing weak. Although Sunday was the favourite day for the country folk to come to Alen?ºon to make their purchases, nothing would induce M. Martin to keep his business open on that day. Along with this sternness in principle there went a great tenderness of heart and a deep compassion for all in suffering or in any kind of misery, which made their house the resort of all who were in any kind of need.

    Into this atmosphere of strength and tenderness little Thérèse Martin was born. She was the youngest of nine children. Four of them had died quite young, two of whom were little boys. Their death was a grievous disappointment to the parents, who from the first had always prayed that God would give them among their children one who should be a priest and a saint. Of the remaining four sisters, Marie was the eldest, and to her therefore was entrusted the care of little Thérèse in her earliest years. Quiet and reserved, unwavering in principle but with all the tenderness of a little mother, she laid the first foundations of the character of the future Saint.

    Notwithstanding her continual contact with her sister Marie, it was not however this sister who exercised the most marked influence on the character of St Thérèse. Strange to relate it was the example of a sister who at first lived for the most part away at school. This sister was Pauline, the second daughter. Stranger still it was a little word concerning the vocation of Pauline which suggested the destiny of St Thérèse. She tells us this expressly herself. "From the time I commenced to speak, whenever my mother would ask me, Of what are you thinking? my invariable answer was of Pauline. Sometimes I heard them say that Pauline would be a nun, then without knowing too well what it meant I thought to myself, I will be a nun, too. This is one of my first memories. It was her example that from the age of two years drew me towards the Divine Spouse of Virgins." Surely a wonderful message from God to this little soul through that sister who after having unconsciously drawn her towards the cloister from her earliest years was afterwards to be her official guide, as Prioress, in the way of perfection! It was this consciousness of vocation to a life of perfection which explains the heroic resolution of Thérèse at the age of three never to refuse anything to Jesus.

    The influence of the third sister, Leonie, was less marked; a delicate and affectionate child, she lavished great tenderness on her baby sister, nursing her and singing her to sleep, but she does not seem to have taken much part in the formation of Thérèse. The last remaining sister, C?®line, the next in age to Thérèse, could not have the same influence on account of her tender years. She was however a child of exceptionally sweet and lively disposition, the confidante of her little sister and her constant companion in every childish game. It was C?®line more than any other who was to create round little Thérèse that atmosphere of radiant joy, the memory of which made her ever afterwards bless "those sunny years of childhood".

    In this home, from the very first; little Thérèse found herself cradled in the supernatural and surrounded by the tenderest human affection. To this she responded with all the power of her affectionate nature. She tells us herself: "My first recollections are of loving smiles and tender caresses: but if God made others love me so much, He made me love them too, for I was of an affectionate nature. You can hardly imagine how much I loved my father and mother and, being very demonstrative, I showed my love in a thousand little ways, though the means I employed make me smile now when I think of them".

    This deep affection was not however to be restricted to her family alone. In the midst of the Catholic piety upon which the home was founded and under the example and guidance of her sisters, her immense capacity for loving was directed above all to that Heavenly Father, the God who is the source of all our human loves. It was in this home life that she learnt to seek "to give pleasure to Jesus" in everything she did, and into this she threw herself with all the energy with which she sought to give pleasure to, and to show her love to, her parents and her sisters. Not only was she affectionate but exceedingly frank and direct. Her mother writes: "She has a remarkable intellect and a heart of gold and is absolutely frank". From the very beginning there was a certain open directness which was sometimes disconcerting. One day her sister Leonie, who had outgrown her dolls, brought a basket of toys to her two little sisters. C?®line chose a little ball. Thérèse, after a moments pause, put out her hand and said: I choose all! Later on that trait was to be seen in her character when, confronted with the call to perfection and to the making of sacrifices for her Beloved, she cried: I will not be a Saint by halves, I choose all!

    But this strength of purpose and frank directness might very easily have been a great danger. When she was three years old we find her mother writing: "C?®line is naturally inclined to be good; as for the little puss Thérèse one cannot tell how she will turn out, she is so young and heedless, a very intelligent child but of not nearly so sweet a disposition as her sister, her stubbornness is almost unconquerable. When she has said No, nothing will make her change: one could leave her all day in the cellar without getting her to say Yes, she would sooner sleep there."

    Such a temperament would need firm and wise guidance to protect it from the obvious pitfalls. Her sister Marie gave little Thérèse and C?®line a chaplet of beads upon which to count their sacrifices. Every time they made a little sacrifice of their wills they were to move a bead across. The two little sisters encouraged each other in this practice. "Thus", she tells us, "I acquired the habit of refraining from complaint when anything belonging to me was taken away: also when accused unjustly, I preferred to remain silent rather than to defend myself. So in the earliest years she learnt the self-sacrifice and self-control in little things so essential to all holiness.

    Thérèse delighted in her home, revelled in her toys and games, but supremely she loved Nature. On the outskirts of the town her father owned a small house surrounded by a large garden. Here it was little Thérèse's delight to play, and from this garden she would return laden with flowers. From the first her bouquets were always of the simple wild flowers, daisies, buttercups, and wild poppies, just as she had gathered them here and there along her path. "I remember the Sunday walks when our dear mother always came with us. I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces, and stately trees: in a word all Nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven". She seems even at this early age to have understood the symbolism of flowers offered in token of love, for these flowers were invariably laid at the statue of Our Lady, a first token of that complete oblation of her soul and life which was to come.

    Thus passed the first years of her life. But now God Himself was to take the formation of this little soul into His own hands by means of suffering, by which alone can Saints be made.

    When little Thérèse was only four and a half years old her mother was stricken with a fatal illness and, after months of great suffering, passed to her reward on August 28th, 1877. The little family was left desolate. Before the mortal remains of her mother disappeared from the eyes of the little one her father took her in his arms. "Come" he said, "kiss your mother for the last time". She did so without uttering a word or shedding a tear. After the mothers funeral the family had returned home plunged in sorrow. The whole five of them stood together in a group, mutely gazing at one another in their grief. The maid seeing them said: "Poor little children, you have no mother". Whereupon little Thérèse, flinging herself in Paulines arms, said: "Pauline will be my mother".

    The effect of this great sorrow on little Thérèse was tremendous. To her sensitive nature the shock was overwhelming. Her disposition completely changed, instead of being lively and demonstrative she became timid, shy, reserved, and extremely sensitive, and she would very easily burst into tears; it was not till ten years later when she was fourteen years old that she fully regained her old gaiety.

    School Days
    Soon after their mothers death, M. Martin moved from Alen?ºon to Lisieux in order that his children might be under the influence of his sister-in-law, Madame Gu?®rin. In their new home, Les Buissonnets, a charming little house set in a quiet garden, the home life with its Catholic piety and its human affection was resumed. But one thing was for ever altered for Thérèse, her mother was in heaven and heaven was her real home. Her home on earth was but a passing, broken thing. The mother she loved so dearly was in heaven. So the transient joys of this world , though she had the greatest appreciation of them, for Thérèse was no ready-made ascetic , gradually became of little account compared to those things unseen which are eternal. It is important to realise this, for it explains the rapid growth of the soul and the unusual sense of detachment from the world which was so soon to develop.

    To Pauline fell the task of mothering her little sister. As a teacher she was firm as she was devoted. She required a definite amount of study to be done, and if application to work was remiss the evening walk was invariably cancelled. Pauline never went back on a decision once given, and M. Martin, at whatever cost, ratified her verdict. It was during one of these evening walks that her father took Thérèse to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the Carmel chapel. "Look, little one", he said, pointing to the grille, "behind there are the holy nuns who are always praying". It was in that chapel nine years later that the little one was to take the veil. During these walks the sight of the venerable father holding by the hand his little daughter often attracted the notice of passers-by. Thérèse, with her long golden hair, her sweet smile, and clear deep eyes, was growing into a beautiful girl. One day a lady accompanied by her husband could not refrain from saying in a low tone as they passed, "What a pretty little girl!" and she asked M. Martin if she belonged to him. The father, though pleased, signed to them not to address compliments to his little daughter. Sometimes her father took her with him fishing. She would sit in the fields amid the flowers. In her own words: "I listened to distant far-off sounds and the murmuring of the wind. Earth seemed a place of exile and I dreamed of Heaven". From these walks she would return laden with wild flowers with which she used to deck Our Ladys statue.

    The graces resulting from union with God were vividly increasing in this simple child of just five years old who sought our Divine Saviour with all her soul. In little Thérèse's quest for God during these days at Les Buissonnets, it was the dearly loved mother, who had been so swiftly torn from her, who was still her teacher. "As I grew up", she declares, "I loved God more and more, and I frequently made Him the offering of my heart, using the words my mother had taught me. I strove to please Jesus in all my actions and I guarded with great care against ever offending Him".

    Thus the first three years of Thérèse's life after her mothers death were spent in the loving atmosphere of Les Buissonnets. But the time had come , Thérèse was now eight years old , for her to go to school. The school chosen was that of the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame du Pr?®, situated in a suburb of Lisieux some considerable distance from Les Buissonnets. On account of her remarkable ability she was placed in a class composed of girls much older than herself, some of them indeed fourteen years of age, and even so she soon succeeded in finding herself among the first. Human nature is the same the whole world over, and it was impossible for this to take place without causing jealousy among the other girls. Added to this, the spiritual character of little Thérèse made her an object of interest to the nuns: this only made matters worse. Again the very nature of Thérèse made it difficult for her to enter the world of strenuous games in which it was so easy for her schoolfellows to excel, but in which she was never able to take any serious interest. Clever at her work, highly thought of by the nuns, not good at games , all this was to create a situation very difficult for Thérèse. How did she meet it? With all her excessive sensitiveness she suffered acutely, unable to defend herself she became reticent, and more and more found her refuge in thinking of that very world which made this one so difficult for her. She tells us herself: "One of the other children seeing me so young and almost always first at composition and loved by all the nuns became jealous and made me pay in many ways for my little successes. In my timidity, self-defence was impossible and I simply cried in silence".

    Had Thérèse been a person with a smaller capacity for affection it would not have been so difficult, but it was just the fact that her heart was so capable of loving that made this loneliness and misunderstanding to which she was subjected so hard to bear. Her affectionate nature was cut to the heart. Years after she tells us herself: "I chose as friends two little girls of my own age... One of them had to stay at home for some months; while she was away I thought about her very often and on her return I showed how pleased I was. However all I got was a glance of indifference, my friendship was not appreciated. I felt this very keenly and I no longer sought an affection which had proved so inconstant. Nevertheless I still love my little school friend and continue to pray for her. For God has given me a faithful heart, and when once I love, I love for ever". These last words are true self-revelation. If Thérèse was detached from the outer world, she was never detached from human love. When, in later life, she cut herself off from intercourse with those she loved in the world, it was not love she renounced but the delights of love. Her love was genuine and therefore unswervingly loyal. This was equally true of her love for other people and of her love for her Lord. "My little way is all love", she said. It was , all love, love to Him, which never wavered in any stress of body, mind or spirit.

    So these incidents of her early childhood, trivial as many of them are in themselves, are illuminating as we watch a Saint in the making. Through all these events, big and small, fortunate and unfortunate; even through the misunderstanding and thoughtlessness of those surrounding her, often of those to whom she was really dear; even through her own reactions , unfortunate as they might appear to some; through all this God was fashioning His Saint.

    Thérèse had hardly been at school a year when Pauline, her beloved "little mother", entered Carmel. We have seen the effect of the loss of her first mother on Thérèse. The suffering caused now by the loss of her second "little mother" was more than she could stand. Pauline then was going away for ever. The family reunions at Les Buissonnets would be no more. Though Thérèse never mentioned her school troubles at home it was these family reunions in the evening which made it easier for her to bear them. Now these were to be shattered. The first visits to the Carmel only increased her suffering, for she could only see her "little mother" for two or three minutes at the most, and that behind a grille instead of resting on her knee. "I who had been accustomed to talk with my little mother of all that was in my heart could now scarcely snatch two or three minutes at the end of the family visits, even those short minutes were passed in tears, I went away with my heart torn with grief. I kept saying from the depth of my heart Pauline is lost to me!"

    Her health, which had long been precarious, was not proof against this trial. She was seized every evening with violent trembling. Terrifying visions drew from her cries of distress which struck fear as much as sorrow into those who heard them. She would try to throw herself out of bed, and her face, usually so sweet and serene, wore an indescribable expression of terror. The doctor declared: "Science is powerless before this phenomenon, there is nothing that can be done". It seemed as if the Evil One was allowed to take possession of her. Despairing of earthly remedies, M. Martin requested a novena of Masses for the cure of his little daughter at the church of Notre Dame des Victories in Paris. On the Sunday evening during the novena Thérèse was taken much worse, and her three sisters, convinced that she would die, fell on their knees before the statue of Our Lady which stood beside her bed. With them, the sick child turned her eyes upon the statue. Let her tell the rest in her own words: "All at once the statue became animated. Our Lady became so beautiful that I shall never find words to express that heavenly loveliness. Her countenance breathed sweetness, goodness, and unspeakable tenderness, but what penetrated to the depths of my soul was her ravishing smile. Then all my pain vanished: two great tears fell silently from my eyes. They were tears of unalloyed heavenly joy. The Blessed Virgin came towards me. She smiled on me. How happy I am I thought, but I will tell no one, for then my happiness would vanish. Then I lowered my eyes and without any effort recognised my dear sisters". Thérèse was completely cured.

    This cure was not only confined to her body, for during this illness she had developed spiritually as well, and, young as she was, she had begun, to learn the lesson of detachment from the natural affection which had cost her so dear. Henceforth her visits to her little mother at Carmel were ones of pure joy. "What happy moments they were for us both, we had so much to say, we had both suffered so much; my heart was so full that I could hardly speak". This seems to have been clearly the result of her illness.

    Before her return to school, M. Martin, in order to completely restore her health, took little Thérèse for a holiday in the country. He took her to some friends near Alen?ºon, who received them in their respective chateaux of St Denis and Grogny. The season was favourable and the scenery lovely: in this beautiful setting Thérèse was petted, made much of, and admired. She admits that she felt the charm of the world and its attractions. "At ten years of age the heart is easily fascinated and I confess that in my case this kind of life had its charms. And yet death has come to many people I knew then, young, rich, and happy. I recall to mind the delightful places where they lived and ask myself where they are now and what profit they derive today from the beautiful houses and grounds where I saw them living. Perhaps Our Lord wished me to know something of the world ... so that I might choose more deliberately the way in which I was to follow Him".

    First Communion
    From the very first Thérèse had shown a great love for the Blessed Sacrament and a great longing for her first Communion. When quite a tiny child she slipped out of the front door and started off in pouring rain after having been told it was too wet for her to go to Mass. She begged Marie and Pauline to let her creep up between them to the altar rails at the Midnight Mass. "Nobody will see me", she said. One day when out for a walk in Lisieux she saw the Bishop on the other side of the street and entreated her sisters to let her go and ask his permission to hasten the day of her first Communion. Now the long desired day was drawing near. Thérèse was eleven years old. In the retreat by which she prepared her soul for the great event she made two resolutions. (i) I will never give way to discouragement. (ii) I will endeavour to humble my pride. These two resolutions give us a little glimpse into her character, showing that intense sensitiveness which might so easily have given way to discouragement and, on the other hand, that force and strength which might so easily have become pride. They show too what is most remarkable in a child of eleven, her self-knowledge. At last the happy day dawned. Let her describe it in her own words: "How sweet was the first embrace of Jesus! It was indeed an embrace of love. I felt that I was loved, and I said I love Thee and I give myself to Thee for ever. Jesus asked nothing of me and claimed no sacrifice. For a long time He and little Thérèse had known and understood one another. My joy became so intense it could not be restrained and my tears overflowed. My companions were astonished and asked each other, Why did she cry? Because neither her mother nor her dearly loved Carmelite sister were here? And none understood that all the joy of Heaven had come down into one heart, and that this heart, exiled, weak, and mortal as it was, could not contain it without tears". The happy day ended with a visit to her dear Pauline. M. Martin took his daughter in the evening to see her little mother who that very day had been professed in the Carmel Convent. This time there were no tears of separation, but rather a quiet determination on the part of the little one to join Pauline as soon as she could. So closed that memorable day, May 8th, 1884, a date destined to be famous throughout the Catholic world.

    Two years later M. Martin took his little daughter away from the convent school in order that she might have private lessons with a lady of good position in the town and that at the same time she might come into closer contact with the world. Here we find Thérèse seated before a desk in an antiquely furnished room where numbers of well-meaning ladies came daily in search of distraction. Some would remark on the new pupils beautiful hair, others would ask in a whisper who was this pretty little girl. Thérèse, though apparently studying, heard and understood all. "Such remarks, the more flattering because I was not meant to hear them, gave me a feeling of pleasure ... if my heart had not been lifted up towards God from the first moment of consciousness, if the world had smiled on me from the beginning of my life, what should I have become?" Thérèse was now nearly fourteen, and Marie, who had been her confidante during the last years, judged her now able to bear another separation and entered the Carmel, October 1886.

    It now remained to overcome finally that extreme sensitiveness which had handicapped Thérèse ever since her mother died. It needed a little miracle, for nothing seemed able to help her. On Christmas Day, 1886, Thérèse, on her return from the Midnight Mass, found her shoes in the chimney comer filled with presents, a custom usual among French children. Her father generally liked to watch her enjoyment as she took out each present from her shoes. On this occasion he seemed vexed and said: "Really Thérèse is too old for all this". Thérèse heard him say this. C?®line, knowing how sensitive she was and fearing she might cry, urged her to wait. But Thérèse went straight to her shoes and took out each present one by one without the smallest tremor. Through this incident, apparently so trivial, Thérèse had regained once and for all the strength of mind which she had lost at the age of four and a half. "On this night of grace in one instant Our Lord, satisfied with my goodwill, accomplished the work which I had not been able to do during all these years". This complete mastery of herself, given her in such a clearly supernatural manner, and which she was never again to lose even in moments of greatest trial and suffering, St Thérèse always regarded as one of Our Lords greatest gifts to her: she goes so far as to describe it as her "Conversion".

    Apostolic Zeal
    Fourteen years of age and completely restored to health and gaiety, the thoughts of little Thérèse were turning ever more definitely towards Carmel. What was the reason? Was it to hide herself away from the problems and temptations of life in order to live a life of selfish isolation? Far from it. Her motive was that in Carmel she might give herself more completely to Our Lord for the salvation of souls. One Sunday as she closed her book at Mass a picture of Our Saviour on the Cross slipped out from the pages, showing one of the divine hands pierced and bleeding. "I experienced then", she tells us, "a new and expressible feeling ... I resolved that in spirit I would stand continually at the foot of the Cross to receive the divine dew of salvation and to pour it out upon souls ... I felt myself devoured with the thirst for souls".

    In the latter part of June, 1887, everybody was speaking of the horrible murder of two women and a girl in the rue Montaigne, Paris, by a man named Pranzini. The assassin showed no sign of repentance and refused all help from religion. Little Thérèse was seized with unbounded compassion. She started to pray for him with all her soul, and begged of God a sign to show that her prayers were answered. "This is my first sinner, for that reason I ask a sign of repentance for my own consolation". Each day she eagerly looked at the paper for news of her prot?®g?®. On September 1st she saw the account of his death. Struggling with his executioners and repelling the priest, he was laid on the guillotine; when all of a sudden, just before the fatal stroke, he asked for the chaplains crucifix and kissed it three times. On reading this, little Thérèse had to run out of the room to hide her emotion. She had been given her sign! In her own words: "The lips of my first child were pressed to the divine wounds: what a sweet response. My desire to save souls increased each day after this wonderful grace". When later in the year she went on the pilgrimage to Rome a fellow pilgrim lent her the annals of some missionary nuns. She accepted them with enthusiasm, and then gave them to the sister, saying: "I will not read them, for I have too ardent a desire to consecrate myself to works of zeal, but I wish to be hidden in a cloister so as to give myself more completely to God". She confided to C?®line that the reason for this preference was "in order to suffer more, and by this means to gain more souls to Jesus", and especially to pray for priests and to sacrifice herself for the interests of Holy Church.


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