All Is Grace

I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. . . . God will have to do my will in heaven, because I have never done my own will on earth.

The 24-year-old Frenchwoman who spoke these oft-quoted words shortly before her death as a Carmelite nun on September 30, 1897, was Thérèse Martin, born on January 2, 1873, the youngest of five surviving sisters. The deeply devout family doted on her, especially her father Louis, who called Thérèse his queen. When Thérèse was four and a half, her mother died 





“After Mamma’s death my happy disposition changed completely,” Thérèse would write later. “I, who had been so full of life, so outgoing, became shy, quiet, and oversensitive.” At age nine, Thérèse was told that her older sister Pauline, who had been a second mother to her, had decided to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. “It was like a sword piercing my heart. In an instant I understood what life was . . . . I saw that it was only continual suffering and separation. I shed very bitter tears.” When Pauline explained the Carmelite life to her, Thérèse “felt that Carmel was the desert where God wanted me to go and hide too. I wanted to go to Carmel, not for Pauline, but for Jesus alone. I thought very much about things which words could not express, but which left great peace in my soul.” Thereafter Thérèse never wavered: From age nine, she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

At age eleven, Thérèse received her First Communion. She called it

 
the first kiss of Jesus. It was a kiss of love, I felt that I was loved, and I said: “I love you, and I give myself to you forever.” There were no requests, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time Jesus and poor little Thérèse looked at each other and understood each other. That day it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion, there were no longer two. Thérèse had vanished like a drop of water lost in the depths of the ocean. Jesus alone remained. He was the Master, the King.
 
Though not into her teens, Thérèse was already a contemplative in spirit. This did not prevent her, however, from succumbing to scrupulosity. The sermons she heard did not help: Virtually devoid of the good news of the gospel, they stressed the danger of mortal sin and the pains of hell. Thérèse was often in tears. “You would have to endure this martyrdom to understand what it was like,” she would write later. “It would be impossible for me to say what I suffered for eighteen months.”

Deliverance came on Christmas Eve 1886. “Jesus had changed [my] heart,” Thérèse wrote. It was

 
a little miracle. In an instant Jesus, content with [my] good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do in ten years. Since that blessed night, I have not been vanquished in any battle, but on the contrary, I have marched from victory to victory and begun, so to speak “to run a giant’s course” (Ps 19:5).  
           
Under the influence of this experience, Thérèse resolved to enter Carmel the following Christmas. Not until April 1888 was Thérèse, now 15 years and 3 months, where she had wanted to be from age nine. The next day her broken-hearted father wrote a friend: “My little Queen entered Carmel yesterday. God alone could have asked such a sacrifice, but he is helping me so powerfully that in the midst of my tears my heart is overflowing with joy.”


Thérèse soon discovered the shadow side
of Carmelite life. “Of course one does not have enemies in Carmel,” she wrote, “but still there are natural attractions, one feels drawn towards a certain sister, whereas you go a long way round to avoid meeting another.” After nine years of convent life, she put it more bluntly: “The lack of judgment, education, the touchiness of some characters, all these things do not make life very pleasant.”  

There were physical austerities as well. During the unusually severe winter of 1890-91, she felt “cold enough to die,” she wrote. Considering herself unable to do great things for the Lord, Thérèse tried not to let any small sacrifice escape her, “not one look, one word, taking advantage of the smallest things and doing them for love. . . . I loved to fold up the mantles forgotten by the sisters, and to render them all the little services I could.”

She refused to rub her chilblain-covered hands; and on hot summer days she avoided wiping her face, so as not to attract attention. When sitting in a chair, she did not lean back or cross her feet. During the long hours of prayer in chapel, she refused to look at the clock. She put herself at the call of every other sister. If someone borrowed a book she was reading, she did not ask for it back.

Through such small sacrifices, most of which became known only after her death, she tried to express her love for the Lord who had called her. Thérèse called this her “Little Way” to God. After her death it would become known to millions. While she lived, however, the things she offered to God remained so hidden that some of her fellow sisters complained that she did nothing, that she seemed to have entered Carmel simply to amuse herself.

Astonishing though it may seem to us, Thérèse never had access to a Bible, only to excerpts. In her day, nuns were nourished spiritually by commentaries on Holy Scripture and devotional writings, including classics like the Imitation of Christ and the works of the Spanish Carmelite St. John of Cross, but also many lesser works. She asked her sister Celine, who was still looking after their father at home, to get a copy of the four Gospels and Paul’s Epistles bound together into a single volume. “It is especially the gospels which sustain me during my hours of prayer,” Thérèse writes. “In them I find all my poor little soul needs. I am always gaining fresh insights and finding hidden and mysterious meanings.”

“When I read spiritual treatises,” Thérèse wrote, “in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind soon grows weary. I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul, perfection seems easy.

During a retreat in September 1896, Thérèse, now 23, wrote of dreams still unfulfilled: to be “a warrior, a priest, a deacon, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr,” a missionary to the whole world. For some time she had been praying for two missionaries. “O my Jesus!” she wrote, “What is your answer to all my foolishness? Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine?” She decided to open at random the book obtained for her by her sister Celine, who by this time had entered Carmel herself, after their father’s death. It opened to chapter twelve of Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians. There Thérèse read: “All cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors . . . the eye cannot be the hand.” She read on and came to chapter 13, Paul’s great hymn to love, or charity.

“At last my mind was at rest,” Thérèse wrote.

 
Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that the Church had a body made up of different members; the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking, and so I understood that the Church had a heart, and that this heart was burning with love; that if I understood that it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, and love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel, martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love contained all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all time and all places. In a word, that it is eternal!
 
Then, in the excess of my ecstatic joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place — in the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love. Thus I shall be everything — and thus my dream will be fulfilled!
           

Three years after profession, a Carmelite normally leaves the novitiate to become a full member of the community. In September 1893, Thérèse said she wished to remain a novice: She would always have to ask permissions and remain, spiritually, a minor. It was another example of her wanting to offer a sacrifice for the Lord out of love.

In the early hours of April 4, 1896, Good Friday that year, Thérèse felt something bubbling in her throat shortly after she had gone to bed following the midnight vigil of Holy Thursday. Daylight revealed that it was blood. She thought death might be near. Instead of fear, however, she felt joy. She had always wanted to be close to Jesus, her spouse. What better day to die than on Good Friday?

She had tuberculosis. She would live with the disease another eighteen months, much of it in spiritual darkness, deprived of her previous joy of faith. In January 1897 she wrote: “I do not believe in eternal life. It seems to me that after this mortal life there is nothing more. I cannot convey to you the darkness into which I am plunged.” Her faith persisted, however, as shown by verses which she wrote at this time. “When the blue sky turns black / and he seems to abandon me / my joy is to stay in the dark, / to hide and keep down. Jesus, my only love, his holy will is my joy, / therefore fearless I live, / I like night time as much as the day.”

In June of that year, Thérèse told her three sisters who were now with her in Carmel that a time might come when she could no longer receive Communion. “If you find me dead one morning, don’t worry. God will quite simply have come for me. Yes, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments, but when God does not permit it, it is good just the same. Everything is grace.”

On July 8, 1897, Thérèse was taken to the infirmary. From mid-August she was unable to receive Holy Communion. At the community recreation, one of the nuns said she couldn’t understand why people were making such a fuss over Thérèse; she wasn’t doing anything exceptional. “One doesn’t see her practicing virtue, you cannot even say she is a good nun.” When this remark was repeated to her, Thérèse responded: “To hear on my death-bed that I am not a good nun, what joy! Nothing could give me greater pleasure.” She died in the early evening of September 30, 1897, having gasped, as she looked at the crucifix: “Oh! I love him! My God, I love you!”

A year later, Thérèse’s account of her life, written under obedience, was published under the title The Story of a Soul. It had been sanitized by her oldest sister Pauline, now Mother Agnes, who considered the original version insufficiently edifying. Only in 1973 was Thérèse’s authentic text published.

Even the previous bowdlerized version, however, had an effect that no one expected. Originally published in an edition of 2,000 copies, it was soon reprinted and eventually translated into more than 40 languages, producing what Pope Pius XI called at Thérèse’s canonization in May 1925, before more than a half-million people, a “storm of glory.” People read The Story of a Soul, invoked Thérèse’s intercession, and found their prayers answered. Today the literature about her is enormous, including studies by major theologians such as Yves Congar and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In October 1997, a century after her death, Pope John Paul II named her a doctor of the Church.

In days when Catholicism was presented mostly in terms of stern prohibitions and warnings of hell, Thérèse gave primacy to the gospel message of God’s love, freely granted to all. The contemporary art historian Elizabeth Lev writes: “Thérèse’s Little Way reminds a society which esteems learning over wisdom and titles over virtue, that God chooses what the world deems foolish to shame the proud” (1 Cor 2:27).

By

Born in New York City in 1928, John Jay Hughes is a retired priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a Church historian.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.

MENU