Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin b. January 2, 1873 in Alençon, France; d. September 30, 1897 in Lisieux, France.
Sister Marie Therese of Jesus talks about Therese’s message of ‘simplicity and love’
Thérèse was born to loving middle-class parents. Her mother, Zélie Guerin, came from a military family. Thérèse’s grandfather was first a soldier and then a gendarme. As a young woman, Zelie dreamed of religious life and attempted to join the Daughters of Charity but was refused admission. She took this as a sign that her vocation was to become the mother of children, whom if God willed, she would consecrate to God. Zelie then went into business as a lace-making broker, eventually employing twenty women.
Thérèse’s father Louis also came from a military family. He, too, dreamed of religious life and desired to join the Canons Regular, but learning Latin proved too difficult. Instead, he took up watchmaking and eventually opened a jewelry shop. The business prospered. When he married Zelie, Louis was earning about about11,000 francs a year or about $75,000 in 1995 US dollars. Eventually Louis sold his business and joined his wife’s presumably even more successful lace-making business.
Zelie was 27 and Louis was 35 when they married.
Thérèse was the ninth and last child born to the Martins. Four of the children died in early childhood. Mme. Martin died of breast cancer in 1877, leaving four-year-old Thérèse to the care of her father and older sisters: Marie, Pauline, Leonie, and Celine. Pauline became Thérèse’s surrogate mother, but the traumatic loss of her birth mother affected her entire childhood. Thérèse became so hypersensitive that she cried over the smallest things–and then would cry all over again because she cried.
After Zelie’s death, M. Martin moved his family to Lisieux to be near his late wife’s family. When Thérèse was eight, she enrolled in the Benedictine Abbey School as a day student.
Thérèse did not flourish at the Benedictine Abbey School and was extremely unhappy there. She would later describe these years as “the saddest of her life”. It was during these years that she had also lost her surrogate mother when Pauline entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux in 1882. This proved to be an enormous psychological blow that made Thérèse physically ill for a time. Finally, in 1886 she left the school and started taking private lessons.
Also in 1886, two more of her sisters left home for the convent–Leonie to the Visitandines and Marie to the Lisieux Carmel, where Pauline was already a professed sister.
During these years Thérèse was still daddy’s very little girl, still emotionally hypersensitive. She suffered terrible scruples (obsessive, inappropriate worries about sin). Then in December, 1886, she experienced a marvelous transformation which she called “the grace of leaving her childhood” and “the grace of her complete conversion”. After the midnight mass at Christmas, as her beloved father was leaving presents in her “magic Christmas shoes”, she overheard him say, “Well, fortunately this will be the last year.” She realized that he wished his now teenaged daughter to give up this childish custom. Overhearing a comment like that usually caused sensitive Thérèse to collapse in tears. This time was different. Although deeply stung by his comment, she concealed her emotions and went down to the Christmas celebration. This incident changed her forever because she had learned to transcend her inner turmoil.
A year and a half later, having gotten special permission from her bishop, Thérèse entered the Carmel of Lisieux on April 9, 1888. She was only fifteen.
Life in the Lisieux Carmel
Thérèse was at last where she had fought to be. But monastic life did not assure unalloyed spiritual joy. Soon after her entrance she lost all sense of consolation in prayer; she often fell asleep in chapel.
Family troubles added to her worries. In 1889 her seriously ill father was admitted to the mental hospital in Caen. Thérèse said that she could not have imagined a greater cross.
That same year she struggled again with a tinge of scruples, probably caused by pessimistic Jansenist preaching at the monastery. Her confessor told her to banish these doubts and believe obstinately in Jesus’ love. Relief came in1894 when her sister Celine entered the Carmel and brought with her a little notebook of scripture passages. In them Thérèse found the inspiration for her “little way.” The soul who had worried so much about her sinfulness now entrusted herself completely to God’s tender care.
In her “little way” Thérèse prescribes only two things:
1) She reminds us that God invites us to the banquet even when we are sinners. Thérèse tells us that we must desire to grow in the love of God and then entrust ourselves to God’s merciful care, for God is moved by reliance on the divine compassion.
2) Next she gives us a mandate for generosity, that is, for exercising a life of holiness in ordinary things. She writes that she has no means of proving her love for God other than that of strewing flowers: not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look or even one word. In this way she can profit from all the smallest things by doing them with love.
Several years of ordinary convent life passed . Thérèse took great interest in foreign missions and hoped to go to Indochina herself. No one realized that her health was giving way.
On April 2, 1896, Thérèse woke in the night coughing up blood–she had tuberculosis. After a temporary partial recovery, she relapsed in September and continued to decline. By April 1897 she was gravely ill. The accounts from this time describe indigestion, vomiting, fever, chest pain, spitting up blood, and coughing to the point of exhaustion. In May she gave up her laundry work. On July 8th she was transferred to the monastery infirmary where she died on September 30th around 7:20 pm.
Towards the end of her life, Thérèse was asked on three different occasions to write something about her life.
In 1895 Thérèse’s sister Pauline, now known as Reverend Mother Agnes, told Thérèse, “I order you to write down all your childhood memories.” In obedience to this order, Thérèse began writing in January, 1895. This text (Manuscript A) contains reminiscences about her childhood and deals with her life in Carmel, introducing her ‘little way’ and describing her oblation to merciful love which she made in June of that year.
In 1896, Thérèse’s sister Marie, now Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, asked for a “souvenir” of insights from Thérèse’s most recent retreat. Thérèse wrote this part of the document now known as Manuscript B on September 8. Later Sister Marie asked Thérèse to clarify some of her teachings. Thérèse complied, adding a new description of her “little way” to Manuscript B on September 13-16, 1896.
In 1897, saying she needed more information for the obituary that she would send to the Order, Mother Marie de Gonzague asked Thérèse to write more about her Carmelite life. Thérèse started this text (Manuscript C) in June, but did not finish it before she died.
When Thérèse wrote Manuscript C, she located the text for us quite clearly. First she wrote about the great saints like Teresa of Avila and then said “Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by the passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged,” she wrote, “…I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new….I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.”
Thérèse referred directly to Teresa and then used two metaphors (the mountain, and the stairway of perfection) that deftly combined references to John of the Cross and his Ascent of Mount Carmel and Teresa’s Way of Perfection. The work she was trying to do in this text was to articulate a spirituality as profound as that of the Carmelite founders, but much more easily accessible!
Indeed, she wrote in her text, “We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus.” This is another metaphor for her little way.
Before she died, Thérèse told her sisters that it was important to publish her texts, and she authorized them to edit her manuscripts freely. The nuns did edit them quite freely, putting them together in one continuous document. They also changed, omitted, and added text in the process. For example, the date of composition for Manuscript A was changed.
The most important adulteration of Thérèse’s original text is what happened to the concept of the “little way.” Sister Geneviève (Thérèse’s blood sister Pauline) tells us that Thérèse never used the term “spiritual childhood”; rather she called it “her little Way.” And so even though Thérèse herself never used the term “spiritual childhood” in any of her writing, the phrase “little way of spiritual childhood” was added to the eighth edition of The Story of a Soul in 1907. This changed the work of the text enormously.
The edition of The Story of a Soul available on the Internet contains the modified text. To know what Thérèse really said, serious students go to the critical edition which contains the text in Thérèse’s own words. The unedited version is available from Institute of Carmelite Studies (ICS Publications)
- 1898 Bishop Hugonin gives permission for Histoire d’une Ame to be published; 2000 copies printed; they sell out in a year.
- 1899 By October another 4000 copies are sold; pilgrims start to come to her grave.
- 1906 The nuns in Lisieux start work toward Thérèse’s canonization.
- 1909 The Vatican appoints an official to study the case for Thérèse’s canonization.
- 1923 Pope Pius XI beatifies Thérèse
- 1925 Pius XI canonizes Thérèse
- 1927 Pius XI declares Thérèse co-patron of the missions with St. Francis Xavier
- 1997 Pope John Paul II declares Thérèse a Doctor of the Church
Ahern, Patrick. Maurice & Thérèse NY: Doubleday, 1998. [The relationship between Thérèse and her missionary brother as seen through their correspondence]
Conrad De Meester, OCD. The Power of Confidence. Translated by Susan Conroy. NY: Alba House, 1998.
_____, editor. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Life, Times, and Teaching. WDC: ICS Publications, 1997.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Story of a Soul. Translated by John Clarck, OCD. WDC: ICS Publications, 1996. [The critical edition]
For further information and study on St.Thérèse a resource of study is the The Thérèse of Lisieux Gateway project.