“ON THERESE of LISIEUX THE WOMAN”
by Fr. Camilo Macisse, OCD Father General of Discalced Carmelites
“…The experience and doctrine of Therese of Lisieux becomes especially significant in our day when new horizons are opening up for the presence and action of women in society and in the church. Women are called to be ‘signs of God’s tender love towards the human race,’ and to enrich humanity with their ‘feminine genius.’ The young Carmelite of Lisieux accomplished both things in her life and we can see this clearly in her writings.” “Therese of the Child Jesus transmits her spiritual experience with her evident feminine style and is direct and intimate. Despite being conditioned by her times, she manifested her Gospel conviction on the equality of men and women, and the importance of mutual collaboration as disciples of Jesus. We can see this especially in her letters to her missionary brothers where she shares her human and spiritual experience: her concept of God’s justice, the way of spiritual childhood, trust in divine mercy.” “Her femininity, like that of Teresa of Jesus, resulted in greater commitment to the Gospel, overcoming all the prejudices which emarginated women of her times. Therese of Lisieux experienced the situation of woman in society and the church at the end of the XIXth century…” “In the XVIth century, Teresa of Jesus herself said, “…I would not want you, my daughters, to be womanish in anything, nor would I want you to be like women but like strong men. And how easy this is for His Majesty, since He made us from nothing.” “Interpreting our two Saints from the XXIst century perspective of ‘being strong women.’ we encourage ALL people of God, men and women, to be strong in prayer, to love and serve God with all your strength, and to never be afraid to tell others WHO he is to you.”
HER STORY BEGINS HERE
St. Therese’s story, the humble, simple and joyful acknowledgment of God’s love began January, 2 1873. The ninth child of Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin was only the fifth survivor in a period where infant mortality was yet alarmingly frequent.
Planning her Baptism was a happy experience, she had chosen Marie, Therese’s oldest sister as God mother and on January 4, 1873, this child destined to be the patron Saint of the Little Flower Shrine was baptized Marie Francoise Therese Martin in Notre Dame Church, Alencon, France. Two weeks later Therese’s trial began. Suffering from intestinal problems it was only by Divine Will that the tiny infant survived.
The Martin family, which saw God in all aspects of life were open and warm in their love for one another as the means of living their love for Him. At her mother’s knee Therese learned how to trust God, what the rewards of goodness were and how to speak to her Father in Heaven through prayers.
Therese blossomed in the smiles and tender caresses of her family. She was especially devoted to her mother and was continually at her side or cried till brought to her, Zelie Martin was very ill. Sensing her time grew short, in a letter she described Therese thusly: “The little one will be all right for she wouldn’t tell a lie for all the gold in the world and she has a spirit about her which I have not seen on the others.” Six months later on August 28, 1877, Zelie Martin died. Standing sadly with her sisters, Therese, as if the future had been revealed to her, chose Pauline to be her second earthly mother.
Louis Martin feeling the need for his daughters to be closer to his wife’s family moved to Lisieux where Zelie’s brother and family resided.
Already having developed a close relationship with her father the move to Lisieux seemed to intensify this feeling. Therese writes “How could I possibly express the tenderness which ‘Papa’ showered upon his ‘queen’? There was especially one cluster of golden pearls which attracted my attention and gave me great joy because they were in the form of a ‘T’, I pointed them out to Papa and told him my name was written in heaven.”
Towards the end of the year 1882, Therese began having a constant headache. In the spring of 1883, she was attacked by a strange undiagnosed illness. Finding no help on earth, Therese had turned towards the Mother of Heaven, and prayed that she take pity on her. Suddenly the Blessed Virgin, who’s statue stood in her bedroom, smiled on her beloved child and at that instant all the pain disappeared. Once Therese returned to school preparations began for her First Holy Communion. Pauline, now sister Agnes, would write her letters from Carmel to get her ready for her first meeting with the Eucharistic Lord. On May 8, 1884, Therese made her First Holy Communion at the Benedictine Abby and Sister Agnes made her profession in Carmel. Therese wrote “–all the joy of heaven….entered my heart….joy alone filled my heart, and I united myself to (Pauline) who gave herself irrevocably to Him who gave Himself so lovingly to me.” “I hoped to be with her soon and await Heaven with her!”
There was a long and difficult path to travel for Therese before entrance into Carmel. On the feast of Pentecost, May 28, 1887, at the age of 14, Therese approached her Father for permission to enter Carmel. Through tears she confided her desire and his tears mingled with hers. He cried out that God was giving him a great honor in asking his children from him. Next she needed permission from her Uncle. It took her two weeks to convince him of the serious determination of her heart. With the consent of her family, Therese now had the obstacle of obtaining a dispensation to enter before the age of 15 from the Bishop. After a special visit in which both Therese and her father spoke to Bishop Hugonin of her desire, she was given no hope of entrance. Instead, a pilgrimage was arranged to go to Rome, and once there, in a general audience with Pope Leo XII, Therese asked the Holy Father to intervene with Carmel so she could have her dream. His response was “Go – go — You will enter if God wills it.” God did will it, for on April 9, 1888, Therese entered Carmel at 15 years of age. Shortly after her entrance her father became ill, mixing the joy of her dream with the pain of the Cross. She states “How merciful is the way God has guided me. Never has He given me the desire for anything which He has not given me, and even His bitter chalice seemed delightful to me – Yes, Papa’s 5 years of martyrdom appear to me as the most fruitful of my life.”
On January 10, 1889, Therese received the habit of Carmel. On September 8, 1890, she pronounced her vows filled with a peace, which surpasses all understanding.
Therese gave herself to God and the service of her community with great love and generosity. In 1892, an epidemic of influenza broke out in the community claiming the lives of several of the sisters. Therese did all in her power to help care for the sick and dying nuns. Around this time she was also placed in charge of the sacristy. She felt extremely fortunate to touch the sacred vessels and altar linens; recalling frequently words once spoken to a deacon; “You are to be holy, you who carry the vessels of the Lord.” She also helped with the laundry and chores of the house. She painted and wrote poetry as well. In all her duties she experienced that without love all works are nothing. Once, reflecting on how to best serve, she remembered Christ’s commandment, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples” She exclaimed “Oh! How I love in me all those you command me to 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.
It was in her life of prayer that Therese performed her greatest works, here she found the deepest meaning of her life. Noting the beautiful simplicity of Therese and her love for Christ, her Superior hoped to capture it and keep it ever alive by requesting that she write her autobiography. Four short years before her death, she took up her pencil to obey and began to sing what she must sing eternally: “The mercies of the Lord.” It was to be the story of the “Little Flower” gathered by Jesus, rejoicing at having to publish the gratuitous gifts of Jesus; knowing that nothing in herself was capable of attracting the Divine glance, His mercy above brought about everything that is good to her.
Just as her life was filled with love, in the midst of the pain of the cross, so was her death. She suffered the suffocating disease of tuberculosis. She told her sisters in the midst of her Calvary, “Our Lord died on the Cross in anguish, and yet His was the most beautiful death of love. To die of love does not mean to die in ecstasy. Our Lord really died a victim of love, and see what His agony was! I do not regret having surrendered myself to Love.” Then gazing at her crucifix she pronounced very distinctly: “Oh I love Him – My God, I love you!” Then she closed her eyes to earth to forever gaze at the beauty of eternity – This was September 30, 1897, and on October 4th Therese was buried in the Lisieux Carmel Cemetery.
Pictured at left, a Chasuble painted by Therese and made from a dress that belonged to her Mother. The two roses at the bottom represent her parents. The five lilies surrounding the Holy Face are the five Martin daughters. (Therese identified herself with the lily on the left, half hidden by Veronica’s veil.) The four buds symbolize the four little siblings who died at a young age.