St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense | Stephen Sparrow | Ignatius Insight
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 Napoleon’s 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 Sister’s 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 Convent’s small museum, where among many items may be seen the Saint’s 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. It’s an uncanny sensation to see displayed there the saint’s 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 couldn’t 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 hadn’t, 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 saint’s birth, we should consider ourselves fortunate that she didn’t 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 couple’s 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 doctor’s 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 wasn’t 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 let’s 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 didn’t 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 Zelie’s 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 town’s 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. We’ve 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 children’s 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 didn’t 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 Pope’s 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 Pope’s 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 Pope’s 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…if 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 Lord’s 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…he 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 maid’s 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 on us… This is Brother, what I think of God’s 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 God’s 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:
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 Church’s 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 devil’s greatest wile is to convince people he doesn’t 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 God’s plan for her by writing, "a heart enfolded in Divine love cannot remain inactive."
Stephen 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.