The feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is October 1. The following is an excerpt from The Catholic Spirit: An Anthology for Discovering Faith Through Literature, Art, Film, and Music of two letters wrote to a missionary priest near the end of her life. Student questions and assignments accompany this reading.
Thérèse of Lisieux (Thérèse Martin) was born to a middle class French family in 1873. At age sixteen she received special permission to enter the Carmelites, a religious order of nuns devoted to prayer who lead an austere life of fasting and silence. Thérèse lived only ten years in the Convent of Lisieux. She died of tuberculosis in 1897 when she was only twenty-four. After her death, a series of personal writings intended for her religious superiors was published under the title The Story of a Soul. Thérèse’s autobiography took the world by storm and in a few short years had sold millions or copies. She was canonized in 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death. Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church in 1997.
Before the Reading
Pope Pius XI called Thérèse “the greatest saint of modern times.” What is it that made the life and teaching of this young, obscure nun so attractive to Catholics and non-Catholics alike? It may be that Thérèse speaks to the modern person because of her anonymity and humbleness. She is a representative of those millions of people who toil and live in obscurity as factory workers, day laborers, office workers, and homemakers. In her, the common person can find a model for great sanctity. Thérèse also suffered throughout her life with bouts of depression and darkness. She had to witness the mental breakdown of her beloved father and try to come to grips with the evil and pain that exists in the world. In meeting these challenges to faith and life, St. Thérèse serves as a model and guide to the modern world.
As a Carmelite sister, Thérèse lived in a cloister and had virtually no face-to-face contact with anyone other than the sisters living in her convent. However, she was permitted to correspond with people outside the convent and her letters to her relatives and friends sparkle with wit and charm. Toward the end of her life, a young priest, Abbe Maurice Belliere, wrote to the Carmel of Lisieux asking if a sister could devote her prayers for the success of his activities as a missionary priest. Thérèse was chosen to assist him and she wrote to him a series of letters that spell out her spiritual teaching, her “little way,” in which she offers the most ordinary actions and events or her day to God.
Like most of us, Abbe Belliere lacked confidence in his abilities to serve God; he dwelt on and suffered guilt over his sins, and feared the judgment of the Lord. In her letters, Thérèse points out that she does not fear the judgment of God precisely because he is just. She knows that he is her Father and, therefore, will forgive her faults and failing because of his intense love for her.
St. Thérèse never met Abbe Belliere, but her love for him that is reflected in these letters, written as she was dying of tuberculosis, is a sign of the love that God has for each of us, especially when we are weak, afraid, and lonely.
J. M. J. T
21 June 1897
My dear little Brother,
With you I have thanked Our Lord for the great grace he deigned to give you on the day of Pentecost; it was also on that great feast (ten years ago) that I obtained—not from my Director but from my Father—permission to become an apostle in Carmel. That is one more link between our souls.
O Brother, please, never think you “weary me or distract me,” by talking much of yourself. Would it be possible for a sister not to take interest in all that concerns her brother? As to distracting me, you have nothing to fear; on the contrary, your letters unite me still closer to the good God, bringing the marvels of His mercy and love very near for my contemplation. Sometimes Jesus delights “to reveal His secrets to the little ones”: as an example, when I had read your first letter of 15 October 1895, I thought the same thing as your Director. You cannot be half a saint, you must be a whole saint or no saint at all. I felt that you must have a soul of great energy, and I was happy to become your sister. Don’t think you can frighten me with talk of “your best years wasted.” I simply thank Jesus for looking on you with a look of love, as once he looked on the young man in the Gospel. More fortunate than he, you loyally answered the Master’s call, you left all to follow him, and that at the best age of life, eighteen.
Ah! my Brother, like me you can hymn the mercies of the Lord! They shine in you in all their splendor. . . . You love St. Augustine, St. Magdalen, those souls to whom “many sins have been forgiven because they loved much”; I love them too, love their repentance and above all . . . their daring in love! When I see Magdalen come forward in face of the crowd of guests, and water with her tears the feet of her adored Master as she touches him for the first time, I feel that her heart realized the fathomless depths of love and mercy in Jesus’ Heart, realized, despite her sins, that that Heart was ready not only to pardon her but actually to lavish on her the treasures of His divine intimacy and raise her to the highest summits of contemplation.
Ah! my dear little Brother, since it has been given me too to realize the love of Jesus’ Heart, I own that it has driven from my own heart all fear! The remembrance of my faults humiliates me, leads me never to rely at all on my strength, which is only weakness; but the remembrance speaks to me still more of mercy and love. When one casts one’s faults into the consuming flame of Love, how could they fail to be consumed past return?
I know there are saints who spent their lives in the practice of astonishing mortifications to expiate their sins, but what of it?—”In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Jesus has told us so, which is why I follow the path He marks out for me. I try not to think about myself in anything whatsoever; and what Jesus in his goodness effects in my soul, I give over to him; for I chose an austere life, not to expiate my own sins but the sins of others.
I have just read over my brief note and I wonder if you will understand me, for I have put it very badly. Do not think I am blaming you for repenting of your sins and wanting to expiate them. Oh, no! far from it; but you know, now that there are two of us the work will go faster (and I, with my way, will get more done than you), so I hope that one day Jesus will set you on the same way as me.
Forgive me, Brother, I don’t know what is the matter with me today, I hadn’t really meant to say all this. I have no more room to answer your letter. I shall do so another time. Thank you for the dates of your life. I have already celebrated your twenty-third birthday. I am praying for your dear parents whom God has taken from this world, and I am not forgetting the mother you love. Your unworthy little Sister,
Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face rel. carm. ind.
J. M. J. T.
18 July 1897
My poor dear little Brother,
Your grief touches me deeply; but you see how good Jesus is. He permits me still to be able to write and try to console you, probably not for the last time. That loving Savior understands your grief and your prayers: that is why He leaves me still on earth. Do not think I mind. Oh, no! my dear little Brother, very much the reverse, for in this conduct of Jesus I see how much He loves you!
I have never asked God to let me die young, it would have seemed to me cowardice; but from my childhood He has deigned to give me the intimate conviction that my course here below would be brief. So that the one cause of all my joy is the thought of doing the Lord’s will.
O Brother! how I wish I could pour the balm of consolation into your soul! I can only borrow Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. He will not object, because I am his little bride and therefore all his goods are mine. I say to you then, as he to his friends, “I go to my Father . . . but because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. But I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go. You now have sorrow, but I will see you again and you shall rejoice; and your joy no man will take from you.”
Yes, of this I am sure, after my entry into life, my dear little Brother’s sorrow will be turned into a serene joy that no creature can wrest from him. I feel that we must go to Heaven by the same road-suffering joined with love. When I am come into harbor, I shall instruct you, dear little Brother of my soul, how you must navigate on the tempestuous sea of the world: with the love and utter trustfulness of a child who knows that his father loves him too much to forsake him in the hour of peril.
Ah! how I wish I could make you realize the tenderness of Jesus’ heart, what It expects of you. As I read your letter of the fourteenth, my heart thrilled tenderly. More than ever I realized the degree to which your love is sister to mine, since it is called to go up to God by the elevator of love, not to climb the rough stairway of fear. I am not surprised that the practice of ‘‘familiarity” with Jesus seems to you not at all easy to manage; you cannot come to it in a day, but I am certain that I shall aid you better to walk that delightful way when I am free of my mortal envelope, and soon you will be saying with St. Augustine “Love is the weight that draws me.”
But why do I speak to you of the life of trust and love? I explain myself so badly that I must wait till Heaven to talk with you of that blissful life. What I wanted to do today was console you. Ah! how happy I should be if you could take my death as Mother Agnes of Jesus is taking it. . . . She speaks of my death as of a feast, and this is a great consolation to me.
Please, dear little Brother, try like her to realize that you will not be losing me but finding me, and that I shall never more leave you. . . .
In view of my approaching death, a sister has photographed me for our Mother’s feast. When the novices saw me they cried that I had put on my grand look; it seems that I am ordinarily more smiling; but take my word for it, Brother, that if my photograph does not smile at you, my soul will never cease to smile on you when it is close by you.
Goodbye, dear little Brother, be assured that for eternity I shall be your true little sister.
Thérèse of the Child Jesus r.c.i.
Reading for Comprehension
1. How does Thérèse respond to Abbe Belliere’s fears of tiring her with talk about himself?
2. What does Thérèse say to Belliere about her premonition about the length of her life?
3. Abbe Belliere was sorrowful about her approaching death. What did Thérèse say she would do for him after she died?
4. What did Thérèse most admire about St. Mary Magdalene?
Reading for Understanding
1. Why do so many of us have a fear of silence? Why must we always be talking or watching television or listening to music? What would happen if we spent a full hour in total silence? Why do spiritual masters tell us that times of silence are essential to any profound life of prayer?
2. Abbe Belliere believed that St. Thérèse would guide and protect him personally after her death. Select a saint that appeals to you. and over a period of several weeks, ask that saint to help you in whatever endeavor that you select. Journal daily on this experience.
1. St. Thérèse’s form of life as a vowed cloistered nun is not one to which all are called. There are many ways of serving God, and hers is one of them. However, does her form of life, her silence and fasting, have anything to say to those of us who live in the world? Was her vocation just for herself, or does it say something to members of the Church in the modern world?
2. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian and philosopher who is considered one of the founders of the school of philosophy called Existentialism, once said that if he were a physician and asked for one type of medicine to cure the ills of humankind, he would prescribe silence. What do you think he meant by that statement?
3. Read and report on St. Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul.