In Carmel (1888-1897)
Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus was happy with
her lot, but everyday life in the Carmel had its problems too;
the clashes of communal life, the cold, the new diet and the difficulties
of prayer (two hours prayer and four and a half of liturgy). First
a postulant and then a novice, she took the Carmelite habit on
January 10, 1889 after a retreat marked by a deep sense of inner
barrenness. She had her own good reasons for adding "of the
Holy Face" to her name in religion.
In the meantime, a
further shock came on the family front when her beloved father
developed cerebral arteriosclerosis and suddenly disappeared from
Les Buissonnets in June 1888.
February 12, 1889
was a black day for the Martin family. After an attack of dementia,
the "Patriarch" was taken to the Bon-Sauveur hospital
in Caen. "Oh, I do not think I could have suffered more than
I did on that day!!!" Seeing her father's humiliation hurt
Thérèse deeply. She began to understand the sufferings
of the mocked Christ, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah.
She was also affected
by the spiritual atmosphere in the community, which was still
tainted by Jansenism and the vision of an avenging God. Some of
the sisters feared divine justice and suffered badly from scruples.
Even after her general confession in May 1888 to Father Pichon,
her Jesuit spiritual director, Thérèse was still
uneasy. But a great peace came over her when she at last made
her profession on September 8, 1890, although taking the black
veil (a public ceremony) on September 24th was a day "veiled
It was the reading
of St. John of the Cross, an unusual choice at the time, which
brought her relief. In the "Spiritual Canticle" and
the "Living Flame of Love", she discovered "the
true Saint of Love". This, she felt, was the path she was
meant to follow. During a community retreat (October 1891), a
Franciscan, Father Alexis Prou, launched her on those "waves
of confidence and love", on which she had previously been
afraid to venture.
The harsh winter of
1890-1891 and a severe influenza epidemic killed three of the
sisters, as well as Mother Genevieve, the Lisieux Carmel's founder
and "Saint". Thérèse was spared, and her
true energy and strength began to show themselves. She felt immense
relief when her father, his mind now that of a child, returned
to the Guérin household in May 1892 (the lease on Les Buissonnets
had expired at Christmas 1889). Céline stayed at home to
look after him, although she, too, was thinking of becoming a
was delighted when her sister, Agnés of Jesus (Pauline),
was elected prioress in succession to Mother Marie de Gonzague
(1893). Asked by Pauline to write verses and theatrical entertainment
for liturgical and community festivals, Thérèse
wrote two plays about Saint Joan of Arc, "her beloved sister",
performing them herself with great feeling and conviction (1894-95).
Her father's death
at the Cháteau de la Musse, the Guérins' home, freed
Céline to enter the Lisieux Carmel in September 1894, something
she and Thérese both wanted. She brought her camera with
her, using it to enliven recreation periods and incidentally leaving
her sister's picture to posterity.
A turning point in
Thérèse's spiritual development came in late 1894
early 1895, when two Old Testament texts, found in one of Céline's
notebooks, brought years of searching to an end. Aspiring to sanctity
but aware of her weakness, she felt unworthy to "climb the
steep ladder of holiness". But the arm of Jesus was to lift
her instead. While she remained small and "became even smaller",
God would take her and turn her into a saint. Inspired by this
revelation, her spirit unfolded and soared throughout the year
1895. Having discovered the treasures of God's "Merciful
Love", she gave herself to Him at the Mass of the Trinity
on June 9, 1895. Without her companions' being aware of it, she
reached new mystical heights.
Pauline had recently
ordered her to put down her "childhood memories" in
writing for her family. Thérèse obeyed and began,
in her few spare moments, to "sing God's mercies" to
her in her own short life. She saw herself as a "little white
flower" which had grown under the rays of the divine sun.
In January 1896 she gave her prioress an 86 page notebook (Manuscript
A) in which she reinterpreted her life in the light of God's merciful
The reelection of Mother
Marie de Gonzague (March 21, 1896), after seven ballots, divided
the community. Although Thérèse was herself the
youngest novice, the new prioress entrusted the other five novices
to her care. In the circumstances the task was not an easy one,
but she performed it with amazing maturity and skill. Two missionary
priests destined for China and Africa, were also entrusted to
her. She revealed to these seven young people the secrets of the
"Little Way of Spiritual Childhood", which had already
done so much for her.
Afflicted for months
by a sore throat which stubbornly resisted treatment, Thérèse
suffered two hemorrhages during Holy Week of 1896. Far from panicking,
she saw this as a summons from her Spouse and looked forward to
joining Him soon. But sudden anguish overwhelmed her at Easter
and she fell into a dark night of the soul, an "underground
labyrinth", a "fog". Heaven seemed to have shut
its gates against her. This trial of faith and hope which made
her participate in Christ's Passion, was to last, with a few brief
periods of respite, to the end of her life. But she turned the
test into a redemptive one, agreeing to remain alone in the darkness
so that atheists might receive the Light.
While she was praying
in the church that summer, strange and powerful desires started
to torment her; she wanted to become a priest, a prophet, a doctor
of the Church, a missionary, a martyr. Chancing on a passage in
Saint Paul, she discovered her true vocation at the age of twenty-two.
"In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love.
This way, I shall be everything". Writing down these confidences
for her sister and godmother, Marie of the Sacred Heart, in September
1896, she gave the world a spiritual masterpiece (Manuscript B).
The wish to "save souls" never left her, and she was
seriously thinking of leaving for the Carmel founded in Saigon
by the Lisieux sisters.
But tuberculosis was
gaining ground undetected. Early in 1897 Thérèse
began to feel that "her course would not be a long one".
In April, worn out, she was forced to abandon community life,
remaining either in her cell or in the garden. In June, Pauline
realized that her death was imminent. In a panic, she implored
Mother Marie de Gonzague to let Thérése finish putting
down her recollections. Burning with fever, Thérése
wrote a further 36 pages in a little black notebook. Exhausted,
she went to the infirmary on July 8th. For a month, she coughed
blood, slept little and was unable to eat, while the tuberculosis
began to affect her intestines. Doctor de Corniéres treated
her with the methods of the time, but they could do nothing to
Her sisters took turns
keeping vigil at her bedside. Since April, Pauline had been writing
down everything she said. More than 850 recorded utterances were
later to be published as the "Last Conversations". In
this short work, Thérése suffers, prays, weeps,
makes jokes to distract her sisters and speaks of her own short
life. A prey to constant darkness, she came to understand the
temptations of suicide, but lived in trust and love until the
very end. She identified herself with the suffering Jesus and
offered everything "for sinners". She felt an overwhelming
desire "to do good after her death". With great difficulty,
she wrote last letters to her spiritual brothers, Fathers Belliére
The appalling pain
she suffered wore her out, but she never lost her smile or her
deep-seated serenity. A brief remission was followed by a 48-hour
agony. She died on Thursday, September 30, 1897 whispering "My
God, I love You!" Her face was radiant.
She died unknown, just
as she had lived, unknown in a provincial Carmel of tuberculosis,
but also of "Love", as she herself had wanted. She wrote
to Father Belliére; "I am not dying, I am entering
into Life". This was just the beginning...