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 in tears".

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 Carmelite.

Thérèse 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 love.

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 help her.

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 and Roulland.

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...

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