It is difficult to realise that the life of Thérèse Martin was a completely ordinary life. Because she became Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, known throughout the entire world, with numerous titles (Universal Patroness of the Missions, Secondary Patron of France, Doctor of the Church, etc.) one forgets that she passed almost unnoticed in her family, among her peers, in the Convent and with her Spiritual Director.… Perhaps the only time she would have been the object of notoriety was when word went around Lisieux about the young girl who had the audacity to speak with Pope Leo XIII during an audience in Rome (a national newspaper even made mention of it). She then entered the Carmelite Convent at the age of 15 years, 3 months. When she died, an unknown, in a small rural Carmelite convent, there were hardly 30 people at her burial in the Cemetery at Lisieux. Yet at her canonisation in Rome on the 17th May 1925, there were 500,000 present. How ?
So yes ! Hers was a very ordinary, hidden life.
The story begins with a Christian family in Alençon. The father was Louis Martin, a watchmaker and jeweller ; the mother was Zélie Guérin, a lace-maker. They had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. They were left with four daughters and then, at the age of 40 years, the mother discovered that she was expecting once more. Thérèse was born on the 2nd January 1873. She was a bright, lively, little girl and after spending one year in the care of a nurse (her mother was unable to nurse her) she returned to a happy life, surrounded by the love of her parents and sisters. This youngest girl received from her family a deep, lively and charitable faith. Everything was going well until Zélie Martin died from breast cancer (August 1877). Thérèse was 4½ years old.
It was a huge shock for the little Thérèse. She chose her sister Pauline as a second mother but the hurt brought on by the whole experience of her mother’s death was deep and would take 10 years to heal.
With five daughters to take care of, Mr. Martin decided to accept the advice of his brother-in-law Isidore Guérin, a pharmacist in Lisieux. The entire Martin family took up residence at “Les Buissonnets”. Thérèse found the atmosphere here quite pleasant but the five years that she spent as a pupil at the Benedictine Sisters’ school were to be for her “the saddest of her life”. She was a good pupil but shy and scrupulous and unable to cope very well with the knocks that one expects to receive at school.
Pauline’s departure for the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux re-opened the wounds. At ten years of age, Thérèse fell seriously ill : she had alarming symptoms of infantile regression, hallucinations and anorexia. Medical treatment seemed to have no effect. Prayers were offered by the family and at the Carmelite Convent. Then, on the 13th May 1883, a statue of the Virgin Mary smiled at Thérèse and instantly she was cured.
In the following year, on the 8th June 1884, her First Holy Communion was for Thérèse a “fusion” of love. Jesus gave himself to her and she gave herself to him. Already she was thinking of becoming a Carmelite. She was somewhat destabilised when her “third mother”, her sister Marie, left home to enter the Carmelite Convent. She suffered because of obsessive scruples, became hypersensitive and prone to excessive crying. She longed to grow up and to feel free. Then on Christmas night 1886, grace touched her heart. Through a very real experience of “conversion” she was transformed into a strong woman. The child in the crib, the Word of God, communicated his strength to her in the Eucharist.
Now she felt prepared to tackle the obstacles between her and life as a Carmelite : her father, her uncle, the Convent Chaplain, the Bishop, Pope Leo XIII. Grace had opened her heart and now she wanted to save sinners with Jesus, who on the cross, had thirsted for souls. At 14½ years of age Thérèse decided to remain at the foot of the Cross in order “to gather the divine blood and to give it to souls”. Such was her vocation : “to love Jesus and to make him loved”.
In 1887, Thérèse heard of an assassin who had killed three women at Paris. So she began to pray for him and to make sacrifices, wanting at all costs to save him from hell. Henri Pranzini was found guilty and sentenced to be guillotined. But just as he was about to go to his death, he embraced the crucifix ! Thérèse cried with joy : she felt that her prayers had been heard and she called him her “first child”.
During a pilgrimage to Italy, Thérèse noticed that outside of their “sublime vocation” priests have their little foibles. She grasped the fact that it is necessary to pray for priests because they are “weak and fragile” men. She understood that her vocation was not just to pray for the conversion of great sinners but also to pray for priests. During this same pilgrimage, she asked the Pope to be permitted to enter the Carmelite Convent at the age of 15 years. She received an evasive answer – “if God wills” – but on the 9th April 1888 she left forever her father, her sisters, Les Buissonnets and her dog Tom.
At the Carmelite Convent (1888-1897), a way of solitude
She was happy to be there “forever”, a “prisoner” with him … and to have 24 sisters. She accepted everything with enthusiasm – community life, the cold, the often sterile prayer life, and loneliness (even though she was with two of her sisters). Her greatest suffering was to be her beloved father’s illness when he was admitted to the Bon Sauveur Psychiatric Hospital at Caen. This was a new family crisis for Thérèse. She immersed herself in prayer with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (chapter 53) on the way of Jesus’ passion. But the spiritual climate of her Carmelite Convent, where God was feared and seen as a dispenser of justice, weighed heavily on her. She aspired to Love when she read Living Flame of Love by St. John of the Cross. In 1891 (she was 18 years of age) a priest pushed her out onto “the waves of confidence and Love” where she had dared not go, having been held back from this audacious path, even by her sister Pauline, Mother Agnes of Jesus, who became Prioress in 1893.
By now her father had returned to his family and he died in 1894. Céline, who had cared for him, then entered the Carmelite Convent.
It was around this time that the young Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face (the name summarised her vocation) discovered, after years of searching, the way of childlike spirituality which was to transform her life. She received the grace to explore more deeply the Fatherhood of God which is nothing other than Merciful Love (expressed in the incarnate Jesus Christ). The Christian life is nothing other than life as a child of the Father (“a son in the Son”) which is inaugurated at Baptism and lived out in absolute trust. “If you do not become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God”, said Jesus (Mt 18,3). By chance, Mother Agnes directed her to write her memories of childhood. Thérèse obeyed and wrote 86 pages in a little copybook.
So, while at that time some elite and rare souls were offering themselves as victims to God’s Justice, the “weak and imperfect” Thérèse offered herself to his Merciful Love on the 9th June 1895 during Mass for the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
This total gift renews her and consumes all sin in her. In September 1896, Thérèse feels that her beautiful vocation (“Carmelite, spouse and mother”) is not enough for her. She is afflicted during prayer by the calling of great desires : to be a priest, a deacon, a prophet, a doctor of the Church, a missionary, a martyr. These sufferings soon disappear, however, when she discovers her vocation while reading a passage from St. Paul on love (1 Corinthians 13). Everything becomes clear for her and she is able to write : “O Jesus, my Love … my vocation, at last I have found it … my vocation is 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 … and thus my dream will be realised !!!” (Manuscript B, 3v) Haunted more and more by her anxieties for sinners who do not know this Merciful Love, she found herself in a long, dark night where her faith and her hope had to struggle. Her struggle at this time was all the more intense as tuberculosis began to attack her health and to weaken her. She used her last energies to teach the childlike way to five novices for whom she was responsible and also to two spiritual brothers, missionary priests for Africa and China.
While living this “com-passion”, in union with the Passion of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the Cross, and physically drained by the haemoptyses, she nevertheless kept her smile and her exquisite charity, and this buoyed up the morale of her sisters who were distressed to see her dying in such suffering. Out of obedience, she persisted until exhaustion to record, truthfully and transparently, the memories of moments when she “sang the mercies of the Lord” during the course of her short life. She prayed that she would “do good on earth after her death, until the end of the world” and humbly prophesied that her mission after her death would be to “give her little way to souls” and to “spend her heaven doing good on earth”. She died on the 30th September 1897.
One year after her death, a book based on her writings was published : the book entitled l’Histoire d’une Âme (The Story of a Soul) would go on to conquer the world and make known this young sister who loved Jesus to the point of “dying of love”. This hidden life was to shine out in the universe, and has done so for over 100 years …