St. Thérèse, God’s Little Flower
“If God grants my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of time. Yes, I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth….I will return! I will come down!”
St. Thérèse is one of the most powerful Saints of the Twentieth Century. We have never prayed for the intercession of another Saint who lived so close to our time. She died in 1897 at the age of twenty four, and was canonized in 1925. When she died, she was virtually unknown, even in her own Community.
Within two years of her death, the power of her intercession began to be felt all over Europe. Prayers and novenas were made to her for favors, which were answered in abundance, usually preceded by the reception of a flower. She called herself the Little Flower of Jesus, a name which has remained with her until today. The swiftness of time in which devotion to this Saint grew, would be called in secular terms, a phenomena. We call it a Miracle.
On March 15, 1907, Pope St. Pius X, in a private conversation, called her “The greatest Saint of modern times”. This statement, made ten years after her death, from a man who would himself be raised to the Communion of Saints, is a great tribute to the little Carmelite that no one had known at the time of her death.
A year later in the Vatican, the Prefect of the Congregation of Rites, Cardinal Vico, stated, “We must lose no time in crowning the little Saint with glory, if we do not want the voice of the people to anticipate us.” He was about eight years too late. People began calling Thérèse a Saint as early as two years after her death.
The power of intercession given to Thérèse was undeniable. Truly, her prophecy made towards the end of her life, “God will have to do my will in Heaven, because I have never done my own will on earth,” was coming about. Within a short twenty eight years after her death, in 1925, the little cloistered Carmelite was proclaimed St. Thérèse.
Saints beget Saints
We believe that statement to be true. The parents of Thérèse, Louis and Zélie Martin, who have now both been beatified, both felt drawn to the Religious life. Louis wanted to enter a Religious order, but was turned down because he didn’t know Latin. He moved to Paris, where he stayed for three years. It was too sinful a city for him. He couldn’t stay there any longer, so he went to Alençon, where his parents had a jewelry business. He lived there for eight years in virtual seclusion. He opened up a watch and clock shop, which took up much of his time. He was very spiritual, and kept to himself pretty much. He enjoyed being alone on fishing trips, or spending time at Church. He did involve himself in a young Catholic organization in his parish. He had no qualms about closing his shop each Sunday, which was one of the busiest days in Alençon.
Zélie had suffered an unhappy childhood. She felt that no matter what she did, her mother never considered her as good as her sister. Perhaps because of this, she became an over-achiever, excelling in anything into which she put her energy. She was very hard on herself, suffering from Scrupulosity, which her daughter Thérèse inherited from her. At age 22, when Louis met Zélie, she had mastered the art of making Alençon lace, for which the region was world famous. She had her own little shop, and was doing quite well. She, too, had wanted to enter the Religious life, but was turned down, which only added to her poor self-image, seeing as how her sister had become a Visitation Nun.
It was Louis’ mother who brought the two together. She was concerned about her son, who was now 34 years old. After a very short courtship of three months, Louis and Zélie were married. However, Louis wanted to live a celibate life with Zélie, as brother and sister. She wasn’t happy about the idea, but begrudgingly agreed, for almost a year. Finally, the couple asked guidance from their Confessor, who convinced them that they were to live the full married life. They were so obedient that they had nine children in ten years. Only five of them survived, all girls, of which Thérèse was the youngest and the last. Our little Saint was born on the 2nd of January, 1873.
The family had lost four children, three in infancy, and one at age five. When Thérèse became very ill as an infant, they feared she might join her brothers and sisters in Heaven. They tried everything they could. Finally, the doctor insisted the child be breast-fed, so little Thérèse was sent to a wet-nurse in the country for over a year. She came back healthy, beautiful, and with a great love for the country. Her health was always delicate, however. Even as a child, she became sick from the slightest thing, and the illness always lingered.
Thérèse was everybody’s favorite. The older girls, Marie and Pauline, wanted to mother the child. Céline, only four when Thérèse was born, became her closest friend. Pauline was Thérèse’s ideal. She felt a great attraction to this sister. Thérèse had her own inbred love for God, and had talked about being a Nun at the earliest age. Her sister Pauline wrote to a friend when Thérèse was only four years old, that she could see a vocation in her. But it was when Pauline entered the Carmel, that Thérèse’s vocation was sealed.
Thérèse’s life at Alençon was a happy one. The family was well-to-do. The Franco-Prussian war had ended, and it seemed for a time that peace had come to France. Zélie’s lace business had grown and grown so, that Louis sold his watch shop to take over the management of her business. But Louis and Zélie never allowed their good fortune to get in the way of their spirituality. Jesus and the Church were primary in their home.
Thérèse was a spiritual girl from the very beginning. She had a great love for everything that had to do with her Faith. And being who she was, it was not a quiet, subdued love. It was an alive, exciting, vibrant spirituality. She embraced with fervor Jesus, Mother Mary, all the Angels and the Saints.
Thérèse was spoiled by everyone. She was the youngest, the prettiest, the most coquettish. Not only her family, but her relatives, family friends, virtually everyone who met her as a child adored her. And she knew it! It became one of her strongest weapons to get her way when she wanted it. She was spoiled, but she was never a brat. Everyone wanted to do for her, and she just took it all in. She was also vain. She would have been hard-pressed not to have everybody fawning all over her. But in later years, as a teenager, and then in the Carmel, these became her two greatest obstacles to overcome.
She had a very strong personality, which she herself admits. When she couldn’t get her way, she would roll on the floor in tantrums, to the point where she sometimes choked.
Her mother once noted: “Thérèse is not as gentle as Céline and has an almost unconquerable stubborn streak in her; when she says no, nothing can make her give in, and you can put her in the cellar for the day and she would rather sleep there than say yes.”
It became cute to talk about the naughty pranks that Thérèse did. Zélie wrote letters mentioning her pranks. Her sister Pauline wrote letters mentioning “naughty tricks” and misdeeds. The little Saint herself wrote letters, accusing herself of being impish, answering back, and playing tricks on her sisters. These were all exaggerations, which the family understood. However, there came a time during the Process for Beatification, that these innocent charges were used against her. It was only Divine Intervention that most of the people who knew her were still alive to testify to her character.
In 1877, at four and a half years old, Thérèse’s world came tumbling down on her. Her dear mother, after a lengthy illness, died. Thérèse took this very hard. In her own words,
“The moving ritual of Extreme Unction impressed itself on my soul. I still see the spot where I was told to kneel; I still hear the sobs of our poor father. . . I do not remember that I wept much. I spoke to no one of the profound feelings which filled my heart; I looked and listened in silence.”
Louis Martin felt it best to move his five girls to Lisieux, to be close to Zélie’s brother and sister-in-law, who could be helpful in raising them. They rented a beautiful little home, called Les Buissonnets, which still stands today. The atmosphere was different from Alençon. There, their home faced the main street. Zélie was outgoing, and there were many friends visiting all the time. In Lisieux, they knew nobody, except of course, Zélie’s family, the Guérins. The home was a distance from the main street, and very secluded. For Thérèse it was good in a way, in that she had a big garden, which was reminiscent of her infancy in the country. For all of them however, it was a time of being alone, just family. Louis went back to his old ways of solitude, a luxury he was not able to enjoy while Zélie was alive.
The two older girls took charge of the household, under the supervision of Madame Guérin. Thérèse had two more playmates however, her cousin Jeanne, who was much older, ten, and Marie, seven and a half. But soon, her sister Céline, closest in age to Thérèse, went off to school, and our little Saint found herself alone much of the time. She wrote about this time in her life.
“After Mamma’s death my happy disposition changed completely. I, who had been so full of life, so outgoing, became shy, quiet and oversensitive. A look was enough to reduce me to tears. I was only happy when no one paid attention to me. I could not bear the company of strangers, and only regained my cheerfulness within the intimacy of my family.”
It was a time, however, that brought Thérèse closer to her sister, Pauline. Marie, the oldest, and Pauline took charge of teaching Thérèse during the mornings. It was during this time that Pauline became her second mother. Thérèse always referred to her in those terms, even in the Convent. In the afternoon, she got to go out with her father for long walks. It was good for Louis, too, because he would have stayed alone up in the belvedere at the top of the house, if he were allowed to. But he enjoyed this time with his little princess, the last of his children. People stopped to stare at Thérèse no matter where they went. They always had a compliment to pay to her father, about how pretty she was. There had been a time when she loved to hear these flattering words, but now she wanted to hide behind her father. The compliments, however, remained in her subconscious.
It was during this time at Les Buissonnets that Thérèse had a Vision, which she did not understand for years to come. One day, she was up in her room. Her father had gone back to Alençon to visit friends. All of a sudden, she saw a man who looked exactly like her father, walking in their garden. But he was all stooped over, and wore something over his head like an apron. She called out to him, “Papa! Papa!” but he disappeared without turning back.
Her two older sisters, alarmed by the sound of her voice, ran into her room. She cried aloud what she had seen. She was on the verge of hysteria. Marie and Pauline ran downstairs and looked all over the grounds. They found no one. They spoke to the maid, who had a habit of finding ways of teasing Thérèse. She knew nothing of what the child had seen. Thérèse was confused and frightened by this Vision. She had never seen her father this way. She couldn’t get it out of her mind. A time would come after she had entered the Carmel when this would prove to have been a prophetic Vision.
Thérèse felt a security at home, among family, which extended to the Guérins, but not much beyond that. She didn’t want to be with other people. She was not happy with other people. This was all contrary to the outgoing personality she’d had before her mother died. At one time, she actually expressed a desire to be a hermit, to her sister Pauline.
Therefore, her entry into school was a traumatic experience for her. She was very good with her subjects, with the possible exception of Mathematics. But in everything else, she excelled. She actually threw herself into her studies to avoid relationship with any of her classmates. She couldn’t stand playtime. She didn’t get along well with the other children. And this from a girl who loved and was loved by all she encountered. There was something wrong. She did not feel safe in this atmosphere. She once wrote that this period, the time spent in school at the Benedictine Convent in Lisieux, was the saddest time of her life.
She read a lot. Actually, she buried herself in books, got lost in books. It was a way of escaping from the world she lived in. Her heroine was Joan of Arc, who was not yet canonized. Did Thérèse know somewhere in her subconscious that one day she would be proclaimed Secondary Patron of France with St. Joan of Arc? (1944) Joan of Arc was to play an important part in the life of our Saint. Thérèse felt a kinship with her always. On two different occasions during her life in the Carmel, she wrote, directed and starred in productions about Joan of Arc.
There were many ups and downs in her life during this period. She lost her sister Pauline to the Carmel in Lisieux in 1882. This was a very difficult time for her. Pauline had been her second mother. Now she was gone. Thérèse was only nine years old at the time. She had felt such a closeness to this sister. She thought Pauline would wait for her, until she could go with her. Once, some years before, Pauline had made that statement, not thinking anything of it. She had evidently forgotten this commitment she made to her sister. Thérèse had not.
When she was ten years old, Thérèse was stricken with an illness that was difficult to diagnose. It seemed for a time like it would kill her. She was in a constant state of hallucinations and violent trembling, her shivering body, ice-cold. It began on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, and stayed with her almost seven weeks. She was completely debilitated. She rallied once on April 6, because she wanted desperately to attend the ceremony of her sister Pauline’s receiving the Carmelite habit. She was able to go to the ceremony, but when she returned, her relapse was so severe, all thought it was the end for her.
It got so bad that her family took turns praying around her bed. Then, in the month of Mary, on May 13, a miracle took place. She kept calling out “Mama! Mama!” Her three sisters knelt at her bedside, and prayed to the statue of Our Lady which was on the bureau. Thérèse tells what happened:
“Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse also turned to her Heavenly Mother and prayed with all her heart for her (Mary) to have pity on her at last. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared to me beautiful, more beautiful than anything I had ever seen. Her face expressed an ineffable goodness and tenderness, but what went right to the depths of my soul was The Blessed Virgin’s ravishing smile! Then all my pain vanished, two large tears welled up on my eyelashes and silently rolled down my cheeks, but they were tears of pure joy. Ah! I thought, the blessed Virgin has smiled at me, how happy I am – but I will never tell anyone, for then my happiness would disappear.”
Thérèse was completely healed on May 13, 1883, through an apparition by Mary. Another miracle would take place through another apparition by Mary, on another May 13, 1917, in a little town in Portugal, called Fatima.
Ironically, during this period, which she referred to as the saddest of her life, Thérèse had one of her most spiritually uplifting experiences. She received her First Holy Communion. This was an event she had waited for as far back as she could remember. The whole family took this very seriously. Her sister Marie prepared her for the upcoming event. From the Carmel, her sister Pauline sent home a book of daily sacrifices for Thérèse to do in preparation for the long awaited day. This went on from February until May, when she finally received the Lord.
It was an extra special day for the Martin family. While the youngest, Thérèse, was to receive First Holy Communion, the first daughter who had entered the Carmel, Pauline, was making her final profession. The day chosen was May 8, 1884. Thérèse refers to her First Holy Communion as the “First sweet kiss of Jesus”. As she got closer and closer to the Communion rail, thoughts of when her sister Céline had received her first Holy Communion went through her mind. How sad she had been that time when she could not receive the Lord with Céline. But today was her day, hers and Jesus’. She described her feelings,
“Ah, how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of Love; I felt that I was loved, and I said, `I love you and I give myself to you forever!’ There were no requests, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time Jesus and poor little Thérèse had looked at each other (from a distance) and understood each other. That day it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; there were no longer two, Thérèse had vanished like a drop of water lost in the depths of the ocean. Jesus alone remained. He was the Master, the King.”
This has been a short excerpt of the chapter on
St. Thérèse from Bob and Penny Lord’s book,
Saints and Other Powerful Women in the Church.