The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux

 

Alan Gullette

 

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Winter 1979 (2/6/79)

Religious Studies 3011: Phenomenology of Religion

Dr. Jay Kim

 

According to her own account, the brief life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) was filled with love, grace, suffering, prayer, and repentance.  In this review, I hope to develop a somewhat clear picture of how these interacted and also to attempt to trace the development of her experiences alongside the deepening of hr spiritual insight.

In childhood and throughout life, Thérèse Martin was very sensitive and had an overwhelming desire to be good.  Whenever she did the slightest wrong thing, she wept and repented to her mother as if she had committed a mortal sin.  Her family was extremely, devoutly religious.  As an infant, she thought much of her older sister Pauline, and when Pauline became a nun, Thérèse, without knowing what a nun was, wanted to follow the example.  This was when Thérèse was two, and her resolution was kept (23).  She was surrounded by love, and this plus he religious atmosphere, plus a natural sensitivity, evidently resulted in a precocious conscientious self-awareness that was perhaps the cause of her habitual repentance, love of suffering, and prayer, which in turn brought more love and the experience of grace.

In her own worlds, "my soul has matured in a crucible of inner and external trials" (21).  As a child, she was "naughty" and full of self-love and priced (24), of which only self-love continued for very long to present a problem – though pride is obviously related, and naughtiness is a quality of the activity of one full of self-love.  A central theme is that one is always a child of God, thus is always to some extent childish, and God loves one in spite of (or perhaps partly because of) one's imperfections.

In the introduction, Beevers points out that Thérèse's "soul saw nothing different" in later life "from what it had seen during its early, formative years."  Rather, "it saw more clearly and understood more fully" as "her prayers and meditation and her life of heroic sanctity brought her a steadily deepening insight" (11).  This is corroborated, for example, the bye statement "I think my character was the same then as now," and she mentions in particular her "very great" self-control (27).  So, it required time and experience for her maturity, but she developed at an early age a purpose that bore her throughout her trails and suffering.

The first trial was the illness and death of her mother when she was four and a half years old.  Afterward, Pauline became her substitute mother.  Somehow, she lost the character that was hers before and did not regain it until the age of 14.  In the interim, she discovered, quite naturally, "a true state of prayer" while sitting amid the flowers by the stream where hr father fished.  Earth, for the first time, seemed to be a place of exile; and a snack which she had brought tasted stale, making her realize that all earthly joys are temporary and that only in haven is joy "unclouded" (31).  She "love God intensely" even as an early age.  Sundays became a kind of heaven on earth, especially after she was suddenly able to understand the sermons of the priest; but the day had to end, increasing her feeling of exile from heaven.  She has a vision of her father as an old man whose face is veiled during his trials on earth so as to shine the more gloriously in heaven (36-7).

When Pauline entered the convent of Carmel, Thérèse suffered a second great agony, and "in a flash" she "understood what life was" – "a thing of suffering and continual partings" (41).  Carmel, then, seemed a wonderful place in which to hide herself during her exile, ad she resolved in a responsible sort of way to enter Carmel.  The loss of Pauline brought a suffering in which Thérèse's character "was developed at such an astonishing rate" that she fell ill, and she had a continual headache until Easter, 1883.  Shortly, however, she had a relapse and was so ill that she seemed mostly delirious, thou she herself was unaware of this (43-4+).  The illness ended, and the pain vanished, when she saw a statue of the Virgin Mary glow beautifully and smile at her.  She made the mistake of revealing this to others, which brought grief and a spiritual anguish that lasted for four years (47).

In the course of her reading innumerable books, she realized that true glory is not achieved through outstanding deeds. Still, she sought to emulate such heroines as Joan of Arc, and she compromised by resolving to become a great saint.  At ten, she was first exposed to worldly life, whose pleasures and gaiety were "not without its attractions" for her (49).  But she saw that worldly people are "clever at missing the pleasures of the world with the service of God."  She (again) saw how all earthy things are temporal.

Her first Communion, for which she prepared thoroughly, was evidently a true communion with Jesus, and she longed for each communion that followed.  As with Sundays, though, communion does not last forever but only accentuates the suffering of life.  But she was "seized with a passionate longing to suffer," to bear many crosses (53).  Her new friendship with Jesus made her realize that others her age did not know the kind of love she now felt.  In retreat for her second Communion, she was "attacked by the disease of scruples" and suffered indescribably for eighteen months, during which time she had only moments of peace in unburdening her thoughts and feelings to her sister Marie.  Again she fell ill and left school.  After Marie entered Carmel, Thérèse turned to her two brothers and two sisters in heaven (they had died in infancy before her birth), and received "waves of delicious peace" and "showers" of grace (61).

The graces made her realize her imperfections, especially her extreme sensitiveness, but a "miracle" on Christmas Day 1886 made her a "group-up in a second" (61).  This was the grace of emerging from childhood, of complete, responsible conversion, in which she regained the "character " she had lost with the death of her mother.  One day she was looking at a picture of Christ on the crosses when she saw blood dripping from one of his hands, and, she says, "I was determined continually to stand at the foot of the cross and receive it," which meant spreading it among mankind (63).  After this experience, she was rid of her childish sensitivity and "scruples."  She began to develop her mind through the study of history and science and the continued reading of inspirational literature.  OF the latter, a work by Father Arminjon was "one of the greatest graces I've known" (65).  She grew close to her sister Céline, and they received "tremendous graces" together, and the result was that being good became natural (as it had with Thomas Merton) and spontaneous self-sacrifice became possible and easy (66).

In her attempt to enter Carmel at an early age (15), she went on a pilgrimage to Rome to ask the Pope to waive the age rule.  On this trip she realized "the emptiness of all temporal things" (75), and also discovered that some priests need to be prayed for as well as sinners (76).  In fact, she realized that it was the whole purpose of Carmelites to "preserve the salt of the earth" (76).

When she was at last admitted to Carmel (April 9, 1888), she "knew a deep and serene peace beyond description" that remained with her even through her trials (at least until the time of the writing of these chapters, around age 22).  But at first she suffered from "grievous spiritual dryness" and, indeed, suffered generally but secretly for five years (90-91).  The "dryness" increased, but she was happy in the midst of it – in the knowledge, I suppose, that God was only answering her prayer and giving her the suffering necessary to temper hr soul.  Having to wait one year and eight months for her Profession, she realized that her eagerness was born of self-love, and she learned patience in waiting for the manifestation of God's will.  Aware again of her self-love, she defeated it through humility (for example, in accepting the blame for something she didn't do), and found that the only penance allowed her or necessary for her was the mortification of her self-love (97-9).

Again, before Profession, she delighted in her spiritual aridity.  Just before Profession, she was attacked with tremendous doubt as to whether the vocation she had chosen was her real vocation and her agony was indescribable.  But she was encouraged by the novitiate mistress and by the prioress and took her vows, marked by great peace (100-101).

After painting some pictures and writing some poetry, she is again struck by the vanity of earthly things, strengthening her conviction that in monastic retreat alone can happiness be found (107).

Sometime later, she no longer seeks suffering or the release of death but only love, and her only guide is the abandonment of her own will to that of God (109).  In Chapter 9, written in 1897, she mentions that for a year (since Easter 1896) she experienced a most trying "night of martyrdom" in which, apparently, she doubted the existence of heaven and feared that death would bring annihilation, but she continued on faith (116-18).  She came to understand what real charity is – it involves the acceptance of imperfection in others.  For acts of charity are acts of Jesus though one, and the love of Jesus is the love that encompasses one's own and other's imperfections.  Involved in this is the suspension of judgment – of oneself and to others (122-3).  She also learns that to give away her thoughts and feelings brings her to greater simplicity and purity of soul, which is the goal of both poverty and charity.

In learning to deal with souls, which is her profession, she realizes her own impotence without God (132-3). 

In Chapter 11, we learn that the year of suffering in 1896-7 ended after by a dream in which she was embraced by the foundress of Carmel in France, which assured her of the existence of heaven.  From this assurance, she proceeds in her martyrdom brought about by the conflict of desires to be a priest, a warrior, an apostle, etc., until she realizes that her true, essential vocation is love itself (153-5).

Although here we find alternations of doubt and faith, suffering and grace, we can assume that after the final writing there was a continual experience of grace (for such is the pattern in mystics).  Although the account is not entirely clear on this point, she does say that a sort of peace remains with her even in the blackest moments.

 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Translated with introduction by John Beevers.  New York: Image Books, 1957. Page references to a later paperback edition.

 

Professor's Comment: Grade A.  Good work! [Dr. Kim.]

 

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