IS THIS BOOK FOR THE SPIRITUAL ELITE?
Fr. Pacificus Kennedy OFM
One winter evening in 1895, two-and-a-half years before she died, Therese was laughing with two of her sisters over childhood memories. That gave Marie, her oldest sister and her godmother (Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart) an idea. She said to Pauline, the second oldest Martin girl, who was prioress at the time, “Ah, Mother Agnes, how nice it will be if you get Therese to write these memories for us.” Pauline smiled and said to her baby sister, “I command you to write your childhood memories.”
Therese thought this a joke, “What could I write that you don’t know already?” When she perceived Pauline had given a gentle command, she prepared to comply. Her sister Leonie, nine and a half years older and still living in Lisieux after their father’s death, brought her a black covered copybook. Therese asked the Blessed Virgin to guide her pen. Day by day, after working and praying from early morn, she spent her only free time, about a half hour after Comp line, writing in her cell by the light of a tiny oil lamp. She completed this family souvenir, which became the first eight chapters of her autobiography, for the feast day of Mother Agnes, January 21, 1896. She casually handed it to her in chapel with a smile and a bow.
Then Marie asked her to tell about the secrets Jesus had made known to her. So between September 3rd and 16th, 1896, Therese wrote the ten closely crammed pages (not in the copybook) of her letter to Marie. The many corrections indicate haste and fatigue. This became the last chapter (XIII), entitle A Canticle of Love, of the autobiography.
By the summer of 1897 everyone knew that Therese’s life was tampering off. In 1896, unknown to the community, she had suffered a lung hemorrhage on Holy Thursday night in her cell, and had hoped to die on Good Friday. She reported it to the prioress, but seemed to cover up her deteriorating health to the community. But when it was known how critical her health was and uncertain how much longer she had to live, Pauline showed the copybook to the prioress, Mother Gonzague. She asked her to command Therese to write something “a little more serious” about her life as a nun, so there would be something to say in her obituary (the letter sent to other Carmels at the death of each nun).
Sitting in a wheelchair under the chestnut trees in the garden, Therese resumed writing in the copybook on June 3, 1897. She was constantly interrupted by goodhearted nuns who thought it was just as easy to lay down a pen as a rake. Pauline got impatient about this, but not Therese. “I’m supposed to be writing about brotherly love,” she said. “This is a chance to show I believe in it.” She retained her equanimity even though she was being subjected at the time to a horrible remedy for tuberculosis by the local doctor, cauterizing. This treatment called pointes de feu (points of fire) consisted of heating needles and plunging them into the flesh. Her sister Celine (Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face) counted 500 pointes de feu on Therese’s back. Nevertheless, early in July she completed the third part of her script, addressed to Mother Gonzague. It became Chapters IX to XII of the autobiography. When the copybook was filled she finished by writing on the back of a calendar. Each of the three section ends with the same word: Love.
But the nuns did not realize they had a saint on their hands. Sister Vincent de Paul said: “She has never done anything worth mentioning. What will they say in the obituary?” Other nuns said worse. Pauline wanted Therese to speak for herself. The Prioress agreed to send an edition of the document to other Carmels only and on two conditions: first, it must be corrected, polished and approved by Dom Godfrey Madelaine, a friend of the Carmel who knew Therese; second, it must be entirely recast to make it appear that all three parts had been addressed to Mother Gonzague. Pauline did not fear to agree because of the generous commission Therese had given her. Dom Godfrey wielded his blue pencil freely, divided the manuscript into chapters, and actually gave it a good title: Story of a Soul. The prioress supervised the entire project. Several decades later it was revealed, to the horror of some historians and critics, that at least 7,000 changes of various kinds had been made. What must be kept uppermost in mind, however, is that this fervent, artless, truncated autobiography - this non-book by a non-writer - became the vehicle which made known the nun whom Pius X, long before her canonization, called “the greatest saint of modern times.” When the printer delivered 2,000 copies to the Carmel, September 1898, a nun exclaimed, “What will we ever do with these?”
Replies from other Carmels were not entirely sympathetic. “This life was infantile and not at all in harmony with he austerity of Carmel.” “Age and experience would have changed her opinions about spiritual matters.” “The thought that this manuscript is now free for anyone to read distresses me beyond words,” said an Irish prioress, “If this justifies Therese Martin in being canonized, then all my nuns will qualify for it when their turn comes.” Such purblind reactions show the need of the work theologians have been doing with the saint’s writings.
Other Carmels, on the other hand, began loaning out the pamphlet (such it was) to relatives and benefactors. The original printing was quickly exhausted. Translations began to appear. Missionaries in the boondocks rendered their favorite passages in native dialects. When people craved to know more about Therese, Pauline was able to respond but did not tell everything at once. During Therese’s last eighteen months, Pauline had written on scraps of paper everything she heard her say. Eventually she filled five green covered copybooks with her sister’s last conversation. Additional information came from a memoir written by one of the five novices Therese companioned during her last four years.
Pius XI could not have known what a cross he was laying on Pauline when he made her prioress for life in 1923. Fifty-four of her sixty-nine years in Carmel were devoted to the spread of her sister’s teachings. She was harried with all kinds of conflicting advice. But she actually took on the Congregation of Rites and won a victory. The 9th Lesson for Matins of Saint Therese’s feast reads: “...inflamed with the desire of suffering, she offered herself, two years before her death, as a victim to the merciful love of God.” Pauline did not rest till she persuaded that authority to change that to “...on fire with divine love, etc.,” which is a faithful expression of Theresian thought. Therese was in love with God, not in love with suffering for its own sake. “The soul offering herself to love is not asking for suffering,” Celine learned from Therese. “But in yielding herself up entirely to the demands of love she is accepting in advance all that Divine Providence will be pleased to send her by way of joys, labors, trials. At the same time she counts on Infinite Mercy to enable her to sanctify her crosses by an enduring spirit of joy.”
Before she died in 1951, Pauline said to Celine, her last remaining sister, “After my death I order you to publish the original texts in my name.” Pauline was severely criticized when the facsimile edition of the original texts was published (French only, of course) in 1956. Some purists objected that in the original Zelie Guerin Martin called her daughter Therese a nervous child. Whereas in her edition Pauline called her an exuberant child. Both were right. Celine cleared up many difficulties when, in November 1957, two years before she died, she reread and approved all the notes she had written about Therese over the years. Her Memoir of My Sister Saint Therese is an invaluable complement to the autobiography.
Is this Spiritual Childhood teaching, as contained in the spiritual classic Story of a Soul, for the elite and innocent? No! It is for the guilty, the hardened, the sophisticated, the despairing:
“I am certain that even if I had every imaginable crime,” says the Saint, “I should lose nothing of my confidence. Rather would I hasten with a heart broken with sorrow to throw myself into the arms of Jesus. He cherished the prodigal son.”
In the opinion of Dominican Father H. Petitot, “It will be some centuries before the prodigious and many-sided influence of Saint Therese can be exactly appreciated. Then it will be recognized that she has been the principal and providential promoter of a new epoch.”