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Patronesses of France

Terese of Lisieux’ s book goes out into the world

29 August 2020

“Story of a Soul” reread by an author for adults and chidren...

The Story of a Soul by St Therese of Lisieux can be found in a number of editions: from the refined and popular, to paperbacks, and in digital format. Some are full of typos, while others are very well edited. Together, they are evidence of the fact that it is alive, very much alive, and a fertile book. Her’s is a book that fascinates, that is read, underlined, and meditated upon. When it came out, a year after Teresa’s death, in 1898, it was not much more than an internal publication, intended for the Carmelites, and for the relatives of the nuns. However, it soon became recognized as an extraordinary testimony by ecclesiastics. And, as it was passed between readers, it was met with great success among Catholics of course, and beyond in the wider world, among non-believers.

At that time, a woman’s story was rarely recounted directly by her. Therefore, and for all the more reason, little girls remained opaque, mysterious little figures, forced to appear reassured or, at best, as Carrollian Alices, the three manuscripts of the Story of a Soul, which speak first and foremost about a childhood, are direct, violent, and incandescent. Here a very young woman wrote, spoke about herself, about her life, about her thoughts.  She dug at the root and beyond, and who was not afraid of the risk or to be shamed.  It was as if a mountain was uncovered to reveal something that until then had just been suspected. Teresa lived from 1873 to 1897, dying at the age of twenty-four. A short time, a life that had just begun, which she transformed with all her strength into fullness.

The end of the nineteenth century is both a distant, and yet a very near time for us. We can still recognize the inner movements of the people who lived then as being close to us. If we take into account the wealthy families, their way of life, it is not unusual to us.  The small daily pleasures, the parties, the sweets, the trade, and gifts, are similar to ours, or at least we have read about them so often in books, or seen them in movies, or television series, to the extent that we recognize them as familiar.

These are years in which the perception of the possibility of a well-being to be experienced here on earth became more diffused. The ideas of progress are still alive, but it is also a world in which death is a common occurrence. Passing away appears prematurely as heartbreak and memory, clashing as it often does so, and yet nobody manages to get used to it.  One of the first testimonies about Teresa, speaks of a death wish which was addressed by her to her mother. Teresa explained to her that she had to be happy, and was wishing her heaven, which was met with Zelíe’s bewilderment

Teresa lived in Alençon during the early part of her childhood. Her family were both deeply religious, and wealthy. These two aspects are not in conflict in the Martins’ case, for they went to mass at dawn, and were a family that was ready to care for others by opening their door to the needy and to wayfarers.

Teresa’s parents, Louis and Zelíe, worked together her mother’s lace shop. Louis gave up his job as a goldsmith to invest his energy in the administration of the joint venture. They had nine children, but only five girls survived their childhood. The frequent encounter with death, as in many other bourgeois families of their time, did not produce dependency, nor eliminated emotion; instead, it sharpened the parents’ sensitivity, and even more so that of their children. This was a family in which female participation was not prohibited; on the contrary, it sought its forms in work, but above all in faith.

Teresa tells us in the Story of a Soul, that as a child she built altars, and played at hermitage.  It was not easy for her to share in other boys’ and girls’ games, “I do not know how to play” she wrote; she did not allow herself to be distracted by the essential questions that pressed her. Zelíe wrote of her that she was obstinate, less sweet but more intelligent than her closest sister Celine. In the early years, her mother kept an intrigued and enchanted eye upon her. There was something inquisitive and proud, something very cheerful, in Teresa’s gaze as a child. In 1877, when Teresa was four, Zelíe died and her world collapsed. Teresa managed to recount the excruciating pain that the loss of her mother produced in her; she lost the euphoria, or at least she eclipsed it, and she changed her character. She sought in her sister Pauline an equally intense source of love. Pauline took responsibility and became her second mother, and to whom Teresa clung, for she was thirsty for sweetness, which did not subside. When she was at boarding school, she suffered terribly for the loneliness and the loss of an affectionate and welcoming look. In the pages she dedicated to her childhood, it almost seems as if a little girl was writing directly, not a child who sweetened the words and lied as if  controlled by an adult eye; on the contrary, this is a little girl who knew what she was talking about. Teresa revealed that childhood was a very hard age, even when you was surrounded by people who appreciated her.  Devoured by a thirst for love that was never satisfied and sometimes by intolerable, real pains, even when they were expressed through trifling whims. Teresa shows us how childhood is imbued with what could best be described as an effective, fervent intelligence, which elaborates, poses the essential questions, and takes momentum. When we read that Teresa chose “the little way”, the way of spiritual childhood, it should be understood as something very precise: Teresa takes root in childhood, she decides to make the childlike perspective the key to her spirituality and her whole life. Teresa’s questions are as radical as childhood questions: “He created the child who knows nothing (...) he created the savage who, in his misery, possesses only the natural law to regulate himself.” The answers that she gives to herself are radical: “Jesus calls (...) whoever he wants”, “all the flowers of creation are beautiful”, there are lilies and roses, and there are wild flowers, they are so small so that God, lowering himself so much, can show himself infinitely great. To make childhood the road is not resolved in diminutives and small colored flowerbeds: it is to put the need, the thirst for love, the arms outstretched upwards waiting for someone to lift us up.

The nineteenth century is the century in which childhood emerges, and with it, a dedicated literature becomes diffused. The idea of childhood as a projection, as a dream, as an island - that does not exist but that could protect us from evil and death if it ever existed -, makes space in adults’ mind.  For Teresa, who knew that no one knows the desert, the heat, the loss better than a child, she knew this was incorrect: “In a moment I understood what life is (...) I saw that it was only suffering and separation”.

In Teresa’s life, the harrowing separations followed one after another. Pauline left her to go to the Carmel of Lisieux. Therese spoke of the terrible illness that took her, the despair of the body, which worried her father and all those around her, and the “stupendous” smile of Our Lady who saved her. It was from that look that Teresa decided her fate: “Carmel was the desert where the Lord wanted me to hide”. She went in search, to the Carmel, of a lasting love, without separations, beyond all heartbreak.

In order to succeed in entering the Carmel at the age of fifteen, she was accompanied by her father to Rome, where they met Leo XIII. With the strength of Teresa’s perfectly childish obstinacy, and dressed in black as per protocol, she spoke to him, and begged him. She returned home without knowing what her destiny was to be, but in the end, she succeeded. She wanted to be Jesus’ little toy. Her name was to become Teresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

“To be your Bride, Jesus, to be a Carmelite, to be, by union with you, mother of souls, all this should be enough for me [...] It is not so. Without a doubt, these three privileges are my vocation, Carmelite, bride and mother, but I feel other vocations in me, I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr”.  Teresa’s spirit remains the heroic spirit of childhood: she wants everything; no partiality is enough for her. It was her childish intelligence, characterized by reversals that allowed her to make the leap: it was “lowering myself to the depths of my nothingness that I managed to reach my goal”: “I will be love”.

Teresa wrote her first manuscript, collected in the Story of a Soul, at the request of Sister Agnes, her sister Pauline, during the period when Pauline was prioress of the Carmel of Lisieux. The second and third at the insistence of Prioress Marie de Gonzague. While reading her pages one feels a pleasure in her writing, a care in observing one’s own thoughts, one’s own actions and those of others, a simple but precise eloquence.

She fell ill with tuberculosis at a very young age, which was a common occurrence at that time.  In addition to the disease, she was tempted by a temptation which frightened her, and which occurred during Easter in 1896 when she found herself in darkness: “You should know what frightful thoughts haunt me! The reasoning of the worst materialists is imposing itself upon my spirit”. She wanted to do well, to act after death, but she was worried that she could no longer do so. It is her way, the “little way”, the way of spiritual childhood, which had led her to take the perspective of the child and that of the “savage”. This then led her onto extreme stony ground, to take upon herself the pain of being in the world of the “poor unbelievers”, those who had all the thirst, all the need for love, but found no sense in lifting their arms. Teresa knew this blind need, and recognized it, allowing those who believe to recognize it in others and in themselves.

She retained all that was needed but also all the momentum: “To remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness; it is to wait for everything from the good Lord”. It was in order to be able to abandon oneself that Teresa tells us: I never wanted to grow up.

She died on September 30, 1897. She was beatified onApril  29, 1923 by Pius XI and proclaimed saint on May 17, 1925. From 1944, together with Joan of Arc, she is the patron saint of France. In 1997, John Paul II, recognizing the value of her “little way”, and proclaimed her Doctor of the Church.

by Carola Susani

Marie-Françoise Thérèse Martin

Alençon, January 2, 1873
Died Lisieux, September 30, 1897
Venerated by the Catholic Church
Beatification Rome, April 29, 1923 by Pope Pius XI
Canonization Rome, May 17, 1925 by Pope Pius XI
Anniversary October 1
Doctor of the Church  October 19, 1997
Patroness of France

The 100th anniversary of the canonization of Joan of Arc

The second patron saint of France (the first is Our Lady of the Assumption at the wish of Louis XIII), and together with Teresa of Lisieux, is Joan of Arc.  This year marks the centenary of her canonization so desired by Pope Benedict XV. On May 16, 1920, five centuries after her death.

The Maid of Orleans, as she was nicknamed, was condemned to the stake in 1431 after a trial of heresy. The life and work of Joan of Arc was then rehabilitated as both a religious and secular heroine to become a very popular figure in France. As early as the 19th century, historians and intellectuals have annexed her to national history.

Her canonization was an important stage in the rapprochement between the Church and the French Republic after years of clashes.

The author

Carola Susani writes for adults and children. She is editor of “Nuovi Argomenti”, conducts reading and writing workshops, and is a member of the Piccoli Maestri association  In 1995 her first novel, Il libro di Teresa [The Book of Teresa] (Giunti), was published. Her books include Il licantropo [The Werewolf] (Feltrinelli 2002); Eravamo bambini abbastanza [We Were quite like Kids] (minimum fax 2012), Terrapiena (minimum fax 2020).   In addition, she is on the Editorial Board of Women Church World