Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
August 27, 2001
The early life of St. Thérèse
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Near the end of her life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote that the only kingdom she coveted was that of the unknown and unesteemed. "I thirst to suffer and be forgotten," she said.
Yet Thérèse also had great confidence that the Lord would save her. "I feel the daring confidence that one day I shall become a great saint," she wrote.
Through her brief life of 24 years, Thérèse achieved both desires. She suffered much and was known to very few people - and not overly esteemed by those who knew her.
Yet within a few years of her death, long before she was canonized, Pope St. Pius X called her "the greatest saint of modern times." Devotion to her exploded over the 20th century and she is now certainly among the best-known of saints.
Thérèse Martin was born Jan. 2, 1873, the youngest of nine children of Louis and Zelie Martin. Four of the children died early in life, leaving the Martins with five girls, four of whom were called to the hard monastic life of a Carmelite nun with the other joining the Visitation order.
Louis and Zelie had both wanted to join religious orders, but were turned away. Louis became a watchmaker and Zelie a lacemaker. They raised their children in a rather prosperous home. The couple remained strong in their faith and the family home also had a strong religious atmosphere.
Thérèse remembered her early years as especially happy. "The whole world smiled on me; wherever I went my path was strewn with flowers."
When she was four and a half, however, her mother died of cancer, throwing her into the unhappiest period of her life, a period that lasted more than eight years. "All my gaiety went after mother died. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and over-sensitive, crying if anyone looked at me."
Louis sold his business in Alencon and moved his family to Lisieux to be near Zelie's brother's family who would help raise his girls. Thérèse became quite close to her father who called her "my little queen" and to the second youngest girl, Celine. Her oldest sister, Pauline, acted as her mother, providing discipline, a listening ear and running the household.
When Thérèse was nine, Pauline became the first of the Martin girls to enter Carmel. This left Thérèse distraught, feeling that once again her mother had been taken from her. She fell into a strange illness for months, with violent headaches, delirium, hallucinations and periodic comas. Her father believed she was going to die.
One afternoon, with Thérèse particularly delirious, her sisters carried her to a window where she could see them pray for her healing before a statue of Mary.
"Suddenly the statue came to life, and Mary appeared, utterly lovely, with a divine beauty I could not possibly describe. There was a wonderful sweetness and goodness about her face, and her expression was infinitely tender, but what went right to my heart was her smile. Then, all my pain was gone."
Thérèse had been healed of her illness, though still not of her prevailing sadness.
That healing came more than three years later at Christmas. After Midnight Mass, her father remarked that he was glad this would be the last year to observe the custom of filling Thérèse's shoes with Christmas gifts. Thérèse overheard the remark and was cut to the quick. But instead of breaking down in tears as she normally would, she found the inner strength to act as though she was filled with joy opening the presents.
"In one moment, Jesus, content with good will on my part, accomplished what I had been trying to do for years. . . . My tears were dried up at their source and, after that, I hardly ever cried again."
It was only a few months later that she told her father that she wanted to become a Carmelite. While he began to weep at losing his daughter and felt she was very young to make such a decision, Louis never spoke a word against it.
He became her supporter in the ensuing months as she told the priest-superior for the Lisieux Carmel and the local bishop of her desire to enter. The priest said she couldn't enter until she was 21 and the bishop, while kind to her, said only that he would talk with the priest.
However, Louis, Thérèse and Celine had enlisted in a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome that included an audience with the pope. Although no one was to speak to the pope as they individually kissed his foot and hand and received his blessing, Thérèse dared to address him. "Most Holy Father, in honour of your jubilee, let me enter Carmel at 15," she said.
Pope Leo XIII looked at her and said, "You will enter if it is God's will." Thérèse was going to say more, but the papal guard moved her on.
Despite her distress at the time, less than six weeks later she received a letter approving her admission to Carmel. It was five days before her 15th birthday but her admission would be delayed until the Easter season. At an unusually young age, Thérèse was going to enter the Carmelite world of prayer, mortification and worldly obscurity.
(Second in a series of articles)
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