Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 3, 2001
Thérèse's life in the monastery
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
It was a hard, unromantic lifestyle that Thérèse Martin took on when she entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux in April 1888 at the age of 15.
The Normandy winters were cold and the nuns rose daily in the summer at 4:45 a.m. for a day that included six and a half hours of prayer, including four and a half hours of the Divine Office and Mass. They spent another five hours a day at work, usually some manual task that would keep their minds free for meditating on the things of the Lord.
Many have seen Thérèse's entry into the monastery at such an early age as a sign of her sanctity. She didn't see it that way - for Thérèse, her inability to wait, as did two of her sisters, was a sign of spiritual weakness, not strength.
But once in the monastery, her sanctity began to grow. She first had to overcome a bad case of scruples — an exaggerated sense of her own sinfulness. That process began in the confessional one month after her arrival when her confessor, Father Almire Pichon, told her, "I declare that you have never committed a single mortal sin."
Pichon's declaration started Thérèse on the road to spiritual freedom and a vastly deeper awareness of God's love and mercy.
Although one might imagine that life in a Carmelite monastery, with 27 women dedicated to prayer, would be free of interpersonal conflict, such was not the case. Thérèse, however, soon came to see the irritations and conflicts of monastic life as opportunities to grow in love for God and the other nuns.
She found herself treated harshly by the prioress, Mother Mary Gonzaga, who regularly criticized her faults, blamed her for mishaps she wasn't responsible for, and told her that she did virtually nothing around the monastery.
Rather than becoming bitter or falling into self-pity over such reproofs, Thérèse welcomed them. "How I thank God for such a virile and valuable training. What a priceless grace!" she wrote. The harsh treatment helped her to become free from human attachments in the monastery and to focus on God's will.
Thérèse spoke of another nun "who managed to irritate me in everything she did." Thérèse prayed for this nun. But more than that, she tried to treat her as though she were the one Thérèse loved best. "When tempted to answer her sharply, I hastened to give her a friendly smile and talk about something else."
On one occasion, she was washing handkerchiefs in the laundry with a sister who kept splashing her with dirty water. "I was tempted to step back and wipe my face to show her that I would be obliged if she would be more careful." Instead, she viewed the situation as "a treasure" through which she could offer a small suffering up to Jesus.
In all this, Thérèse developed a rule for herself: "True charity consists in bearing with the faults of those about us, never being surprised at their weaknesses, but edified at the least sign of virtue."
But Thérèse showed her love for God with more than little sacrifices. On Trinity Sunday in 1895, when meditating on the refusal of men and women to give God the whole-hearted love he desires, she offered herself as a victim to God's merciful love. "Let me be the martyr of your love, O my God," she prayed.
Less than a year later, she received her answer. On Good Friday, she coughed up a large amount of blood, the first sign of the tuberculosis that would soon take her life. Instead of reacting with fear, Thérèse saw this as "good news." "I was filled with joy. I was going to heaven."
The last 18 months of her life were filled with increasing suffering, both physical and spiritual. Her soul was enveloped in "impenetrable darkness," seeing no sign of the existence of God and heaven. But rather than becoming lost in despair, Thérèse saw even her darkness of the soul as an opportunity to identify with atheists. She called them her brothers and prayed earnestly for them.
Thérèse persevered through faith alone. She continued to love God and even to console and cheer her sisters.
By July 1897, she was coughing up blood frequently and experiencing terrible attacks of suffocation. After Aug. 19, she was unable to receive Communion because of her frequent vomiting. Yet in all her suffering, Thérèse saw signs of God's love for her.
She died in the evening of Sept. 30, her last words, "Oh, how I love him! My God, I love you!"
Her life was over, but her real work was to begin. Two months before her death, Thérèse had said, "I feel that my mission is soon to begin, to make others love God as I do, to teach others my 'little way.' I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth."
(Third in a series of articles)
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