From the dawn of reason the heart of St. Thérèse was raised to God. As she grew in years she was blessed with insight into his merciful love. Her desire was to always do his will. At the reception of her first holy communion she told our Lord that she is giving herself to him forever.
After her entrance to Carmel at the age of fifteen she set full sail on her pursuit of holiness. She came to believe that God had bent down, lifted her up and embraced her in his loving arms (Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. 199; hereafter abbreviated as S).
In February 1895, two and one half years before her death she composed one of her most beautiful poems “Living on Love” (Poetry of Saint Thérèse, trans. by Donald Kenny, O.C.D., PN 17; hereafter PN). It was the fruit of an inspiration on an evening spent in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament during the Forty Hours devotion. In this poem she sings of the merciful love of God and of her desire to be aflame with love for him. She longs to live on love alone and to die of love.
“Loving you, Jesus, is such fruitful loss!
All my perfumes are yours forever.
I want to sing on leaving this world,
I’m dying of love!” (Ibid., St. 19).
A few months later on June 11, 1895 together with her sister Céline she made her Act of Oblation to the Merciful Love of God. She offered herself as a Victim, a holocaust of love. “Consume your holocaust with the fire of your Divine Love” (S 181).
As her spiritual life developed she was ravished with love and cried out: “O Jesus my love..., my vocation at last I found it....My vocation is Love” (S 194).
As we contemplate the heart of Thérèse aflame with love of God we ask: What were some of the devotions that served Thérèse on her journey to love? Throughout her life she had many devotions and shared in many spiritual exercises. We think of her devotion to the Holy Face and her love of the Divine Office. In this article we would like to focus our attention on three devotions that played a special role in her surrender to love, and that can become a vital influence in our spiritual development: the Bible, the Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin.
Today reading and study of the Bible is a daily practice in convents. But in the nineteenth century this was not so. Thérèse came to Bible reading gradually, not at home but in the convent. We are told she did not have a copy of the complete Bible; she used Céline’s notebook which contained several passages from the Old Testament. Céline also gave her a copy of the Gospel and the Letters of St. Paul bound together. This little book she always carried over her heart. It is preserved today among the relics in the convent of Lisieux. Finally, we should remember that the nuns recited the Divine Office every day and among other Scripture passages it contained the Psalms, which gave her daily food for thought and prayer.
It was, then, the Vulgate form of the text that Thérèse knew. Had she been a priest, she said, she would have learned Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in its original languages.
One book that gave her great nourishment was the Song of Songs, and her understanding of it came from the Catholic tradition, proposed by Origin (d. 254) the most influential commentator in the Christian community. For the Christian the Song refers to the love of Christ and the Church, Christ and the individual soul.
Thérèse received many spiritual insights from the Song, quoting it frequently especially in her letters to Céline. To one of her novices, Marie of the Trinity, she confided:
“If I had the time I would like to comment on the Canticle of Canticles (the Song); in this book I have discovered such profound things about the union of the soul with the Beloved” (quoted by Guy Gaucher, Story of a Life, 191).
In her Story she tells us of the spiritual enrichment gained from reading the Word of God. “Ah! how many lights have I not drawn from the works of our holy Father, St. John of the Cross! At the ages of seventeen and eighteen I had no other spiritual nourishment; later on, however, all books left me in aridity and I’m still in that state. If I open a book composed by a spiritual author (even the most beautiful, the most touching book), I feel my heart contract immediately and I read without understanding, so to speak. Or if I do understand, my mind comes to a standstill without the capacity of meditating. In this helplessness, Holy Scripture and the Imitation come to my aid; in them I discover a solid and very pure nourishment. But it is especially the Gospels which sustain me during my hours of prayer, for in them I find what is necessary for my poor little soul. I am constantly discovering in them new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” (S 179).
We recall that in Carmel the sisters had two hours of silent prayer, one in the morning and the other in the evening. The daily reading and meditating on the Gospels led Thérèse to come to an understanding of God’s desire to flood the world with his merciful love, and prompted her to respond to his love. “Oh how sweet the way of love! How I want to apply myself to do the will of God always with the greatest self-surrender” (S 181).
Listening to Thérèse we can ask ourselves: What place do the Holy Scriptures hold in our life? Does God speak to us? Do we listen? To understand love, we must begin to love.
Thérèse’s growth in understanding the merciful love of God and responding with love was also advanced by her love of the Holy Eucharist From her childhood Thérèse enjoyed going to Mass. She loved Sundays and Holy days. She doesn’t offer any special insights into the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice but she does have much to teach us about holy communion. She underwent a long and thorough preparation [or her first holy communion which she received at the age of eleven.
Her description of her first encounter with her Eucharistic King is edifying: “Afi! how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of love; I felt that I was loved, and I said: ‘I love You, and I give myself to you forever!’ There were no demands made, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time now. Jesus and poor little Thérèse looked at and understood each other, That day, it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; they were no longer two, Thérèse had vanished as a drop of water is lost in he immensity of the ocean. Jesus alone remained. e was the Master, the King. Had not Thérèse asked Him to take away her liberty, for her liberty frightened her? She felt so feeble and fragile that she wanted to be united forever to the divine Strength” (S 77).
Would this beautiful experience be repeated each time Thérèse received holy communion? No. Seldom would there be consolation and joy. Her communions would he acts of faith. She would think of the love of Jesus who longed to give himself to us in the host. She would recall his humility in condescending to come to us; his humility in coming hidden in the host. Her reaction was to try to please him who was so humble and loving.
Often she would seek Jesus in the tabernacle to keep him company. Daily reception of the Eucharist was not permitted in Thérèse’s time; a custom that displeased her greatly. She promised that once in heaven she would seek a remedy. In the meantime she would encourage frequent communion. In a letter to her cousin Marie Guérin, who would enter Carmel in 1895 as Marie of the Eucharist, Thérèse encouraged her to banish the scruples that kept her from receiving the Eucharist. “Dear little sister, receive communion often, very often. That is the only remedy if you want to be healed and Jesus hasn’t placed this attraction in your soul for nothing” (General Correspondence, v.1, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D., 569).
Pope Pius X in 1905 granted the whole church permission to receive daily communion; he was greatly pleased that he had done this after reading this letter of Thérèse. He said: “we must hurry this cause!” (Thérèse’s beatification) (Ibid.)
One night during her final illness Thérèse wrote a poem in preparation for holy communion: “You Who Know My Extreme Littleness” (PS 8, p. 233). Sister Thérèse of the Eucharist sang this song before Thérèse received holy communion on July 16, 1897. This was her last poem, a song of love, a cry of the heart to die of love. “Come into my heart, O white Host that I love. Come into my heart I long for you” (Ibid.).
During the last few months of her life Thérèse was so emaciated, so weak that she could no longer hold food in her stomach. Consequently, her last holy communion was on August 19, 1897, six weeks before her death. There is no indication that the last kiss of Jesus was similar to the first. This time there was no joy. She was immersed in the dark night of faith. After communion shed4ing tears she said to Mother Agnes, “I’m perhaps losing my wits. Oh! if they only knew the weakness I’m experiencing. Last night I couldn’t take anymore; I begged the Blessed Virgin to hold my head in her hands so that I could take my sufferings” (Last Conversations, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D., 54; hereafter LC).
Yes, the infirmary was her Calvary, her sick bed the Cross. With Jesus she was a victim of love.
As we meditate on Thérèse’s love of the Eucharist (she often thought how wonderful it would be to be a priest and offer the Eucharist) we ask: What place does the Mass and holy communion bold in our life? Do we share in the daily celebration of the Eucharist? Do we realize that Jesus in the host is manifesting his love for us, that he is asking to be loved? How do we respond to Jesus on days there is no consolation?
The Blessed Virgin
Along with the Bible and the Holy Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin accompanied Thérèse on her journey of surrender to love.
In her childhood Thérèse learned to honour Mary. At the age of three she prayed to Mary in words taught to her by her mother. When she made her first confession at the age of six her confessor encouraged her to practice devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and Thérèse promised herself that she would redouble her tenderness to Mary. When she was ten years old she came down with a mysterious nervous sickness. While lying sick in bed, she tells us, the Blessed Virgin with a ravishing smile appeared to her, and she was instantly cured. The following year, at age eleven in the afternoon of the day of her first holy communion Thérèse was chosen in the name of her companions to make the act of consecration to Mary. She tells us: “I put all my heart into speaking to her, into consecrating myself to her as a child throwing itself into the arms of its mother, asking her to watch over her. It seems to me the Blessed Virgin must have looked upon her little flower and smiled at her, for wasn’t it she who cured her with a visible smile? Had she not placed in the heart of her little flower her Jesus, the Flower of the Fields and the Lily of the valley?” (S 78).
In 1887 Thérèse accompanied her father and Céline on a pilgrimage to Rome. Along the journey they visited shrines of our Lady, and she felt that she was rewarded with great graces at Our Lady of Victories in Paris and Loreto in Italy. However, in Rome she was disappointed with her audience with Pope Leo XIII. Although he treated her with kindness, he did not grant her request to enter Carmel at age fifteen, leaving the decision to the will of God. Downcast she returned home, but her spirits were soon revived when the bishop granted her desire, a favour she believed was a gift of the Blessed Virgin.
Once she entered Carmel she took comfort in wearing our Lady’s mantle, and the Brown Scapular, our Lady’s gift, which for her was a sign of predestination. She also carried our Lady’s rosary, was faithful to the daily recitation, but, as she confesses, it was not without great difficulty.
In December 1894 she received an order from her superior, Mother Agnes (Pauline), to write her childhood memories. Always obedient Thérèse tells us: “Before taking up my pen, I knelt before the statue of Mary (the one that had given so many proofs of the maternal preferences of heaven’s Queen to our family), and I begged her to guide my hand that it trace no line displeasing to her” (S 13). Throughout the story of her life Our Lady figures prominently. But this is true in her poems, letters, religious plays and last conversations in which Mary appears as loving Mother and model.
As we reflect on the central role of Mary in the life of Thérèse we ask: Is there any writing in which she expounds her teaching on the Blessed Virgin? Fortunately, there is. To Céline she once confided: “I have always dreamed of saying in song to the Blessed Virgin everything I think about her” (S 217).
On May 1897, a few months before her death, she fulfilled this desire with a masterful poem, the favourite of many devotees, “Why I Love You, Mary” (PN 54, p. 215). In twenty five stanzas with thoughts drawn from the story of Mary in the Gospels she sings of her love for the Mother of Jesus and our mother.
It is not our intention to offer a commentary of the poem (there are some beautiful ones) but rather to offer a few thoughts that shed light on her profound devotion to Mary. In her poem she is guided by the portrayal of Mary in the Gospels. She tells us that Mary is not only the Mother of Jesus, our Saviour; she is our spiritual mother, But Mary is also our model. She led an ordinary life, similar to ours, a life of faith, hope, charity, obedience, humility, patience. It was a life of intense suffering. She experienced the pain of poverty, the cold, the heat, even exile. She endured the dark night of faith especially when she stood beneath the Cross and offered Jesus to appease the Father’s justice.
In her meditations on the Gospels Thérèse found in Mary not only a loving mother, hut a mother who had led an ordinary life, like our own, no ecstasies or miracles. She found a mother she could admire and imitate, a mother who could lead her to Jesus. In her joy she cried out: “You teach me to sing divine praises, to glory in Jesus my Saviour” (St. 7). This poem, Thérèse affirms, contains all that she would preach about Mary were she a priest.
During her final days in the midst of her trial of faith and intense physical suffering, Thérèse frequently prayed to the Virgin Mary. At times she was heard repeating the closing words of her beautiful poem to Mary: “You who came to smile at me in the morning of my life, Come smile at me again.... Mother.... it’s evening now” (St. 25, p. 220).
As the shadows of evening fell on September 30, 1897, and after two days of agony Thérèse, while gazing at her crucifix, died. Her last words: “My God, I love you” (LC 206).
She had reached the goal of her life, eternal love. But on her journey, often fought with darkness and suffering she found guidance, comfort and great hope in the Bible, the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She points to us the way to love. From heaven she calls: “Come, follow my way.”