The first 40 years of Teresa’s life gave no clue to the rich depth and productivity of the second half of her life. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada in central Spain, she spent her early years with her family, giving herself to the duties of extended family life. At age 21, against her father’s wishes, she professed vows as a Carmelite at the Spanish Convent of the Incarnation in Avila.
Still, according to her own account, she waffled spiritually. The convent was known for its leniency, for example, permitting relationships with those outside the convent and allowing worldly possessions within. Teresa, enjoying the convent’s indulgences, waned in her devotion. Then a serious, prolonged illness (and partial paralysis from an attempted cure) forced her to spend three years in relative quiet, during which time she read books on the spiritual life. When she recovered and returned to the convent she resumed what to her later seemed only a half-hearted spirituality. Of these years, she wrote in her Autobiography, “I voyaged on this tempestuous sea for almost 20 years with these fallings and risings.”
Then one day while walking down a hallway in the convent, her glance fell on a statue of the wounded Christ, and the vision of his constant love throughout her inconstancy pierced her heart. Gently but powerfully, she said Jesus began to break down her defenses and reveal to her the cause of her spiritual exhaustion: her dalliance with the delights of sin.
She immediately broke with her past, undergoing a final conversion. After this, she began experiencing profound mystical raptures, though these soon passed. For the rest of her life, she gave herself completely to her spiritual growth and the renewal of the Carmelite monasteries.
A spiritual legacy
Teresa dreamed of establishing convents where young women could pursue deep lives of deep prayer and devotion. She once wrote, “Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord not to go without so great a good. There is nothing here to fear but only something to desire.” Teresa spent days on end traveling the countryside establishing reformed (or “Discalced,” meaning “unshod,” that is, more simple) Carmelite convents. She convinced John of the Cross to join her in this work.
Her success as an administrator and reformer (she founded 14 monasteries) was due in part to her natural leadership gifts, her tenacity in the face of adversity (especially from older Carmelites who resented her reforms), and a keen sense of humor. Once when praying about her many trials and sufferings, she heard she heard Jesus say, “But this is how I treat my friends.” Teresa replied, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
Yet it is her gift of spiritual direction, practiced personally with nuns and publicly in her writings, for which she is known today.
She was hesitant to put her insights to paper and had to be ordered by her superiors to do so. Thankfully for later generations, she obeyed: her three works, Autobiography, Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle, contain some of the most profound insights into the spiritual life ever written.
To take one example, considered by many her masterpiece: Interior Castle describes the soul as a “castle made entirely of diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.” Some are above, some below, some to the sides, “and in the very center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” Teresa wanted to teach her readers how to enter this castle, that is, how to pray, so that they might commune more intimately with God.
For Teresa, prayer is the source of Christian life and the wellspring of all moral virtues. Prayer is not everything, but without prayer, nothing else is possible. By prayer does the soul enter the Castle, and by prayer does the soul continue the journey. Under this umbrella of prayer, God works, in mysterious, often unpredictable ways, and the soul works strongly. Without the soul’s active compliance, God will not move (though human effort cannot do what God alone must do).
From the First Dwelling Place, where the soul begins to pray, to the Seventh Dwelling Place, where the soul, united to God, finds both perfect peace and deepest suffering, the person builds on prayer and the progressive disengagement from the things of this world. But unlike her partner in reform, John of the Cross, Teresa’s understanding of disengagement is not ascetic. On the contrary, for Teresa true suffering comes from being in the world and serving others. Spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.
This love for her sisters and brothers and this union with the will of God compelled Teresa onward in constant efforts. To someone who encouraged her to rest, she once said, “Rest, indeed! I need no rest; what I need is crosses.” In her last years, her health suffered, as did her reputation with church authorities, who sought to restrict her influence. On yet another mission of service, her body exhausted, Teresa died reciting verses from the Song of Songs.
In 1834, an elderly soldier living in Angouleme, France, no longer able to bear certain sorrows, resolved to take his own life.
He decided to kill himself with poison, thinking that he could more easily hide his crime from the public.
Upon taking the poison, he did not have to wait long to suffer the effects. Immediately he went to the hospital and asked to spend the night, thinking that the cause of his death would be undiscovered and his name would not be blackened because of commission of the cowardly sin of suicide.
But the hospital supervisor would not allow him to be admitted without an administration pass — which would mean discovery of his impending death by his own hand.
The unhappy soldier was forced to abandon the idea of spending the night in the hospital. While wondering what course of action to take, he suddenly heard a voice telling him to go to Saint Peters and confess to Father ***. The soldier went to the designated church and asked Father *** to hear his confession.
Father ***, overcome with fatigue, told the man to wait — it was Lent and it was three oclock in the afternoon and he had not yet had a bite to eat. The unhappy soldier made a new plea and assured the priest that there was not time to wait.
The priest entered the confessional and the penitent confessed that he had just poisoned himself. The confessor showed him his obligation before God, which included divulging the penitent’s secret.
The soldier, touched by this grace, gave the priest permission, and like the fire which burned his insides, the sufferings he felt threw him into a state of perfect hopelessness.
The charitable priest pulled him out of the confessional and took him to the hospital.
He immediately asked for an antidote, but while they were preparing it, he took the pulse of the sick man, and no longer found any: a deathly pale complexion, misty eyes — everything heralded the coming death.
His heart pierced with sadness, but full of confidence in the Divine Mercy, the fervent priest threw himself to his knees, and recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. At the first invocation, he sensed the pulse of the dying man return, and a short time later he heard the soldier speak a few words. ‘O my good Father,’ he said in a weak voice, ‘my Father, pray, pray some more!’ And he let out a breath and said: ‘Holy Mary, pray for me!’ And soon his consciousness returned. Father ***, in his enthusiasm over such a marvelous change, asked the soldier if he hadnt kept some pious practices — ‘No, my Father, I have not said any prayers in a long time.’ But after having reacted for an instant, he showed a Scapular: ‘Here is the only sign of piety that I have preserved.’ — ‘Ah! My friend,’ notes the priest, ‘I am no longer surprised by the miracle which just occurred; its Mary who protected you, its to Her that you owe being alive.’
Nevertheless the doctor arrived, and after having heard the necessary details on the condition of the patient, he assured them that only a superior power could prolong his life for longer than two hours after having taken the poison, one of the most active that we know; and hours had gone by since the fatal moment! … The antidote became useless. The doctor proposed to record a statement to attest the truth of the miracle; but the humble priest, fearing that they would perhaps attribute the miracle to the fervor of his prayers, did not think about making the miracle public. It was told to me by others, that it may give you a new confidence in Mary.*
The full promise of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to Saint Simon Stock July 16, 1251
“Accept this Scapular. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace. Whosoever dies clothed in this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”
The following took place in 1887, when Thérèse Martin was fourteen years old.
“One Sunday when I was looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I saw the Blood coming from one of His hands, and I felt terribly sad to think that It was falling to the earth and that no one was rushing forward to catch It. I determined to stay continually at the foot of the Cross and receive It. I knew that I should then have to spread It among other souls. The cry of Jesus on the Cross – ‘I am thirsty’ – rang continually in my heart and set me burning with a new, intense longing. I wanted to quench the thirst of my Well-Beloved and I myself was consumed with a thirst for souls. I was concerned not with the souls of priests but with those of great sinners which I wanted to snatch from the flames of hell.
“God showed me He was pleased with these longings of mine. I’d heard of a criminal who had just been condemned to death for some frightful murders. It seemed that he would die without repenting. I was determined at all costs to same him from hell. I used every means I could. I knew that by myself I could do nothing, so I offered God the infinite merits of Our Lord and the treasures of the Church. I was quite certain that my prayers would be answered, but to give me courage to go on praying for sinners I said to God: ‘I am sure You will forgive this wretched Pranzini. I shall believe You have done so even if he does not confess or give any other sign of repentance, for I have compete faith in the infinite mercy of Jesus. But I ask You for just one sign of his repentance to encourage me.’
“This prayer was answered. Daddy never allowed us to read any newspapers, but I thought I was justified in looking at the stories about Pranzini. On the day after his execution I eagerly opened La Croix and I had to rush away to hide my tears at what I read. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing and was ready to thrust his head beneath the guillotine’s blade when he suddenly turned, seized the crucifix offered him by the priest, and thrice kissed the Sacred Wounds.
“I had been given my sign, and it was typical of the graces Jesus has given me to make me eager to pray for sinners. It was at the sight of the Precious Blood flowing from the Wounds of Jesus that my thirst for souls had been born. I wanted to let them drink of this Immaculate Blood to cleanse them of their sins and the lips of my ‘first child’ had pressed against the Sacred Wounds! What a wonderful reply to my prayers! After this striking favour my longing for souls grew greater every day. I seemed to hear Jesus say to me what He said to the Samaritan Woman: ‘Give me to drink.’ It was a real exchange of love: I gave souls the Blood of Jesus and offered Him these purified souls that His thirst might be quenched. The more I gave Him to drink, the more the thirst of my own poor soul increased, and He gave me this burning thirst to show His love for me.” (From early in chapter 5 of Story of a Soul)
The spread of the cult of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the impressive religious manifestations of our time. During her few years on earth this young French Carmelite was scarcely to be distinguished from many another devoted nun, but her death brought an almost immediate awareness of her unique gifts. Through her letters, the word-of-mouth tradition originating with her fellow-nuns, and especially through the publication of Histoire d’un âme, Thérèse of the Child Jesus or “The Little Flower” soon came to mean a great deal to numberless people; she had shown them the way of perfection in the small things of every day. Miracles and graces were being attributed to her intercession, and within twenty-eight years after death, this simple young nun had been canonized. In 1936 a basilica in her honor at Lisieux was opened and blessed by Cardinal Pacelli; and it was he who, in 1944, as Pope, declared her the secondary patroness of France. “The Little Flower” was an admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, and a comparison at once suggests itself. Both were christened Teresa, both were Carmelites, and both left interesting autobiographies. Many temperamental and intellectual differences separate them, in addition to the differences of period and of race; but there are striking similarities. They both patiently endured severe physical sufferings; both had a capacity for intense religious experience; both led lives made radiant by the love of Christ.
The parents of the later saint were Louis Martin, a watchmaker of Alencon, France, son of an army officer, and Azélie-Marie Guérin, a lacemaker of the same town. Only five of their nine children lived to maturity; all five were daughters and all were to become nuns. Françoise-Marie Thérèse, the youngest, was born on January 2, 1873. Her childhood must have been normally happy, for her first memories, she writes, are of smiles and tender caresses. Although she was affectionate and had much natural charm, Thérèse gave no sign of precocity. When she was only four, the family was stricken by the sad blow of the mother’s death. Monsieur Martin gave up his business and established himself at Lisieux, Normandy, where Madame Martin’s brother lived with his wife and family. The Guérins, generous and loyal people, were able to ease the father’s responsibilities through the years by giving to their five nieces practical counsel and deep affection.
The Martins were now and always united in the closest bonds. The eldest daughter, Marie, although only thirteen, took over the management of the household, and the second, Pauline, gave the girls religious instruction. When the group gathered around the fire on winter evenings, Pauline would read aloud works of piety, such as the Liturgical Year of Dom Gueranger. Their lives moved along quietly for some years, then came the first break in the little circle. Pauline entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. She was to advance steadily in her religious vocation, later becoming prioress. It is not astonishing that the youngest sister, then only nine, had a great desire to follow the one who had been her loving guide. Four years later, when Marie joined her sister at the Carmel, Thérèse’s desire for a life in religion was intensified. Her education during these years was in the hands of the Benedictine nuns of the convent of Notre-Dame-du-Prè. She was confirmed there at the age of eleven.
In her autobiography Thérèse writes that her personality changed after her mother’s death, and from being childishly merry she became withdrawn and shy. While Thérèse was indeed developing into a serious-minded girl, it does not appear that she became markedly sad. We have many evidences of liveliness and fun, and the oral tradition, as well as the many letters, reveal an outgoing nature, able to articulate the warmest expressions of love for her family, teachers, and friends.
On Christmas Eve, just a few days before Thérèse’s fourteenth birthday, she underwent an experience which she ever after referred to as “my conversion.” It was to exert a profound influence on her life. Let her tell of it —- and its moral effect —- in her own words: “On that blessed night the sweet infant Jesus, scarcely an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, He made me strong and brave: He put His own weapons into my hands so that I went on from strength to strength, beginning, if I may say so, ‘to run as a giant.'” An indelible impression had been made on this attuned soul; she claimed that the Holy Child had healed her of undue sensitiveness and “girded her with His weapons.” It was by reason of this vision that the saint was to become known as “Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”
The next year she told her father of her wish to become a Carmelite. He readily consented, but both the Carmelite authorities and Bishop Hugonin of Bayeux refused to consider it while she was still so young. A few months later, in November, to her unbounded delight, her father took her and another daughter, Celine, to visit Notre-Dame des Victoires in Paris, then on pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The party was accompanied by the Abbé Reverony of Bayeux. In a letter from Rome to her sister Pauline, who was now Sister Agnes of Jesus, Thérèse described the audience: “The Pope was sitting on a great chair; M. Reverony was near him; he watched the pilgrims kiss the Pope’s foot and pass before him and spoke a word about some of them. Imagine how my heart beat as I saw my turn come: I didn’t want to return without speaking to the Pope. I spoke, but I did not get it all said because M. Reverony did not give me time. He said immediately: ‘Most Holy Father, she is a child who wants to enter Carmel at fifteen, but its superiors are considering the matter at the moment.’ I would have liked to be able to explain my case, but there was no way. The Holy Father said to me simply: ‘If the good God wills, you will enter.’ Then I was made to pass on to another room. Pauline, I cannot tell you what I felt. It was like annihilation, I felt deserted…. Still God cannot be giving me trials beyond my strength. He gave me the courage to sustain this one.”
Thérèse did not have to wait long in suspense. The Pope’s blessing and the earnest prayers she offered at many shrines during the pilgrimage had the desired effect. At the end of the year Bishop Hugonin gave his permission, and on April 9, 1888, Thérèse joined her sisters in the Carmel at Lisieux. “From her entrance she astonished the community by her bearing, which was marked by a certain majesty that one would not expect in a child of fifteen.” So testified her novice mistress at the time of Thérèse’s beatification. During her novitiate Father Pichon, a Jesuit, gave a retreat, and he also testified to Thérèse’s piety. “It was easy to direct that child. The Holy Spirit was leading her and I do not think that I ever had, either then or later, to warn her against illusions…. What struck me during the retreat were the spiritual trials through which God wished her to pass.” Thérèse’s presence among them filled the nuns with happiness. She was slight in build, and had fair hair, gray-blue eyes, and delicate features. With all the intensity of her ardent nature she loved the daily round of religious practices, the liturgical prayers, the reading of Scripture. After entering the Carmel she began to sign letters to her father and others, “Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”
In 1889 the Martin sisters suffered a great shock. Their father, after two paralytic strokes, had a mental breakdown and had to be removed to a private sanitarium, where he remained for three years. Thérèse bore this grievous sorrow heroically.
On September 8, 1890, at the age of seventeen, Thérèse took final vows. In spite of poor health, she carried out from the first all the austerities of the stern Carmelite rule, except that she was not permitted to fast. “A soul of such mettle,” said the prioress, “must not be treated like a child. Dispensations are not meant for her.” The physical ordeal which she felt more than any other was the cold of the convent buildings in winter, but no one even suspected this until she confessed it on her death-bed. And by that time she was able to say, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
In 1893, when she was twenty, she was appointed to assist the novice mistress, and was in fact mistress in all but name. She comments, “From afar it seems easy to do good to souls, to make them love God more, to mold them according to our own ideas and views. But coming closer we find, on the contrary, that to do good without God’s help is as impossible as to make the sun shine at night.”
In her twenty-third year, on order of the prioress, Thérèse began to write the memories of her childhood and of life at the convent; this material forms the first chapters of Histoire d’un âme, the History of a Soul. It is a unique and engaging document, written with a charming spontaneity, full of fresh turns of phrase, unconscious self-revelation, and, above all, giving evidence of deep spirituality. She describes her own prayers and thereby tells us much about herself. “With me prayer is a lifting up of the heart, a look towards Heaven, a cry of gratitude and love uttered equally in sorrow and in joy; in a word, something noble, supernatural, which enlarges my soul and unites it to God…. Except for the Divine Office, which in spite of my unworthiness is a daily joy, I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers. . . . I do as a child who has not learned to read, I just tell our Lord all that I want and he understands.” She has natural psychological insight: “Each time that my enemy would provoke me to fight I behave like a brave soldier. I know that a duel is an act of cowardice, and so, without once looking him in the face, I turn my back on the foe, hasten to my Saviour, and vow that I am ready to shed my blood in witness of my belief in Heaven.” She mentions her own patience humorously. During meditation in the choir, one of the sisters continually fidgeted with her rosary, until Thérèse was perspiring with irritation. At last, “instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation, which was not the ‘prayer of quiet,’ passed in offering this music to our Lord.” Her last chapter is a paean to divine love, and concludes, “I entreat Thee to let Thy divine eyes rest upon a vast number of little souls; I entreat Thee to choose in this world a legion of little victims of Thy love.” She counted herself among these. “I am a very little soul, who can offer only very little things to the Lord.”
In 1894 Louis Martin died, and soon Celine, who had of late been taking care of him, made the fourth sister from this family in the Carmel at Lisieux. Some years later, the fifth, Leonie, entered the convent of the Visitation at Caen.
Thérèse occupied herself with reading and writing almost up to the end of her life. That event loomed ever nearer as tuberculosis made a steady advance. During the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, 1896, she suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage. Although her bodily and spiritual sufferings were extreme, she wrote many letters, to members of her family and to distant friends, as well as continuing Histoire d’un âme. She carried on a correspondance with Carmelite sisters at Hanoi, China; they wished her to come out and join them, not realizing the seriousness of her ailment. She had a great yearning to respond to their appeal. At intervals moments of revelation came to her, and it was then that she penned those succinct reflections that are now repeated so widely. Here are three of them that give the flavor of her mind: “I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.” “I have never given the good God aught but love, and it is with love that He will repay.” “My ‘little way’ is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.”
A further insight is given us in a letter Thérèse wrote, shortly before she died, to Père Roulland, a missionary in China. “Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises, in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind soon grows weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul, perfection seems easy; I see that it is enough to realize one’s nothingness, and give oneself wholly, like a child, into the arms of the good God. Leaving to great souls, great minds, the fine books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because ‘only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.’”
In June, 1897, Thérèse was removed to the infirmary of the convent. On September 30, with the words, “My God . . . I love Thee!” on her lips she died. The day before, her sister Celine, knowing the end was at hand, had asked for some word of farewell, and Thérèse, serene in spite of pain, murmured, “I have said all . . . all is consummated . . . only love counts.”
The prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, wrote in the convent register, alongside the saint’s act of Profession: “. . . The nine and a half years she spent among us leave our souls fragrant with the most beautiful virtues with which the life of a Carmelite can be filled. A perfect model of humility, obedience, charity, prudence, detachment, and regularity, she fulfilled the difficult discipline of mistress of novices with a sagacity and affection which nothing could equal save her love for God….”
The Church was to recognize a profound and valuable teaching in ‘the little way’—connoting a realistic awareness of one’s limitations, and the wholehearted giving of what one has, however small the gift. Beginning in 1898, with the publication of a small edition of Histoire d’un âme, the cult of this saint of ‘the little way’ grew so swiftly that the Pope dispensed with the rule that a process for canonization must not be started until fifty years after death. Almost from childhood, it seems, Thérèse had consciously aspired to the heights, often saying to herself that God would not fill her with a desire that was unattainable. Only twenty-six years after her death she was beatified by Pope Pius XI, and in the year of Jubilee, 1925, he pronounced her a saint. Two years later she was named heavenly patroness of foreign missions along with St. Francis Xavier.
The transverberation is a mystical grace wherein the Saint’s heart was pierced with a “dart of love” by an angel. St. John of the Cross, “It will happen that while the soul is inflamed with the Love of God, it will feel that a seraph is assailing it by means of an arrow or dart which is all afire with love. And the seraph pierces and in an instant cauterizes this soul, which, like a red-hot coal, or better a flame, is already enkindled. The soul is converted into an immense fire of Love. Few persons have reached these heights.”
“I saw an angel beside me toward the left side, in bodily form. He was not very large, but small, very beautiful, his face so blazing with light that he seemed to be one of the very highest angels, who appear all on fire. They must be those they call Cherubim…I saw in his hands a long dart of gold, and at the end of the iron there seemed to me to be a little fire. This I thought he thrust through my heart several times, and that it reached my very entrails. As he withdrew it, I thought it brought them with it, and left me all burning with a great love of God. So great was the pain, that it made me give those moans; and so utter the sweetness that this sharpest of pains gave me, that there was no wanting it to stop, nor is there any contenting of the soul with less than God”. (St. Teresa, Life…Chapter 19).
You sanctify Your friends and reveal to them the mysteries of Your heart; unite our hearts to yours in a friendship so close and intimate that we may experience the secrets of Your Love, proclaim it to others, and win them to you.
You blessed the pure of heart and promised that they would see You; purify our sight so that we may see you in all things, and through all things be close to You.
You oppose the proud and give wisdom to the simple; make us humble of heart, so that we may receive Your wisdom for the sake of the Church. ~ Intercessions from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)Virgin and Martyr Edith Stein, born in 1891 in Breslau, Poland, was the youngest child of a large Jewish family. She was an outstanding student and was well versed in philosophy with a particular interest in phenomenology. Eventually she became interested in the Catholic Faith, and in 1922, she was baptized at the Cathedral Church in Cologne, Germany. Eleven years later Edith entered the Cologne Carmel. Because of the ramifications of politics in Germany, Edith, whose name in religion was Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was sent to the Carmel at Echt, Holland. When the Nazis conquered Holland, Teresa was arrested, and, with her sister Rose, was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Teresa died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of fifty-one. In 1987, she was beatified in the large outdoor soccer stadium in Cologne by Pope John Paul II. Out of the unspeakable human suffering caused by the Nazis in western Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there blossomed the beautiful life of dedication, consecration, prayer, fasting, and penance of Saint Teresa. Even though her life was snuffed out by the satanic evil of genocide, her memory stands as a light undimmed in the midst of evil, darkness, and suffering. She was canonized on October 11, 1998.