Once a story is told wrongly, it is hard to set right. In the case of the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, it is not so much that her story was wrongly told, as much as partially told.
When, in 1898, her edited autobiography was published, it became an instant classic, captivating the imaginations of millions. Yet, the portrayal of St. Thérèse in that original publication was deceptively limited. It contributed to an understanding that lauded her sanctity but ultimately glossed over some of the struggles that brought her to that sanctity. Through the selectively published memoirs and the lack of further information about the saint, a sort of inadvertent censorship developed around the presentation of the saint’s life.
As a result, despite the fact that her name is so often on the lips of Catholics, she is one of the most misunderstood saints in the Church today.
Many Catholics find they cannot relate to St. Thérèse due in large part to the sentimentality assumed to be inseparably woven into her life’s narrative. Some think her “little way” is just an “easy way” that their own difficult lives seem to disprove. The often saccharine presentation of her story sometimes gives the impression Thérèse merely coasted to God, without passing through the dark passages of earthly pain and suffering. (Even St. Faustina fell to this assumption. When St. Thérèse appeared to Faustina to console her in her sufferings, Faustina responded to St. Thérèse, with characteristic bluntness, that it seemed to her that St. Thérèse never really suffered much.) In short, there is a common understanding that St. Thérèse is a saint mostly for the simple souls, the delicate souls, the souls who are not burdened with life’s more trying crosses.
And yet, Pope St. Pius X—a man none would call sentimental—dubbed St. Thérèse the “greatest saint of modern times”. Pope Benedict XV, the pontiff that saw the Church through the unprecedented horrors of the First World War, emphatically presented the saint and her doctrine as a certain model for all Christians. In fact, every pope since St. Pius X has spoken of her in superlatives. The constant insistence of the popes shows us that those who assume she is only for the simple have it entirely backwards. She is God’s herald in an age of atheism and rationalism to lead all of us, even those farthest from the simplicity of the Christian spirit, to the radical simplicity of the Gospel. If we haven’t found that yet, St. Thérèse is the providential guide to take us there.
As a way of perhaps reigniting interest in the saint and her doctrine, here are five facts that are often missed in summaries of the story of St. Thérèse. Thanks to the publication of her original writings, along with accounts that have emerged from those who knew her, we now have a far more complete image of the saint. Some of these facts highlight her humanity and her struggles. This is done not in order to garishly find fault, but to highlight the saint’s triumphs. When one ignores such struggles, one diminishes the victories.
It is hoped that these considerations may deepen the appreciation one has for God’s “Little Flower.”
1. Most editions of her autobiography are heavily modified.
A priest, writing in a 1958 issue of the Catholic Herald, recounts the surprising history behind St. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul. It is well-known that St. Thérèse asked her religious superior to make whatever changes and editorial corrections she thought necessary to her autobiography. While her sister, Mother Agnes, certainly had the noblest of intentions in her editorial work (and her stylistic revisions likely contributed to the widespread success of the book), many have found that these revisions concealed many important facets of the saint’s life through omission and simplification. According to the Catholic Herald piece:
“We have calculated that, even excluding many excisions of one line or less, more than 20,000 words had been left out in the printed editions. This is the equivalent of at least 50 pages of 400 words each…A large number of the cuts seemed to have been made with the definite purpose of concealing as much as possible everything that, in the mind of Mother Agnes, clashed with her…notions of what was unbecoming in a saint and improper for the public to know.”
Other scholars also pointed out the edits made to the manuscript, and ultimately the Church sided with those desiring a more complete and faithful account of the saint’s life. In 1947, superiors in Rome intervened and directed that the original manuscripts of the saint be published in order to “avoid and to refute partial and mistaken interpretations of [St. Thérèse’s] doctrine.” Thus, over fifty years after the original publication, efforts opened to reproduce the original manuscripts left by St. Thérèse.
In the records of St. Thérèse’s final words, there is an account of a conversation she shared with a fellow Carmelite regarding her opinion of the books being read at her convent. She confessed to find little enjoyment in a particular biography of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which she found too exceptionally rendered, too lacking in authenticity. She preferred the stories of saints told in their own words, rather than filtered through the pens of others. How ironic that the very thing St. Thérèse found distasteful regarding St. Aloysius’ biography would come to mark, in many ways, the public understanding of St. Thérèse.
2. St. Thérèse’s trials of faith gave her a unique sympathy for the plight of modern atheists.
“I get tired of the darkness all around me. The darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! All right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence!'” (Story of a Soul – trans. Ronald Knox)
Though St. Thérèse’s final agony under the weight of tuberculosis is often remembered, her most piercing trial, as Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded us, was her “passion of the soul, with a very painful trial of faith.”
Her temptations against Faith would extend eighteen months and only end moments before her death. She described these temptations as “ugly serpents hissing in my ears” or as clouds of “thickest darkness.” In a conversation with one of her former novices, she confided, “I would not even want to tell you the degree of blackness that is in my soul for fear of making you share in my temptations.”
It was this charitable caution that prevented the saint from putting down in too much detail the exact nature of her trials (though broad summaries do appear in all editions of her autobiography). Further understanding, however, can be gleaned from records of a conversation with her sister: “If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me. Pray very much for me so that I do not listen to the Devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It is the reasoning of the worst materialists that is imposed upon my mind.”
During these great temptations, she never wavered in her faith and resolutely offered everything “to obtain the light of faith for poor unbelievers, for all those who separate themselves from the Church’s beliefs.” Pope Benedict XVI later said of her heroic fidelity in these struggles: “With Mary beside the Cross of Jesus, Thérèse then lived the most heroic faith, as a light in the darkness that invaded her soul. The Carmelite was aware that she was living this great trial for the salvation of all the atheists of the modern world, whom she called ‘brothers’.”
3. St. Thérèse understood temptations to suicide.
There is a sort of pious myth that pretends that devout souls never experience the “dark temptations”. In the imaginations of some, it is almost unthinkable that even the thought of temptations to grave sin could enter into the minds of the saintly. St. Thérèse’s life disproves this myth, and shows that is precisely the devout souls who enter into pitched combat with Satan to vanquish him.
Despite the profound joy for which St. Thérèse was known, during the intense sufferings of her last illness, temptations to despair and suicide passed before her mind. The agonizing sufferings that came from the slow death of tuberculosis and the dark night of soul that she experienced were enough to try even the strongest of souls. Her faith was her foundation and strength during these temptations, but she did share some inkling of the intensity of her pain with her spiritual family. Just a week before her death, one of her fellow Carmelites remarked on St. Thérèse’s sufferings, to which she responded, “Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation.”
A month before her death, she made an urgent plea to her Mother Superior: “Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have patients a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one would easily poison oneself.”
One of the nurses who assisted St. Thérèse during her last days gave the following testimony during the beatification process:
“Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: ‘If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.'”
That St. Thérèse spoke in such a way allows a small understanding as to the incredible pain she suffered. But, even more, it is a consolation and encouragement to Christians who are suffering under grave physical or psychological pain and who also have had the thought of suicide or despair pass unbidden before their minds. Here is a saint who understands, who has suffered the same, and who has claimed the victory. The faith was her rock, and Satan could not wrest her from that anchor.
4. St. Thérèse struggled with her prayers and devotions.
One aspect of St. Thérèse’s life that was expunged from the initial publication of her autobiography was details of the difficulties she faced in applying herself to prayer. One passage in particular mentions this struggle as regards the rosary. The details should serve as no small consolation to those who struggle with the daily recitation of the rosary or other pious observances:
“I feel then that the fervor of my Sisters makes up for my lack of fervor; but when alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance. I feel I have said this so poorly! I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them.
For a long time I was desolate about this lack of devotion which astonished me, for I love the Blessed Virgin so much that it should be easy for me to recite in her honor prayers which are so pleasing to her. Now I am less desolate; I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my mother, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it. Sometimes when my mind is in such aridity that it is impossible to draw forth one single thought to unite me with God, I very slowly recite an “Our Father” and then the “Hail Mary”; then these prayers give me great delight; they nourish my soul much more than if I had recited them precipitately a hundred times.”
5. St. Thérèse was a very difficult child.
I’m sure it would be a consolation to parents with difficult children that St. Thérèse had something of a reputation as a child. During the process of beatification, one of the testimonies that surfaced was a letter from St. Thérèse’s mother that wrote: “I have to slap this poor baby who gets into frightening furies when she cannot have her own way. She rolls about on the ground in despair as if all were lost. She is a very nervy child.”
St. Thérèse also relates several anecdotes from her childhood in her original manuscripts that give an idea as to what a difficult child the Martin parents had to deal with. She recounts:
“[My parents] weren’t even able to say about me: ‘She’s good when she’s asleep’ because at night I was more restless than during the day,…throwing myself in all directions and banging against the wood while sleeping. The pain would awaken me and I’d cry out: ‘Mama, I bumped myself!’…[this happened repeatedly and so much that] they had to tie me in bed. An so, every evening little Celine came to tie me up…to prevent the little rascal from bumping herself….this was so successful a means that I was, from then on: good when sleeping.”
Elsewhere, St. Thérèse provides examples of wonderful things her mother had to say about the toddler-turned-saint. Her mother clearly loved her dearly. But, there was always the acknowledgement that this was a particularly trying child at times. Her mother wrote of St. Thérèse and her sister Celine: “My little Celine is drawn to the practice of virtue; it’s part of her nature; she is candid and has a horror of evil. As for the little imp, one doesn’t know how things will go, she is so small, so thoughtless! Her intelligence is superior to Celine’s, but she’s less gentle and has a stubborn streak in her that is almost invincible.”
So, parents take heart: even the most difficult and ill-behaved of children can grow into saints. And perhaps the extra trouble will help the parents’ sanctification too. After all, the Martin parents themselves were beatified in 2008.
Some sources used in the text:
Story of a Soul The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
St. Therese of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations
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