The Writings of St Thérèse of Lisieux
St Thérèse entered the Carmelites in Lisieux, France on 9 April 1888 when she was fifteen years old. She was professed in 1890 on 8 September the feast day of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lady. Her life as a Carmelite nun until her death on 30 September 1897 focussed on daily Mass, community liturgy and prayer, silence, personal prayer, duties in the convent for example in the laundry and refectory, the painting and care of religious objects, her role as assistant sacristan, her role in the spiritual formation of novices and her participation in community recreation together with reading, free time and writing.
The writings of St Thérèse are infused with reference to God and Scripture, with prayerfulness and with evidence of her spirituality.
Her writing output was phenomenol not just in quantity but particularly with regard to her developing spirituality and growth. Her writings gave expression to her absolute love for Jesus and her total abandonment to Him. As she wrote in Manuscript B she came to understand that 'love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places...in a word that it was eternal'.
Down the years the popes have endorsed the message of St Thérèse: Pope Pius X introduced her cause in 1914; between 1923 and 1927 Pope Pius XI beatified and canonised St Thérèse, declared her Patroness of Missionaries and the Missions and spoke of her as the star of his pontificate; Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Patroness of France and at the time of the consecration of the Basilica of St Thérèse in Lisieux in 1954 remarked that St Thérèse penetrated to the very heart of the Gospel; Pope Paul VI 'offered her as a teacher of prayer and theological virtue of hope, and a model of communion with the Church, calling the attention of teachers, educators, pastors and theologians themselves to the study of her doctrine'; on Mission Sunday 19 October 1997 - the year of the hundredth anniversary of her death - St Thérèse was proclaimed a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the wisdom of her doctrine of love in the Church, her holiness and the worldwide dissemination of her message through her writings.
She was a prolific writer. Her works include eight religious plays, a number of poems written as integral parts of her plays, twenty one specific prayers, numerous prayer cards, more than two hundred and sixty letters from before and after her entry to Carmel and providentially her spiritual autobiography Story of a Soul in which she articulated her Little Way of Spirituality and her Doctrine of Love. The writings of St Thérèse are complemented by her words spoken with her sisters and carers, during the final stages of her illness, which give further insights to her spirituality and which were published in Last Conversations.
Shortly before her death St Thérèse said
'I feel my mission is about to begin,
my mission to make God loved as I love Him,
to teach souls my Little Way'.
Her last spoken words were
My God I love You!
STORY OF A SOUL
In 1895 at the behest of her sister Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline) then prioress, encouraged by her other sisters Sr Marie of the Sacred Heart (Marie) and Sr Geneviève of the Holy Face (Céline) St Thérèse wrote her childhood memories which after her death became Manuscript A of her spiritual autobiography Story of a Soul. St Thérèse frequently drew on Sacred Scripture and other writings including the Imitation of Christ, the Canticle of Canticles and the words of St John of the Cross when writing Story of a Soul. She referred on over one hundred and forty times to the Psalms and to the Old and New Testaments, writing that '...it is especially the Gospels that 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'.
Manuscript A traces the life of St Thérèse from her earliest family recollections, her schooldays, her struggle to become a Carmelite and her pilgrimage to Rome, to her Profession in 1890 and in 1895 her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love the opening words of which are 'O my God! Most Blessed Trinity I desire to Love You and make You Loved'.
The second section of the book, the universally acclaimed Manuscript B, described as the jewel of her writings, proclaims St Thérèse's Doctrine of Love. St Thérèse wrote this in response to a wish by Sr Marie of the Sacred Heart to have an explanation of St Thérèse's Doctrine and a souvenir of her retreat in 1896.
The third part Manuscript C, written just months before St Thérèse died in 1897, is an account of St Thérèse's life as a nun in the Lisieux Carmel. It gives many insights to the spirituality of St Thérèse and is the source of the memorable lines.....
'...charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practise'.
Story of a Soul became a best seller and has been translated into numerous languages in this way helping to fulfill St Thérèse's desire to be a Missionary spreading the Gospel on all the continents and the most remote isles.
How great is the power of prayer! St Thérèse wrote these words in her reflections on prayer and sacrifice in the third part of her autobiography Story of a Soul not long before her death in 1897. When she started this work in 1895 she wrote that before taking up her pen she knelt before the statue of Mary and 'begged her to guide my hand that it trace no line displeasing to her'.
Prayer featured constantly and prominently in the life of St Thérèse even before her entry to Carmel. She praised God from an early age; her mother St Zélie Martin wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law Céline Guerin in March 1875 that Thérèse already knew how to pray to God. When writing Manuscript A about her early childhood and winter evenings at home in Alençon, she included the phrase 'Then we all went upstairs to say our prayers together... '. She referred to the afternoon walks with her father St Louis Martin when they visited the Blessed Sacrament together going to a different church in Lisieux each day. When St Thérèse made her First Holy Communion she promised to say the Memorare everyday a resolution to which she was faithful to the end of her life.
She wrote that in the examination preceding her Profession she had declared that: 'I came to Carmel to save souls and especially to pray for priests'.
For St Thérèse as she wrote in Manuscript C, prayer was 'an inspiration of the heart, a simple glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus'.
While she wrote twenty one prayers as such and numerous prayer cards, her plays, poems, letters and her spiritual autobiography abound with prayerful outpourings and spiritual insights.
St Thérèse's written prayers include single sentence prayers for example, her Act of Faith and more expansive prayers notably, her Act of Oblation in which offers herself as a victim of holocaust to God's Merciful Love; six prayers for herself for example Lord God of Hosts; some prayers for herself and novices in the Lisieux Carmel; some prayers written at the request of her community sisters; some written for particular events such as her Profession; and other prayers illustrative of St Thérèse's reverence for the Holy Face, her devotion to Mary and her own spiritual journey.
St Thérèse wrote eight religious plays or pious recreations during the last three years of her life. They were written in the context of the Carmel community custom of celebrating liturgical and community feast days with the writing and enactment by members of the community of such plays. St Thérèse's first play was Joan of Arc in 1894 in which she acted the part of Joan of Arc. Her other plays were
The Angels at Jesus' Manger
Jesus at Bethany
The Divine Little Beggar of Christmas
The Flight into Egypt
The Triumph of Humility
Saint Stanislaus Kostra
The Mission of Joan of Arc or The Shepherdess of Domremy Listening to her Voices
Joan of Arc accomplishing her Mission.
St Thérèse wrote over seventy poems - more than sixty stand alone and some as integral parts of her plays. All were written during the last years of her life against the background of her declining health and her period of the dark night of the soul.
She wrote about or addressed her poems to Jesus, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Blessed Lady, St Joseph and other saints and to her Guardian Angel.
The timing of her poems was informed by the liturgical cycle and by the rhythm of life in the Carmel in Lisieux and more widely. Thus she wrote for liturgical and community feast days, for events such as the clothing of novices in the habit of Carmel, days of Profession and for anniversaries and birthdays.
Her poems include Vivre d'Amour (Living by Love) which comprises fifteen verses of seven lines. This poem has been described as a catechesis of love. It is recorded in Last Conversations that on 5 August 1897 when looking at a picture of the Holy Face, she said 'Oh! how much good that Holy Face has done me in my life! When I was composing my canticle Vivre d'Amour, it helped me to do it with great ease. I wrote from memory, during my night silence, the fifteen stanzas I had composed during the day without a rough draft'.
The twenty five verse poem Why I Love You O Mary is another of the well known poems by St Thérèse. In these verses she extols the greatness and the humility of Mary and highlights in awe some of the events of Mary's life including the Annunciation, the Birth of Jesus, the period which the Holy Family spent in Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple, the finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple and the role of Mary in the first public miracle of Jesus in Cana. She also writes in other poems to or about Mary under the titles Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Mount Carmel and recalls her own cure from a mysterious illness by the Virgin of the Smile.
There are in existence over 260 letters written by St Thérèse comprising more than twenty from before her entry to the Lisieux Carmel with the majority coming from the Carmel. What is particularly striking in her letters is the growth and development of her spirituality evident over time. Her devotion to the Holy Face shines through in a letter to Céline (4 April 1889) in which St Thérèse wrote 'Jesus is on fire with love for us...look at His adorable Face!... Look at His eyes lifeless and lowered! Look at His wounds....Look at Jesus in His Face.... There you will see how much He loves us'.
The recipients of letters from St Thérèse included inter alia family members, the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux and others concerned with her entrance to Carmel, members of the Carmel community and her spiritual brothers. Some were written during her pilgrimage to Rome in 1887 with her father and her sister Céline. While she did refer to the beauty and splendour of her surroundings as they travelled it is clear that her main focus was in furthering the cause of her entry to Carmel as evidenced in her determination to speak with Pope Leo XIII and in her correspondence with Sr Agnes and others at home in France.
St Thérèse's letters from Carmel reference the celebration of liturgical milestones, community feast days and the anniversaries of professions, the undertaking of retreats and her assignments. There is the excitement of her Reception of the Habit and her Profession, her concerns and those of her family for her ailing father, her wish for Céline to become a Carmelite and her spiritual encouragement for Léonie in her wish to become a Visitandine. Milestones and events of family life also feature - birthdays, weddings, holidays and especially St Thérèse's concern for the well being of those 'in the world' with whom she corresponded.