Big Beginnings of the Little Way

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Thérèse was eighteen when she exchanged the white veil of promise for the  black veil, crucifix, and large rosary of the wedded brides, but she asked for and was given permission to remain with the novices. She wore a worn-out tunic of rough serge, and her feet were protected from the cold only by sandals fastened with hemp. As she never complained, the oldest cast-off and patched garments were allotted to her, and when a dish of food was burnt or spoiled, it was a standing joke that “that was good enough for Sister Thérèse.” She did not seem to notice, and nobody ever knew what she liked and what she didn’t.

She added almost nothing to the austerities imposed by the rule, but these she observed to the letter — for example, taking the discipline three times a week. She was not afraid to administer this severely; the pain of it for her did not reside in that. At the beginning of her novitiate, she was anxious to multiply such mortifications, on which the prioress, being physically strong, was keen. But Thérèse discovered that the Devil makes his bit out of them, because after giving oneself sharp correction, one reckons to have made full amends, and moreover, it is flattering to see oneself as a sort of Father of the Desert. It seemed to her that those nuns who used nettles for their voluntary penances were not always the best religious.

So she was content to wear a cross covered with prickles next her skin; but she was not sure that even that was not a source of some vanity, and when it caused a sore to form, she gave it up. All that, she thought, had better be left to great saints, who never gloried in it, as such trifles could not satisfy them. Theirs was the “great way,” and her pride made her suspicious of it. It was precisely because she was made of the stuff of such as St. Agnes and St. Sebastian and Joan of Arc and Catherine  of Siena that  she tried to be like them only in their smallest, humblest, most hid- den ways. She would readily rescue the Pope, save her country, give her life in martyrdom — but she was not asked to. Striking deeds are out of place in a convent, where one’s only business is to be pleasing to God and so to save souls, many souls, and if need be, to set before them a practical and practicable example fitted to the requirements of the  times. After all, she was only an obscure lower-middle-class girl, whose life in “the world” had promised no more than a commonplace career consisting of the careful performance of domestic duties, and in that  respect, there was little enough difference in her present state.

Accordingly, she found a way of holiness equally common- place, in the exact observance of the rule, and followed it steadily, weaving her life, thread by thread, out of insignificant actions that were too small for notice or record. But God saw them and, as each was weighted with love, valued them equally with the martyrdom of St. Cecilia, the foundations of St. Teresa, or the triumphs of St. Francis. The very fact that they were too small to be an object of self-satisfaction increased their worth.

That was Sister Thérèse’s “little way.” Actually she had been

pursuing it for a long time, ever since that far-off day when her aunt had given her a string of beads wherewith to keep count of her “good deeds.” She no longer counted them, for they now fol- lowed one another as swiftly as the seconds of time: she was reaping the harvest of her childhood’s self-discipline.

While she was a postulant, she had been put to look after the linen, and had as well a staircase and dormitory to keep clean and the vegetables to gather and bring in daily. After she was clothed, she was assigned to the refectory under the direct supervision of her sister Pauline, with whom she would not allow herself to speak except when necessity required. As she had had little training in housework and was not so strong as she looked, she found the work a strain, but would not let anybody see it.

In addition, she undertook any unpleasant jobs that the others were glad to avoid: laundering clothes by a hot stove in summer, washing up in cold water in midwinter, which gave her chilblains and chapped hands (she suffered a great deal from the cold, but nobody knew it until after she was dead). It is said that when a nun clumsily splashed her with dirty water, Sister Thérèse did not bat an eyelid. She had learned to control any movement that would draw attention  to herself; she would not wipe the sweat from her face, rub her hands together, drag her feet or show any other sign of fatigue, so that no one should see that she was hot or cold or tired or ill; she could completely control her tears, and smile or laugh when she felt inclined to cry. She seemed to be the cheerfulest nun in the house, and therefore passed for the happiest. Once, when pinning on her scapular, a sister stuck a pin deep into Thérèse’s shoulder without  noticing  what she had done; Thérèse hardly moved and, so as not to make her companion sorry, went about her work as if nothing had happened.

God everywhere and in everything; a constant endeavor to be pleasing in His eyes, and to require nothing of Him except the means so to be; the least turning toward Him is its own reward. It seems sometimes as if He is not there. But He is there whenever we think of Him, in the thinking brain, in the loving heart, in the determination to do His will. In a life whose every sentiment and every action is directed to His service, and consequently filled with Him, there is no delight or consolation left to be desired. It is exactly the contrary of non serviam.

The soul is led by love as a child by the hand of his father. The child can shut his eyes; it does not matter whether he sees his father or not. Thérèse’s soul could not see Jesus, but her love found Him at every step. But that she loved did not prove to her that she was loved, and when she doubted it, she was overcome by a frightful dejection. On one of these black days, only two months after Father Alexis’s retreat, she put on a smiling face and went to the infirmary to visit that Mother Genevieve who did not under- stand her but whom she held in veneration. Mother Genevieve was dying.

“Listen, my child,” she said to Thérèse, “I’ve only one thing to say to you . . . Serve God in peace and joy; remember always that He is the God of peace.” Her cautions and warnings notwithstanding, Mother Genevieve had seen into her soul and spoken the word that was needed.

Thérèse was present when she died. It was the first death she had witnessed, and she found it “a beautiful sight.” She felt “filled with an unspeakable happiness and elation,” as though Heaven had opened and shown her a beam of its light. She soaked up the dying woman’s last tear in a piece of cambric. A few days later, she dreamed that Mother Genevieve was distributing presents among the nuns; to Thérèse she gave nothing, but said to her three times over, “To you I leave my heart.” In death, holiness had recognized a saint. With such tokens of love had Thérèse to be satisfied.

While Thérèse was quietly and unobtrusively fulfilling her responsible duties, toward the end of December, an epidemic of grippe, which was raging under the new name of “influenza,” reached Lisieux and attacked the convent. It spared only two of the nuns (Thérèse had it very lightly), and the less sick had to nurse the others: the whole house became a hospital. Sister Thérèse was in sole charge of the chapel, and the rest of her time, she nursed the unfortunate victims. She had to face everything. There were three deaths, one after the other, and she ministered in their last moments, first to the sub-prioress, Mother Mary of the Angels, and then to Sister Madeleine, who had no one else to tend her. These sisters answering the call and going to God with a smiling face taught Thérèse to love death. She wanted to die like that.

Throughout  the  epidemic, she was allowed to receive Holy Communion every day, a privilege rare at that time when daily Communion had not yet become customary. It might be supposed that in an atmosphere of danger and of active charity and prayer, with those serene and glad deaths before her eyes, her love would have expanded and blossomed, but she found herself incapable of really fervent thanksgiving for the daily coming of her Lord.

When  this trial was over and normal community life began again, Thérèse returned to her “little way,” helping her sisters, encouraging Céline, neither more nor less happy than before. This is how she speaks of her latest discovery, fruit of the community retreat of 1892, taking as text the words of our Lord to Zaccheus: “Make haste and come down, for this day I must abide in thy house.”

Jesus tells us to come down. Where, then, are we to go . . . Our Lord wants us to take Him into our hearts, which are doubtless empty of created things. But alas! mine is  not empty of myself, and that is why He tells me to come down. And I want to come down, low, very low, so that Jesus can rest His divine head on my heart and know that He is understood and loved.

Thérèse humbled herself to get away from self — and met self at every turn. She gave her “we” a hard time of it. But she had to come down still further, until she reached an infinity of lowliness.

In my opinion, it is a marvel that she was able occasionally to safeguard the real gift of poetry that she had implicitly fostered since her childhood. She displays excessive slickness, maddening wordiness, and a complete lack of discrimination in her use of words, phrases, times, and images; on the other hand, there is her will to say out the things that were in her heart and to express the  vigorous and exact thoughts  that  she had drawn from Christian doctrine, the Bible, and the writings of the mys- tics, deepened and enriched by her inner use of them. There is always disproportion between her songs and their poetic substance, but suddenly the purring stops and the thing becomes untrammeled and clear, nothing  but the thought  is left: she has momentarily found its form, its literary equivalent.  She does not reach the incomparable starkness of Racine’s Cantiques spirituels, but you are reminded of them and are sorry that Thérèse had no competent  and careful guidance when she wrote, for she might have excelled some of the acknowledged poets in the France of her day.
Excerpted from The Truth about Therese, available from Sophia Institute Press. 

Henri Ghéon

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Henri Gheon was a French playwright, critic, and poet. He began to write poetry after moving to study medicine in Paris in 1893, becoming a regular contributor to French literary magazines by 1909. After returning to the Catholic faith during World War I, Gheon wrote several vivid accounts and plays of saints lives, including St. Therese and the Curé de Ars.

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  • john

    Simply beautiful, inspiring, and so well conveyed! BLESSINGS UPON ALL who take the time to read every word!

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