Thérèse Martin was born 150 years ago. She was beatified in 1923, then canonized in 1925. Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. This young woman, who died at the age of 24, is one of the greatest French mystics. Its influence goes far beyond French borders. However, in many respects it remains a mystery, or rather, the modern, above all timeless character of its spirituality is constantly to be rediscovered. On the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, RCF dedicates its Halte Spirituelle series to this great spiritual figure who remains a mystery. Sister Marie Guillaumin, Sister Catherine de Coster, nuns of the Congregation of Carmel Saint-Joseph, paint the portrait of “little Thérèse”.
A family marked by psychological suffering
Psychological problems marked the Martin family. After his daughter Thérèse left for the Carmel at the age of 15, the father, Louis Martin, was interned for three years for mental illness. Thérèse herself experienced several heartbreaks. She lost her mother when she was four years old, and the entry into Carmel of her sister Pauline, her surrogate mother, was another heartbreak. “Psychic dysfunctions, skids, it’s part of our human realities, underlines Sister Marie Guillaumin, and this is where Thérèse’s message is interesting, it is that she comes to join us in the complexity of our human problems.”
This psychic suffering is often hard to believe when we read the texts of Thérèse of Lisieux. We often evoke the very flowery character of his writing. “Its language, brimming with little flowers, which at first reading may seem quite insipid”, agrees Sister Catherine de Coster. “It was when I started to work on it that I began to discover that it was an incredible path of incarnation, of truth, of determination… There is nothing cutesy about Thérèse!”
Thérèse chooses to no longer take pleasure in her suffering… She will not run away from her suffering, she will always read it, reread it, but she will choose to be alive even if she suffers
The exit from narcissism
Of a hypersensitive nature, Thérèse experienced, on Christmas Eve 1886, “a grace which brought her into adulthood”, says Sister Catherine de Coster. She was about to be fourteen. That evening, she heard her father say: “Luckily it’s the last time…” It probably meant that his last daughter was grown up and that from now on there would be no more Christmas presents. Shocked, the young girl went up to her room so as not to burst into tears. Then she went back down to find her father and her sisters.
This “ordinary event” underlines Sister Catherine de Coster was for Thérèse “a moment of reversal in her life”. She discovered that “charity had entered her” in her own words. Today we would speak of a form of resilience. “Thérèse chooses to no longer wallow in her suffering. She chooses to live her suffering in all its glory, she is not going to run away from her suffering, she is always going to read it, reread it, but she is going to choose to be a living person even if she is in pain.” For the nun, it is “a determination” which is “of the order of faith, faith in Jesus, which makes her pass above herself. This exit from narcissism will open her up.”
A modern look at priests
Thérèse often spoke of her desire to “save souls”. An expression that is difficult to accept today. “It shouldn’t be expressed that way today, recognizes Sister Marie Guillaumin, the Second Vatican Council taught us to express it differently. We know very well that every man of good will has his place and we are no longer in a binary situation: baptized / unbaptized and it is absolutely necessary to baptize all heretics… That period is over!” For Thérèse, it simply meant that Jesus was her only love. And that she only wanted this “heart to heart with the Lord” to “contaminate the whole world”.
It is this desire that drives her to pray ardently for the priests. During her trip to Rome in 1887, Thérèse met several priests, some of whom surprised her with their behavior. “It’s a turning point for Thérèse, says Sister Marie Guillaumin, she is going to enter Carmel to save souls and above all to pray for priests. She no longer has any illusions about these men who are not angels!” Praying for priests, in the spirit of Thérèse, is not so much praying for the priests themselves, but to touch the people around the priests. “It is not for the priest himself but for his priestly function, and that is very, very important for Thérèse, she realizes that there are many who are not holy enough and by their their way of celebrating, their way of being a priest, it can touch as many people as possible.”
At a time when there is often talk in the Church of clericalism and the need to get out of it, Saint Thérèse’s view of priests seems particularly modern. For Thérèse, lack of humility was the greatest threat to clerics. “Thérèse saw the fragility and weakness of priests”, says Sister Marie Guillaumin. If she knew that was not possible, the young Carmelite always said that she had the desire to be a priest herself – “She says it and she will say it again until the last months of her life”, assures Sister Marie Guillaumin. Obviously, Thérèse was fully aware that this was not possible! “What Thérèse wants is to carry Christ in her hands, to be able to preach.”