The life of St Thérèse of Lisieux, her parents, sisters and family. The Kaleidoscope clarifies the holy trinity, the ‘Act of Oblation’ working, poetry, and death.
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St Thérèse of Lisieux
It will be October next time we speak and St Therese of Lisieux’s feast day will have passed. In recognition of ancestors: I’ll begin with her parents. Saints Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin. Who’s saints day happens to be today.
Louis Martin was a watchmaker and his wife Zelle a lacemaker. Together they are the first (and to date only) married couple to be Canonized in the Catholic tradition. Married in 1858, they intended to live a life of celibately. However, they consummated their marriage ten months later after encouragement from their spiritual director.
They went on to have 9 children 4 of whom died in infancy. The remaining 5, all girls became nuns. The youngest was Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Born 2 January 1873. Died 30th September 1897 at the age of 24. Her Saints day is October 1.
As you can imagine, she was raised in a very Catholic environment. Her family attended mass at 5.30am daily, and observed the rhythm of the liturgical year with its fasts and prayers. In 1877, at four and a half her mother died of breast cancer. She would later write “Every detail of my mother’s illness is still with me, especially her last weeks on earth”. “The first part of my life stopped that day“. Her father moved the family to Lisieux months later.
At the age of 9, her sister Marie Pauline entered the monastery at Lisieux and she was – devastated. 15 years her senior her sister had become a second mother to her. The shock of this departure reawakened the trauma of her mother’s death and she began suffering tremors and neurotic attacks. Cured after she had turned to gaze at the statue of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom, who had smiled back at her. She wrote in a letter aged 10 about the experience: “Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am.”
On Christmas Eve of that year she then experienced what she called a ‘complete conversion’. After 9 years of sorrow at the death of her mother she wrote that “Jesus accomplished the work I had not been able to do”. The following spring her father suffered a catastrophic stroke. During his recovery Thérèse announced her intention to take up the habit and join the monastery.
It would take another two years of fervent prayer and an audience with the then pope before being admitted to the Carmelite order in 1888. At the age of 15. An order reformed in the sixteenth century by Teresa of Ávila. Her days from then on devoted to silent labour and personal and collective prayer.
Her time as a postulant taught her that in religious life no sacrifice astonished her. She learnt that to deviate from routine resulted in “the mind wandering in arid lands where the water of grace is soon lacking”.
Once year later she took the habit and given the epithet ‘of the Child Jesus’. She fell into a life of retreat and subtraction. In her work she returns repeatedly to the theme of littleness and simplicity. Referring to herself as a grain of sand.
Her early twenties were influenced heavily by writings of the mystic St John of the Cross. She wrote she had “no other spiritual nourishment.” It was during this time she began contemplating depictions of the disfigured face of Jesus during His Passion. and gained her second name ‘of the Holy Face’
After 5 years of spiritual work she appointed Prioress Novice Mistress by her sister who was by this time Mother of the Convent.
She excelled at explaining spiritual doctrine to younger novitiates using the new technology of the time. The three mirrors of a Kaleidoscope clarified the holy trinity. The elevator, describes God’s grace, and the Steam train illustrates Christ as Logos.
It was though teaching these concepts she saw the limitations of her efforts. So she began adding the words, “very little,” (toute petite) in front of her name.
On June 9, 1895 at the age of 22 during Mass, Thérèse was stuck with inspiration that she should offer herself as a sacrificial victim to Gods merciful love. After the service she wrote the “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love” and performed the ritual in her cell with her Sister. It is one hell of a document, though I personally wouldn’t perform it. “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands. Lord, I do not ask you to count my works.”
Two years later she was dead from tuberculosis.
She was 24.
In her final years she wrote ‘Story of a Soul‘ from her sick bed at the behest of those in the convent. An autobiography containing diary entries, spiritual commentary, prayers and poetry.
I read it earlier this year during the beginning of the UK lockdown. I emerged from both the book and my years-long depression at the same time. The ‘Prayer to Obtain Humility’ stuck me like a lightning rod. “Each morning I resolve to be humble, and in the evening I recognise that I have often been guilty of pride.” asking to “send humiliation whenever I try to set myself above others”. Other poems like ‘To Scatter Flowers‘ or ‘I Thirst For Love‘ are alive and electric in their performance.
If you feel like a bottle tossed about by a raging sea right now – it may be a book for you too.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.