Today October 1, 2012, is the 115th anniversary of the passing of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, in the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux, France. Sister Therese Martin was only 24 years of age at the time of her death in 1897. Just 28 years later she was solemnly declared a canonized saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI.
I got to know Saint Therese by reading her life story, written by herself, when I was about 12 years of age. I still remember the book, well-bound, solid, with clear print. There were 200 pages of Therese’s own words, divided into 11 chapters. I was enthralled by her story because, unlike the kind of saints we usually heard about, Therese’s family life sounded very much like our own, with its joys, its tensions and friendly rivalries.
At that time I took Therese’s life story at its face value. I thought she had written it for people like me so that we could know her and perhaps be inspired to imitate her “little way”. I had no idea that I was the victim of what I might call a pious deception.
The book that I was reading was not a life-story in the usual sense of the word. It was actually composed of three different documents written by Therese for three different persons in three different years.
Therese’s life story was first published in 1898 with the title, The Story of a Soul. The first chapter began as if Sister Therese was confiding the story of her soul to Mother Marie de Gonzague, the Prioress of the Convent at the time. The real story is more complicated.
Therese was the youngest of 9 children, four of whom died in childhood. The remaining five, all girls, entered the convent. Leonie, the third oldest, entered the Visitation convent. The other four, Pauline, Marie, Celine and Therese, all entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. The last to enter was Celine in 1894.
During the convent recreation one evening in January 1895 Therese was with her sisters Pauline and Marie entertaining them with stories of incidents from her childhood. Marie remarked “What a pity we don’t have these stories written down”, and then said to Pauline, who was Prioress at the time with the title Mother Agnes of Jesus, “Ask Sister Therese to write down her childhood memories for you”. Pauline turned to Therese, who was laughing, and said: “I order you to write down all your childhood memories”.
Therese was surprised at the order and asked, “What can I write that you don’t already know?” But she humbly accepted the task. One year later, in January 1896, she handed a copybook filled with her memories to Mother Agnes. It began with the words, “It is with great happiness that I come to sing the mercies of the Lord”. This was the first document written by Therese.
In April of that year, on Good Friday morning, Therese suffered a lung hemorrhage, the first warning of the illness that would eventually take her life. Some months later she confided to her sister Marie that she believed she had not got long to live. Marie knew that her sister was close to God, and asked her to write down for her some of the secrets she had learned from conversing with Jesus. Three days later she received her reply on three sheets of folded paper in small writing. This little gem is the second document written by Therese.
In March of 1896 Therese’s sister Pauline was succeeded by Mother Marie de Gonzague as Prioress of the community. Therese’s health continued to get worse, and all the medical signs indicated that 1897 would be her last year on earth.
Pauline still had the book of Therese’s childhood memories, but regretted that they contained very little about her life in the Carmelite community. So in June 1897 Pauline approached Mother Marie de Gonzague. She suggested that the Prioress order Therese to write something about her life as a Carmelite so that they would have material for her circular (an obituary notice circulated to all the Carmelite convents on the death of a member of any community). Mother Gonzague agreed, and next day she asked Therese to continue writing her memories.
Therese was extremely weak from her illness, but she tried to find strength each day to write something about her convent memories. These were addressed to Mother Marie de Gonzague, beginning with the words, “You have told me, dear Mother, of your desire that I finish singing with you the mercies of the Lord, a song I began with your dear daughter Agnes of Jesus”.
Although frequently interrupted and weakened by her illness, Therese succeeded in writing more than 50 additional pages. In these pages she shared her understanding of the Scriptures, her struggles with the human element in community living, and her inner trials of faith. This is the third document produced by Therese.
After Therese’s death on October 1, 1897, Pauline asked Mother Gonzague for permission to publish all three documents. Mother Gonzague agreed, but on condition that all would appear to be addressed to her. Pauline agreed, and one year later, on September 30, 1898, the three documents, carefully edited and skillfully woven into one, were published in French as Histoire d’une Ame (The Story of a Soul). The story became a best seller, going into millions of copies in 50 different languages.
The Carmelite writer, John Clarke O.C.D. explains that only with the publication in 1973 of the Process of Canonization of Saint Therese, we have precise information about Therese’s writings. As a result we now have a genuine autobiography of Saint Therese faithful to the authentic texts which came from Therese’s own hand and clearly indicating to whom they were addressed.
Some may be upset that there was a certain amount of pious deception in the first edition published in 1898. I believe it was well-meaning, and did not diminish or distort the person of Saint Therese or her little way.
People may take comfort in knowing that similar deception went into the composition of the Bible itself. In the book of Genesis we have two different Creation stories woven into one. We have two different Flood stories woven into one. In the first 4 books of the Bible we have the work of at least 3 different authors skillfully inter-woven to appear as the work of just one writer.
The Irish have a saying, “A story loses nothing in the telling”. The purpose of the story is to deliver a message, and when the message is from God the message will always come through, for “God can write straight on crooked lines”.
I first read “Galileo’s Daughter” about ten years ago, shortly after its publication. The book appealed to me in many ways. I thought it was well researched, well written and very readable.
The daughter in question was Virginia, Galileo’s eldest daughter, born in 1600 when Galileo was 36 years of age. Galileo’s second daughter, Livia, was born the following year, and his son, Vincenzio was born in 1606. In 1613 the two girls entered the convent of the Poor Clares in Arcetri, near Florence. In 1616 Virginia professed her vows as Sister Maria Celeste, and in 1617 Livia was professed as Sister Arcangela.
The author of “Galileo’s Daughter”, Dava Sobel, is the author of an earlier work, “Longitude”. In her research for that work, she was studying what Galileo had to say about longitude when she came across a fragment of a letter written to him by his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. The fragment was about the convent clock which the Sister had failed to fix, and which she was sending to her father for repair.
Ms Sobel said she was thunderstruck; first of all that Galileo had a daughter and second that she was a nun. That led the writer to search for other correspondence, and she found more than 100 letters. The letters revealed that Sister Maria Celeste was a person of great significance in Galileo’s life, and that led Ms Sobel to let the father-daughter relationship form the backbone of a book about Galileo’s fascinating and sometimes turbulent life.
The letters cover a ten-year period, from the death of Galileo’s sister Virginia in 1623 to Sister Maria Celeste’s last letter in December 1633. That last letter was written to welcome Galileo back to his home in Arcetri where he would spend the rest of his life under strict house arrest after his condemnation by the Holy Office in Rome.
Galileo would refer to his house arrest as “my prison in Arcetri”, but that was better than the dungeons of the Inquisition in Rome where he had begun his sentence in June. He was not allowed to leave his home in Arcetri except to visit the neighboring convent where he could meet with his daughters. Unfortunately even that pleasure was soon to be denied. The tense and anxious time of Galileo’s trial in Rome had taken its emotional toll on Sister Maria Celeste. Her health was in irreversible decline and only three months after Galileo returned to Arcetri she passed away on April 2, 1634.
Ms. Sobel’s treatment of Galileo’s life and trial is sympathetic and fair. Her introduction of Sister Maria Celeste adds new color and humanity to the story. Galileo was devastated by Sister Maria Celeste’s death. Many notable people came to visit him during the remaining eight years of his life. But no one could ever fill the emptiness left by the passing of the light of his life, the young woman now known to the world as “Galileo’s daughter”.
I am always fascinated when I come to an electronics store with its street window filled with 15 or 20 television sets all broadcasting the same program. I never fail to stop and watch before moving on. I don’t expect this practice to be a life-changing experience, but it can be, as it was for the Brazilian gentleman who wrote to Mother Teresa about it.
Mother Teresa told about a letter she received from a well-placed Brazilian gentleman who had lost faith in God and in people, and had decided to end his own life. As he walked along the street with troubled mind, his eyes were drawn to a shop window full of television sets all showing the same program. The program was about Mother Teresa’s nuns taking care of the people in the Home for the Dying in Kalighat, India.
The man wrote to Mother Teresa to tell her that the sight of the Sisters caring for the dying in Kalighat changed his life. It showed him that God still loves the world. It restored his faith in humanity and in God.
One of Our Lord’s favorite sayings is, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11, 15; Mark 4, 23; Luke 8, 8). God speaks continually to those who have ears to hear. God speaks through the revealed writings, but even more God speaks through the universe itself which is the primary revelation. Elizabeth Barrett Browning summed it up well when she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only those who see take off their shoes”.
Mother Teresa’s Brazilian gentleman had eyes to see and ears to hear. Many others looked at those same television screens in the window but saw and heard nothing that affected their lives. He saw and heard and became a new man.
Now when I find myself looking at a battery of television screens in a store window I realize that they are more than what they seem. They remind me that the God who never sleeps is always reaching out to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear and really needs some help.
The bible tells us that God used to speak to Moses “face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exodus 33, 11). Exactly 50 years ago this month, I had the privilege of speaking face to face with the bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII.
It happened this way. I had just finished my first 7-year term as a missionary in the Philippines, and left in early May on home leave. I spent a week in Northern Burma visiting some missionary friends there. Then I spent a week in the Holy Land, visiting the Holy Places in Jordan and Israel. Finally I went to Rome where I had studied for 3 years in the 1950’s.
In Rome I happened to meet up with Cardinal Rufino Santos, the Archbishop of Manila. I knew the Cardinal well, as I had been attached to his Archdiocese during my time in the Philippines. But I was totally unprepared for the offer he was about to make to me.
He said to me, “I have an appointment with the Holy Father tomorrow morning. Would you like to come along with me as my secretary, just the two of us, to meet the Holy Father in his office at the Vatican?” Needless to say, my answer was in the affirmative.
So at 10 o’clock the next morning we met at the Papal apartments and were escorted to the Papal office, where Pope John XXIII welcomed us with a beaming smile. I could not have imagined the Holy Father would be so friendly and unassuming as he engaged us in conversation. We spoke in Italian.
The Cardinal and the Holy Father were already acquainted, but I had to be introduced. Pope John asked me if I had been to Rome before, and I explained that I had spent 3 years in Rome doing graduate studies at the Gregorian University.
Then came an unexpected question. He asked me what language was used in the University when I studied there. I explained to him that we spoke Italian with the secretariat, but in the classroom and in the examinations, both written and oral, the language was Latin.
That gave him the opportunity to speak about a letter, Veterum Sapientiae (Wisdom of the Ancients), which had issued from the Vatican 3 months previously, under his signature. He said, “They persuaded me to write this letter to encourage the study of Latin in schools and to promote the use of Latin in the seminaries. I don’t know if it will work, but at least I did what they asked me to do”.
The Pope seemed to be totally unaware of the near panic this document had created in seminaries, at least in the English-speaking world, because it required that major subjects like Theology and Sacred Scripture should be taught through the medium of Latin. Because I had seen the struggle of English-speaking professors trying to conduct their classes in Latin, I had my own view that this letter would not have any lasting effect. Pope John did not seem to be fully convinced either. He said, “They tell me that Latin is the language of the Church, and if it is, I suppose we should be speaking in Latin now”. But he still continued speaking with us in Italian.
Pope John XXIII need not have worried about the document he had signed. It was quickly forgotten, and in later years it was being described as the most ignored important document, or the most important ignored document of the twentieth century.
Pope John had the saintly personality which enabled him to establish a new relationship between the Church and the world, a relationship of mutual appreciation and respect. He summed it up best in his opening address to the participants at the Second Vatican Council when he declared: “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation”. (October 11, 1962)
As I recall my face to face meeting with Pope John, I think what impressed me most was the sense of being warmly accepted by him, and being drawn into a genuine conversation with him. Many people will remember Pope John XXIII as the Pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council for the renewal of the Church. I will remember him just as the kindly bishop of Rome who simply tried to be what every Pope professes to be, “the servant of the servants of God”.