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”.