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Spiritual Suffering

But "spiritual torment" was to be her lot for years to come, slackening only when she started preparing for her long-awaited First Communion. At the age of eleven, on 8 May 1884, she received her first "kiss of love," a sense of being united with Jesus, of His giving Himself to her, as she gave herself to Him. Her Eucharist hunger made her long for daily Communion. Confirmation, "the Sacrament of Love," which she received on June 14, 1884, filled her with ecstasy. Holidays in Trouville and Saint-Ouen-le-Pin were followed, however, by a retreat that triggered a crisis of scruples, lasting seventeen months. Her sister, Marie, helped her to overcome it. But Marie in her turn entered the Lisieux Carmel on October 15,1886. This was too much for the adolescent Thérèse, who had now lost a third mother. She was nearly fourteen and already strikingly good-looking, quite tall, with magnificent eyes and long hair. She attracted notice on the beach in Trouville, where people nicknamed her "the tall English girl." But she was tormented by an inner anguish that found relief only when, in November of 1886, she appealed to her four brothers and sisters in Heaven to intercede for her. Even then, she remained hypersensitive, weak-willed, "crying at having cried!"

Every time Thérèse even imagined that someone was criticizing her or didn't appreciate her, she burst into tears. Then she would cry because she had cried! Any inner wall she built to contain her wild emotions crumpled immediately before the tiniest comment.  How could she possibly enter the Carmel—something she had dreamed of since the age of nine as a way of living with Jesus—in this pitiful state? Thérèse wanted to enter the Carmelite convent to join Pauline and Marie but how could she convince others that she could handle the rigors of Carmelite life, if she couldn't handle her own emotional outbursts? She had prayed that Jesus would help her but there was no sign of an answer.


The Conversion

Grace intervened to change her life. On Christmas day in 1886, the fourteen-year-old hurried home from Midnight Mass at Saint Peter's Cathedral. In France, young children left their shoes by the hearth at Christmas, and then parents would fill them with gifts. By fourteen, most children outgrew this custom. But her sister Céline didn't want Thérèse to grow up. So they continued to leave presents in "baby" Thérèse's shoes.

As she and Céline climbed the stairs to take off their hats, their father's voice rose up from the parlor below. Standing over the shoes, he sighed, "Thank goodness that's the last time we shall have this kind of thing!" Thérèse froze, and her sister looked at her helplessly. Céline knew that in a few minutes Thérèse would be in tears over what her father had said.  But that moment never came. Something incredible had happened to Thérèse. Jesus had come into her heart and done what she could not do herself. He had made her more sensitive to her father's feelings than her own.

She swallowed her tears, walked slowly down the stairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father said. The following year she entered the convent. In her autobiography she referred to  this Christmas as her "conversion."

The Holy Child's strength supplanted her weakness. The strong character she had had at the age of four and a half was suddenly restored to her. A ten-year struggle had ended. Her tears had dried up. Freed at last from herself, she embarked on her "Giant's Race." "My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself." Now, she could fulfill her dream of entering the Carmel as soon as possible to love Jesus and pray for sinners.

Grace received at Mass in the Summer of 1887 left her with a vision of standing at the foot of the Cross, collecting the blood of Jesus and giving it to souls. Having heard people speak of the three murders committed by a certain Pranzini, she decided to save him from Hell through prayer and sacrifice.

On September 1 the prisoner kissed the Crucifix. For Thérèse, her "first child" had obtained God's mercy. She hoped that many others would follow once she was in the Carmel.