The Carmel [1888-1897]
Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus was happy with her lot, but everyday life in the Carmel had its problems too: the clashes of communal life, the cold, the new diet and the difficulties of prayer [two hours' prayer and four and a half of liturgy]. First a postulant and then a novice, she took the Carmelite habit on January 10, 1889, after a retreat marked by a deep sense of inner barrenness. She had her own good reasons for adding "of the Holy Face" to her name in religion.
In the meantime, a further shock came on the family front when her beloved father developed cerebral arteriosclerosis and suddenly disappeared from Les Buissonnets in June 1888. Céline and her uncle Guérin found him at Le Havre four days later.
His health continued to deteriorate and he suffered a series of strokes that left him affected not only physically but mentally. On February 12, 1889, he began hallucinating and grabbed for a gun as if going into battle. Because of this and related incidents, the "Patriarch" was soon taken to the Bon-Sauveur hospital in Caen, an asylum for the insane. Horrified, Thérèse learned of the humiliation of the father she adored and admired and of the gossip and pity of their so-called friends. As a cloistered nun she couldn't even visit her father.
"Oh, I do not think I could have suffered more than I did on that day!" Seeing her father's humiliation hurt Thérèse deeply. She began to understand the sufferings of the mocked Christ, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah.
Devotion to the Holy Face sprang up in the 19th century, following certain revelations made to Sister Marie of St. Pierre in the Tours Carmel. Thérèse was introduced to the devotion by Sister Agnes of Jesus. She studied it in a very personal way, using the texts of the prophet Isaiah. She signed her name for the first time as "Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face" the day she received the habit, January 10, 1889.
This began a horrible time of suffering when she experienced such dryness in prayer that she stated "Jesus isn't doing much to keep the conversation going." She was so grief-stricken that she often fell asleep in prayer. She consoled herself by saying that mothers loved children when they lie asleep in their arms so that God must love her when she slept during prayer.
She was also affected by the spiritual atmosphere in the community, which was still tainted by Jansenism and the vision of an avenging God. Some of the sisters feared Divine justice and suffered badly from scruples. Even after her general confession in May 1888 to Father Pichon, her Jesuit spiritual director, Thérèse was still uneasy. But a great peace came over her when she at last made her profession on September 8, 1890------although taking the black veil [a public ceremony] on September 24 was a day "veiled in tears."
It was the reading of St. John of the Cross, an unusual choice at the time, that brought her relief. In the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love, she discovered "the true Saint of Love." This, she felt, was the path she was meant to follow. During a community retreat [October 1891], a Franciscan, Father Alexis Prou, launched her on those "waves of confidence and love," on which she had previously been afraid to venture.
The harsh winter of 1890-1891 and a
severe influenza epidemic killed three of the sisters, as well as
Mother Geneviève, the Lisieux Carmel's founder and "Saint."
Thérèse was spared, and her true energy and strength
began to show themselves. She felt immense relief when her father, his
mind now that of a child, returned to the Guérin household in
May 1892 [the lease on Les Buissonnets had expired at Christmas 1889].
Céline stayed at home to look after him, although she, too, was
thinking of becoming a Carmelite.
Thérèse was delighted when her sister, Agnès of Jesus [Pauline], was elected prioress in succession to Mother Marie de Gonzague [ February 20, 1893]. But when Pauline was elected prioress, she asked Thérèse for the ultimate sacrifice. Because of politics in the convent, many of the sisters feared that the Martin family would take over the convent. Therefore Pauline asked Thérèse to remain a novice, in order to allay the fears of the others that the three sisters would push everyone else around. This meant she would never be a fully professed nun, that she would always have to ask permission for everything she did. This sacrifice was made a little sweeter when Céline entered the convent after her father's death. Four of the sisters were now together again.
Asked by Pauline to write verses and theatrical entertainments for liturgical and community festivals, Thérèse wrote two plays about Saint Joan of Arc, "her beloved sister," performing them herself with great feeling and conviction [1894-95].
Her father's death at the Château de la Musse, the Guérin's home, freed Céline to enter the Lisieux Carmel in September 1894, something she and Thérèse both wanted. She brought her camera with her, using it to enliven recreation periods and incidentally leaving her sister's picture to posterity.
A turning point in Thérèse's spiritual development came in late 1894/early 1895, when two Old Testament texts, found in one of Céline's notebooks, brought years of searching to an end. Aspiring to sanctity but aware of her weakness, she felt unworthy to "climb the steep ladder of holiness." But the arm of Jesus was to lift her instead. While she remained small and "became even smaller," God would take her and turn her into a Saint. Inspired by this revelation, her spirit unfolded and soared throughout the year 1895. Having discovered the treasures of God's "Merciful Love," she gave herself to Him at the Mass of the Trinity on June 9, 1895. Without her companions being aware of it, she reached new mystical heights.
Pauline had recently ordered her to put down her "childhood memories" in writing for her family. Thérèse obeyed and began, in her few spare moments, to "sing God's mercies" to her in her own short life. She saw herself as a "little white flower" that had grown under the rays of the Divine sun. In January 1896, she gave her prioress an 86-page notebook [Manuscript A] in which she reinterpreted her life in the light of God's Merciful Love.
The re-election of Mother Marie de
Gonzague [ March 21,1896], after seven ballots, divided the
community. Although Thérèse was herself the
youngest novice, the new prioress entrusted the other five novices to
her care. In the circumstances, the task was not an easy one, but she
performed it with amazing maturity and skill. Two missionary priests,
destined for China and Africa, were also entrusted to her. She revealed
to these seven people the secrets of the "Little Way of Spiritual
Childhood," which had already done so much for her.