She was not yet fifteen when she approached the Carmelite authorities again for permission to enter. Again she was refused. The priest-director advised her to return when she was twenty-one. "Of course," he added, "you can always see the bishop. I am only his delegate." The priest did not realize what kind of girl he was dealing with.
To his dying day, Bishop Hugonin of Bayeux never forgot her. She came to his office with her father one rainy day and put her surprising request before him. "You are not yet fifteen and you wish this?" the bishop questioned. "I wished it since the dawn of reason," young Therese declared. Louis' support of her request amazed the bishop. His Excellency had never seen this type of support before. "A father as eager to give his child to God," he remarked, "as this child was eager to offer herself to him." Just before the interview, Therese had put up her hair, thinking this would make her look older. This amused the bishop, and he never spoke about Therese in later years without recounting her ploy. Although charmed by her, Bishop Hugonin did not immediately grant Therese's request. He wanted time to consider it, and advised Therese and her father that he would write them regarding his decision.
Therese had planned that, should the Bayeux trip fail, she would go to the Pope himself. Thus in November, 1887, Louis took his daughters, Therese and Celine, to Italy with a group of French pilgrims. Catholics from all over the world were journeying to the Eternal City, to celebrate Leo XIII's Golden Jubilee as a priest. In her autobiography, Therese sketched a charming picture of her travels through Southern Europe. In Rome she was enamored of the Coliseum. Its history of Christian martyrdom stirred the very roots of her being. Once inside the Coliseum, the two sisters ignored regulations prohibiting visitors from descending through the ruined structure to the arena floor, sneaked away from the tour group, climbed across barriers and down the ruins to kneel and pray on the Coliseum floor. Gathering up a few stones as relics, they slipped back to the tour. No one, except their father, noted their absence.
The great day of the audience with Pope Leo XIII came at the end of their week in Rome. On Sunday, November 20, 1887, "they told us on the Pope's behalf that it was forbidden to speak as this would prolong the audience too much. I turned toward my dear Celine for advice: 'Speak!' she said. A moment later I was at the Holy Father's feet....Lifting tear-filled eyes to his face I cried out: 'Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!....Holy Father, in honor of your jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen.'"
Father Reverony, the leader of the French pilgrimage, stared stonily at this bold little girl, in surprise and displeasure. "Most Holy Father," the priest said coldly, "this is a child who wants to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen. The superiors are considering the matter at the moment." "Well, my child," the Holy Father replied, "do what the superiors tell you." "Resting my hands on his knees," Therese continued, "I made a final effort, saying, 'Oh, Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!' He gazed at me speaking these words and stressing each syllable: 'Go - go - you will enter if God wills it.'"
Therese did not want to leave the Holy Father's presence, so the papal guards had to lift her up and carry the tearful young girl to the door. There they gave her a medal of Leo XIII. Her old nurse, Victoire, probably could have told the Pope he should not have been surprised. Victoire had seen Therese in some rare displays of determination.
On New Year's day, 1888, the prioress of the Lisieux Carmel advised Therese she would be received into the monastery, but that she had to be patient and wait a little bit longer. On April 9, 1888, an emotional and tearful, but determined Therese Martin said good-bye to her home and her family. She was going to live "for ever and ever" in the desert with Jesus and twenty-four enclosed companions: she was fifteen years and three months old. The only cloud on her horizon was the worsening condition of her father, Louis, who had developed cerebral arteriosclerosis. Celine remained at home to care for their father during his long and final illness. The good father was growing senile. Once in June of 1888, he wandered from his home at Lisieux and was lost for three days, eventually turning up at Le Havre. In August, after a series of strokes, Louis became paralyzed.
Many years earlier, when Therese was a little girl, she would peer out of an attic window. Therese loved reveling in the glory of the day. One day however, while her father was in Alencon on business, she suddenly saw in the garden below the stooped and twisted figure of a man. She froze in terror. "Papa, Papa" she cried out. Her sister, Marie, who was nearby, heard the unmistakable note of panic in Therese's cry and ran to her. The figure in the garden disappeared. Marie assured her it was nothing and told her to forget everything that had happened. But the vision continued to cling like a sad portent in the corner of Therese's mind for the next fourteen years. Now, with her father paralyzed, the meaning of Therese's vision in the garden so long ago had became apparent at last.
Louis however, rallied his strength, and managed to attend the ceremonies of Therese's clothing in the Carmelite habit on January 10, 1889. Shortly thereafter, on February 12th, Louis was taken to the hospital after an attack of dementia. Seeing her father's humiliation hurt Therese deeply. "Oh, I do not think I could have suffered more than I did on that Day!!!" With that, Therese began to understand the sufferings of the mocked Christ, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah. Therese's father made one last visit to the Carmel in May, 1892. He died peacefully two years later, in 1894, with Celine at his side. Celine then joined her three sisters at Carmel in September of 1894.
Pictured above standing: Therese' sisters Celine and Pauline; seated are Mother Marie de Gonzague, Marie, and Therese. Photograph taken in the Courtyard at Carmel Lisieux, early 1895.
Therese spent the last nine years of her life at the Lisieux Carmel. Her fellow Sisters recognized her as a good nun, nothing more. She was conscientious and capable. Sister Therese worked in the sacristy, cleaned the dining room, painted pictures, composed short pious plays for the Sisters, wrote poems, and lived the intense community prayer life of the cloister. Superiors appointed her to instruct the novices of the community. Externally, there was nothing remarkable about this Carmelite nun.
Therese was 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, Therese was still uneasy. But a great peace came over her when she made her profession on September 8, 1890. It was the reading of St. John of the Cross, an unusual choice at the time, which 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 in 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 Geneviere, the Lisieux Carmel's founder and "Saint". Therese was spared, and her true energy strength began to show themselves. Therese was delighted when her sister, Agnes of Jesus (Pauline) was elected prioress in succession to Mother Marie de Gonzague in February of 1893. Pauline asked Therese to write verses and theatrical entertainment for liturgical and community festivals. Included were two plays about Saint Joan of Arc, "her beloved sister", which she performed herself with great feeling and conviction. When Celine joined Therese at Lisieux Carmel in September of 1894, she brought her camera. Through this, they were able to enliven their recreation periods, and leave Therese's picture to posterity.
THERESE DEVELOPS HER "LITTLE WAY"
Therese was aware of her littleness. "It is impossible for me to grow up, so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new." Therese went on to describe the elevator in the home of a rich person. And she continued: "I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched then in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: 'Whoever is a little one let him come to me.' The elevator which must raise me to heaven is your arms, O Jesus, and for this I have no need to grow up, but rather I have to remain little and become this more and more," And so she abandoned herself to Jesus and her life became a continual acceptance of the will of the Lord.
The Lord, it seems, did not demand great things of her. But Therese felt incapable of the tiniest charity, the smallest expression of concern and patience and understanding. So she surrendered her life to Christ with the hope that he would act through her. She again mirrored perfectly the words of St. Paul, "I can do all things in him who strengthens me." "All things" consisted of almost everything she was called upon to do in the daily grind of life.
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 hours of liturgy). One day, she leaned over the wash pool with a group of Sisters, laundering handkerchiefs. One of the Sisters splashed the hot, dirty water into Therese's face, not once, not twice, but continually. Remember the terrible temper that Therese had? She was near to throwing one of her best tantrums, but said nothing! Christ helped her to accept this lack of consideration on the part of her fellow Sister, and she found a certain peace.
Again, in the daily grind of convent life, she was moved by her youthful idealism to help Sister St. Pierre, a crotchety, older nun who refused to let old age keep her from convent activities. Therese tried to help her along the corridors. "You move too fast," the old nun complained. Therese slowed down. "Well, come on," Sister urged. "I don't feel your hand. You have let go of me and I am going to fall." And as a final judgment, old Sister St. Pierre declared: "I was right when I said you were too young to help me." Therese took it all and managed to smile. This was her "little way."
Another nun made strange, clacking noises in chapel. Therese did not say, but the good lady was probably either toying with her rosary or was afflicted by ill-fitting dentures. The clacking sound really got to Therese. It ground into her brain. Terrible-tempered Therese was pouring sweat in frustration. She tried to shut her ears, but was unsuccessful. Then, as an example of her 'little ways', she made a concert out of the clacking and offered it as a prayer to Jesus. "I assure you," she dryly remarked, "that was no prayer of Quiet."
Therese, the great mystic, fell asleep frequently at prayer. She was embarrassed by her inability to remain awake during her hours in chapel with the religious community. Finally, in perhaps her most charming and accurate characterization of the "little way," she noted that, just as parents love their children as much while asleep as awake, so God loved her even though she often slept during the time for prayers.
To learn more about Therese's life at Lisieux Carmel, visit this site (written in French with an English tranlastion) Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux.