125 Years Ago with Saint Therese of Lisieux:
Therese’s Liberating Encounter with Father Alexis Prou
St. Therese as a novice in January 1889; Father Alexis Prou. Photo of St. Therese courtesy of the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux; photo of Fr. Prou courtesy of the Archives provinciales des Franciscains de France-Belgique (APFB)
A hundred and twenty-five years ago this month, St. Therese experienced a watershed moment in her personal development when, in October 1891, Franciscan Father Alexis Prou came to her Carmelite monastery to preach the annual community retreat. In her memoir, Story of a Soul, she describes the great grace she received when he heard her confession. That passage is quite famous. Less well known is what happened in the days immediately afterward. In honor of this anniversary, I will explore the context of this liberating encounter, its effects, and the surprising sequel, including “reported words” of Therese that, I believe, appear in English here for the first time. This article is being published in seven parts.
Part 1 of 7– Retreats at Carmel during Therese’s lifetime
Private retreats at Carmel
In Therese’s time, each Carmelite made a private retreat to prepare for her reception of the habit and later to prepare for the profession of her vows. Each nun usually made two annual retreats: a private retreat lasting ten days, near the anniversary of her profession, and a retreat with the community, lasting about a week, to prepare for the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, the reformer of Carmel, on October 15. Since Therese had made her vows on September 8, 1890, she usually made her private retreat in September. It was during her private retreat in September 1896 that she wrote the beautiful manuscript in which she says “my vocation is Love!”
The letter of Sister Marie of the Eucharist (Therese’s cousin Marie Guerin) to her parents on March 13, 1897, as she was about to start a private retreat for her Profession, gives an idea:
At ½ past 7 tomorrow evening I’m going to enter into deep solitude. I will be with Jesus all alone until the fine day of my Profession. Oh! Pray hard for me during these days of retreat, so that I might be attentive to the voice of the One who will soon become my Divine Spouse. Ask Him for his graces [lv°] and understanding, and may the fine day of my Profession be the starting point for a thorough conversion, a very deep generosity and humility, and above all, a love for God that recoils before no sacrifice. You know how hard your poor little daughter will pray for you, and her requests are great and immense, as is the love she has for you.[i]
To this letter the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux adds a note about the customs of the private retreat:
At the time, entering into retreat had its required customs. Toward the end of the evening recreation, before Compline [night prayer] (7:40 pm), the retreatant would roll down her sleeves, and come to kneel before the prioress, who would recommend her to the community’s prayers. The prioress would then lower the veil over the Sister’s face, as a sign of solitude. For the time of the retreat (10 full days), the retreatant would not speak to anyone except the prioress – or the novice mistress (who was one and the same person in 1897). She would attend all choral offices and meals, and would assume her ordinary duties in part. She was dispensed from recreation. In theory, she would practice two additional hours of meditation, that is to say four hours a day, and have a little more free time than usual.[ii]
Carmelites not on retreat made two hours of mental prayer every day. The two extra hours a day of private prayer furnished to the retreatant were from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., hours that fell during the work periods. She made this prayer where she liked. The retreatant was free from part of her usual work assignment, but did some work alone, probably in her cell.[iii] To further safeguard her solitude, she wore the transparent veil over her face at all times during her retreat. She could receive permission to communicate by letter with other sisters. Therese’s letters to her sister Pauline, Sister Agnes of Jesus, offer a vivid record of her retreats before her Clothing (January 10, 1889) and her Profession (September 8, 1890).[iv] Her seminal manuscript about the discovery of her vocation of love, with the letters surrounding it, is a “souvenir” of her private retreat in 1896.[v] When Therese rejoined the community after one ten-day private retreat, probably in 1891, she chose a chair by the first sister to turn up at recreation and did not even say hello to her sister Pauline. Mother Genevieve, to whom Pauline might have complained, reprimanded Therese, saying that “this was not understanding true charity.”[vi] Otherwise, we know little about Therese's annual private retreats.
Therese’s Profession retreat would normally have taken place about September 8, but 1891 was the first of three years in which she postponed it to make it coincide with the private retreat of Sister Martha of Jesus, which started a little later.[vii] Sister Martha, a lay-sister, had done her novitiate with Therese and had made profession on September 23, 1890, two weeks after Therese. When the two young nuns made their retreat together, Mother Gonzague allowed them one conversation together, during the Community’s midday recreation. Therese, who preferred solitude, found this a sacrifice. Therese was already on this shared private retreat around September 10-12, 1891.[viii] As the Profession retreat lasted ten days, it could have ended as late as September 20th. Thus, Therese had not much more than a fortnight after her personal retreat if the community retreat began on October 8th, 1891.[ix]
Preached retreats at Carmel
Circumstances of the community's annual retreats
The community’s annual retreat, always a preached retreat, lasted about a week. It was usually scheduled from October 8-15 to end on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. A guest priest was always invited to give the conferences, hear confessions, and offer spiritual direction to the nuns who asked him for it. Perhaps in order to give the nuns a change from their ordinary confessor, as well as to begin and end the retreat powerfully, it was customary for all the nuns to go to confession at the beginning of the retreat and to do so again toward the end. During Therese’s time at Carmel, the preachers were"
1887 Fr. Almire Pichon, a Jesuit [x].
1888 Probably Fr. Laurent Blino, a Jesuit [xi]
1889 no preached retreat due to work being done on the externs’ house. [xii]
1890 Fr. Godefroid Madelaine, a Norbertine – October? [xiii]
1891 Fr. Alexis Prou, October a Franciscan Recollect [xiv]
1892 Fr. Deodat de Basly, a Franciscan Recollect - November [xv]
1893 Fr. Armand Lemonnier, a missionary of the "Congrégation de Notre-Dame de la Délivrande de Bayeux" – October? [xvi]
1894 Fr. Armand Lemonnier – October? [xvii]
1895 Fr. Armand Leomonnier – October? [xviii]
1896 Fr. Godefroid Madelaine, Norbertine – October? [xix]
These annual preached retreats were supplemented by an occasional retreat for a special occasion (such as a retreat for the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Lisieux Carmel, preached by Fr. Almire Pichon, S.J. in May 1888) or a triduum for a particular anniversary (such as the third centenary of the death of St. John of the Cross in 1891 or the anniversary of the grace of Clovis in 1896). Thus, when Fr. Prou arrived, he was about to preach the third regular annual community retreat in which Therese had participated. It was her second community retreat as a professed nun.
Therese’s reaction to the preached retreats
Therese begins her account of the October 1891 retreat with surprising words: “Ordinarily, the retreats that are preached are more painful to me than the ones I make alone.”[xx] (Does she not intimate that both kinds were painful, but the preached retreats were worse?). In 1910 her sister Pauline, in religion Mother Agnes of Jesus, testified:
she had heard it said in some sermons that it was very easy to offend God and to stain one’s purity of conscience. This was a real torment to her.[xxi]
Again, in 1915, Mother Agnes of Jesus on the same topic:
She suffered very much [during the preached retreats][xxii] when, during the instructions, the preacher spoke of the ease with which one could fall into a mortal sin, even by a simple thought. It seemed so difficult, to her, to offend God when one loved Him! During the whole course of these exercises, I saw her pale and defeated; she could neither eat nor sleep, and would have fallen ill if they had continued.[xxiii]
Even more vividly, Mother Agnes describes a conversation she had with Therese during one such retreat:
During one of these retreats, I was the server in the refectory. And I was struck by her expression of anguish; she could not eat. I asked her about it later, and she told me that the instructions had left her in this state . . . instructions grounded in a spirit of fear.”[xxiv]
Since others testified that Therese always ate what she was served, never betrayed her dislikes, and swept up the crumbs and swallowed them, she must have been deeply disturbed to be unable to eat in the refectory. “My nature was such that fear made me recoil.[xxv]”
Therese’s distress could have been exacerbated by the probability that she (who as a child had been frightened by the priest’s conferences about how much God hated the soul in sin) was the only one in the community to react in this way to these retreats. When Sister Agnes was asked whether she herself experienced such feelings, she replied “In general, I was very happy and was not disturbed.”[xxvi] All in all, Therese’s past experience of preached retreats did not leave her feeling optimistic about the 1891 retreat.
The reaction of the preachers to Therese
Therese records no help that she received during the community retreats except from Fr. Pichon and Fr. Prou. (Fr. Madelaine, who counseled her at least once during her trial against faith, presumably also helped her; it was he who advised her to write out the Creed and carry it on her person). The Carmel’s confessors and preachers, however, thought highly of her.
Fr. Armand Lemonnier, who preached the next three retreats after Fr. Prou, testified of his esteem for her as novice mistress. He said the novices told him how much they trusted Therese’s advice, and related:
My personal conviction, which is determined by the knowledge I was able to gain of Sister Thérèse’s temperament, was also that they couldn’t have found a better guide, and I encouraged the nuns to trustingly follow her advice and example.[xxvii]
Interestingly, his opinions were formed in 1892, 1893, and 1894, when Therese, under the priorate of her sister, Mother Agnes of Jesus, had asked to stay in the novitiate, but was simply called “senior novice” and carried an informal commission from her sister to influence the formation of the other novices without upsetting the touchy novice mistress, Mother Gonzague. Fr. Lemonnier also spoke of how highly the community’s chaplain, M. Youf, thought of Therese:
“He expressed to me very plainly, and I can remember this very clearly, that he had absolute trust in the directives that the Servant of God gave the novices. He had also noticed that everything she wrote on spiritual things bore the mark of a very sure and very enlightened doctrine.”[xxviii]
Fathers Pichon, Prou, and Madelaine all praised Therese. Even Fr. Delatroette, the community’s ecclesiastical superior, who had so adamantly opposed her admission, was won over by her extraordinary presence of mind during the influenza epidemic of 1891-1892. Fr. Madelaine testified that Fr. Delatroette “would point out, with real veneration, the exceptional virtues of “little Sister Thérèse,” which is what he alled her."[xxix]
Coming Soon, Part 2 - "Therese's Dispositions in the Years Before She Met Fr. Prou"
[iii] Sainte Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897), by Guy Gaucher, O.C.D. (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2011, p. 344).
[iv] Letters of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Volume I, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, 1982, pp. 499-514 and pp. 651-671.
[v] Story of a Soul, study edition, pp. 293 to 309, and Letters of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Vol. II, pp. 991-1002..
[vi] Testimony of Sister Marie of the Angels at the Apostolic Process, 1187, cited in Letters, Vol. II, tr. ohn Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, 1982), LD, letter from Sister Agnes of Jesus to M. and Mme. Guerin, September 10-12, 1891, note 1, p. 736.
[vii] Ibid., p. 736.
[viii] Ibid., p. 736.
[ix] It is impossible to document the precise dates of the community retreat in 1891. The records of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux state only that it happened in October, and the Archives of Fr. Prou’s province, the Franciscan Province of St. Denis, have no other information. Until recently, most Theresian literature, including the first centenary edition of Therese’s works, used the dates October 8-15. Several recent publications have used October 7-15. I have been unable to confirm the exact dates. But some data operates in favor of October 7-15: (1) the community retreat usually ended on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila on October 15; (2) the correspondence to and from the Carmelite Martin sisters published on the Web site of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux at http://www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr/english/carmel/index.php/octobre-1891 begins on October 17, 1891 and continues through the end of the month, making it unlikely that the retreat ended on a date after October 16; (3) Father Prou might have arrived at Carmel on the evening of October 7th in order to begin preaching the retreat the next day.
[x] Letters I, op. cit., p. 462, note 1
[xi] Letters I, op. cit., p. 462, note 1.
[xii] Letters I, op. cit., p. 563
[xiv] Letters II, op. cit., p. 737.
[xv] Letters, Vol. II, op. cit., p. 763
[xx] Story of a Soul, study edition, op. cit., p. 269.
[xxi] St. Therese of Lisieux by those who knew her, testimony of Mother Agnes of Jesus at the 1910 Process, p. 43.
[xxii] Histoire d’une Ame, 1992, p. 254, note “80r, 22 ” states that the words “the preached retreats” had been erased from the original transcript of the Process published at Bayeux.
[xxiii] Testimony of Mother Agnes of Jesus at the Apostolic Process, July 7, 1915. My translation. http://www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr/carmel/index.php/6-agnes-de-jesus, .
[xxiv] Mother Agnes of Jesus, Carmel of Lisieux, 1953, p. 54. Quoted in Jean-Francois Six, Therese de Lisieux au Carmel, p. 137. My translation.
[xxv] Story of a Soul, study edition, op. cit.,p. 270..
[xxvi] Mother Agnes of Jesus, op. cit., p. 54. Quoted in Six, op. cit., p. 137, footnote 3. My translation.