125 Years Ago With Saint Therese of Lisieux:
Her Liberating Encounter with Father Alexis Prou
Part 2 of 7: Therese's dispositions in the years before she met Fr. Prou
Therese’s childhood retreats; her scruples
From early childhood Therese was anxious about whether God was pleased with her. At bedtime she would ask her sister:
“Was I very good today, Pauline? Will the little angels fly around me?” The answer was invariably “Yes,” otherwise I would have cried the whole night.[i]
At the age of twelve Therese found her unusual delicacy of constance changed into terrible scruples.
It was during my retreat for the second communion that I was assailed by the terrible sickness of scruples. One would have to pass through this martyrdom to understand it well, and for me to express what I suffered for a year and a half would be impossible. All my most simple thoughts and actions became the cause of trouble for me, and I had relief only when I told them to Marie. This cost me dearly, for I believed I was obliged to tell her the absurd thoughts I had even about her. As soon as I laid down my burden, I experienced peace for an instant; but this peace passed away like a lightning flash, and soon my martyrdom began over again.[ii]
Note that it was Therese’s retreat at the Benedictine Abbey for the solemn anniversary of her First Communion that provoked this crisis of scruples. Her very brief notes show why:
What M. l’abbe [Fr. Domin, the school chaplain] told us was frightening; he spoke to us of mortal sin. He depicted the state of a soul that was dying and of how God hated the soul in sin. He compared it to a little dove that is dipped in mud and can no longer fly because of that. He told us that we are in the same condition when we are in a state of mortal sin and that we can no longer raise our souls to God.
The particular judgmentiia
One can imagine how traumatic such conferences were to a hypersensitive child. If Therese heard conferences of a similar tone in Carmel (where she entered less than three years after this retreat), did they not awaken the unhappy memories of her childhood retreats?
In 1910, at the Ordinary Process, Therese’s sister Pauline, Mother Agnes of Jesus, testified:
In early childhood she used to worry about whether God was pleased with her or had something to reproach her with. Since I was a mother to her at the time, she would ask me every evening what I thought about this. When she was about twelve years old, she went through a year and a half of terrible scruples about every detail of her behavior. She was all the time scared of offending God in some way or other.[iii]
During this year and a half, every day when Therese returned from school and her sister Marie was curling her hair for the next day, Therese spent the whole time crying and telling her scruples. No doubt to prevent her from exacerbating the illness, Marie discouraged Therese from telling her confessor that she was suffering from scruples and permitted her to confess only a certain number of sins.[iv] In fact, her sisters sufficed as guides for the child Therese, who spent very little time in the confessional.
Therese’s first consoling confession, in May 1888, to Father Almire Pichon, S.J.
Therese recounts that, when Marie entered Carmel, leaving her without a guide at home, she prayed fervently to her four little brothers and sisters who had died to free her from scruples, and she experienced peace. But she continued to have anxieties of conscience. In May 1888, about six weeks after her entrance, Therese experienced consolation on this point in the confessional. Father Almire Pichon, a Jesuit priest who was a close friend of the Martin family, had come to preside at the Profession of Therese’s oldest sister, Marie of the Sacred Heart, and remained to preach a retreat in honor of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Lisieux Carmel. “My interview with the good Father was a great consolation to me . . .” Therese made her first general confession, and, at its conclusion Father Pichon solemnly assured her that she had never committed a mortal sin, “the most consoling words I ever heard in my life. . . . Gratitude flooded my soul. I had such a great fear of soiling my baptismal robe that words such as these . . . . seemed to me to be coming from the mouth of Jesus Himself.”[v] Recall that as a child Therese took the idea that the priest stood in the place of Jesus so literally that, before her first confession at about age six, she asked Pauline “Should I tell M. Ducellier that I love him with all my heart?” Even after she gained a more realistic appreciation of the humanity of priests during her pilgrimage to Rome, she was clearly likely to be extraordinarily swayed by their assessment of whether her conduct was pleasing to God.
Another retreat master, Fr. Blino: “Subdue your rash desires”
A second Jesuit, Father Laurent Blino, who encountered Therese appears to have failed completely to understand her. Sister Agnes of Jesus recounted Therese’s conversation with him:
“Father, I want to become a saint; I want to love God as much as St. Teresa,” she said to a retreat master. “What pride and what presumption!” he replied. “Confine yourself to correcting your faults, to offending God no longer, to making a little progress in virtue each day, and subdue your rash desires.” She answered ‘But, Father, I don’t think that these are rash desires; I can aspire to sanctity, even to a more elevated sanctity, if I wish, than that of St. Teresa, since Our Lord said ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ See, Father, how vast the field is, and it seems to me I have the right to run in it.’ The religious was not convinced, and the Servant of God was seeking, without being able to find it, the answer to her thoughts, her inner longings, someone in authority who would tell her: ‘Launch out into the sea and cast your nets; you are in the truth.’”[vi]
Therese stuck to her guns. No doubt immediately after this conversation, on May 19-20, 1890, she wrote to Celine:
Céline, do you think St. Teresa received more grace than you? ... As for myself, I shall tell you not to aim for her seraphic sanctity, but rather to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!' . .. Ah! Céline, our infinite desires are not, then, either dreams or fancies, since Jesus Himself has given us this commandment! . ..[vii]
Therese’s phrase “infinite desires” foreshadows her use of the same words in her “Offering of myself as a victim of holocaust to God’s Merciful Love,” written between June 9 and June 11, 1895. On another point: interestingly, although Mother Agnes states that Therese failed to win over Father Blino, Marie of the Trinity reports that Father Blino spoke to her about Sister Therese “with praise.”
Therese’s experience during her first years in Carmel
Therese’s first years in Carmel were years of pain. She writes “My first steps met with more thorns than roses! Yes, suffering opened wide its arms to me, and I threw myself into them with love . . . Jesus made me understand that it was through suffering that He wished to give me souls . . . This was my way for five years.”[viii] Therese writes of the distress caused by the prioress’s severity toward her and by the postponement of her profession. She suffered from the pin-pricks of community life, the cold, the inflexible timetable, the lack of sleep. The spiritual consolations she had enjoyed “in the world” disappeared, and she experienced almost uininterrupted spiritual dryness. But by far the greatest trial was her father’s illness. Louis Martin was showing signs of a serious cerebral disease. Two months after Therese entered, Louis, preoccupied with the desire to go away and be a hermit, perhaps to release Celine from caring for him, disappeared. Four days later he was found at Le Havre. His health declined until, on February 12, 1889, believing that he was a danger to himself and others, his brother-in-law committed him to a mental hospital, the Bon Sauveur in Caen. The venerable patriarch was now inmate no. 14,449. He would remain there for more than three years.
1888-1889: Therese continued to be afraid that she was not pleasing to God
In this context Therese continued to be anxious about offending God. Her mentors tried to reassure her. Her novice mistress, Mother Marie of the Angels: “Knowing that my little Therese is a prey to sadness is a cloud in the Heaven of my retreat.[ix]” Mother Gonzague: “I don’t want the child of my tenderness to allow her to go into such a great sorrow.”[x] “May Jesus take the poor grain of sand and hide it in His adorable Face . . . . there, the poor grain of sand will no longer have anything to fear, it will be sure of no longer sinning!”[xi] Marie of the Angels, “Yes, my beloved little daughter, Jesus is very, very much pleased with you . . .”[xii] Fr. Pichon: “I forbid you in the name of God to call into question your being in a state of grace. The devil is laughing heartily at you. I protest against this ugly mistrust.”[xiii]
1890: “Jesus can gve me the grace of . . . committing faults that don’t offend Him”
Until and after her Profession (September 8, 1890), Therese’s “peace remained fragile.” The severity of her ordinary confessor, Father Youf, did not help.[xiv] Yet this fragility was shot through with sudden lights. On September 3, 1890, five days before she made her vows, she wrote Pauline:
“Tell Him, too, to take me on the day of my profession if I must still offend Him afterward, for I’d like to carry to Heaven the white robe of my second Baptism without any stain on it But, it seems to me, that Jesus can give me the grace of no longer offending Him or committing faults that DON’T OFFEND Him but serve only to humble and to make love stronger.” [xv] (Italics added).
More than a year before she met Father Prou, Therese had already received, during a private retreat, the light that God could give her the grace of committing faults that do not offend God. Indeed, she goes beyond the reassurance she records Fr.Prou as giving her: ”my faults caused God no pain.” In 1890, she intuits that these faults could actually do her good, “to humble and to make love stronger,” and what could be more important to Therese than growing in love? This letter attests that Fr. Prou’s role in Therese’s spiritual development was to confirm her intuition and to restore her peace by sealing it with the sanction of authority.
Nevertheless, in the end of 1890 and in 1891, Therese is still concerned with her faults. Marie de Gonzague writes to her: “I do not believe my little lamb is without faults . . . Do not be disturbed by the prayer of St. Peter [that is, by sleeping during prayer].”[xvi] In the autumn of 1890 or 1891 Marie of the Angels assures her: “Jesus is pleased.”[xvii] In July 1891 Therese wrote to Celine:
No one knows if one is just or sinful, but, Céline, Jesus gives us the grace of feeling at the bottom of our heart that we would prefer to die rather than to offend Him . . . [xviii]
Therese’s “No one knows if one is just or sinful” foreshadows the quotation “No one knows if he is worthy of love or hate,” a sentence which caused her to burst into tears until, a few months later, Fr. Prou explained it to her.[xix] In an environment dominated by fear, Therese’s fears were driven up. Thus she was being prepared for her liberating encounter with Father Alexis Prou.
Coming Soon: Part 3 of 7, "Father Alexis Prou, Franciscan"
[i] Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese, A Study Edition, prepared by Marc Foley, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C. Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, Inc., 2005), p. 59.
[ii] Ibid., p. 129.
[iii] St. Therese of Lisieux by those who knew her, tr. Christopher O’Mahony, O.C.D. (Dublin: Veritas, 1975), p. 44.
[iv] Ibid., p. 88.
[v] Story of a Soul, op.cit., p. 232.
[vi] NPPA of Mother Agnes of Jesus, Hope, p. 2. Cited in Letters, Vol. I, p. 623 (LT 108, footnote 8). The first centenary edition of Therese’s letters states here: “It is difficult to date this conversation (and even to guarantee its literalness).” That edition also suggests that Fr/ Blino probably preached the Community retreat in October 1888, but it also points out that the testimony of Marie of the Trinity suggests that Fr. Blino’s conversation with Therese took place a short time before August 1890, when Fr. Blino told Marie of the Trinity that he had just returned from preaching a retreat at the Lisieux Carmel. The first centenary edition says “research, up to this point, has not shed any light on this point of chronology.”
It is likely that P. Blino gave the Community retreat in October 1888. But, in his 2011 biography, Therese de Lisieux (1873-1897), Guy Gaucher states that Fr. Blino’s conversation with Therese took place in May 1890. Perhaps he was guided by Therese’s very similar words in a letter to Celine, quoted above, written that month.
[vii] Letters, Vol. I, LT 108, May 19-20, 1890, pp. 621-622.
[viii] Story of a Soul, study edition, op. cit., pp. 231-232.
[ix] Letters, Vol. I, p. 475, Nov. 1888.
[x] Ibid., p 483, Dec. 6-10, 1888.
[xi] Ibid., p. 580, July-August 1889.
[xii] Ibid., p. 598, November 21, 1889 (?).
[xiii] Ibid., p. 585, October 4, 1889.
[xiv]Ibid., LT 112,September 1, 1890, p. 659, footnote 5: “Her peace was still fragile, it seems; see LT 95, note 7; LC 117, note 4, and LT 114, note 9. The chaplain, “a priest and director whose spirituality was rather austere” (P. Lemonnier, PO, 522), was not capable of setting the penitent at ease; nevertheless, he greatly esteemed Therese. Mother Agnes of Jesus stated: “One day, Therese admitted to the confessor her distress at suffering from exhaustion during the Mass even to the point of not being able to shake off sleep,” and he gave her a severe reprimand and told her she was offending God.” (NPPA, Prudence, Directors; undated episode in Therese’s life). The other religious were led along the same “energetic path”: Thus, Sister Therese of St. Augustine was dismissed from the confessional with these encouraging words: “My poor child, all I can tell you is that you already have one foot in hell and that, if you continue, you will soon put the second one there.” This religious’ Circular, p. 5). Mother Marie de Gonzague treated the matter with good humor: “Don’t worry, I myself have both feet in it!” (DCL). See CJ 6.6.2.”
[xv] The letter Therese wore over her heart on the day of her Profession opens “O Jesus, my Divine Spouse! May I never lose the second robe of my baptism! Take me before I can commit the slightest voluntary fault.” Story of a Soul, study edition, op. cit., p. 433. Although today a religious profession is considered an extension of the baptismal vocation, in Therese’s epoch it was considered a “second baptism.” See, for example, the letter of Sister Marie of the Eucharist (Therese’s cousin, Marie Guerin) to her parents, March 13, 1897, as she prepared for her own Profession. Asking their pardon for all her faults, she adds: “As for God, He’s going to forgive me for all the faults I’ve committed in my life, too, and when you see me again, you’ll be able to contemplate the same innocence in my soul as when, as a tiny child, I was washed in the Baptismal water.” http://www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr/english/carmel/index.php/marie-guerin-soeur-marie-de-leucharistie/14366-marie-g-%C3%A0-parents-13-mars-1897
[xvi] Letters, Vol. II, p. 717 – end of 1890, summer of 1891.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 719 - Autumn 1890 or 1891.
[xviii] Letters, Vol. II, op. cit. (LT 129, note 8, p. 729.
[xix] Ibid., p. 731, LT 129, note 8.