Appeared in Vol. 9 No. 4 Download PDF here

The article below is the first of a two part study of the theology of “con-crucixion “ of St. Theresa of Lisieux. In this first part, Fr. Kevin Myers indicates the sources of St. Theresa’s spirituality (St. Paul, the French School of seventeenth century theologians, her relationship with her father, and certain key spiritual works) and shows her early development in the Carmel of Lisieux. The second part, forthcoming in the next issue, treats her mature spirituality and mission.

Part I: Origins

Introduction: Influences’s on Theresa’s Theology

Optatum totius1 points out that theology must be studied in light of the mystery of Christ affecting the whole course of human history. The theologian must enter deeply into each aspect of the mystery of Christ, making the conclusions of his studies known to the Church in a way that is clear, precise, and consistent with the Faith. Saint Theresa of Lisieux is a theologian, according to these criteria, not because of a systematic, academic investigation into any aspect of the mystery of Christ in which, from her childhood to her early death at age 24, she explored and lived and taught a theology of the Cross. We may call this theology one of “concrucifixion”, by which we understand that all Christians are to have a share in Christ’s redemptive suffering. This theology was influenced by the French religious culture of the period (late nineteenth century France), by her family, and by her Carmelite life; the theology itself is an explanation of the doctrine we find in Saint Paul. This theology of the Cross which Theresa proclaims in her life and writings is very much one for the Church. It is not only hers, but it is an authentic interpretation of the Gospel for the whole Church. Indeed, as we will see, Theresa’s theology of the Cross opened her heart to the mystery of Christ in His Church, and revealed to her the mission which was hers for the sake of the Church.

For Saint Paul, the “cross” meant, in each Christian’s life, an actual share in the crucifixion of Christ. From this share in Christ’s Death there arises a possession of His Risen Life. In weakness and suffering there is the strength of Christ (II Cor. 12:9-10). The old man-degenerate and sinful-is crucified with Christ and is raised to share the Life of the Lord (Romans 6:5-8). Those who are Christ’s have crucified their lower natures (Galatians 5:24): Saint Paul states, “I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ now lives in me; and my present bodily life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Thus self-emptying becomes the very means of glorification, a theme developed in the letter to the Philippians.

There is no ambiguity in Saint Paul’s theology of concrucifixion concerning the objectivity of Redemption. The cross is his “glory” because through it he is crucified with Christ for the salvation of the world (cf. Rom. 8:17). By the Blood of Jesus shed for us, all mankind is reconciled to God (Col. 1:20). In this way, then, Saint Paul employs the Cross of the Lord as a summary statement of the whole Gospel. In I Cor. 1:7, he is “proclaiming the Gospel”, and immediately in v. 18 he is proclaiming “this doctrine of the Cross.” In I Cor. 2:1-5, Saint Paul speaks of his proclamation of Jesus Christ: “Christ nailed to the Cross.”2 Of this redemption wrought for man by God in Jesus Christ, Saint Paul is the herald and apostle, and he entrusts this mission of his to his own disciples (I Tim. 1:18; 2:7). Clearly, he developed a theology of the Cross which was personal and ecclesial, and which demanded of him a mission to the Church, indeed to the whole world (I Tim. 2:4).

As we shall later see, this very aspect of the Pauline theology of the Cross was the key to understanding the French School of spirituality, which provided the immediate religious milieu of Saint Theresa and her family. Indeed, we may trace a connection between the great seventeenth century theologians (Saint Francis de Sales and the masters of the “French School”) and Theresa of Lisieux. First of all, Pierre de Berulle was himself responsible for bringing the Reformed Carmel of Teresa of Avila into France: for a number of years he was the superior of all the Carmelite houses in that country. It was, of course, in the Carmel that Theresa and her sisters consecrated their lives to God.3 Furthermore, Theresa’s two oldest sisters, Marie and Pauline, who both had a great influence on the young Theresa, were educated by the Sisters of the Visitation, an order founded by Francis de Sales. Another sister, Leonie, became a Visitation religious after leaving the Martin household. At the Process for the Beatification of Theresa, Leonie testified ” . . . there is great devotion to her in all our convents. This is not surprising, however, since her piety is the same in spirit as ours and as that of our holy founder Saint Francis de Sales.”4

Theresa’s mother, Zelie Martin, had a great interest in the Visitation community and in their co-founder with Saint Francis, Saint Jane de Chantal. In 1875, she wrote to Pauline, “I have just been reading the life of Saint Jane and I am utterly beside myself with admiration. It interests me all the more since I have always thought highly of the Order of the Visitation. But now, I love it still more. How happy all those who are called to it seem to me.” Mme. Martin was also devoted to one of the earliest French Carmelites, the disciple of Pierre de Berulle, Mme. Acarie (Blessed Marie of the Incarnation)5 of this great lady who lived from 1566 to 1618, C.C. Martindale wrote that she “influenced the whole of the religious future of France.”6

We have seen two lines connecting Saint Theresa to the French School and to Saint Francis de Sales: through Berulle, in his establishment and direction of the Reformed Carmel in France; to Saint Francis de Sales, through the Visitation religious by whom Theresa’s family was influenced. We must examine in particular some aspects of the French School which we will see reflected in the Theresian theology of the Cross.

The French School, as Pierre de Berulle gave it expression, was a profound synthesis of Christology and spirituality. It turned popular piety away from the distracting external practices of earlier ages toward a unique Christocentric spirituality which made a man’s incorporation into Christ the code of Christian moral perfection. This incorporation into Christ in turn led the followers of Berulle to explore deeply the Pauline doctrine of the Mystical Body.

To develop the union of the individual Christian with Christ, it was necessary to see the events of the Lord’s life as mysteries with an exterior and interior value. The exterior value of every event in Christ’s life was primarily sacramental, containing a communication of grace for mankind (the grace being the interior value of the particular event). Thus the humanity of Christ is of primary importance in communicating the grace of His life to us. Through the various historical events of Christ’s life, now finished in time, the effect of His saving acts lives on forever.

The interior dispositions of Jesus in the events of His life are the “states” of Jesus, the virtues to which Christians should aspire. Basic to all the states of Christ is the “infinite servitude” of His humanity to His Divinity in the Hypostatic Union. This subservience in Christ of humanity to Divinity is the primary posture of man before God: adoration. Out of the Christian’s adoration of Jesus (what Jean-Jacques Olier refers to as “looking upon Jesus”), grow communion (“union with Jesus”) and cooperation (“action in Jesus”). Thus, Christian life and prayer are a sharing in the mysteries of Christ: our lives as Christians are an actual participation in and living out of Christ’s own life in His Mystical Body, the Church.7

In His glorified Body, Jesus appears before the Father not only as Victor over death, but as Victim-as perfect and all-sufficient Victim for mankind’s salvation. It is in this victimhood of Christ’s that the Mystical Body now shares, awaiting a share in the glorified life of Christ the Victor. Fr. Olier sums up this doctrine of the Christian life beautifully in his work La Grande Messe: Christ desires “to make of the whole world but one Church, to make of all men but one adorer, to make of all our voices but one voice of praise, and to make of all our hearts but one victim in Himself, Who is the universal and unique adorer of God, His Father” (8, 3:4-33).

Berulle’s doctrine of self-abnegation demands an “interior annihilation” in the Christian so that the spirit of Jesus may reign there. The soul confesses that before God, Who is All, self is nothing at all. This is what is meant by the term which Berulle employed and Theresa later developed: “spiritual childhood.” This title reminds us that “interior annihilation” is not a violent self-destruction, but the gentle and peaceful abandonment of a child in the arms of its father.8

The spirit of the French School certainly permeated the spiritual heritage which the nineteenth century French religious establishment offered to Christians of that era, and undoubtedly nourished the piety of Theresa’s father, Louis Martin. Perhaps no other person had as deep an effect on Theresa as he. Between them, especially after the death of her mother, there was a bond of affection which gathered together into one person all the love which had been bestowed on Theresa by her parents and sisters in so many ways during her childhood. It is true as well that M. Martin became the visible reference for Theresa’s primary understanding of love in regard to God. In her autobiography, Theresa refers to God in these words: “Papa le bon Dieu,” Daddy the good God.9 Out of this kindness and affection grew a great love for God, and bound to that love was a sincere and entire confidence: love and confidence, two key virtues in all Theresa’s writings. In a letter to her father, dated July 31, 1888, Theresa wrote: “When I think of you, little Father, I naturally think of the good God, for it seems to me impossible to find anyone on earth holier than you. Yes, you are quite certainly as much of a saint as St. Louis himself, and I feel the need to keep telling you that I love you, as if you didn’t know it already. …”10

One biographer of Theresa notes that her father was well-known in his community as a saint, it is true, but he was also well-known for having saved the life of a drowning friend, for participating fully in the volunteer fire department (he single-handedly put out a fire in one home and saved the occupant), for separating two young street fighters, and for beating off a wild bull who was tearing up his fishing gear! He brought home drunks and the destitute aged, he took in an entire family when they were evicted from their home, and he even went begging in a railroad station for a poor man with his own hat.11

Louis Martin was the son of a French military family, followers of Napoleon. His political sentiments always remained strongly royalist. He was certainly a romantic, and his whole life is filled with attempts at achieving the ideal. He was given to long period of meditation, setting up for this purpose a private retreat for himself in his attic and in the countryside. His favorite authors were all men of profound reflection, and men of faith: Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Fenelon. From them he drew nourishment for his faith, out of his concern with the things of eternity even in the midst of his businessman’s world. As a young man he had sought to join the Augustinian Canons of Saint Bernard in their Alpine monastery. Even this desire was romantic: a combination of the desire to serve with the need for contemplative life set in a distant land to satisfy his desire for travel.12

In losing his wife to death, and his daughters to the convent, M. Martin was sincerely abandoned to the will of God. When Theresa, at age seven, saw him in a vision from her bedroom window, he was walking in the garden, all aged and bent, with a veil over his face.

It was indeed Papa, who was wearing on his venerable countenance and white hair the symbol of his glorious trial. Just as the adorable Face of Jesus was veiled during His Passion, so the face of His faithful servant had to be veiled in the days of his sufferings in order that it might shine in the heavenly Fatherland near its Lord, the Eternal Word.13

Saint Theresa is here referring to the series of strokes which her father suffered over a period of some five years during which he gradually became paralyzed and senile. During the early stages of this illness he would cover his face with a towel, as if to cover the shame of his illness. Throughout this tragedy, M. Martin maintained an interior peace which had long been his. In periods of cogency he would participate in the life of the Church as well as he could, even with daily Mass and Holy Communion. He never showed signs of revolt. Fr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist, says of M. Martin: “Thus did great holiness show its power to maintain the vigor of the personality in spite of ever increasing damage to the brain.”14

We should reflect, finally, on M. Martin’s oblation of himself to God. Writing to her sister, Pauline, Theresa briefly related the circumstances:

0 Mother, do you remember the day and the visit when he said to us: “Children, I returned from Alencon where I received in Notre-Dame church such great graces, such consolations that I made this prayer: My God! it is too much! yes, I am too happy, it isn’t possible to go to heaven this way. I want to suffer something for you! I offer myself . . . ” the word victim died on his lips; he didn’t dare pronounce it before us, but we had understood.15

The love and confidence that were given to Louis Martin by his youngest daughter in a natural way became unshakeable confidence in Divine Providence in the supernatural order. From her confidence in God, Theresa received her mission to make God loved, to remind the world that God is not only Creator, Lord, and Judge, but primarily wise and loving Father, truly “Papa le bon Dieu.” Every detail of our lives is surrounded by the care and protection of God. Such a love demands a response of love-love for God in Jesus, love for Jesus in others. Thus did love become the motivating principle of Theresa’s life.16

The faith life of Louis Martin, in many aspects the product of the French School, was bound inseparably to his charity, or, in Olier’s words, his “cooperation” with Jesus. This participation in living out Christ’ life here and now was itself a whole school of spirituality out of which Theresa could draw the essence of her theology of the Cross. It was here that she learned that union with the Lord is not an end in itself: it is for the Church. Just as Jesus’ Incarnation was not His end or goal, but the source of His fulfillment of His Father’s Will, so are Christian prayer and virtue the source of a life of Christian charity and service. This is the great mystery of Christ: just as He was incarnated, lived, died, rose, and ascended to do His Father’s Will (to achieve our salvation) so are our lives, in union with every event of Christ’s life, to be efforts to do the Father’s Will. In this way we continue the saving work of Christ by sharing in it ourselves and bringing its benefits to others.

The immense importance of Theresa’s adaptation of this powerful spiritual dynamism is in her synthesis of theology and spirituality with the goal being Jesus Christ Himself. In the Middle Ages and in the era of the French School, the Church’s great theologians were saintly men. But since the seventeenth century, theology and spirituality have been increasingly separated from the active Christian life. Theresa reunited these three aspects of our Faith. The most important dimension to any saint’s life is his mission for the Church. This mission, in each case, derives from the combination of theology, spirituality, and action which is unique to the saint’s own participation in the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus does the whole person of the saint become an instrument of Christ for accomplishing His Father’s Will, which is the salvation of mankind.17

In her autobiography, Saint Theresa mentions two books which were especially influential on her childhood, two books from which she later developed concepts important in her theology of the Cross. These books were The End of the World and the Mysteries of the World to Come, by Abbe C. Arminjon, and the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.

The End of the World had been a gift to M. Martin from Liseux Carmel while Theresa was still a youngster, just eleven years old, wrote of it: “This reading was one of the greatest graces in my life. All the great truths of religion, the mysteries of eternity, plunged my soul into a state of joy not of this earth.”18 The last chapter of this interesting little book on eschatology (very popular in its day) was entitled, “Of the Secret of Suffering in Its Relation to the Life to Come.” There we can read the author’s fervent encouragement to lead a life of penance and detachment, but, more importantly for our purposes, an account of God’s desire to bestow love on His faithful servants:

Can I respond to the gift which the saints have made to Me other than by giving Myself now, without limit or measure? … I must penetrate them with My Blessedness as fire penetrates iron … Thus it must be, that My glory illuminate them, that it break forth and radiate from all the pores of their being, that they recognize Me as I recognize them, that they become as gods.19

Father Arminjon’s counsels are unmistakeably present in Theresa’s theology when we consider his call to “une vive et inebranlable confiance”-a lively and unshakeable confidence in the mercy of God.

Theresa found the whole book to have its fundamental meaning in the context of the chapter on suffering. Here is a theology of Christian fraternity, for we are all “brothers in pain,” suffering the cruelties of human life. In this fraternity of suffering, human beings confirm their own sacredness, their relationship to Jesus the Lord, their living imitation of the Crucified. Commenting on the text of Saint Paul, “I am filling up those things which are still lacking of the sufferings of Christ in my own flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24), Father Arminjon shows in some detail that the Passion did not end with Golgatha, but is extended in the life of each Christian. We will see how, in the life of Saint Theresa, union with the Crucified Jesus was manifested in a deep love for the Church.20

In the letters of Saint Theresa, we find two references to Father Arminjon’s work which express precisely the value it had for her view on suffering in union with Christ. In July 1888, she wrote to Celine, quoting The End of the World, in order to tell her that bearing the sorrow of their Father’s illness joyfully was a way to dry the tears of the suffering Jesus and to make the Blessed Virgin Mary smile. Writing April 3, 1891, again to Celine, Theresa advised her to lend Abbe Arminjon’s book to their mutual friend who was suffering severe temptations against the Faith, and had to hide such works from her family.21 Serving Christ; serving Christ in others, members of His Mystical Body: Theresa’s doctrine of the Cross was being formed.

The book of meditations and exhortations which we know as the Imitation of Christ was truly Theresa’s. Even as a child of eleven she had memorized almost the entire book.22 The Imitation is founded on a strong desire to serve and to imitate Christ. It introduced Theresa to the idea of a life which would spend itself in leading others to this same intimacy with God in the Church.23

All the admonitions of the Imitation direct Christians to a life of solitude and prayer, and to a life wherein one is emptied of everything that is not of Christ: experiences, memories, friends, until the only true and permanent friendship is with the Lord Himself. Beyond this internalizing of the experiences of life, the Christian is shown how to actively seek and to follow the Way of the Cross. All the movements of the heart must be made to blend into Christ, and all the suffering one endures must be endured with Christ as He suffered for us. Theresa knew the meaning of the Imitation, and this meant knowing suffering, even meant loving to suffer with Christ.24 This is what she tells us at the time of her First Holy Communion in 1884, at the age of eleven:

I repeated to myself these words of St. Paul: It is no longer I who live;it is Jesus who lives in me! Since that Communion, my desire to receive grew more and more, and I obtained permission to go to Holy Communion on all the principal feasts. On the eve of each of these happy days, Marie took me on her kness and prepared me as she did for my First Communion. I remember how once she was speaking to me about suffering and she told me that I would probably not walk that way, that God would always carry me as a child.

The day after my Communion, the words of Marie came to my mind. I felt born within my heart a great desire to suffer, and at the same time the interior assurance that Jesus reserved a great number of crosses for me. I felt myself flooded with consolations so great that I look upon them as one of the greatest graces of my life. Suffering became my attraction; it had charms about it which ravished me without my understanding them very well. Up until this time, I had suffered without loving suffering, but since this day I felt a real love for it. I also felt the desire of loving only God, of finding my joy only in Him. Often during my Communions, I repeated these words of the Imitation: “0 Jesus, unspeakable sweetness, change all the consolations of this earth into bitterness for me. “25

According to Sr. Genevieve, in June of that year, preparing for Confirmation,

Therese was no longer herself, usually so calm: there was a kind of enthusiasm and excitement about her. One day during her preparatory retreat, when I told her how astonished I was to see her like this, she explained to me what she understood of the power of this Sacrament: how the Spirit of Love was going to take possession of her whole being. There was such vehemence in her speech and such fire in her eyes that I felt deeply moved. …26

Of the actual day of her Confirmation, Theresa had this to say: “On that day I was given the strength to suffer.”27

By meditating on the Imitation during the last years before her entry into Carmel, Theresa’s view of her own life was directly affected by the book’s strong emphasis on self-abnegation, and its concern with Christian living being devoted lovingly and entirely to God, Whose love for us brought Him to the agony of the Cross.28

The fourth book of the Imitation of Christ deals with the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Two chapters, eight and nine, are complementary statements about the soul’s oblation in union with Christ, first from the point of view of the Lord, then from the point of view of the disciple. These chapters, and several others throughout the book, afforded Theresa an understanding of what would later become her self-oblation to the Merciful Love of God.29. In chapter eight, “Of the Oblation of Christ on the Cross, and of a Full Forsaking of Ourselves,” Christ says to His servant:

As I offered Myself to God the Father for your sins, hanging all naked with My arms spread wide upon the Cross, so that nothing remained in Me, but all went in sacrifice to please My Father and to appease His wrath against mankind, so in the Mass you daily ought to offer yourself freely to God as much as you can, as a pure and holy oblation. …

But if you have trust in yourself and do not freely offer yourself to My Will, your oblation is not pleasing and there will not be between us a perfect union. A free offering of yourself into the hands of God must precede all your works if you will obtain grace and true liberty.30

The response of the disciple follows immediately in chapter nine, “That We Ought to Offer Ourselves and All That Is Ours to God, and Pray for All People.”

I desire to offer myself to You in free and perpetual oblation, so that I may forever be with You. Lord, in simplicity of heart, I offer myself this day to You, to be Your servant in service and sacrifice of perpetual praise.31

There follows a long prayer of intercession for all people, that they may profit from the self-offering that the disciple has made in union with the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ.

These are the influences which prepared Theresa for her entry into Carmel at the age of fifteen. They are the circumstances which God used in preparing her as well for her mission in the whole Church. It is important to understand the attitude of Theresa just prior to her entry into the Lisieux convent of the Carmelites. It is the product of all the influences we have traced thus far:

One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking of this blood falling to the ground without anyone’s hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls. The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: “I thirst!” These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls.32

This consuming desire for the salvation of souls was the first fruit of Theresa’s “Christmas conversion” on Christmas Eve, 1886. By enabling Theresa to overcome her fears and her extreme sensitivity, Jesus, she says,

was more merciful to me than He was to His disciples. He Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it up full of fish . . . He made of me a fisher of souls. I experienced a great desire to labor for the conversion of sinners, a desire that I had never felt so deeply . In a word, I desired charity to enter my heart. . . .33

Immediately, Theresa relates the practical result of her religious experience, the last-minute conversion of the murderer Pranzini, for whom she had prayed so fervently. This section of Theresa’s autobiography is remarkably to the point in exemplifying Theresa’s combination of theology, spirituality, and action. She combines three episodes which were separated in time over a period of a year (her Christmas conversion, her mystical experience before the image of the Crucified, and her intercession for Pranzini) as one work of God in her life. Each episode combines elements of theology, spirituality, and action, and the three episodes together determine the path which the mature Theresa will follow in the cloister of Carmel.

Wasn’t it before the wounds of Jesus , when seeing His divine blood flowing, that thirst for souls had entered my heart? I wished to give them this immaculate blood to drink, this blood which was to purify them from their stains, and the lips of my `;first child” were pressed to the sacred wounds!

What an unspeakably sweet response! After this unique grace my desire to save souls grew each day, and I seemed to hear Jesus say to me what He had said to the Samaritan woman: “Give me to drink!” It was a true interchange of love; to souls I was giving the blood of Jesus, to Jesus I was offering these same souls refreshed by the divine dew. I slaked His thirst and the more I gave Him to drink, the more the thirst of my poor little soul increased and, and it was this ardent thirst He was giving me as the most delightful drink of His love.35

II Carmel

Loving God is not a matter of instinct, or imagination, or sentiment: this love resides in the will. It is necessary, therefore, that the Christian who seeks to love God must unite his own will with God’s will. This union with God’s will produces a transformation within one’s own will. In this way a collaboration, the “cooperation” of Olier, develops between God and the believer. This is what St. Paul taught: “As God’s beloved children, you must be like Him. Order your lives in charity, upon the model of that charity which Christ showed us, when He gave Himself up on our behalf, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as He offered it up to God” (Eph. 5:1). And this is the teaching of Saint John of the Cross for all Carmelites: ” … in the state of divine union a man’s will is so completely transformed in God’s will that it excludes anything contrary to God’s will, and in all and through all is motivated by the will of God” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, I: 11, 2).36

Coming to learn how to love God, how to conform her will even more closely to God’s Will, was Theresa’s life-long task in Carmel, her vocation. This is, of course, the task of every Carmelite and does not end with solemn profession, but extends throughout one’s life as a religious. We may technically speak of Theresa’s “formation years” (postulancy, novitiate, juniorate: 1888 to 1893) and her “direction years” (as dean of the novices until her death: 1893 to 1897). However, as we view Theresa’s life from our day, we see this separation is somewhat imposed, since she never stopped being conformed unto God’s Will even at the moment of her death. Theresa’s life is extraordinary in many ways by being so ordinary: she always remained in the state of one who is learning, and yet by her “studies” we are taught so much. Always God’s pupil, she is always our teacher. So we will examine in this section Theresa’s life as a Carmelite, and how it influenced the mission which was hers.

Our Lord said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it” (St. Mark 8:34-35). Saint John of the Cross, the Father of the Carmelite Reform, expands the meaning of this text:

To journey to God, the will must walk in detachment from every pleasant thing, rather than in attachment to it. It thus carries out well the commandment of love, which is to love God above all things; this cannot be done without nakedness and emptiness concerning them all (The Living Flame of Love, III 51).

This emptiness, or sacrifice of self, called “detachment” by Carmelite spiritual writers (Berulle’s doctrine of self-abnegation), is not a matter of intellectual suicide. It is, rather, a response to the demands of love-the love of Christ Crucified for each person. This doctrine of detachment is, in effect, a commentary on Saint Paul’s desire to renew the “old man” (Eph. 4:20-24). The Carmelite is not left with a denial of self in this detachment, but with an overwhelming of self by the Person of Jesus Christ. The Carmelite is thus resolved to live in union with Christ, and to imitate Him in every daily situation. A merely external conformity to the life of Christ is not sufficient: but to become entirely caught up into His life-the life of the Victim for our redemption-means union with Christ in His annihilation. According to Saint John of the Cross, the emptiness a Carmelite experiences in coming to Christ is his own particpation in the kenosis of the Lord’s Incarnation (Ascent, II: 6). Thus is conformation unto the Crucified at the heart of the Carmelite life. This is why the crosses in Carmelite cells are traditionally without a corpus: each Carmelite is to mount the Cross in his daily life.

Sr. Elizabeth of the Trinity, writing in the Carmel of Dijon at the beginning of the twentieth century, explained this doctrine of detachment:

A Carmelite is one who has beheld the Crucified, who has seen Him offering Himself to His Father as a victim for souls and, meditating in the light of this great vision of Christ’s charity, has understood the passion of love that filled His soul and has willed to give herself as He did.37

These last words carry the definition of Carmelite life even further. In giving oneself as Christ gave Himself, the Carmelite is participating in this way of life for the sake of the Church. In this self-annihilation Jesus has a new humanity to live once more among us, His People as a continual sacrifice of propitiation for sin. This means offering oneself in sacrifice for the Mysitcal Body of Christ as an heroic, though hidden, apostle.38

How can the life of a cloistered nun bear fruit in the active ministry of the Church? This, certainly, is the “Communion of Saints” at work, a union of souls based on the love of Jesus Christ which pervades the Church. This transfer of repairing-virtue from the sufferings of holy Christians to the world wounded by sin is based on love. Both the active ministry of evangelization and the contemplative ministry of prayer are together the true expression of religious zeal. And they are fundamentally an imitation of Christ: His preaching and labors on the one hand, His victimal suffering and death on the other. These aspects of the religious life are inseparable in the Church, although an individual Christian life may be more devoted to one aspect than to the other.39

This is exactly what Pope Paul VI discussed in his Apostolic Letter of January, 1967, Indulgentiarum Doctrine.

By the hidden and kindly mystery of God’s will a supernatural solidarity reigns among men. A consequence of this is that the sin of one person harms other people just as one person’s holiness helps others. In this way Christian believers help each other to reach their supernatural destiny. …

Following in Christ’s steps, those who believe in Him have always tried to help one another along the path which leads to the Heavenly Father, through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of love, the more they have imitated Christ in His sufferings. They have carried their crosses to make expiation for their own sins and the sins of others. They were convinced that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God who is the Father of Mercies. This is the very ancient dogma called the Communion of Saints. It means that the life of each individual son of God is joined in Christ and through Christ by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brethren. Together they form the supernatural unity of Christ’s Mystical Body so that, as it were, a single mystical person is formed (II: 4, 5).

This is truly why Theresa came to the Carmel: very early in her life she recognized the union of prayer and evangelization, and she saw that the success of the active life in the Church depended on the strength of the Church’s contemplative life. Theresa’s sister Celine reports this at the Process for the Beatification:

… at fourteen, after her “conversion” (as she called it), she thought of religious life chiefly as a means of saving souls. For that reason she toyed with the idea of joining a congregation of missionary sisters, but the hope of saving more souls through mortification and self-sacrifice made her decide to shut herself up in Carmel. She told me the reason for this decision herself: it was in order to suffer more, and in that way win more souls for Jesus. She considered it harder for human nature to work without ever seeing the fruit of one’s labours, to toil on without encouragement or any kind of relief. She said the hardest work of all was to work on oneself in order to gain self-mastery. So it was this living death, which was more lucrative in souls won, that she decided to embrace, wishing, as she said herself “to become a prisoner as soon as possible, in order to bring people the beauties of Heaven.”40

The value-or power-of the contemplative life for Christian evangelization may strike us as a contradiction in terms. But Theresa, summing up the meaning of her whole life at the end of the section of The Story of a Soul dedicated to Mother Gonzague, strongly reaffirmed the power of contemplation for action:

A scholar has said: “Give me a lever and a fulcrum and I will lift the world.” What Archimedes was not able to obtain, for his request was not directed by God and was only made from a material viewpoint, the saints have obtained in all its fullness. The Almighty has given them as fulcrum: HIMSELF ALONE; as lever: PRAYER which burns with a fire of love. And it is in this way that they have lifted the world; it is in this way that the saints still militant lift it up, and that, until the end of time,the saints to come will lift it.41

Here there is the continuation of a theme which we have already seen to be influential throughout Theresa’s younger years: the union of the souls with God must have an ecclesial goal. For a Carmelite nun-most profoundly aware of her inability to “do” anything of special value for God or for souls-the hiddenness of her vocation dramatically emphasizes the power of God’s love. Through her, God’s love touches countless souls in various hidden, but nonetheless real, ways. This is a life which is not concerned about success-is even happy with its own frailty when it can be a more fitting instrument for God’s work of salvation in souls. The whole purpose of the Carmelite life is for a nun to become not “something” but “nothing”, in order for her emptiness to be transformed into the fullness of Christ. Ultimately, said Saint John of the Cross, the Carmelite life is the integral observance of the great commandment of Christ: to love God and neighbor.42

Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important influences on Saint Theresa in her first years as a Carmelite nun, wrote, “He who seeks not the Cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ.” From Saint John, Theresa drew guidance and a means of expression for the desires of her heart. In John of the Cross she found a guide in the way of humility-a further expression of the self-abnegation of the Imitation and of the French School:

                    Descending into the depths of my own nothingness

I was then so exalted that I attained my goal.

Theresa’s goal, quoting Saint John as she does in this passage, was the same
as his goal: to be consumed by God’s love swiftly, and this for the cause
of Carmel’s very existence: the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.43
The ninth and tenth chapters of Theresa’s autobiography, The Story of
a Soul,
are a meditation on charity. She says that the commandment to love
God and the commandment to love one’s neighbor are inseparable. Writing
just three months before her death from tuberculosis, so weak that she had
to use a pencil since a quill was too heavy, Theresa said she had now learn
ed to love her sisters in Carmel, not only because Jesus lives in them by grace, but simply because Jesus loves them as individuals; because they are living in Jesus as members of His Body. Theresa goes on at some length, in an exalted reflection, on the texts concerning charity in the Last Discourse of Saint John’s Gospel. The sign by which all the world will know that we are Christ’s disciples is the love we have for one another: love is the first and surest mark of the Church.44

We have witness, in the autobiography and from the testimony in the Process, of innumerable “little” exercises of charity in the daily life of Saint Theresa: the nun behind her in choir who always made a clicking sound, although Theresa never upset her by making a look or saying a word of disapproval; the nun whom Theresa naturally disliked but treated with such kindness and warmth that she thought Theresa considered her a dear friend; the strange story of the nun who visited the dying Theresa in the infirmary every evening-only to stand laughing at her pitiable condition; the kindness with which Theresa received the indiscretion and impertinence of the novices when she was made their unofficial mistress; the continual interruptions made by well-meaning sisters as Theresa labored to finish her manuscript.

Her sister Genevieve (Celine) testified that she never neglected an opportunity to render service: “My dear sister,” she reported, “never did anything to please herself. Whatever little free time she had at her disposal, was spent in the service of others. While she was sacristan, I noticed that on free days when her own workwas finished, she would remain after near the sacristy so that she might be called upon to help others to finish theirs. She put herself in the way of the sister who distributed `charges’ so that the latter might ask her to undertake some task-as she invariably did. Knowing that in reality this cost her a great deal, I often showed her how it could be avoided. But it was all in vain. She wanted to be at the beck and call of everybody. “45

At the end of these chapters on charity, Theresa’s mind turned from her Carmel to the world. For a long time she had desired that her two little brothers had lived to become priests. In November of 1895, and again in May of 1896, Theresa was presented with two seminarians as her spiritual brothers. In them Theresa hoped to achieve her goal of being a priest and a missionary; through them she hoped to save souls.

Since the zeal of a Carmelite should embrace the world, I even hope, by the grace of God, to help more than two missionaries. I pray for everyone and do not forget ordinary priests whose ministry is sometimes just as difficult as that of missionaries preaching to the heathen. Like our Mother, St. Theresa, I want to be a`daughter of the Church’ and pray for all the intentions of Christ’s Vicar. It is the great aim of my life.46

One of the older sisters in the Carmel of Lisieux once told Theresa’s sister Celine that the heaviest cross she bore was community living. If we examine Theresa’s early years in Carmel, we may discover the reason for this nun’s complaint. “I can truthfully say that, as soon as I entered Carmel, suffering stretched out her arms to me and I embraced her lovingly.”47

Theresa was the victim of what she calls at times a “grievous spiritual dryness,” a dark night of the souls which plagued her periodically until her death in 1897. It manifested itself in various ways: an inability to open her heart to her prioress or novice mistress; the loneliness following her separation from her father; the removal of Fr. Pichon, her director, to Canada. Each of Theresa’s retreats during her religious life was marked by extreme dryness in prayer and meditation. We have the impression that silence touched Theresa’s soul deeply at this time: silence as she stood before God with nothing of virtue or devotion to show for herself. This poverty humiliated her. But it was this abandonment, detachment, emptiness, selfabnegation, that clearly molded her spirituality-not in any movement of self-satisfaction but in a life of profound love of God for others.48

We cannot think that Theresa’s spiritual darkness was the sort of distraction in prayer that everyone must endure. It developed over the years into a terrifying temptation against faith.49 During Theresa’s death agony, these temptations against faith increased to the verge of despair, and several times she mentioned the urge to commit suicide.50 Theresa’s novice mistress said of this trial faith, “In that trial Jesus saw fit to associate her with Himself in the darkness of Calvary; but her unspeakable suffering only purified her love and rendered it still more ardent.”51

In stylized printing, Saint Theresa once drew up a list of the singular graces which God had accorded her. The twelfth of February, 1889, is entitled “Notre Grande Richesse.”52 It was the day on which her father suffered a severe stroke that left him in a state of mental illness. The years of his illness were extremely difficult for Theresa, since the stroke occured just ten months after her entry into Carmel. Far from complaining about this time of sorrow, during which the three Martin sisters already in Carmel were in continual communication with the two sisters (Celine and Leonie) who remained in the world to care for their father, Theresa wrote to Celine, “Far from complaining to Jesus, I cannot fathom the infinite love which has brought Him to treat us so. Our dearest father must indeed be loved by Jesus to have to suffer like this!”53

Added to these sorrows of Theresa was the treatment she received at the hands of the Lisieux prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague. “God permitted that she was VERY SEVERE without her even being aware of it. I was unable to meet her without having to kiss the floor, and it was the same thing on those rare occasions when she gave me spiritual direction.”54

The daily life of the Carmel of Lisieux was itself an invitation to suffering: rising at 5:00 in the morning through the spring and summer months; rising immediately from a “bed” which was really only a board laid across two trestles, covered with wool sheets and a felt blanket. The nuns’ cells were nine by nine feet with nothing but a writing desk, a cross, and some devotional books to fill the space. The window was barred and even the cell could not be spoken of as “my cell”-only “our cell.” Sandals without stockings were worn no matter the temperature. Meals were taken in silence, seated before a skull-the grim reminder of death.55

Add to these things almost uninterrupted silence, total abstinence from meat, strict fasts, unheated cells and severe cold and dampness (from which Saint Theresa once said she suffered more than anything else), and one may begin to see the living death of this life.56 For a sensitive and energetic soul-like Theresa’s-this life could be marked above all by monotony, perhaps the greatest enemy of devotion. In a world so closely confined and so exactly structured, trivial and minor disagreements can become too important and minor disturbances can turn into major battles. Detachment from self-seeking is the only sure defense against these things happening in an environment like the Carmel. Saint Theresa did not look for suffering, but when it came upon her she was able to use it.


1Optatum totius, Decree on Priestly Formation, par. 14, 16.

2 J. C. Lambert and W. D. Stacey, “Cross”, Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, ed. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New Yor, 1952), p. 192.

3A. Liuima, “Pierre de Berulle”, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, II (McGrawHill Book Co., 1967), p. 362.

4Sr. Francoise Therese Martin, testimony at the Process for the Beatification of Venerable Therese Martin, quoted by Christopher O’Mahony, ed., St. Therese of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her (OSV, Inc., 1975), p. 180. _

5Ida Goerres, The Hidden Face (Pantheon Books, 1959), p. 30.

6C. C. Martindale, The Queen’s Daughters (Sheed and Ward, 1951), p. 124.
7E. A. Walsh, “French School of Spirituality”, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, XIII, pp. 604-605, for the preceding three paragraphs.

8Ida Goerres, p. 344.

9 Barry Ulanov, The Making of a Modern Saint (Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1966), p. 19.
10 Frank J. Sheed, trans., Collected Letters of Saint Therese of Lisieux (Sheed and Ward, 1972), p. 50.

11Barry Ulanov, p. 16.
12Ibid, pp. 13, 18.

13John Clarke, OCD, Story of a Soul (ICS Publications, 1975), p. 47.
14Ida Goerres, p. 37.

15Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 154.

16Sr. Teresa Margaret, I Choose All (The Newman Press, 1964), p. 49.

 17Hans Urs von Balthasar, Therese of Lisieux (Sheed and Ward, 1954), xvii.
18Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 102.
19Ida Goerres, p. 125.

 20Barry Ulanov, pp. 166, 167, 169.
21Frank Sheed, pp. 49, 138-139.

 22Clarke, the Story of a Soul, p. 102.

23W. J. Alberts, “Imitation of Christ”, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, VII, 374.

24Barry Ulanov, p. 103.

25Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 79.

26Sr. Genevieve of St. Therese, quoted by C. O’Mahony, p. 113.
27Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 80.

28Andre Combes, The Spirituality of St. Therese (P.J. Kennedy and Sons, 1950), 12, 13.

29Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Richard Whitford (Image Books, 1955), IV: 8, 9.

30Thomas a Kempis, p. 217-218.
31Ibid., p. 218.

32Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 99.

 33My own translation from Manuscrits Autobiographiques (Office Central de Lisieux, 1956), pp. 116-117.

34Clarke, The Story of a Soul, pp. 98-101.
35Ibid., pp. 100-101.

36Father Anastasius, OCD, Carmelite Asceticism (Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Buffalo, 1963), p. 3.

37 Ibid., pp. 10, 20, 21.
38Ibid., pp. 21-22.

39Ida Goerres, pp. 134-135.

40O’Mahoney, pp. 116-117.

41Clarke, The Story of a Soul, p. 258.

42Thomas Merton, “What Think You of Carmel?”, Apostolate of the Little

Flower (Discalced Carmelite Father of San Antonio), vol. 42, no. 1, Jan.-Feb.,1974, pp. 22-25.

43Ida Goerres, pp. 406, 370, 136.

  44Manuscrits Autobiographiques, p. 256.

 45Francois Jamart, Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux (Alba House, 1978), p. 94.

46John Beevers, pp. 144-145.

47Ibid., p. 91.

48Ibid., pp. 97, 100.

49Ibid., p. 118.

50John Clarke, trans., St. Therese of Lisieu.x: Her Last Conversations (ICS Publications, 1977), pp. 196, 258, 295.

51O’Mahony, p. 204.

52Manuscrits Autobiographiques, p. 213.

 53Frank Sheed, p. 93.

 54Clarke, The Story of A Soul, p. 150. –

  55V. Sackville-West, The Eagle and the Dove (Purnell and Sons, Ltd., 1943), pp. 134-135.

56Ida Goerres, p. 137.