A short time after Therese’s first communion, her sister Marie told her, “I think God will spare you from having to suffer.” The irony is that Therese had already suffered more than some people do in a lifetime. Throughout her life people discounted her suffering. And even today some people see Therese as a saccharine saint, simple-minded, sentimental, a saint for little girls. They are ignorant of her suffering and reject her as irrelevant.
When Therese was two months old, she almost died of enteritis. Her mother Zelie–probably already suffering from breast cancer–could not nurse her. A wet-nurse saved Therese’s life. Therese had to live five miles away from her family for thirteen months. She became attached to her nurse, whom she then had to leave behind.
Zelie Martin died when Therese was 4. Therese hid her great sorrow from her father and sisters. But when Pauline, the sister who became her substitute mother, entered the Carmelite monastery, Therese’s grief overwhelmed her. She became so ill, she once again barely survived. A smile from the Virgin Mary cured her.
Only four years later, her godmother Marie, who had cared for her since Pauline left, joined Pauline in Carmel.
We could count these as five instances of losing her mother.
Tuberculosis and spiritual darkness
Louis Martin, Therese’s beloved father, declined mentally and physically soon after Therese entered Carmel. She barely saw him again. He died three years before she did.
By the time she was 23, the saint had contracted tuberculosis. She hid the disease from others as long as she could. In June 1897, her doctor predicted she would not last the night. But she did. In fact, she lingered on until September 30. Her most intense physical suffering occurred after she had finished her autobiography. (Actually, her writing trailed off on the last page, as she became too weak to hold a pencil.) This explains why people who only know Therese from Story of a Soul are often unaware of how acute the suffering was.
For weeks, Therese was coughing up blood several times a day. She could keep nothing down. In the end she was breathing with a small portion of one lung. She slowly suffocated. Gangrene attacked her intestines. She was sweating so profusely that the sheets were soaked. Her body was emaciated. She said she understood why non-Christians in such a state would commit suicide.
At the same time, she experienced terrible spiritual darkness. All during her last illness, she was tormented by doubts of Heaven’s existence. She believed she was suffering for those who deny the reality of an afterlife.
No complaints or self-pity
Until late summer, some of the nuns did not believe she was seriously ill. She accepted her suffering so completely, they doubted she was suffering at all.
When her sisters or cousin visited her in the infirmary, she would tell jokes to keep them from being sad. Her last words were, “My God, I love you!”
Don’t let the phrase “the Little Way” fool you into thinking Therese had a sweet and easy life. She was a strong soldier of Christ, like Joan of Arc whom she so admired. She became strong by recognizing her littleness.
We are all little and weak when it comes to temptation. We are all helpless when it comes to being holy. But like St. Paul and St. Therese, it is when we are weak in ourselves that we can become strong in Christ.
I pray that on this feast of St. Therese, you may be able to admit and accept your weakness, and so be able to accept your trials with joy as she did. This can only happen through supernatural grace.
Happy feast day!
In conjunction with the book I am writing on St. Therese, have started a Pinterest Board of all things related to her life. With each picture, I include information about her life. You can follow the board here.