A Spiritual Testament as Literary Mastepiece
(by Fr. R. Marcos)

St. Therese of Lisieux.(1996). Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, 3rd edition, trans. John Clarke. Washington: ICS Publications.


The book Histoire d’un Ame took the world by storm when it was first released in 1898 following the death of its author, an obscure nun who lived nine years in a cloistered convent in France. The book would be instrumental in making the author a spiritual personage of high esteem, creating a wave of devotion according to her invitingly fresh look at the spiritual life and propelling her to greatness as the most famous Catholic saint of the 20th century. Therese Martin, later St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face became a most familiar figure in every place where the Catholic Church had a presence, thanks to the writings she left behind.

The first edition of her work was made to appear as an intentionally written autobiography addressed to the author’s last superior in the convent. Another nun, the blood sister of the author lent her skill to the book by heavily editing the material. Reading through this earlier version, one forms the idea that the book was written as a composite whole. However, during the process of inquiry over the author’s saintly virtues, it was discovered that the material was in fact a collection of three separate manuscripts, written in three different times, and addressed to three various recipients. Thus efforts were made to make these needed corrections plain in the subsequent printings, beginning in 1914. Until now, however there are in circulation both in paper format or ebook, the older, unrectified version.

The impact of the book on its author’s fame and influence did not stop with her eventual beatification and canonization. Academic studies were done on the saint’s writings and thus enhancement of the later editions of the book became possible. In 1997, then Pope John Paul II declared St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face a woman Doctor of the Church, alongside the great St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. The Pope claimed that this recognition was bestowed in virtue of the eminent doctrine and certain wisdom that flowed from the saint’s simple yet profound composition.

Read by the common faithful, studied by theologians, contemplated by religious men and women, and recommended by the highest authorities, the so-called autobiography of St. Therese continues to retain its power to inspire and to enthrall, to edify and to draw hearts to a surprisingly practical and attainable relationship with God. While the author herself has attained neither a university degree nor formal training in creative writing, her message and style show a literary sophistication and enduring appeal to readers of all ages and creeds around the world.

I. Manuscript A: Dedicated to Reverend Mother Agnes of Jesus

Alencon (1873-1877)

Cloistered Carmelite nun Sister Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face took up her pen and began to write select memories of her life and experiences upon the instruction of her superior and blood sister Reverend Mother Agnes of Jesus in January 1895. Done as an act of obedience, she sought to please God by paying tribute to the “mercies of the Lord” (13). She thus asked the blessing of the Virgin Mary and consulted the Gospels, on which her vocation was deeply anchored.

Asked to write about her life, the author clarified that more important than her personal story were the thoughts on the graces of God that she has found in her own experiences:

         “It is not, then, my life, properly so-called, that I am going to write; it is my thoughts on the graces God deigned to grant me. I find myself at a period in my life when I can cast a glance on the past; my soul has matured in the crucible of exterior and interior trials. And now, like a flower strengthened by the storm, I can raise my head and see the words of Psalm 22 realized in me…” (15).

Resolved to be systematic, she planned to write of her journey from home to the monastery in three separate periods.  The first period she described as starting from the dawn of reason until the death of her biological mother. The setting was the village of Alencon, her birth place. Here, personal recollections of a distant early age were aided by the extant writings of her mother to her elder sister and other relatives.  Enamored by her four elder sisters, and her parents, the youngest of the brood exhibited a character independent and all her own. She found traces of both self-love and love of the good in herself (25). Asked by her sister Leonie to choose from a variety of accessories with which to play, the author reflectively considered and said “I choose all!” This little incident would become for her the summary of her life as she understood her childish attitude years later.

         “Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: “My God ‘I choose all!’ I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for you, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for ‘I choose all’ that You will!” (27).

Les Buisonnets (1877-1881)

Therese remembered vivid details of her mother’s convalescence and eventual death. She recalled how she missed the moments she prayed with her and her siblings. Impressed on her mind were the increasing weakness of her mother, the moving ceremony of the last anointing, and the kiss she planted on her mother’s forehead shortly after death. At the loss of her mother, she transferred her filial sentiments on elder sister Pauline.

Therese entered the second period of her journey, the most painful, as she described it. She started becoming more sensitive, taking refuge in tears, preferring to be alone, and becoming comfortable only with members of her family. At this time, the author noticed the heroic love of her father, whose paternal solicitude now also exhibited maternal affection for his children.

Soon the family left Alencon to move to Les Buisonnets to be closer to maternal relatives. Here, attachment to her father grew as Therese joined the old man for walks to church and the Carmelite convent, and for fishing expeditions in the river. The father also obligingly played with Therese and showered her youngest with gifts. He taught Therese to love the poor by making her give alms to the needy they passed by on the road.

The author supplied incidents of conflict with the housemaid Victoire, who despite her experiences with her defiant ward, nevertheless continued to love and protect her. Therese also recalled the moment of her first Confession, which started her habit of frequenting the Sacrament on every great feast. Of all the feasts of the church, she preferred Sunday above all, which gave her time with her family, time to rest, and time to attend church side by side with her father.

The future saint believed she has seen a vision of her father’s future trials, that would make a mark on her and her sisters’ spiritual life as well. While her father was away on a trip, she described seeing a man just like her father, dress, form and gait, the only difference was his stooped posture and his covered head. She later understood this as a presentiment of her father’s illness, isolation and death, while most of her daughters were already in a convent. This would be particularly difficult for the youngest one of the family.

“How good God really is! How He parcels out trials only according to the strength He gives us. Never, as I’ve said already, would I have been able to bear even the thought of the bitter pains the future held in store for me. I wasn’t even able to think of Papa dying without trembling” (47-48).

The Distressing Years (1881-1883)

While other children found time in school as the happiest, the future saint ascribed to her school experience the saddest period in her young life. Pampered and spoiled at home, she soon saw herself competing with other girls in a strange territory.  Well-instructed by her sister Pauline at home, her preparation gave her an advantage even against the older girls in school, in which class she was included.

The Sisters at the school showed their approval while a jealous girl made her life miserable. Not adept at games and with little social contact outside her home, Therese found the activities in school like a required penance. She described her deep affinity with her sister Celine and recounted her painful detachment from Pauline who entered the monastery.

Pauline, who was to become Mother Agnes of Jesus to whom Therese would write this first manuscript of her story and reflections, consoled Therese by explaining to her the meaning of a monastic vocation. The girl found out God’s will for her life through her older sister’s presentation.

         “I shall always remember, dear Mother, with what tenderness you consoled me. then you explained the life of Carmel to me and it seemed so beautiful! When thinking over all you had said, I felt that Carmel was the desert where God wanted me to go also to hide myself. I felt this with so much force that there wasn’t the least doubt in my heart; it was not the dream of a child lead astray but the certitude of a divine call; I wanted to go to Carmel not for Pauline’s sakebut for Jesus alone. I was thinking very much about things that words could not express but which left a great peace in my soul” (58).

The author would soon find out the premature nature of her calling, as the monastery did not receive nine-year old girls as candidates. She would have to wait until she was sixteen. Meanwhile Therese had to endure the pain of separation from Pauline, such an emotional burden that it led to a strange and serious illness.

Therese credited her illness to a revenge the devil took on the family for offering one daughter as bride of Christ. She suffered headaches, quivers, deliriums, and involuntary inertia. Through it all, God sent her visible angels through her sisters, the maid Victoire, the close relatives and above all, her concerned Papa, who ordered a request for Masses at the altar of Our Lady of Victories in Paris.

A remarkable moment occurred when, together with her sisters, Therese turned in confidence to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A personal miracle is recounted as they prayed before a favorite family image of the Virgin:

         “Finding no help on earth, poor little Therese had also turned toward the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautifulthat never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an inexplicable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.’ At that instant, all my pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes, and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy” (66).

Gaining back her health, the future saint believed that this favor was too personal and private, that if she shared with others her happiness would soon disappear. But after confiding to eldest sister Marie, the story was relayed to Pauline in the monastery and to the other nuns there. Therese was vexed when visiting the convent one day she was asked unimportant details about her experience. She was confused and even thought she had lied from the start.

First Communion, Boarding School (1883-1886)

Since the author has developed a liking to become a nun, very early on she has also decided which name she would prefer to be called. She did not want to lose her beautiful name Therese, so she decided her name would be Therese of the Child Jesus, in part because of her affection to her Little Jesus and in part due to a favorite picture of the little flower of the Divine Prisoner, for she wanted to offer herself as the Lord’s little flower (71).

Therese’s fascination with pictures was comparable only to her penchant for reading. She described herself as an avaricious reader of good materials, a trait she brought with her to the convent. While reading she discovered that true glory did not necessitate grand performance but the hidden and silent practice of daily virtue. She has also discovered the life of French heroines, in particular, Joan of Arc, who was not yet declared saint then but who would become her model. Reflecting on the life of this beloved daughter of France, the author described receiving another grace:

         “I considered that I was born for glory and when I searched out the means of attaining it, God inspired in me the sentiments I have just described. He made me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint! This desire could certainly appear daring if one were to consider how weak and imperfect I was, and how, after seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect. I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great saint because I don’t count on my merits since I have none, but I trust in him who is Virtue and Holiness. God alone, content with my weak efforts, will raise me to Himself and make me a saint, clothing me in His infinite merits.” (72)

Early in life, the future saint learned by herself to practice mental prayer by thinking of sublime and transcendent things. “I understand now that I was making mental prayer without knowing it and that God was already instructing me in secret” (75). Soon she would be joining other candidates for First Communion, prepared for by three months of instruction and a retreat. Like the personal “miracle” of the Virgin’s smile, Therese did not want to provide details of her sentiments on the day she received the Eucharistic Lord for the first time, lest she lose again her joy. She tersely described the moment as not simply a look of love on her Master and King, but a fusion, where she “vanished as a drop of water is lost in the immensity of the ocean.” (77).

Following First Communion, the author increased in love for the Eucharist and in Marian piety and felt a desire for suffering. Her sacramental ecstasy would be completed by reception of Confirmation, where with the coming of the Holy Spirit, she would become a perfect Christian. On that day, she received the strength to face sufferings in life.

Returning to ordinary life, Therese recounted her struggles in relationships with fellow students, her preference for storytelling instead of games, and her striving to become an excellent pupil. Due to timidity at home she was however judged by her relatives to be lacking in brilliance. And failing to forge strong friendship with peers, she reasons away that such relationships could have been perilous for her soul and that Jesus had saved her from falling into sin. The young girl revealed her bouts of scruples and attraction to vanity when praised for her physical appearance.

Soon she learned of her eldest sister Marie’s plan to enter the monastery, following the second-born Pauline. This was a cause for further distress on Therese who has since considered Marie her guide and confidante, the one who truly understood even her scruples. On a visit to her mother’s grave at Alencon, her sister Leonie, third in family rank, was left behind upon immediately deciding to enter the Poor Clare monastery of that town. Grieving at Marie’s impending departure and surprised at Leonie’s unforeseen move, Therese felt the sadness that came upon the remaining members of her family. To console herself she soon developed a devotion to the poor souls in Purgatory, among them were her four siblings who have died in early childhood.

After the Grace of Christmas (1886-1887)

Although precoccupied with thoughts of entering the monastery, the author was conscious of her own fragility. Pampered at home, she knew neither doing work on her own nor doing housework for the others. On top of that, her scruples and sensitivity increased. Her one refuge was crying and with that she sought to receive the attention of the people around her.

All these would change on the night of light, (98) Christmas 1886, when Therese entered what she called the third period of her life, indeed the most beautiful phase of her childhood. It was customary for children in her country to put their shoes by the chimney on Christmas Eve, hoping that they would be filled with treats after Midnight Mass. At fourteen, Therese was getting old for such practice and yet her sister Celine insisted that she continue to experience this annual practice.

Their father, upon seeing the youngest girl’s shoes at the fireplace spoke with annoyance, his voice within hearing distance of his sensitive daughter. Therese however, had the courage to fight back her tears, to rejoin her family and to experience strength of soul. There was no trace of touchiness; she was no longer the same. And Therese believed that it was Jesus who changed her heart and accomplished in an instant what she could not do in ten years. The girl would continue to refer to this experience as her “conversion” (98).

This started the growth of charity in the future saint’s heart. No longer preoccupied with herself, she began to be more considerate and conscious of the needs of others. To begin with, she adopted spiritually a criminal about to receive the death sentence, praying and sacrificing for his conversion. Therese knew God had answered her prayers when on the day after the execution, she read in the papers that the criminal, having refused Confession to a priest, when nearing his end, seized the crucifix and kissed it three times. This was the sign Therese waited for and from that time on, she continued to pray for the conversion of sinners (100).

Therese gained fresh motivation to live. As she was growing spiritually through reading and praying, she matured in her earlier desire to enter the religious life. She wanted to be received in the monastery at the age of fifteen, on the night of Christmas, the first anniversary of her conversion. She saw Jesus coming down to her level to support her in her desire.

It took a while though for Therese to have the permission of her relatives, above all her father, about whom she wrote excellently and admiringly in this section. Now the remaining obstacle would be ecclesiastical permission, which was more difficult to obtain, given the hesitation of the Carmelite Father Superior, the Vicar General, and the Bishop himself. After the visit to the Bishop, where to appear older, the future saint “had to put (her) hair,” (117), Therese planned to discuss her request with the Pope in Rome, when she would join her father and sister Celine in a coming pilgrimage.

The Trip to Rome (1887)

This chapter recounts one of the most memorable experiences of the author outside her home and before entering the monastery. In this pilgrimage, her strength of character, determination and spiritual maturity would unfold at the moments when they were most put to trials.

Most of the people in the pilgrimage were the wealthy of France and her clergy. Surrounded by the rich, Therese felt a growing dislike for titles of nobility and earthly pomp. In the company of priests and witnessing their frailty, she saw the reason behind her future Carmelite mission to pray for their sanctification.

The marvels of nature she witnessed in her travels made a deep impression on the girl, as it made her contemplate on the greatness of God. She resolved to remember in her mind the captivating views she saw while passing through Switzerland.

   “When I am a prisoner in Carmel and trials come my way and I   have    only a tiny bit of the starry heavens to contemplate, I             shall    remember what my eyes have seen today. This thought       will      encourage me and I shall easily forget my own        little             interest, recalling the grandeur and power of God, this God            whom I want to love alone” (125).

One can only admire the vivid memories of Therese as she described the surroundings, the people, and the events that happened to her in Milan, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Loreto, and above all Rome. Like all pilgrims today, she too, had great delight in surreptitiously taking home “relics” from among the stones, earth, and chips of mosaic that have fallen to the ground.

The highlight of the story was the encounter with Pope Leo XIII, who after the Mass took time to meet pilgrims in an audience. Each pilgrim was allowed to approach the sitting Pontiff, kiss his shoes and hands, and leave in silence. Therese however, deviated from the instructions in order to fight for her vocation. As she knelt before the Pope, she spoke to him about her desired permission to enter Carmel at fifteen. As the Pope did not fully understand her words, the French Vicar General (Father Reverony), translated the conversation between them, however irked he was of Therese’s defiant audacity. On receiving the Pope’s tentative reply to leave everything to the wisdom of the superiors, Therese registered her insistence, with words and tears, refusing to leave the presence of the Pope. She even had to be bodily removed by the guards!

“I was encouraged by the Holy Father’s kindness and wanted to speak again, bu the two guards touched me politely to make me rise. As this was not enough they took me by the arms and Father Reverony helped them to lift me, for I have stayed there with joined hands resting on the knees of Leo XIII. It was with force they dragged me from his feet. At the moment I was thus lifted, the Holy Father placed his hand on my lips, then raised it to bless me. Then my eyes filled with tears…” (135).

Therese made a passing comment on her puzzlement at the treatment of women in the places they visited. There were many places forbidden to women, even under the pain of excommunication.

         “I still cannot understand why women are so easily exommunicated in Italy, for every minute someone was saying: ‘Don’t enter here! Don’t enter there, for you will be excommunicated.’ Ah! Poor women, how they are misunderstood! And yet they love God in much larger numbers than men do and during the Passion of Our Lord, woman had more courage than the apostles since they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to dry the adorable Face of Jesus” (140).

Returning from Rome, Therese wrote to the Bishop inquiring about his final decision on her petition. The letter, re-written by her uncle, was to meet with a reply she had dreaded to receive – wait! It was a difficult blow but the girl started a grace-filled period of preparing for her dream by learning how to mortify herself, not in a physical way but in a hidden way – “in breaking my will… in holding back a reply, in rendering little services without any recognition, in not leaning my back against a support when seated…” (143).

The First Years in Carmel (1888-1890)

The religious aspirant soon found out the exact date of her longed-for entrance into the Carmel of Lisieux. While her heart rejoiced, she keenly felt the sadness of the remaining members of her family and her close relatives. Again Therese remembers the heroic surrender of her father who, on her departure for the cloister, dropped to his knees to bless his youngest, his Queen, amidst silent tears. She vividly remembers the ceremony of acceptance from the door to the interior of the monastery.

In the monastery, God had given Therese a holy priest guide, a spiritual director who engraved in her heart the truth that the Lord will be her real “Superior and (her) Novice Master.” (150) Experienced nuns surrounded the young aspirant and supervised her formation through both their kindness and severity.

While in the monastery, Therese’s filial love for her father was being tested. The old man had become sickly, after having suffered an earlier stroke. But he was progressing in holiness, and to Therese her Papa seemed to be growing in the likeness of the gentle Saint Francis de Sales. Leonie, who entered and left the Poor Clares, tried again to enter the Visitation convent only to return home after a few months. Their father dutifully supported Leonie in all her trials. Prior to Therese’s reception of the habit, her father suffered another another stroke but was well enough to attend the occasion. Describing the beauty of the celebration, Therese remembered most her father.

         “The most beautiful, the most attractive flower of all was my dear King; never had he looked so handsome, so dignified. Everybody admired him. This was really his day of triumph and it was to be his last celebration on this earth. He had now given all his children to God, for Celine, too, had confided her vocation to him. He had wept tears of joy, and had gone with her to thank Him who ‘bestowed such honor on him by taking all his children’.” (155)

The early years in the monastery became fruitful for the young nun as she experienced sufferings, aridity, struggle against self-love, and the many opportunities to grow in self-surrender, poverty, humility and most of all, to practice little and unnoticed virtues, instead of corporal penances. All these prepared her for the Profession of vows on September 8, 1890, only briefly witnessed by her ailing father. On that day, almost an orphan, Therese realised that her real father was the Father in heaven.

Profession, Offering to Merciful Love (1890-1895)

This chapter cast a glimpse on the hidden life of the holy nun within the four walls of the monastery. Far from claiming excellence in her life of contemplation and daily toil, Therese was unembarassed to confess how from the time she entered until the time she wrote this manuscript, she had spent her prayer moments by sleeping, reflecting that “little children are as pleasing to their parents when they sleep…when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep” (165).

The young nun described the interior storms she had gone through, like her strong doubts about her vocation prior to her Profession, her spiritual dark night, the distress brought about by the deaths in the monastery, and other great interior trials.

Surely there were inspirations from a holy nun, a wise priest confessor, her experience of a beautiful Profession, and little graces from answered prayers. But Therese also shared her very human struggles and weaknesses, far from what people expected from one who lived in holiness. So human and common was her lot she even described her dreams, not mystical at all, she said, but the ordinary dreams of a simple young woman.

A stronger Therese emerged too in the mention of her father’s death. Without the soft emotions of the previous pages, she calmly accepted God’s will for her King, confident in the assurance that he was finally in heaven with the Lord. Joy came at the election of her sister Pauline (Mother Agnes) as superior of the community and the entrance of sister Celine, the fourth Martin daughter to populate the convent. Only Leonie found her vocation and finally settled in another monastic order, apart from her sisters.

Therese mentions her source of strength in the midst of her trials. The Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and the book Imitation of Christ served as her anchor of everlasting truth. Moreover she discovered the Mercy of God, and dedicated herself to plumbing its depths. Superseding His justice, God’s mercy reaches to the heavens, purifying from people sin, and removing all their fears (cf. 180-181).

Thinking perhaps that this would be her only chance to write about her life, Therese asked pardon for having presented such an abridged version of her monastic experiences. Towards the end, she wondered whether God would call her early from this life or whether she could fulfill her wish to depart for the missions, for the Carmel of Saigon in Vietnam.

II. Manuscript B: Letter to Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart

My Vocation is Love (1896)

This manuscript was actually a letter Therese wrote in response to her eldest blood sister, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, who requested her to write about a dream she had and about the secrets Jesus had shared with her.  Therese began by reminding her sister that her life was not dotted by consolations but by desolations or spiritual dryness.

She has learned that Jesus was asking her to grow in love by becoming like a little one before her Master. Jesus was asking her only to surrender herself to his love. “Jesus deigned to show me the road that leads to this Divine Furnace, and this road is the surrender of the little child who sleeps without fear in its Father’s arms.” (188) Furthermore, contrary to prevailing attitudes and beliefs, “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrenderand gratitude.” (189)

The young nun, who was already experiencing the onslaught of tuberculosis at the time of the writing of this manuscript, related the contents of a dream. She had seen one of the early foundresses of the Carmel in France, the Venerable Anne and she learned from her that her own death was coming soon.

Consumed not by fear but by love, Therese expressed her desire to continue to live her vocation in the remaining days. The vastness of her vision showed her strength and determination to offer everything to God. She wanted not merely to be a “Carmelite, Spouse, Mother” (192) but also to be a warrior, priest, apostle, doctor and martyr for Christ.

         “I feel in me the vocationof the PRIEST. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls! But alas! While desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood” (192).

Then she discovered the core of her vocation, the essence of her mission on earth as she reflected on the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 12 and 13, specially the passage on the most excellent gift which is love or charity.

“Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.” (195)

Though concise and obviously written in haste and amidst pain and weakness, this manuscript is of great importance in discovering the meaning of Therese spirituality, a gift she wanted to share with the world.

III. Manuscript C: Addressed to Mother Marie de Gonzague

The Trial of Faith (1986-1897)

In this last manuscript, Therese further unfurled the process of her little way of holiness. Writing to her superior, she expressed her gratitude for the firm and concrete ways the superior made her advance in virtue, through education and humiliations.

Focusing on her spiritual discoveries, Therese repeated her deep desire to become a saint, to be holy and pleasing to God in her entire life. As she looked at the luminous saints of the church, she only saw disparity between their greatness and her own littleness. With all her imperfections, she was certain that she could not reach sanctity following the means the great ones have taken. So the nun was resolute in finding “a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new.’ (207) Aware of new inventions of the time, Therese used the image of the elevator, instead of the stairs, that would hasten her meeting with Jesus.

Following the first hemoptysis (coughing out of blood), the ailing nun related the interior trial, her temptation against faith, that followed and that lasted until the writing of this manuscript. She spoke of a darkness that enveloped her soul, not allowing her to experience the sweetness of consolations in her heart. Willingly, she offered this difficulty to the Lord on behalf of sinners, with whom she could now identify in her situation of physical and spiritual pain. The dark night the nun endured was so profound that writing about it gave her fear that she might blaspheme. There was a struggle to continue to believe, even as the darkness was advancing and getting stronger.

Throughout this ordeal, the author though lacking in “the joy of faith,” carried out works of faith. Not only did she pray courageously while in the period of trial, she also continued to show love and charity to the people around her. And this she did once more, in a manner so simple, natural and hidden.

She tried to find the virtues of a Sister instead of focusing on her faults. She gave way to others even in matters that she wanted most for herself. A Sister whose character was very disagreeable to her received only love, a helping hand and sweet smiles. She even controlled her tongue to defend herself against the false accusation of another. Truly, “it isn’t enough to love; we must prove it” (225). Therese also simply felt grateful for the little kindnesses she received from the Sisters on account of her illness or at times when they saw her writing. She appreciated their “charity in action” (227).

Her heart bent on the missions, the author accepted with resignation that she could not leave France for Saigon as a missionary. Though she had this vocation, her poor health militated against this move.

Those Whom You Have Given Me (1896-1897)

Sister Therese’s expansion in maturity and charity did not go unnoticed by her superiors. She was entrusted with the role of guiding novices in the community. Naturally, her humility made her shrink from the responsibility, accepting that it was beyond her strength to give light to souls. She however, learned to draw strength from God and to trust him. “I felt that the only thing necessary was to unite myself more and more to Jesus and that ‘all things will be give you besides’ ” (238).

In leading novice sisters, Therese directed their attention to God and to the community’s superior instead of to herself. She tried to be honest and frank, even severe or firm in order to firmly implant in each one the spirit of monastic life and to inspire each of her charges to pursue holiness.

Therese shared her practical difficulties in prayer. While she appreciated every prayer in the official and devotional books, she did not understand everything written there. So many beautiful prayers, and it gave her a headache just deciding which one to pray. The following words revealed her sentiments and captured her definition of prayer.

         “I do not have the courage to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books. There are so many of them it really gives me a headache! And each prayer is more beautiful that the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understand me. For me prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus” (242).

Therese admitted difficulty in her individual recitation of the Rosary, although she was consoled that the Blessed Mother saw her good will and was satisfied with it (cf 243). In her moments of spiritual dryness, reciting very slowly The Lord’sPrayer and the Hail Mary gave her much delight and consolation.

The author related her many attempts to overlook the imperfections of the Sisters around her and to show them compassion and charity. Giving specific examples, she illustrated for the readers the practicality of love. This she did in a way that would make readers smile or laugh at her candor and humor.

A Carmelite usually gets assigned to pray in particular for a seminarian or priest so that he would be strong and determined in his vocation. Therese humbly and joyfully accepted this challenge to receive her “brothers” and accompany them in their mission.

The pen in the hand of the steadily sick nun gave way to a pencil towards the end of the writing of this last manuscript. Struggling to add some more sentences, she finally paid tribute to her love for the Gospels (cf 258) and ended the manuscript with the words that described her approach to God – “confidence and love…” (259).


While I have read the Story of a Soul many times in the past as part of devotional and spiritual experience, this is the first time that I have gone through it as literature, this time paying attention to the author as a writer.

St. Therese began by simply narrating what her memory can recover from her past. That she was aware of many details of her early childhood affirms the clarity of her memory and the keenness of her intelligence. Many details would have been lost on someone who was not focused on the various circumstances of life.

While recounting her story, the author was not only remembering external factors that affected her life. She was also able to resuscitate the various emotions that attended her contact with these realities. She clearly identifies her joys, her sadness, her desires, and her pain – all in relation to various events or happenings that occurred to her or to specific persons that either made her heart expand or constrict.

Fond of analogy, the saint picked from ordinary images in order to convey her feelings, thoughts or aspirations. She has the capacity to draw from elements of the physical world and then connect it with something personal or something transcendent. Thus a flower was not just a flower because for her it became a symbol. The scenic views of mountains and plains were not mere topography but also God’s visage and proof of divine power. People and their words and actions emerge with prophetic significance that would be confirmed at a future time.

This shows that the author was a person of deep thought and constant reflection and she gives meaning to her existence by her receptivity to reality and her search for purpose in the same. She was well-read, steeped in the Scriptures and the “good” books she was allowed to devour at home and in the convent, that she could recall the passages or concepts that she has stored in her retentive memory.

She bases her thoughts on many passages from the Bible, at a time when Catholics were not so much accustomed to reading it. Accompanying the Bible were her selection from the classics, like the Imitation of Christ. The author was aware of history, even mentioning the exploits of Christopher Columbus. She was also cognizant of recent developments of her time like the invention of the elevator.

Far from the disparaging portrayal of nuns, as clumsy and unthinking creatures, the author displays an independent and audacious spirit that makes her question the practices of the time (like the treatment of women in Italy and the use of corporal penance in monasteries) and a bold and adventurous mind that entertains things not many women would venture into (like admitting a desire for the priesthood and going to the missions in Asia, and yes, requesting the Pope for a personal favor).

The strength of Therese’s character emerges most cogently in the moment of her deepest trial, her dark night of the soul. While her physical state was fast deteriorating, she did not allow her spiritual condition to deprive her of the opportunity to grow in faith (though she could find no reason) and in charity (though it was difficult to accommodate each person’s weakness and foibles). Sick, weak, tired and dying, she could have settled for mediocrity or sunk in despair. Instead, fired by love, the author fought against the trials and temptations and rose to victorious heights.

There are limitations in this work. The language and imagery, apart from being sentimental, are of the bourgeois class of French society. It is important then to remember the historical epoch and the societal class from which comes the author. The world she describes is too domestic and too constricting, as her life story revolved around two places only, her family home and her monastic enclosure. But the author is able to find common ground with her readers through her very human struggles that people in any context can easily grasp and relate to their individual situations.

This she did successfully in uncovering the treasure she wanted to impart to her readers, the secret the Lord Jesus shared with her in the course of her life, and it is the spirituality of the “little way.” In the process of learning this way, the author explains that she needed to be converted to it for it is not immediately attained. She was not the ideal person from the start, like all of us are now. She allowed God to work through her, an invitation granted to all of us, too.

While we think that the way to greatness is to exert enormous energy in the the display of power, treasure or prominence, we are also certain that only a select few are endowed with the opportunity or chance to do so. St. Therese discovered that little things done with great love are the key to greatness. Thus, a kind remark, a sweet smile, a good deed, a controlled tongue, a favor given, a love expressed unnoticed can more easily attract the attention of the One who looks not on the powerful but prefers the surrender and trust of the simple and little ones of the world.

thanks to CIRCUMSPECTUS, St. Paul University Quezon City Review…