(In these extraordinary times I wanted to post some words on a saint
who has been a great help to so many, especially in difficult times.
One who, moreover, died in anguish from a dreadful respiratory disease)
I’ve been reading a biography of Leonie Martin, sister of St Therese, who, unlike her four sisters, did not enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. Leonie was very different to her stellar siblings. She was awkward, rebellious, disobedient. Today she would probably have been diagnosed as dyslexic and on the autistic spectrum. Her saintly parents were at their wits end with Leonie. Her mother could not believe that God had sent her such a “difficult” daughter, especially given that all the others were dutiful, indeed angelic. She often voiced her exasperation to Him concerning ”poor Leonie”.
This shines a bright light on the dynamics of a devoutly Catholic family in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps, to a degree, on most Catholic families. The Martins were deeply loving and selfless parents (they are now saints themselves), but huge importance was placed on obedience and following the rules. I placed the same expectations on my own children.
And when Therese and her sisters entered Carmel, a very similar regime was in operation – though turbo-charged: follow the rules without deviation and all would be well.
Once in Carmel, all spiritual consolation ceased for Therese, and she began to learn the truth – spiritually we are in a much worse mess than we think. She came to realise that doing endless good deeds and following the regime to the letter just did not cut the mustard – her sinfulness remained. She was at her wits end – God had filled her with a huge desire to love him and do His will. How could she do it?
Given her background, what subsequently occurred is inexplicable in human terms. There is a lovely word from the Greek– Parrhesia – it means holy daring – fearless trust in God. In a quantum leap of understanding, Therese realised that what God really wanted was not just good works but, rather, absolute trust in his unconditional love, despite the darkness and aridity. She would from now on fling herself into his arms as a child would cling to her loving father. She would take the lift of his love, not the steep staircase of good works. That’s not to say of course that she abandoned good works- quite the reverse, as her “Little Way” stresses.
Leonie followed her own difficult path, finally becoming a professed member of the Visitation sisters at Caen after several unsuccessful attempts. She too is now in the process of being canonised and in many ways she is a more “modern” saint than even Therese, overcoming great emotional and physical difficulties throughout her long life, and clinging to God with great fidelity. How proud she was of Therese. Yes, she too took the lift and “got there” in the end, with her beloved sisters and parents.
We had the great privilege of visiting the Lisieux recently. Part of the Carmel is given over to an exhibition explaining the life and teaching of Therese. There is a picture of the lift (see above) that gave her the perfect image for taking the short-cut to God. Nearby is a quotation from her autobiography, Story of a Soul, in big, bold letters: Tout est Grâce. All is Grace.