Friday, April 24, 2009

More Reflections on the Little Flower: “The Story of a Soul” Chapters 5-8*

I have been reading “The Story of a Soul”, by St. Therese of Lisieux. For my reflections on the first four chapters, please see my previous post.

The first four chapters dwelt on Therese’s early childhood. The next four chapters detail her desire to entire Carmel and the trials she had to endure in order to be allowed entry into it at the early age of 15. After her beloved “second mother”, her sister Pauline, entered Carmel, her next oldest sister Marie became her confidant. Marie soon followed into Carmel, and she and her sister Celine kept each other company.

When all the powers-that-be said “no” to her early entry into Carmel, she had the gumption to ask Holy Father for permission. Her doting father and sister Celine accompanied her to Rome, where her suffering was enhanced by a not-so-clear answer. But finally the answer came, and she was permitted to enter Carmel after her fifteenth birthday, and after Lent. Having to wait those three extra months was horrible for her. Rather than fill it with delightful activities that she would be unable to partake of once she was behind the walls of the convent, she used that time to mortify herself by breaking her will as much as possible.

Her first months at Carmel were stringent, allowing none of the comforts she was used to having. Mother Marie de Gonzague was a strict abbess, and she took that as a blessing. She thought it would have bode ill for her if she had been spoiled as the little one. Certain mysterious occurrences such as the replacing of her favorite water pitcher with an old, cracked one, and of her nice vase with an ugly one, were also accounted for as blessings. You might read between the lines to think that some of the sisters were persecuting her by taking away even these small luxuries. But she never speaks bitterly of the treatment she receives during this time, saying any suffering she received was embraced as good for her soul.

The day of the taking of the veil was one of great preparation, being the wedding of the young soul to Christ. Therese was a great lover of simplicity, and the fuss that went into the making of her garments for that day was special in that it was so unusual for her. But at the last moment she was suddenly filled with doubt, which she confessed to Mother Genevieve. This earthly angel soothed her fears, saying that she too had gone through the same thing, and Therese’s faith in her calling was renewed.

But her father was sick, and she was quite alone that day, having no family to witness the ceremony. Celine stayed with her father until he died. She too soon followed into Carmel.

Therese regained some freedom when she became one of the only ones who did not succumb to an outbreak of influenza. Mother Marie was often ill and for a time, her oldest sister Pauline, who had for so long acted as Therese’s “second mother”, replaced Mother Marie as the abbess, becoming known as Mother Agnes. This seemed to be the fulfillment of Therese’s calling to have Pauline as her mother in more than one way. She also had her three living sisters with her in the same convent. Altogether the siblings made eight, which at one point is described symbolically as the eight petals of a flower. In the present-day Little Flowers group, eight petals (badges for the virtues gained) and a center are sewn together to make a “wreath” of virtues.

It is remarkable to me how Therese embraced suffering. Rather than ask “why” when her father goes through a lengthy illness that included mental instability, with only her sister Celine by his side, she counts it all as one of the crosses she must bear. This part really touched me, as I have a father who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and he lives too far away for me to be with him for any great length of time. I also must accept that this may be the cross that he must bear, and that one day I will come to understand it. All of us have our own crosses, and we must ask for God’s grace to help us to bear them if that is His will, rather than to take them away.

*The chapter divisions differ from translation to translation. The one I am reading is translated and edited by Robert J. Edmonson, Paraclete Press, 2006. The writings that have come down as “Manuscript A” comprise the first eight chapters of this book.

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