Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 5

Saint Therese as a novice, playing the part of Saint Joan of Arc
Wikimedia Commons

In the photo above, Saint Therese is shown in costume portraying the great French saint, Joan of Arc. Therese was a member of the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux at the time, and she not only starred as the great Saint Joan but wrote the play herself.

Saint Joan, the “Maid of Orleans”, was criticized for many things during her lifetime. Joan wore men’s clothes while leading the French army; though an unmarried woman, she lived among soldiers; she claimed to hear voices (of saints) who told her to lead the war against the English. While many complained about her failure to follow contemporary customs for Frenchwomen, the charge that Joan was a witch was the one that finally stuck. When captured, Joan was subjected to a trial that was clearly biased against her, and she was unsurprisingly condemned. It was clearly an unjust accusation, but Joan of Arc bore it like a saint.

Therese’s experience of unjust treatment were far less dramatic but are still very instructive for us because they are so utterly ordinary.

Therese was a very intelligent girl and also very sensitive due to the loss of her mother. Because of her intelligence, she was promoted to study with older girls, but the bullying she endured ultimately led her family to homeschool her. When Therese entered the Carmelite monastery, two of her older sisters were already professed nuns there, which caused resentment among some of the nuns, who expected Therese to think she would get special favors because of her blood relationship. For example, on one occasion, Therese was ordered by her superior to take a message to one of her older sisters. When she arrived at her sister’s door, another nun berated her and accused her of seeking special privileges to see her sister. Therese recognized that anything she said would be interpreted wrongly, so she said nothing. She accepted the correction—for something she hadn’t done wrong—and meekly returned to her duties, without complaint.

Although there is a world of difference between being burned at the stake and keeping your mouth shut when someone unjustly criticizes you, the latter is the sort of temptation every Christian could face any day of the week. Try it today, and see if you are up to Saint Therese’s level of holiness yet.

Saint Therese, show me how to accept criticism from others with charity.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 4

Saint Therese as a teenager
Wikimedia Commons

The late Father Benedict Groeschel was a Catholic priest, author, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and a psychologist. He once commented that Saint Therese of Lisieux was “spiritually precocious”, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up his professional assessment of her character.

When Therese was at that delicate age of adolescence when she wanted to be treated like an adult but didn’t quite want to give up the charming things of childhood yet, an important event happened one Christmas Eve. Her father made the sort of comment that parents make all the time, wishing out loud that his baby (Therese) would finally grow up so that the childish gifts of Christmas could be set aside. (Truth be told, he was probably just tired, as happens to all of us as we get older, of staying up for a party after a late Mass.) Therese overheard his comment, and rather than having a typical teenage tantrum (breaking into tears, storming to her room in anger, or sulking for a week), she smiled. That is, she embraced the grace that the Lord gave her to sacrifice her sensitivity, put a smile on her face, and deal charitably with her family for the rest of the evening. She later called that her “conversion”, and her family was surely thankful that she no longer broke into tears at the drop of a hat. If you think this was a small grace, think of Saint Therese at your next Christmas party with extended family and see if everyone weathers the event with as much charity as did Saint Therese.

Another sign of Therese’s spiritual precocity occurred only a few years later. She discerned that God was calling her to religious life as a Carmelite nun though she was only fourteen years old. In the photo above, you can see her teenage attempt to show her seriousness about this; she put her hair up to appear older than she really was. How many fourteen-year-olds could make that decision, explain it convincingly to a bishop, and then break papal protocol by respectfully imploring the pope himself for help when brought before him during a trip to Italy? Only a spiritually precocious one.

Saint Therese, teach me how to be childlike, rather than childish.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 3

Saint Therese of Lisieux as a little girl
Wikimedia Commons

Therese Martin was blessed to grow up in a loving family which practiced its faith regularly and lived a middle class life in France. Surely it was a comfortable, pain-free childhood that led her to become such a saintly young woman, right?

Wrong. Therese’s family, like every family, knew tragedy first-hand.

Four of the nine Martin children died very young. Two sons died before reaching their first birthdays. One daughter lived only a few months, and another daughter died at the age of five. One can only imagine how painful each loss was for Louis and Zelie, Therese’s parents.

Therese’s mother Zelie died of breast cancer when Zelie was only forty-five years old. Although Therese was only four years old at the time, she remembered her mother’s passing so vividly that she was able to describe seeing her mother’s coffin in her autobiography. All the daughters were devastated at the loss of their mother, but Therese, as the youngest, was particularly affected and became a very sensitive child for many years.

Near the end of his life, Louis suffered strokes as well as some sort of mental breakdown. The five Martin sisters suffered great pain and grief at the sight of their beloved father being physically and mentally incapacitated.

Yet all of these sufferings, like every cross we choose to bear in union with our suffering Lord, bore spiritual fruit. In her autobiography, Therese describes praying for help from her little brothers and sisters who had already passed on to Heaven. They gave her hope when she too was facing her final illness. Although Therese lost her mother when she was very young, one of her older sisters became her second mother, caring for her with great tenderness and care. Zelie’s devout faith not only lived on in Therese’s memory but in the actions of the older sisters who raised her. Although watching a parent’s decline is always heartbreaking, all of the Martin sisters were comforted by the fact that Louis had recognized his oncoming illness and told them he was offering his suffering for others—before he lost his ability to communicate that fact during his final years.

Saint Therese, show me how to bear spiritual fruit in my suffering.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 2

Saints Zelie and Louis Martin
Wikimedia Commons

When Louis Joseph Aloys Stanislaus Martin married Azelie-Marie Guerin in 1858 in Alencon, France, family and friends would probably not have been surprised to learn that both would someday become canonized saints. Both husband and wife were devout in the practice of their Catholic faith and had seriously considered religious life. According to some sources, Louis was rejected by a monastery because of his inability to learn ecclesiastical Latin, and Zelie (as everyone called her) was turned down by a convent because of her persistent headaches and other medical problems. After being turned away from religious vocations, both supported themselves and became successful in their careers for a time—Zelie as a lacemaker and Louis as a watchmaker—until they happened to meet one day on a bridge. Three months later, they married.

But initially they were such a pious couple, so intent on holiness, that they intended to live their married lives as brother and sister. Fortunately for us, the desire for children and an encouraging priest led them to change their minds. During their marriage, God blessed them with nine children, whom they raised in a devout, middle class home. Louis gave his children loving nicknames; Zelie wrote to her sister about how much she adored her children and loved being a mother. In the end, all five of their surviving daughters entered religious life, and one of them is currently a candidate for sainthood. Their youngest daughter, Marie Francoise-Therese, has already been known as Saint Therese of Lisieux since her canonization in 1925.

Louis and Zelie Martin deserve to be known as Saints Louis and Zelie, independent of the holiness of their daughter. They taught their children to trust in God and love Him—in the sorrows as well as the joys of family life.

Saint Therese, help me to lead the members of my family to greater trust in God.

Saint Therese of Lisieux and Novenas

Saint Therese of Lisieux
From Wikimedia Commons, Celine Martin (Sor Genoveva de la Santa Faz) / CC0

In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that the members of the early Church—particularly Saint Peter and the other apostles along with the Blessed Mother—spent the nine days between Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven and the day of Pentecost devoted to one specific activity: prayer.

Catholics have been praying novenas ever since. You can find some excellent examples of novenas at PrayMoreNovenas.com or in books like this one. Typically, novenas start before the saint’s feast day and conclude on the feast date itself. But if you’ve never prayed a novena to Saint Therese of Lisieux before or didn’t just conclude one, her feast day, October 1, is a great day to start.

Why are Catholics so devoted to such a seemingly insignificant Carmelite nun? Why does a woman who never preached a sermon (like Saint John Chrysostom), never traveled to foreign lands as a missionary (like Saint Francis Xavier), never wrote a theological treatise (like Saint Thomas Aquinas), and never spent her lifetime serving the poor (like Saint Teresa of Calcutta) have more statues of herself in Catholic churches than perhaps all of the above combined? Why is it so easy to love Saint Therese?

That is the question we will answer each day for nine days, in different ways.

It is easy to summarize the brief life of Saint Therese. She was born into a pious home in 1873 in France. Her mother died when she was very young, and her father and four older sisters raised her lovingly in their middle class home. She heard God call her to religious life when she was fourteen years old, and she was allowed to enter a Carmelite monastery as a postulant when she was only fifteen. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, leaving behind only her letters to family and friends, along with her autobiography.

After her death, her sisters, who had been deeply moved by their younger sister and her writings, edited and circulated her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This book, originally only circulated to a small audience, literally swept the globe. Almost overnight, she became one of the most popular Catholic saints in the world, with her autobiography translated into multiple languages. Twenty years after her death, the impact of Therese’s little book had spread to the pope himself, who opened the process of canonization for the nun who had apparently done nothing “important”. Except to show how easy it is to become holy if you are as humble as she was.

Saint Therese of Lisieux, help me learn how to be humble.

Another French Saint for the Poor

Portrait of Vincent de Paul by Simon François de Tours (1606-1671)
Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) only wanted to have a comfortable life as a priest in France, and it certainly appeared that the bright young man would get his wish quickly. But everything changed when he was serving as a tutor for the children of a count.

In 1617, he was staying in the countryside with the count’s family. As a priest, he was called upon to hear the confession of a peasant who was considered to be near death. In that confession, the lives of both priest and penitent were changed. Father Vincent and the peasant discovered that the man’s lack of understanding of the faith had made his past confessions literally sacrilegious, as the peasant freely told others afterward.

While some interpret the rest of Vincent’s life as focused on serving the physical needs of the needy, his primary goal from that point onward was to improve the spiritual state of human beings. He began by educating the poor about the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and confronted the rich and powerful about their immoral behavior. He and the priests, nuns, and sympathetic laymen who followed him eventually brought the Good News of God’s love to galley-slaves, sick people in hospitals, those suffering from the effects of war, and ordinary people, not only in France, but in Poland, Scotland, Ireland, and north Africa.

Vincent’s accomplishments were even more remarkable in that he started with no money, no fame, and with (according to Vincent himself) a bad temper. But God’s grace, his time spent in prayer, his zeal for personal virtue, and his dedication to serving others won him the admiration of many people during his own lifetime, along with canonization by the Church in 1737. He is remembered on the date of his death, September 27.

Saint Vincent, show me how to serve the spiritual and material needs of those around me.

A Forgotten Saint

Saint Teresa Couderc
Marie Lydia V / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Wikimedia Commons

It was an innovative and (to some) scandalous idea at the time: letting nuns organize retreats. But when Saint Teresa (Therese) Couderc (1805-1885) was still a member of a teaching order of nuns and was invited by the priest-founder of her order to help him establish an order of nuns to run retreat houses, she agreed.

This novel order was more than just a good idea; it addressed a serious practical problem. When men or women of nineteenth century France traveled, both men and women were generally thrown together in the same bedroom. Women who wanted to make pilgrimages found themselves in awkward, uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations. Teresa’s order, as a sister order to an order of priests providing retreats to me, provided them with a holy and safe alternative.

Unfortunately, after some time, the source of funds for the order dried up, and Teresa blamed herself for the order’s debts. The bishop of the diocese took control of the order away from Teresa and placed it in the hands of a wealthy widow who had only joined the order very recently. Teresa accepted this humiliation with peace, obediently served the order for decades, and was generally forgotten as the founder.

A story demonstrates her lifelong humility. A cardinal came to visit a retreat house where Teresa lived and was introduced to all the sisters. He recognized spiritual depth and holiness in Teresa’s face and demeanor, and when she was missing at a later meeting, he asked the sisters, “Where is the sister who has been left out?”

Humble and patient to the end, Teresa died quietly, peacefully, and in the background when she was eighty years old. She died on September 26, 1885.

Saint Teresa, help me accept humiliations with peace.

A French Saint for Teachers

Saint Emily de Rodat
sœurs de la sainte famille / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

As previous posts this month have demonstrated, many French Catholics, particularly priests, were executed during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Today’s saint, Marie Guillemette Emily de Rodat (called Emily by her family and friends), was born in 1787 and was therefore a young girl living in a remote area of France during much of that violent time. She was devout when she was a child, but, as has happened to many a teenager, her fervor cooled a bit when she got older. However, on the feast of Corpus Christi when she was about seventeen years old, that changed. Emily fell in love with God and with prayer, considered religious life, and began to teach children about the faith as a catechist. That’s when she realized that the Revolution had yet another unpleasant consequence: a serious lack of Catholic schools in which French children could be educated.

Emily rose to the challenge, beginning her life’s work by teaching forty students for free in a single room. Eventually, other women followed her example and leadership, and she became the foundress of an order of sisters, now known as the Congregation of the Holy Family of Villefranche. Though her order was predominantly a teaching order, they also visited prisoners, cared for orphans, and included a branch of cloistered religious to pray for the more active members. She inspired her sisters to live lives of “holy cheerfulness”, as she called it, despite her own bouts with poor health. She died of cancer in her eye, after decades of labor caring for those in need, in 1852. She is remembered by the Church on September 18.

Saint Emily, help me to bring a holy cheerfulness to those around me.

Saint of the Day

A Holy French Shepherd

Saint of the Day

When the man known to us now as Saint Peter of Tarentaise (1102-1174) was only twenty years old, he was so convinced of God’s call to religious life that he joined a Cistercian monastery in the Tarentaise hills of France—and he talked multiple relatives into entering religious life as well at the same time. Later, he talked a count into giving him the financial support he needed to build a hospital to care for the sick.

When he was elected archbishop of Tarentaise, he wasn’t able to talk his way out of the honor, though he tried, but he eventually became an excellent shepherd to his flock. After more than a decade, however, he ran away, changed his name, and literally hid in another Cistercian monastery so that he could return to the simplicity of monastic life. This time, he wasn’t able to talk others into believing him; people rather quickly figured out his true identity.

He returned to his position as archbishop and became well known for—you guessed it—his diplomatic skills. His last assignment before his death was as a peacemaker between two feuding kings. He is remembered by the Church on the date of his death, September 14.

Saint Peter, give me your gift of leading others to greater holiness.

Another French Saint of the Prisons

Engraved image of 19th century hulk by Louis Le Breton
Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1795, the brutal violence of the French Revolution had burned itself out. Prison hulks (unseaworthy ships that were used to warehouse prisoners) in the city of Rochefort were emptied, and the prisoners were released. Many of those who had been incarcerated in these hulks were Catholic priests and religious, whose only crime was refusing to abandon their faith and obey the Revolutionary government rather than the Church.

As the prisoners were allowed to leave and tell their stories, the truth about the circumstances of the hulks came to light. It is estimated that 827 Catholic clergy and religious were imprisoned in the prison hulks of Rochefort, and, of that total, 542 died of starvation, mistreatment, and lack of hygiene or medical care. One of those men, Pierre (Roger) Sulpice Christopher Faverge, was particularly remembered by the survivors.

Brother Roger was a religious brother and teacher in the Brothers of the Christian Schools before the French Revolution. During his imprisonment, Roger cared for other needy prisoners, retained his faith in Jesus Christ despite the inhuman conditions of their prison, and died of an illness before the prisoners were liberated. The Church has declared him a blessed for his heroic witness and martyrdom and commemorates him on September 12.

Blessed Roger, show me how to serve those in need around me.