Genius has its price, and the youngest Martin girl was paying it. The ordinary games and dances of other children held little interest for her. She was uncomfortable with most children and seemed to be at ease only with her sisters and very few others. Of all the Martin girls, Pauline was closest to Therese.
Therese thought of her as her second mother. Pauline was the little one's first teacher and ideal. Then one day Therese's second mother told her she was leaving to enter the convent at the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux. Nine-year-old Therese was stunned.
Again employing the exile theme, she described her sorrow: "...I was about to lose my second mother. Ah, how can I express the anguish of my heart! In one instant I understood what life was; until then I had never seen it so sad, but it appeared to me in all its reality and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation. I shed bitter tears..."
Our Lady of the Smile statue at Les Buissonnets in France
"OUR LADY OF THE SMILE"
During the winter following Pauline's entrance into the Carmelite monastery, Therese fell seriously ill. Experts have diagnosed her sickness as everything from a nervous breakdown to a kidney infection. She blamed it on the devil. Whatever it was, doctors of her time were unable to either diagnose or treat it.
She suffered intensely during this time from constant headaches and insomnia. As the illness pursued its vile course, it racked poor little Therese's body. She took fits of fever and trembling and suffered cruel hallucinations. Writing of one bout of delirium, she explained: "I was absolutely terrified by everything: my bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; some nails in the wall of the room took on the appearance of big black charred fingers, making me cry out in fear. One day, while Papa was looking at me and smiling, the hat in his hand was suddenly transformed into some indescribable dreadful shape and I showed such great fear that poor Papa left the room sobbing."
None of the treatments helped. Then, on May 13, 1883, Therese turned her head to a statue of the Virgin near her bed, and prayed for a cure. "Suddenly" Therese writes, "...Mary's face radiated kindness and love." Therese was cured. The statue has since been called "Our Lady of the Smile."
It was shortly after Pauline's departure that Therese decided to join her at Lisieux's Carmelite Convent. She approached the prioress of the monastery and sought entrance. Carefully little Therese explained she wished to enter, not for Pauline's sake, but for Jesus' sake. The prioress advised her to return when she grew up. Therese was only nine years old at the time.
During her long illness, her resolve to join the Carmelites grew even stronger. "I am convinced that the thought of one day becoming a Carmelite made me live," she later declared. After her illness, Therese was more than ever determined to do something great for God and for others. She thought of herself as a new Joan of Arc, dedicated to the rescue not only of France but of the whole world.
With unbelievable boldness the ten-year-old stated, "I was born for glory." And thus another great theme of Therese's life manifested itself. She perceived her life's mission as one of salvation for all people. She was to accomplish this by becoming a saint. She understood that her glory would be hidden from the eyes of others until God wished to reveal it.
At ten years of age, then, she reaffirmed and clarified her life's goals. She was intelligent enough to realize she could not accomplish them without suffering. What was hidden from her eyes was just how much she would have to endure to win her glory.
"Spiritual torment" was to be her lot for years to come, slackening only when she started preparing for her long-awaited First Communion. At the age of eleven, on May 8, 1884, Therese received her first "kiss of love", a sense of being "united" with Jesus, of His giving Himself to her, as she gave herself to Him.
Her eucharistic hunger made her long for daily communion. Confirmation, "the sacrament of Love," which she received on June 14, 1884, filled Therese with ecstasy. Shortly thereafter though, the young Martin girl experienced a peculiarly vicious attack of scruples. This lasted seventeen months. She lived in constant fear of sinning; the most abhorrent and absurd thoughts disturbed her peace. She wept often.
"You cry so much during your childhood," intimates told her, "you will no longer have tears to shed later on!" Headaches plagued her once more. Her father finally removed her from the Abbey school and provided private tutoring for her.
During this time her sister, Marie, became very close with Therese, and helped her to overcome these fears. But Marie in turn, also entered the Lisieux Carmel (on October 15, 1886). This was very hard on Therese, who at the age of thirteen, had now lost her "third" mother.
Therese's sister, Marie Martin, as a girl.
THE CHRISTMAS CONVERSION
After midnight Mass, Christmas, 1886, the shadow of self-doubt, depression and uncertainty suddenly lifted from Therese, leaving her in possession of a new calm and inner conviction. Grace had intervened to change her life as she was going up the stairs at her home.
Something her father said provoked a sudden inner change. The Holy Child's strength supplanted her weakness. The strong character she had at the age of four and a half was suddenly restored to her. A ten year struggle had ended. Her tears had dried up. The third and last period of her life was about to begin. She called it her life's "most beautiful" period.
Freed from herself, she embarked on her "Giant's Race." She was consumed like Jesus with a thirst for souls. "My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself."
Now, she could fulfill her dream of entering the Carmel as soon as possible to love Jesus and pray for sinners. Grace received at Mass in the summer of 1887 left her with a vision of standing at the foot of the Cross, collecting the blood of Jesus and giving it to souls. Convinced that her prayers and sufferings could bring people to Christ, she boldly asked Jesus to give her some sign that she was right. He did.
In the early summer of 1887, a criminal, Henri Pranzini, was convicted of the murder of two women and a child. He was sentenced to the guillotine. The convicted man, according to police reports, showed no inclination to repent. Therese immediately stormed heaven for Pranzini's conversion. She prayed for weeks and had Mass offered for him. There was still no change in the attitude of the condemned man.
The newspaper La Croix, in describing Pranzini's execution, noted the man had refused to go to confession. Then on September 1, 1887, as the executioner was about to put his head onto the guillotine block, the unfortunate criminal seized the crucifix a priest offered him and, the newspaper noted, "kissed the Sacred Wounds three times." Therese wept for joy, her "first child" had obtained God's mercy. Therese hoped that many others would follow once she was in the Carmel.