Skip to comments.The Christmas Conversion of St. Thérèse
Posted on 12/12/2007 6:12:14 AM PST by NYer
I was an Anglican priest the summer I met St. Thérèse of Lisieux.I was living in England and had three months free between jobs, so I decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I was going to hitchhike and stay in monasteries and religious houses on the way.
The first leg of my journey took me across the English Channel to Normandy. After staying with the Benedictines at the monastery of Bec Hellouin, I headed for the town of Lisieux.
As a convert from evangelical American religion, I didnt know much about the little saint of Lisieux, and what I did know I didnt like. I thought her spirituality must be syrupy sweet. It didnt seem very manly to me. I wasnt sure what little flowers had to do with anything and I thought all the little girl talk about dear papa in heaven and being Gods good little girl was a bit much.
When I got to Lisieux, things didnt improve. I made my way up to the imposing basilica dedicated to the saint on the hill outside the town. It looked big and ugly from the outside, and the road leading up to the basilica was crowded with souvenir shops with rosaries hanging from the awnings, postcards and images of the saint, pictures of Mary and Jesus with wide eyes, and holy water bottles shaped like Mary.
To a tasteful young Anglican priest it was all pretty tacky, and I thought the French ought to know better.
I enquired at the guest house called The Hermitage, next to Thérèses Carmelite convent. A neat little nun showed me up to my room, and after a simple French supper I wandered around the town for a short time. It was a balmy June evening, and the sun was setting as I went back to The Hermitage and settled down for the night. I opened the window and before long I was fast asleep.
At 3 in the morning I woke up and was immediately aware of something happening.
The moon was shining through the window and a light breeze wafted the curtains. I sat up in bed, not alarmed, but alert more alert and awake than one should be when awakened in the small hours of the morning. There seemed to be a presence in the room, and it felt like a feminine presence a very benign and loving and powerful feminine presence.
I sensed that it was somehow Thérèse.
I sat there for at least 30 minutes in silence experiencing a dynamic inner calm I can only describe as a quiet bliss. Then the experience passed and I went back to sleep but not before I decided that I would get over my prejudice and have a more serious meeting with the young lady called Thérèse of Lisieux.
The next day I went to her childhood home and bought an English translation of her Story of a Soul. I discovered that her sentimental spirituality had a purpose. It was a reminder of the Gospel lesson that all of us, if we were to enter the Kingdom, had to become as little children. I also learned that this little flower was no shrinking violet. She was tough, tougher than I had ever thought it necessary to be in my own feeble attempts at being a Christian.
Then I learned that she had a vocation to pray for priests, and I said, Thérèse, I know you pray for priests. I am only an Anglican priest, and not a full member of your family, but I hope you will pray for me, too, as I embark on this pilgrimage.
After the pilgrimage was over I continued to study the life and teachings of this remarkable saint. As I eventually came into full communion with the Catholic Church I was sure it was not only her life, example and teachings, but also her prayers, which assisted my own journey into the Catholic faith.
One of the convincing stories about Thérèses life was her childhood conversion (as she calls it) at the age of 14. As an evangelical, I was brought up with the idea of the importance of personal conversion, and I myself first accepted Jesus into my heart at the age of 5. Thérèses childhood conversion was therefore fascinating, and I wanted to know more.
It happened at Christmastime in 1886.
In France, young children left their shoes by the hearth at Christmas, for their parents to fill them with gifts. Thérèse should have outgrown this tradition by the age of 14, but she was the spoiled baby of a family who had lost their mother to cancer. Her elder sisters continued to leave presents in Thérèses shoes at Christmas, and she was still looking forward to the Christmas event.
As she climbed the stairs with her older sister Celine, Thérèse heard her beloved father say about the ceremony of shoes and gifts, Thank goodness thats the last time we shall have this kind of thing!
Thérèse was hypersensitive, and had suffered from a terrible nervous illness only a few years before. She froze, for a moment, with horrified hurt feelings. Celine looked at her helplessly, and knew that Thérèse would probably be heartbroken over her fathers comments.
Thérèse remained calm. Something had happened. She said Jesus had come into her heart and converted her, taking her selfish immaturity and banishing it forever. She forgot the crying, walked downstairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father said.
Despite great opposition, Thérèse entered the convent the next year, and began the rapid spiritual growth for which she is famous.
Thérèse always referred to this as her Christmas Conversion. To one unfamiliar with Thérèse, it may seem an insignificant event. So, a 14-year-old girl finally realized she was being a baby and got over it. Whats the big deal?
Thérèse would probably have agreed that the whole incident seemed small. For her that was the big deal. All the events recounted in her life were small. They were middle class, and seemingly insignificant. They were a big deal because Thérèse realized God himself was working his miracle of grace through the little everyday events of a very ordinary life. Thérèse recognized that in the midst of a 14-year-old girl making a step toward maturity, Gods grace was thundering through.
This enlightenment, and the spiritual theology that flowed from it, transformed the Catholic Church and brought Thérèse the status not only of being the greatest saint of her time, but eventually being named a Doctor of the Church.
If God was working out his purpose in the midst of an ordinary girls family life and growth, then Gods work was just as constant and ubiquitous in the lives of all those who simply trusted him and obeyed the promptings of his love.
That Thérèses conversion was a Christmas conversion is not simply a sentimental touch weaving in Christmas and presents and children. That it was a Christmas conversion has a deeper meaning, for Thérèses lesson that the grace of God is constantly at work within the nitty gritty of everyday life is the lesson at the heart of Christmas itself.
The poet Henry Vaughn wrote, Here in dust and dirt, O here, the lilies of his Love appear.
The realization that God is working his purpose out within the dust and dirt of ordinary life is the message of Thérèse.
It is also the message at the heart of the Christmas story, for there in the ordinary, warm earthiness of a stable God is born. There within the most ordinary event a mother and a birth new life comes to earth.
A wonderful Advent/Christmas story that touches upon Carmel and its influences on the rest of the Church. Thank-you for this excellent article, as a lay Carmelite in training.
She was an emotional and sentimental girl, "in love with Jesus" in the girly-besotted-romantic way, and God saw fit to withdraw all emotional sweetness and consolations from her and to permit Satan to tempt her with the most horrible emptiness, blackness and doubt.
In the end, she clung to Jesus even when it was just her heart clinging in the dark.
It's quite a story. And a real gift to all those struggling agnostics who wonder in their hearts, "Can I really believe in God without the feeling of belief? Will He accept a perplexed and painful "Yes"?
I never knew that the little Therese with through a rough time with the “dark night of the soul” to the extent that from your discription it was at times hardbreaking. Thanks for your posting.
If you’re interested in more reading on this, “St. Therese of Lisieux, the Last Conversations” is a good source. There’s also a book called “Maurice and Therese,” which is a collection of letters she exchanged with a missionary priest. This goes into detail about her spiritual experiences during the last years of her life.
Thanks for the books info. :)
Pretty cool! I have a friend who received grace through the intercession of St. Thérèse. It’s such a wonderful story! I told her that she needs to write it down, so I may post and email to others for inspiration. Hopefully she may do this over Christmas break.
Like Fr. Longnecker, when someone is shown the hand of God, they need to acknowledge and give thanks.
I hope to post that story soon.
Looking forward to reading it :-)
One was given to me when I made a pilgrimmage from Atlanta to Lafayette, LA in December 1999 to see the Major Relics of the Little Flower.
I had two sisters from Nigeria (Sister Angelia and Sister Catherine) with me. They stayed in New Orleans for a couple of days as I visited my parents. Then I brought them to Lafayette where the Little Flower was to visit the Carmelite convent there. It was there that I brought her a rose that day (or maybe many roses).
At the end of the day, the nuns had so many roses, they did not know what to do with them. So a local woman had gotten several of the roses for the nuns I had brought from Atlanta as well as a couple of nuns in Carencro... This woman also gave me a rose.
The other occasion was around the beatification of the children of Fatima. The head of the Rosary group game me a rose on that day, but before I left for she her, I had taken a chaplet booklet to the Little Flower and put it in my pocket. I knew I did not have time to pray it, but I did not know why I put it in my pocket.
On the back of the novena booklet, there was a picture of the Little Flower dropping roses from heaven to the people on earth below...
Her mother had ambitions that one of her children would become a ‘saint’. Tuberculosis was a glamorous disease of consumption and an older nun gave the disease to Therese. This disease plus the family obsession with religious careers paved the path for St. Therese to die a ‘glorious’ death at an appallingly early age.
Are you really saying that?
It's pretty far-fetched, since Zelie died when Therese was only 4 years old.
Plus, by the late 19th century the early romantic image of a consumptive woman had given way to the later view of a scourge spread by the poor. By the 1890's, the war against tuberculosis in France --- which still had more than a 35% mortality rate--- had become a war against the dirty habits of the working class. There were, for example, official campaigns against alcoholism and spitting.
I doubt anyone thought it romantic or glorious for Therese to succumb to this terrible endemic disease at age 24.
At that point in history, 'consumption' was seen as a near-glamorous disease by many.
The public library has several biographies of Therese and the books on tape version of one of them is very frank about the social and emotional conflicts experienced by Therese. She adored her sister and could not imagine a life without her so she finagled her way into a carmelite convent years too early on the good word of her sister.
Her older sister egged her on to be 'holier than thou' and insisted that Therese write her book that made her a doctor of the church.
None of this diminshes the facts regarding the spiritual elightenment of Therese and the miracles she experienced and performed.
Teresa’s social and emotional conflicts are well-covered in the literture, and I agree that they don’t diminish her greatness. After all, all thr saints had conflicts, and there’s nary a one who can be said to be free of neurosis and cdontradiction. It’s the human condition. The human condition is what God makes saints out of.