“Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love.”
Saint Therese was born Marie Francoise-Therese Martin on January 2nd, 1873 to two devout Catholics - Marie-Azelie and Louis Martin. As of this writing, her parents were not only the first, but also the only married couple canonized together. Her father had originally tried to enter the Great Saint Bernard Hospice as a canon regular but had been turned down due to a lack of Latin knowledge and her mother attempted to enter into the consecrated life but had been discouraged by the prioress of the canonesses regular of the Hotel-Dieu. They had nine total children, but unfortunately four died early (three died as infants and their daughter Helene died at the age of 5).
Because of her frail condition, Saint Therese was sent to live with a wet nurse (Rose Taille) soon after her birth and until she was roughly 15 months old. Her mother wrote of her daughter's return home:
I hear the baby calling me Mama! as she goes down the stairs. On every step, she calls out Mama! and if I don't respond every time, she remains there without going either forward or back."
Her child hood was described as generally happy and the family adhered to a strict observance of the Catholic Liturgical year including fasts and prayer. She watched as her family took care of the poor and elderly, including inviting homeless to eat tat their table. At the age of only 4 1/2, her mother died of a tumor. Saint Therese later wrote of the death of her mother, saying that the first part of her life stopped that day and
"Every detail of my mother's illness is still with me, specially her last weeks on earth. When Mummy died, my happy disposition changed. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and oversensitive, crying if anyone looked at me. I was only happy if no one took notice of me... It was only in the intimacy of my own family, where everyone was wonderfully kind, that I could be more myself."
Her father moved them to Normandy, where she was taught school subjects at home until reaching 8. Afterwards, she entered the school run by the Abbey of Notre Dame du Pre in Lisieux, France. She was bullied for her grades and high aptitudes of learning:
"The five years I spent at school were the saddest of my life, and if my dear Céline had not been with me I could not have stayed there for a single month without falling ill."
"Fortunately I could go home every evening and then I cheered up. I used to jump on Father's knee and tell him what marks I had, and when he kissed me all my troubles were forgotten...I needed this sort of encouragement so much."
In October of 1882, her sister Pauline entered the Carmelie convent, devastating Saint Therese. She tried her hardest to join herself, but was too young at the age of only 8 The prioress, Mother Marie Gonzague began calling Therese "my future little daughter".
During this time she began suffering terribly from nervous tremors so bad that she would frequently have to clench her teeth and could not speak. On May 13th, 1883, she believed that she had seen the statue of the Virgin Mary in her room smile at her writing:
Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am.
Christmas Eve, 1886, marked a massive turning point in Saint Therese's life. After attending Midnight Mass at the cathedral, the family left shoes at the fireplace in anticipation of gifts (not from Santa, but from Child Jesus) and as she made her way up stairs she heard her father say "Therese is far too old for this now, fortunately this will be the last year".
Therese began crying and her sister Celine comforted her telling her not to go back down stairs. Suddenly, in an instant, Saint Therese wiped her tears, ran down the stairs, and opened presents as happy as he could possibly be. She wrote of that night:
"In an instant Jesus, content with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do in ten years."
"God worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant ... On that blessed night … Jesus, who saw fit to make Himself a child out of love for me, saw fit to have me come forth from the swaddling clothes and imperfections of childhood"
Biographer Kathryn Harrison wrote:
"After all, in the past she had tried to control herself, had tried with all her being and had failed. Grace, alchemy, masochism: through whatever lens we view her transport, Thérèse's night of illumination presented both its power and its danger. It would guide her steps between the mortal and the divine, between living and dying, destruction and apotheosis. It would take her exactly where she intended to go"
In May of 1887, Saint Therese sat with her father Louis who was recovering from a stroke. Sitting in the garden, she told him that she wished to enter Carmel before Christmas. Her father knelt down, picked up a little white flow with it's roots intact and explained the care with which God had brought it into being and persevered it up to that moment. Saint Therese wrote:
"while I listened I believed I was hearing my own story".
Her father took them on a pilgrimage in November of 1887 for the priestly jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. During a general audience with the Pope on November 20th, Saint Therese approached the Pope, knelt, and asked for permission to join Carmel at 15. The Pope replied with
"Well, my child, do what the superiors decide.... You will enter if it is God's Will"
Saint Therese refused to leave his feet, and the guard had to carry her out of the room. After returning home from the trip she reflected heavily on meeting other Priests. She would later right:
"I met many saintly priests that month, but I also found that in spite of being above angels by their supreme dignity, they were none the less men and still subject to human weakness. If the holy priests, 'the salt of the earth', as Jesus calls them in the Gospel, have to be prayed for, what about the lukewarm? Again, as Jesus says, 'If the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?' I understood my vocation in Italy. It is high time for Jesus to remove me from the poisonous breath of the world...I feel that my heart is easily caught by tenderness, and where others fall, I would fall too. We are no stronger than the others"
Soon afterwards, the Vicar General allowed her to join the Carmelite convent that her two older sisters had already joined. Soon after, her father had another stroke and was now suffering from hallucinations, requiring him to be hospitalized in an asylum. This began a time of suffering, from which Saint Therese would describe in a dryness of prayer:
"Jesus isn't doing much to keep the conversation going."
She would often fall asleep in prayer, which she consoled herself by writing that mothers loved children when they lie asleep in their arms, so God must love her when she slept during prayer.
Saint Therese's story continues in Part 2