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Thérèse de Lisieux

(1873—1897) French Carmelite nun


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(1873–97),

virgin, Carmelite nun. Born at Alençon, the youngest daughter of Louis Martin, a watchmaker, and his wife, who died when Theresa was four years old, she was brought up in an atmosphere of traditional piety and separation from the world which was characteristic of a rather inward-looking, middle-class French Catholicism. In 1877 the family moved to Lisieux, where their aunt helped to look after the girls and where Theresa went to school with Benedictine nuns. One after the other her sisters became Carmelite nuns at Lisieux. Although she was the youngest out of the four who did so, she was the third to enter it, which she did at the age of fifteen. The exterior events of her short life are soon told. She never did anything extraordinary, but did perform every element of the austere Carmelite regime extraordinarily well. She never held important responsibility, but was assistant to the novice-mistress from 1893. In 1894 her father died after three years of near-insanity and her sister Céline joined her sisters in the convent. In 1895 she had a haemorrhage which was the first sign of the tuberculosis which was to kill her; because of this, she did not, as she had been inclined to do, offer herself as a volunteer to the Carmelites in the missionary foundation at Hanoi (Vietnam). Instead she stayed on in her convent, suffering sometimes heroically in silence. In June 1897 she was moved to the convent infirmary and on 30 September she died at the age of twenty-four. It is likely that she would have been unknown if she had not, under obedience, written a short spiritual autobiography called L'Histoire d'une Âme, edited (with certain alterations) by her sister. The popularity of this work, soon translated into most European languages and several Asiatic ones, together with a number of miraculous cures and an even larger number of ‘favours’, believed to be due to her intercession, caused the truly sensational spread of her cult. Beatified in 1923, canonized in 1925, she was declared patroness of the Missions in 1927 and of France in 1947. The special appeal of her cult lies in her extreme artless simplicity with her apparent sweetness (rendered somewhat saccharine by some of her devotees). To the more discerning, however, it is clear that her message is very close to that of the Gospels which she so frequently cited, and that, carried to its logical conclusion, it requires very great courage and self-sacrifice, in which she excelled, for its realization. The way of simple, self-forgetful but complete obedience which she recommended is a more taxing undertaking than that of the artificial use of exterior instruments of mortification which she rejected. The community which she joined was by no means free of limitation and imperfection: the influence of her life, in her convent, in her Order, and in the Church at large helped to lead many to a rediscovery of first principles and the primacy of the ordinary duties of the religious life over personal initiatives which frequently cloak self-will. In art Theresa is represented in a Carmelite habit holding a bunch of roses in memory of her promise to ‘let fall a shower of roses’ of miracles and other favours. Feast: 1 October.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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