St. Thérèse: Formative Relationships

By Miriam Hogan

First Published in Spiritual Life Fall 1998

A YOUNG FRENCH WOMAN WHO DIED IN 1897 before she reached the age of twenty-five might easily be forgotten today.This is not what is happening, however, as Thérèse Martin continues to make good on her promise to spend her heaven doing good on earth. Her life and her spirit tap into something so universal in our human experience that people are able to relate to St. Thérèse because in her own life she was able to accept the common relationships she was given and to grow through these relationships in love for God and other persons. She was in every sense a true daughter of her biological parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, and of her spiritual parents in Carmel, Saints Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross.

Looking at her life now, in a time of increased awareness of the dignity of women and of the many dysfunctional relationships that women have experienced with men, we can ask what has Thérèse to offer us today? How can we learn from a Saint who lived a seemingly sheltered protected life? In this article I shall attempt to show that Thérèse has a lot to teach us about relationships. Her relationship with her father, in particular, helps us to understand more about the role of father images in our own lives.

Thérèse, at a very early age, integrated material that some people struggle with all of their lives. When we look at what she had to encounter and overcome in her own life experience, we are drawn naturally to admire her. Most people, however, still have to get past the "sweet" or sentimental details of her cultural milieu. We are all given a particular time in history to grow and develop spiritually. The appeal in Thérèse life story is that while she entered into the limitations of her culture and family situation, her spirit was not bound by these limitations. Rather, God's grace was able to build upon the ordinary material and details of her life in an extraordinary manner.

The Martin Family

The Martins had nine children but they lost two girls and two boys.1 One girl, Helene, had reached the age of five before she died. Her death was especially difficult for Thérèse mother, Zelie. By the time Thérèse was born on January 2, 1873, Zelie was in poor health. Thus, when shortly after her birth Thérèse became sick, she was entrusted for a year to the care of an excellent nurse named Rose who helped her return to health. Later, when Zelie knew that she had breast cancer and probably only a short time to live, she encouraged Pauline, an older daughter, to take over most of the day to day tasks of mothering Thérèse.

"The little one," as her mother called Thérèse, had a nature that was gentle and affectionate. She won the hearts of all that surrounded her, not only with her beauty but also with her natural goodness. The heart that held first place in her own heart, however, was that of her father.

From the day of her birth, Louis Martin had a special fondness for his daughter Thérèse , the last of their five surviving children. She was not only the baby of the family, but she was the queen and he was the king. Early in her autobiography, there is a letter from Zelie to Pauline. In it Thérèse's mother told the story that when Louis would arrive home, Thérèse would sit on one of his boots and he would ride her around the house. Let us pause a moment to consider this-an interesting image of an extremely popular saint-clinging to her father's boot and riding around the house! One thinks that perhaps this will never be depicted in a statue.

Yet, it was the mature woman that remembered and saved us the story, giving us an insight into a simple act of play that revealed the trust and joy of a child and the gentleness of a father. She was a pretty child and their affection for one another was warm, loving, and tender. A watchmaker by trade, Louis was usually of a serious nature, but he seemed to be drawn out of his more reclusive ways by this special child. It was clear to everyone that the baby was happy and brought him joy.

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At a very young age, Thérèse realized that she had a talent for getting people to do what she wanted, and this included her father. This ability to get her own way could have made her spoiled and self-centered. This probably would have eventually happened if it had not been for the teaching of her family and her strong desire to please God. Indeed, she made the statement that from the age of three she "began to refuse nothing of what God asked of me." Such an attitude would have to enter into her relationship with others in the family.

Thus, before Zelie died, her main concern was not for Thérèse, the youngest, whom she instinctively knew would be able to grow to be a good and successful adult, but for her daughter Leonie. With all the instincts of a loving mother, Zelie's thoughts turned to the child that was difficult and troublesome. Unlike the other Martin girls, Leonie required special care and discipline, and Zelie worried how she would grow up without her.

The point here is that Thérèse did not only live with pious saintly companions but also with a very difficult personality. The family's piety was made manifest not only in their religious devotions but also in their constant kindness. They all took care of and supported Leonie all her life.

Suffering and Loss

Thérèse suffered greatly when her mother died in 1877. At the time, she was only four and a half years old. Her sisters were concerned about her spiritual life, and they helped her to develop a special love for the Blessed Mother. As for taking care of her physical needs, Thérèse herself seems to have chosen her sister Pauline as her "second mother." Yet, in the midst of all the kindness there was still the pain of loss. Thérèse was extremely sensitive and even seems to have suffered more than one illness because of her sensitivity.

Reading the early part of her autobiography, one can get a feeling for the suffering that was connected with this difficulty in her character. She tells of being frequently ill and having severe, almost constant, headaches at the age of nine. Here it is good to note, however, that it was also when Thérèse was nine that Pauline entered the Carmelite Order, and a new loss was felt. The bond between Thérèse and her sister had been very strong.

Is it any wonder that a child losing two mother figures before the age of ten should have difficulties? Some people remain wounded all their lives when they suffer the early loss of a parent. What I believe is truly amazing in the case of Thérèse is that she was able to develop into a healthy integrated personality. Of course Pauline tried to continue to teach Thérèse and even helped prepare her for her first communion, but their time together was greatly limited.

Before Pauline entered the Lisieux Carmel, Thérèse attended dayboarding school with the Benedictines. Coming from the pious sheltered home life of her family, even a religious school must have been a bit of a shock. Her extreme sensitivity caused nervous trembling and hallucinations to the point of requiring her to be bedridden. In 1883, she had a vision of the Blessed Virgin we now know as Our Lady of the Smile because in the vision Our Lady smiled, and Thérèse was relieved of her illness so that she could get out of bed. Nevertheless, she continued to have headaches and scruples until what she calls the great "grace of her conversion."

Time of Conversion

The simplicity of the story reminds us a little of St. Augustine's confessing to stealing pears, yet for Thérèse it was a major turning point in her life experience. Prior to this time, she had only been capable of acting with natural goodness, taking pleasure in what others would give her. Just before she turned fourteen, however, Thérèse became capable of acting in a very adult way, putting aside the self-centered joys of childhood and reaching out to those around her in pure and precious love.

It happened at Christmas time, and it involved the natural love that she had for her father. The Martins kept the traditional custom of magic shoes. The French people have a custom of filling the children's shoes with candy and trinkets much as American children hang up their Christmas stockings. Well, it was late and Louis was tired when he arrived home from Midnight Mass to see Thérèse's empty shoes. Unaware that his youngest daughter could hear what was being said, Louis remarked that fortunately this would be the last year they would have to fill the shoes.

Thérèse was deeply hurt by her father's remark. She went upstairs and fought to hold back the tears. After some encouragement from her sister Celine, she went downstairs and opened her presents as if nothing had been said. She had overcome herself and gave her father joy by expressing delight and gratitude for the gifts. Some may say that Thérèse was able to conquer her own desires. While I agree that this happened, I also believe that it was the love for her father and the need not to see him hurt by her tears that drew her out of herself. She considered the incident a great conversion.

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A psychologist might note these thoughts as being part of a transformation experience, something that we all seem to go through in our passage from childhood to adulthood. What I find amazing in the story of Thérèse, however, is that for Thérèse this experience was definitive. From this point on in her life, she was able to control her feelings and not allow them to interfere with the way she related to other people. Her sensitivity was still present, and she still suffered inwardly because of it. However, she now had control of her emotions She was also able to use her keen sensitivity to better understand and be of assistance to others.

For example, the child now became the spiritual mother seeking to convert great sinners. Her first child was a condemned killer Henri Pranzini. She prayed and offered sacrifices for him and even read about him in the newspaper.2 When Thérèse read that Pranzini three times kissed the wounds of Christ on a crucifix that was offered to him just prior to his being beheaded, she knew that her prayers were answered. Her vocation had already begun.

She would in the future teach the way of spiritual childhood with regard to our relationship to God. Yet, Thérèse would relate to others as a sister grounded in faith, taking upon herself the cares and concerns of the Crucified Christ. Unfortunately, this point is sometimes missed and misinterpreted by many people. Simply put, to love as Thérèse was called to love means sacrifice, and only a person with a very mature approach to spirituality is fully capable of practicing her sanctity. The appeal is that her method is like the gospels, open to everyone no matter what their circumstances in life. All are also called to embrace the whole of Christ's life and to accept into the mystery of their own lives the joy of Christ's birth, the agony of the cross, and the glory of Christ's resurrection. It was in the fullness of Christ's life that Thérèse discovered the fullness of meaning for her own life.

Entrance into Carmel

On May 29, of 1887, Thérèse's conversion was given an acid test when she asked and received permission from her father to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen. Her sister Marie had received the habit in March, and her father had an attack of paralysis on May 1. However, as much as she loved her father and as much as she did not wish to cause him suffering, she had the courage to follow what God seemed to be asking of them at the time. To understand how unselfish was their bond of love, we just have to remember that Louis did not just give permission but offered support for her vocation. In his youth, Louis wanted to enter a monastery and give all for his God. His application, however, was refused. Now, as a father he experienced the cost of another kind of self-giving that perhaps only a parent can begin to understand.

When Thérèse was refused permission to enter right away because she was too young, Louis agreed to go with her to the Pope to get permission. What was once a girl moved easily to tears was now a young woman that was addressing her petition to the Pope. It is not difficult to understand that Louis gave his daughter strength and confidence. His deep faith underpinned her boldness. Because of this, she was not crushed when Pope Leo XIII told her to return home and respect the wishes of the local authorities.

On April 9, 1888, Thérèse's great desire became a reality, and she entered Carmel to join the community that already had two of her older sisters. The sufferings that she encountered almost immediately further demonstrate how totally God's grace had penetrated to the depths of her being. Within months after she entered, her father's health began to deteriorate rapidly, and it became obvious that he was suffering from some form of mental illness in addition to having had a stroke. Remarks were made and reported to Thérèse that it was her entering the Carmelites that had caused her father to go mad. Such remarks must have stung her to the quick, yet Thérèse said and wrote little of her pain during this time.

Thérèse's affection for her father became even more free of selflove as she trusted God to take care of him. Her sister Celine was doing all she could to keep the home together. Eventually, however, the family had to put Louis into the Chateau de la Musse, where he died on July 29, 1894. After his death, Celine was also able to enter Carmel, and four of the sisters were again together. It was not until after Thérèse died, however, that Leonie was finally able to re-enter the Visitation Sisters for the third time and remain, due to what many believe was the intercession of Thérèse.

Growth in Carmel

As a young religious, Thérèse was as confident in God's love for her as she had been of her father's. Her little way of holiness, that has such wide appeal, is based upon believing and trusting in the goodness of God in the small everyday details of life. Some may think that it was easy for her to love God and others because she had been so surrounded by love. We need to recall that Thérès's way of love embraced the will of God in her mother's death, in the absence of her favorite sister, in the illness of her father, and eventually in her own painful death from tuberculosis. Easy or difficult she held, like St. Paul, that "all is a grace." The little one had learned how to love tenderly, how to let go of what she most loved, and how to keep God present in all circumstances. Some might think that it was easy being in religious life with three blood sisters. Even in this circumstance, Thérèse had to be very careful not to let her natural love interfere with her duties as a religious. Further, not all the community was enthusiastic about having so many of the same family in the monastery. For this reason, Thérèse was not allowed a chapter vote which would have permitted her to be part of the decisions that were made concerning her everyday life and the life of the other nuns in the monastery.

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Nevertheless, with the same enthusiasm and affection she had for her physical family, Thérèse entered into the spirit of her Carmelite charism. The writings of St. John of the Cross became a source of comfort and guidance for her.3 His works, the works of St. Teresa of Jesus, and above all the gospels were the sources on which she fed and from which she was able to influence the novices who were entrusted to her care.

Metaphors, however helpful, tend to break down in the realm of spiritual relationships, yet, our understanding seeks human terms. In this sense, we can also view Thérèse as being a sister to John of the Cross and a sister to St. Teresa of Jesus. While the three personalities share a common spiritual family, we are indebted to each saint for his or her unique and individual manifestations of the same charism.

Continuing to work as a spiritual mother, Thérèse adapted to the needs of the novices entrusted to her. One she encouraged, while another she would challenge, all in the interests of enabling them to grow in their love for God. Also, she wanted them to be joyful in their vocations. An example of her practical wisdom can be seen in the way she wrote to the two priests who were her spiritual brothers. One of the priests needed encouragement to relate to others while the other needed to be less outgoing and gentler in working with others. Thérèse advised all according to their individual temperaments. A novice found Jesus best in her recreation, so Thérèse made her a present of a top in her room for Christmas.4 In a balanced spirituality, God is found at play as well as at prayer. Balance, however, was not a major concern in the spiritual formation of her time. Even today, her wisdom is just beginning to be understood and better applied in modern religious formation programs.

One of the major difficulties facing formation people today is the number of people drawn to religious life and other vocations who come from dysfunctional families. Thérèse's life presents us all with a challenge to go beyond what is lacking in the past, to accept the good of the present moment, and to reach out in love to others in the future. The love she held for her father enabled her, under some extremely challenging psychological circumstances, to reach out to others rather than become isolated.

It would have been easy to understand if she had become too attached to her father and sought to stay close to home. Instead, his love enabled her to continue to grow and to develop an ever-widening vision of God's Mercy. Louis, the gentle fatherly/motherly man, had showed her how to take risks and not fear the consequences. From what can be viewed externally as the tenuous security of a pious provincial family and restricted religious society, her heart embraced the whole world. Internally, her spirit had been set free to love.

Acting on her love for the missions, before knowing that she had tuberculosis, she applied for a transfer to Vietnam and had been accepted. At about the same time she was given permission to transfer to Vietnam, she discovered the seriousness of her sickness. Here again, as in the case of her father's illness, she was able and willing to offer to God her disappointment, and in deep faith trust that God's will was being accomplished in her life.

Living in Darkness

Finally, everything that she had hoped to achieve was achieved without her receiving any external joy. Even spiritually, she suffered great darkness and a feeling of being abandoned by God. She wrote that her first Profession retreat was made in dryness and every retreat afterwards was the same. When one begins to understand the extent of abandonment that she accepted, one can only marvel that God was able to trust her with so much darkness and dryness. The Little Way is not just about resting in the arms of God but also about embracing the cross and sharing in the redemptive work of Christ.

The Little Flower, as Thérèse is known to many, died in darkness. The consolations that were not there in her earthly life continue to be granted to those who know her today. The stories of her appearing and the stories of roses being given to people at critical times in their lives attest to her promise to send a shower of roses to earth. Further, her spirit continues to attract others to Christ and to show us how to live a life of holiness in our most basic and common human relationships.

By Miriam Hogan, OCD

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1. The five surviving Martin girls were: Marie the oldest and the father's favorite (Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart), Pauline (Mother Agnes of Jesus), Celine (Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face), Leonie (Sister Francise-Thérèse, a Visitation Sister), and Thérèse (Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face).

2. Louis Martin did not allow his daughters to read the newspaper. In her autobiography Thérèse explained that she understood the rule against reading the paper to apply to everything but the articles about Pranzini. At this point in her life she does seem to have overcome her scruples. But, she seems not to have shared the information in the newspaper with her father.

3. St. Thérèse provides us with one of the best personal descriptions of the dark night of the spirit found in literature. Behind all the "sweetness" and all the sentimental trappings common to the religious expressions of her age, we encounter a spirit that lived in unembellished faith. Her spirituality is closest to that of St. John of the Cross who described the dark night experiences as leading to mystical union with God.

4. This incident is from a book edited by Rev. Thomas N. Taylor, published thirty years after the death of Thérèse. I have included it even though it was not included in the critical edition of her works in 1957 because it is one of the sources that shows the importance of play in spiritual formation. Actually, this idea of play is quite novel considering that even Carmelite recreation in Thérèse's time was quite structured. Thus, this incident helps us see Thérèse's freedom of spirit in regard to the novices.


1. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1975).

2. Marei Baudouin-Croix, Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life, trans. Mary Frances Mooney (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1993).

3. Margaret Dorgan, Lectures given on St. Thérèse at the Carmelite Forum, 1991.

4. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Rev. Thomas N. Taylor (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne LTD., 1927).

5. John Michael Payne, "St. Thérèse and Vietnam," Carmelite Digest (Spring 1986).

6. Karl Rahner, "A Happy Death: The Witness of Thérèse of Lisieux," The Great Church Year (New York: Crossroad 1993) ed. by Albert Raffelt, trans. & ed. by Harvey D. Egan, S.J.

7. R.P. Victor De La Vierge, Spiritual Realism of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. The Discalced Carmelite Nuns, Pewaukee WI (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company 1961).

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