Print

Introduction to the Last Conversations by Claude Langlois


It is necessary to be clear about the suspicions that bear upon the last words of Thérèse. Their examination followed closely the publication of Derniers entretiens (1971). In 1973, in the second volume of his biography, Thérèse de Lisieux au carmel, Jean-François Six mentioning the source material he used, wrote: “We have to wonder about Mother Agnès’s immoderate appetite for retouches and transformations, on her manner of introducing a certain tone in the last words of Thérèse that is megalomaniac where she expresses undoubtedly herself much more than she expresses Thérèse.” In 1992 in the book review of the edition of the complete works (NEC) for the newspaper Le Monde, he denounced more vigorously “corrected words, rearranged, twisted for more than twenty-five years by Mother Agnès.” As it was impossible, contrary to the writings, to return to the original texts he concluded that it was necessary to abandon documentation contaminated at its source.

I took up this project myself (for a publication done in 2000: Les dernières paroles de Thérèse de Lisieux) and I showed how Mother Agnès, through her own admission-as other sisters following her-reworked Thérèse’s words to make quasi-slogans which played an important role in her sister’s popularity. I also pointed out that the majority of the remarks collected came out unscathed by the rewriting. Even more, I wondered about the motives of the gatherers of words and their ways of doing it, about the ulterior use of these verbal retorts that they had in some sort invented, on the impossibility also of accessing the ipsissima verba. This is not to say that the words gathered, elicited, or even forced should be abandoned. Quite the contrary.

I took up in the sequences that follow some of my initial arguments. After more than ten years of new research, I also expanded the field of my questions. Why for example, so many words in a community devoted to silence and by an author who handles with a consummate art autobiographical writing, but only quotes herself in rare circumstances? I also looked more closely at the immediate progression of Thérèse’s words in the 1898 edition of Histoire d’une ame though the depositions of the processes, above all that of the Ordinary because knowledge of the words is inseparable from the usage that was made of them or that they wanted to make.

I am not hiding my position as a historian of Thérèse’s texts. I brought to mind how, from the process for Thérèse’s writings in 1910 to the edition of the autobiographical manuscripts of 1956, they constantly distinguished the nun’s writings from the testimony of others, the words. A position that I make my own. I see in the insertion of the Paroles in the complete works of Thérèse a posthumous victory for Mother Agnès, or if one prefers, the desire to put on equal footing, writing and tradition. For me, Thérèse is a writer-a spiritual writer-and her writings are signed, not her words. Without taking into account the term conversations is poorly suited for collections of words taken on the fly during conversations or elicited one-on-one. But indeed words there were. The tomb of Thérèse began to be built during her lifetime, from July 1897 at the moment where Mother Agnès buried Thérèse under the abundance of her words.

You will find here a series of short texts written in a certain order but which can be read in another according to the questions each has, to better approach Thérèse’s words.

Analysis from Claude Langlois

1. Silence and words

One might be surprised that a Carmelite, bound to conventual silence, spoke so much. A Carmelite certainly but not a Carthusian monk!

Let’s open the Constitutions: “It is necessary to diligently avoid speaking too much.” Wisdom. Chapter 10 mentions silence and retreat in the cells, without urgency. It points out however the serious culpa, we read later on, which would be “customary of breaking silence.” No work together in the convent, this would be the occasion of speaking too much. The Rule (Cahier d’Exaction) which Thérèse explained for her novices, makes silence the first observance to acquire. And to encourage this, it made reference to the example of the Spanish founders. “They say […] of Mother Isabelle of the Angels that she seemed even to speak in silence.” They offered for meditation this comment by Anne of Saint Bartholomew: silence is “the work to which they recommend to us above all to engage in, and that which the Rule most strictly requires of us.

In a more precise way, conventual silence has its places and times. Its usages and its limits as well. Its places: the cloisters and the dormitories but again silence “in the two choirs, the oratory, the chapter, the refectory, in all the hermitages and in the gardens.” Its times, above all the great silence which extended to a large part on both sides of the brief night of sleep. Its singularities also such as “the use of several signals that they might use instead of words” for brief exchanges. A language like that of deaf mutes but basic, used mainly to designate people (for example, the sub prioress indicated by the index finger to the left eye). It was easier, finally, to slip little notes quickly written in pencil.

Silence also has its limits. Good sense-working together necessitates speaking briefly-goes together with the concern of balancing a life full of tension. During the two daily recreations, after the two meals, noon and evening, it is necessary to speak-they can laugh also, sing sometimes- for mental health and cordial conversation. And this desire to create salutary breaks extends even to feast days where they can even converse in the cells. Thérèse profited from this to write, especially in the last years of her life. Let’s add the permissions which were always requested from the prioress. One anecdote reported by Thérèse: Agnès of Jesus working with her in the refectory had permission to speak to her but she who had not requested this, felt required to never reply. Strictness of the novice!

Thérèse in Carmel had, more precisely, several occasions of speaking freely. Primarily because of close ties maintained with her family outside of the cloister. Pauline, since her entrance into Carmel, had permission to receive her family in the parlor each week except during Advent and Lent. This weekly exchange continued when Thérèse entered Carmel. She herself conversed like this with Céline for more than six years before she joined her there.

And then the novitiate. Thérèse decided to stay there past the five years which was the norm. She gave advice as eldest in the novitiate to whoever asked her. She soon saw herself entrusted with the sisters who entered, to initiate them in good manners. Having become a de facto novice mistress, she taught day after day, reprimanded, received confidences, consoled, exhorted. Read her last manuscript! Without forgetting plays which she organized beginning in late 1893, always with the novices. To produce them, it was necessary to assign the roles, prepare the costumes, to have short practices.

Lastly the illness. The sick person has permission to speak with whoever wants to, Thérèse with her sisters. Through charity, above all, to relieve the suffering and to push aside the fears of death.

About silence, this rare word August 6th where she follows in the steps of the Spanish mothers: “What good it does the soul, what breaches of charity it prevents and so many troubles of all kinds. I speak above all of silence because it is on this point [of the rule] that we err the most.”

2. Words at the beginning and the end

"The baby is an incomparable imp. She just caressed me in wishing me dead. “Oh! How I really want you to die, my poor little mother!” We scolded her. She said: “It’s so that you go to Heaven, since you say that one must die to go there.” (Zélie, December 5th, 1875). “You don’t know how much Our Mother is good to us, for our little Thérèse especially. This dear little one said this morning with her gracious and smiling little manner: “My Mother, it’s in your arms I wish to die…not on a pillow but on your heart” (Marie of the Sacred Heart, July 14th, 1897).

A child’s words or comments by a dying woman, these are Thérèse’s words that they collected with the same tenderness whether she was three years old or twenty-four. The same attention given to the first years of life to the last weeks preceding death. And yes, for Thérèse the seconds weigh so much, we have to admit that the mold where the imprint of these words is collected, light here, heavy there, is in principal identical to the correspondence.

This similarity agrees first of all with a social practice where as much attention is given to entering life as the one that is leaving, this quasi-symmetry made possible by the longer presence of a child in the heart of a family, at the beginning of its life and a death which happens earlier in life. But this proximity of the beginning and the end applies as well to the demographic and medical context of the Martin family. The first steps of the child take place in the shadow of death-Zélie lost four other young children-and the last weeks of the dying woman can seem endless in the case of tuberculosis with a painful slowness, but also brief remissions where the desire to live breaks through.

These words are exchanged, furthermore, in a family setting. Letters of Zélie to her daughters in the boarding school of Mans, or as this, just to Pauline; daily letters from Marie of the Eucharist to her parents or occasionally from a sister of Thérèse, such as Marie of the Sacred Heart here. The exchange concerning Thérèse as a child is the consequence of the separation of Zélie and her older daughters in the boarding school of Mans. The situation is more paradoxical in Carmel where there are four Martin sisters and a Guérin daughter. Marie de Gonzague who knew how much the Carmel owed to its benefactor, Uncle Guérin, liked to place Thérèse lately in the hands of her siblings, mainly Mother Agnès, Sister Geneviève and Marie of the Eucharist. This latter was given the task of giving daily updates to the uncle who was absent from Lisieux about the health of his dear niece.

But the family system snowballed because of the special bond that united Thérèse to Pauline/Mother Agnès of Jesus. The absence of Pauline, longtime in boarding school, far from the child Thérèse who stayed close to her mother. To fill this void later, Mother Agnès, then a young prioress asked Thérèse to recount her youth that she didn’t know. Thus was born the autobiography (Manuscript A). The situation is comparable to the end of May 1897. Daily life in Carmel did not prevent a great distance from being established between these sisters during the last months of Thérèse’s life. Mother Agnès learned at the end of May that Thérèse was going to die of tuberculosis, that the illness started more than a year ago and that the sick woman had said nothing to her sister. Thérèse confided in her prioress and she concealed the illness from the community. In the same way she didn’t know all the most recent spiritual development of Thérèse, her night of faith and her friendship with Roulland.

Hence her initiatives at the beginning of June, for Mother Agnès transformed her violent emotions into immediate action; she convinced Marie de Gonzague to put Thérèse back to writing and for her own part she convinced herself to collect all of Thérèse’s words. Absolute emergency, completely new. The collection of words was born from a possessiveness which doesn’t take pleasure in a morbid rumination. To Marie de Gonzague the last words to her, extorted if necessary, like a personal inheritance. To understand everything her sister said to her, time would not be lacking later for rumination and clarification.

Go to the top of this section

3. Words of Thérèse cited by herself

Does Thérèse cite Thérèse? Did Thérèse allow herself easily to speak? Yes, if one considers the omnipresence of I. No, if one sticks to explicit comments. We must understand the meaning of the infrequent times in her three big manuscripts where she breaks a rule that she set.

The rarity of self-citations is explained by several reasons. The first reason, the most evident is the reception that Thérèse gives to the words received from elsewhere. The word of God, of Jesus. Words of the Psalms, of the Canticles, of The Imitation as well. These words often repeated nourish, inspire and soothe her.

The second reason comes from the realm of the unutterable-of that which “the tongue and even the mind cannot express” (M.s A 14v, 5)-that she said she came up against frequently. It’s the actual inability to grasp her subject with words. Let’s add still the awareness of the ambivalence of words overheard which in this case hurt her (Pauline discussing her departure for Carmel with Marie) but which can also heal (her father’s remark on Christmas night).

In the autobiography, Manuscript A, Thérèse’s words focus on two important moments. Foremost, in the beginning, her words of childhood where she revisits her mother’s letters. We know the best known, “I choose all”; words for claiming Léonie’s toys which by virtue of writing, the nun makes symbolic and quasi-prophetic of her own life. “I choose all. I don’t want to be a saint by halves”, “I choose all that you will” (Ms. A, 10,16-10v°,6).

Second moment, the implementation of her vocation, Thérèse examined first of all Pentecost 1887, the meeting with her father where she confides her desire for Carmel. She forgot however what the exchange was: “I’d love to recall his words and write them down” (Ms. A 50v,2-3). It was on the occasion of the two decisive meetings with the bishop, then with the pope that she notes the passage at arms with Révérony concerning how far back her vocation went, his comments in the presence of Leo XIII. We would point out however that in the first case she wasn’t certain of having found ”quite the words” spoken and in the second it was Révérony, again him, who in two words summarized to the pope what she wasn’t able to say.

In the September poem (Manuscript B) immediately she allows herself to speak, but under the pretense of a dream where sleep lifts all censorship (“I dared to speak these words”). And her questions addressed to the night visitors, the founders of Carmel, that were about the date of her death and divine satisfaction with her actions and her desires, poorly masked a fundamental question: the good God, “is he happy with me?”, a mark of anguish that runs through her entire life.

In her last manuscript, the reader has two occasions to directly hear the voice of Thérèse. The second one is made up of exchanges with her novices, but she prefers to let them speak. The first comes from episodes from her life in Carmel that she presents as examples which she relates with delight. We hear complain the old sister that she escorted to the refectory (Ah! My God you’re going too fast, I’m going to get hurt), to defend herself against the novice who argues with her about the privilege of returning the keys to the sick prioress (“It’s Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus who made noise…”), to wonder about the sister tricked by her smiles (“Would you tell me …what attracts you so much to me?”) or to laugh about the one who asked for someone to accompany her (“Ah, I really thought it wouldn’t be you who would earn a pearl for your crown”). Thérèse replied, but with a gesture of a stampede, an evasion, a silence.

And yet she expresses herself. In a different way. First of all, because the chosen form is that of letters to her prioress and in the course of days in June her tone frees itself, writing becomes a game, a challenge, provocation. Burn, burn my letters! Also because her long goodbyes to her family are linked to those of Jesus on the night of his death and she even dares, she explains with her savior, “to borrow the words that you addressed to the Heavenly Father the last night”.

The Theresian "I" links itself to infrequent words, all the more significant, and to a lot of silence.

4. Last conversations: a misleading title

Thérèse of Lisieux is not the philosopher Socrates who before drinking the hemlock, conversed with his disciples. How then did they come to give this misleading title to the last words of Thérèse?

In the first edition (1898) of Histoire d’une âme (Story of a Soul), chapter twelve which recounts the end of Thérèse, contains five parts: “Témoinages des novices-Derniers entretiens-Une flamme d’amour-Le calvaire-L’essor”. In the second edition (1899) the novices’ testimonies are slipped into an appendix, chapter twelve which recounts the death of Thérèse begins with Derniers entretiens. These are in reality the last words of the nun, reported by those close to her. We see early on how the identification took place between words and conversations.

The prospective of the process changed everything. In February 1909, Mother Agnès handed over five green notebooks to the vice-postulator, Mgsr. de Teil, which contained a selection of Thérèse’s words during her illness. She wanted to make him realize the suffering of the last months since he found the manner in which Story of a Soul was depicted as too hagiographic, presenting them as “abandonment in continual joy and peace”. Msgr. de Teil wanted to show that the future saint had “labored and suffered to reach holiness.” This desire for realism throws light on the title given to the collection by Mother Agnès: “Moral face of Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus during her last illness, according to her literal words.”

Eighteen months later, when she was describing the last moments of Thérèse to the tribunal, the prioress gave the judges a collection of words of her sister so that they appear in the proceedings of the process. Same title with this clarification: these words have been collected by me (Sister Agnès of Jesus) from the very mouth of the Servant of God and kept day to day in a notebook.” Pious inaccuracies suggested by Bishop de Teil to pretend that Thérèse expressed herself directly through the words gathered from her sister’s mouth.

In 1921-1924, as the process approached its culmination Mother Agnès put in final form, for herself, a notebook bound in yellowish light brown, the most complete collection of Thérèse’s words and gave it this neutral title: “Paroles recueillies pendant les derniers mois de notre sainte Petite Thérèse.” In 1927, she gave the public the last words of Thérèse: Novissima verba. Derniers entretiens de saint Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, mai-septembre 1897. This title had been suggested by M. Dubosq, promoter of the faith for the diocesan process. It was ended with a Latin citation: “Colligite fragmenta ne pereant” (Jn 6,12 Gather the pieces so that nothing might be lost) that makes an allusion to the loaves of bread multiplied by Jesus and not eaten by the crowd. The words of Thérèse, like the precious scraps not allowed to perish! The Latin title of the collection was meant to be an echo of a famous poem by Lamartine, Novissima verba, whose subtitle, “My soul is sad until death”, evoked the agony of Jesus.
   Each soul has a secret it wants to reveal
   Its word to tell the world, in death, in life,
   Before disappearing forever, extinguished, fading away,
   Like a light in the night which leaves behind neither light nor sound!

The preface letter of M. Dubosc by speaking of Elijah, legendary founder of Carmel, Christianized the grim romanticism of Lamartine: “As Elijah leaving the earth, left the plenitude of “his spirit” to his beloved disciple (2 Kings 2,9), thus in these Novissima verba, your Holy little Sister, has condensed, quite naturally and without taking care, that which is the most exquisite in her manner of belonging to God, spontaneously and with love.”

When it was necessary in 1971, for lack of a reissue of Novissima Verba, to do a critical edition of the last words of Thérèse, they eliminated the Latin and took into account the plurality of sources-Agnès of Jesus, Geneviève and Marie of the Sacred Heart-by proposing this revised title: Derniers entretiens [de Thérèse] avec ses sœurs. The 1991 edition took up this ambiguous title again, leaving the more accurate one of Dernières paroles for the synopsis of the four versions of the collection done by Mother Agnès.

Go to the top of this section

5. Chronology of a century of history

The words have a long history; here is their chronology

Gathering the words
-1897, June-September: Thérèse’s words are recorded by Mother Agnès, Sister Geneviève and Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart during the last months of her life.
-1897, July-August: almost daily correspondence by Marie of the Eucharist to her parents absent from Lisieux on the development of Thérèse’s illness.
-1897, death of Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

Histoire d’une âme
-1897, October: remembrances of the novices (Srs. Geneviève and Marie of the Trinity) put into writing.
-1898, October: Histoire d’une âme. Thérèse’s words given to the public in chapter XII.
-1899, June: Histoire d’une âme, 2nd edition. Thérèse’s words from the last months remain in chapter XII. The others, as acting novice mistress are put in the appendix (Pailletes d’or: conseils et souvenirs).
-1904-5 (?) Mother Agnès edits a final copy of Thérèse’s words in a Petit cahier de souvenirs also called Gros carnet noir, a document later destroyed.
-1907, October: Bishop Lemonnier, new bishop of Bayeux, asks the Carmelites to put their remembrances about Thérèse in writing.

Process
-1909, February: Mother Agnès hands over to Bishop de Teil, vice-postulator of the cause, five Cahiers verts, grouping together the words of Thérèse. These notebooks make up the old version of the words that has been kept.
-1910, May: Process of Thérèse’s writings. Thérèse’s words do not appear in it.
-1910, September 2nd, while deposing at the Process, Mother Agnès brings up the last moments of her sister and gives the tribunal a copy of Thérèse’s words, called Version du Procès .
-1915: deposition by Mother Agnès with the Apostolic Process. The version of the Ordinary Process is again deposed with the Apostolic Process.
-1918: redaction by Sister Geneviève of L’Esprit de Sr. Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus. Its publication is suspended while waiting for the outcome of the Process.
-1921-1923: final copy by Mother Agnès of Thérèse’s words. This version later called Le Carnet Jaune is the one which contains the largest number of Thérèse’s words.

Words of a Blessed, then of a Saint
-1923: after the beatification of Thérèse, publication of L’esprit de la Bienheureuse Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus .
-1924: typed copy of the Carnet jaune done at the request of Mother Agnès.
-1925: canonization of Thérèse.
-1927: publication of a new selection of Thérèse’s words by Mother Agnès: Novissima verba. Derniers entretiens de ste. Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, mai-septembre 1897.
-1928: second edition of Novissima Verba, more than 80,000 copies printed.
-1952: Conseils et souvenirs by Sister Geneviève.
-1956: Manuscrits autobiographiques de Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, (Autobiographical manuscripts of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus), Vol. 1: Introduction. The Paroles [...] connues par témoinages are presented and clearly distinguished from Textes thérésiens.
-1960: the Novissima verba 1928 edition is out of print.
Scholarly edition
-1964 decision by the Tribunal of the Roman Rota (one of the three tribunals of the Church, essentially a tribunal of appeal) that lifted the interdiction placed by Mother Agnès of publishing the Carnet jaune.
-1969: Conrad de Meester, Dynamique de la confiance. Discussion of the words about the Little Way.
-1971: Derniers entretiens avec ses sœurs: Mère Agnès de Jésus, Sœur Geneviève, Sœur Marie du Sacré-Cœur et témoinages divers, 2 volumes. First volume of the Édition critique des œuvres complètes (Textes et paroles) de Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus.
-1973: Jean-François Six, Thérèse de Lisieux au carmel.
-1992: Publication of the Nouvelle Édition du Centenaire (NEC). The two volumes of the 1971 edition bear two different titles: Derniers entretiens and Dernières paroles.
-1997: Jean-François Six, Thérèse de Lisieux par elle-même. L’épreuve et la grâce.
-1997: For the doctorate of Thérèse, the edition of 1992 is used as a reference.
-2000: Claude Langlois, Le dernières paroles de Thérèse de Lisieux.

Go to the top of this section

6. A century of lively history

The words of Thérèse strike us with their brilliance, fragments of a soul. They reach us from more than a century of distance and their capacity to touch the reader should not make us forget that they are traces of documentation whose development had been complex. This history of a century is part of a larger history, spread over four periods if we set aside the months of the collecting (June-September 1897).

The first takes placed under the patronage of Histoire d’une âme. It is through this publication that the words of Thérèse are presented, made known, enhanced. The words placed there are confined in the initial edition of 1898 to chapter XII; in that of 1899, they are placed differently, words of the last months in this same chapter, words heard by the novices in the appendix. These words are moved from one edition to the next. Certain ones become slogans with a prophetic context, as the one that is most known: “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.”

With the process whose preparation began in 1909, the words became an object of a new issue. First, through the use that each sister made of them to nourish her depositions, because the word of Thérèse is a weighty argument in the quest for the virtues of the Carmelite. Subsequently through the mechanism even of the process. As the record of the little process of writings has shown (1910), the words do not have a place in Thérèse’s texts. [This “process of the writings” (1910) conducted an inventory of all of Thérèse’s texts, creating a notarized copy. This copy is sometimes, in case the original disappears, the only trace of a text. For example, see the letter LT-241.]

Mother Agnès, obstinate, wanted to introduce the last words of her sister as one piece in the procedure. She did it primarily as a special documentation so that the vice-postulator might enrich his Articles, demonstration of a holy life for the judges and witnesses; but above all as a piece to insert into the proceeding of the process, looking farther ahead, so that the Roman attorney might have the possibility of drawing from it plentifully.

The culmination of the process, with the beatification (1923) and the canonization (1925), opens the possibility of new publications until then suspended. It was the time of biographies, one also of confidences and words delivered to the public. Sister Geneviève is the first to speak with her Esprit (L’Esprit de Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus d’après ses écrits et des témoins occulaires de sa vie- published from 1922 to 1946) who after the beatification made the remarks of her sister known. Mother Agnès responded the morning after the beatification with the publication of Novissima verba. After the autobiographical life of Histoire d’une âme, here is the time of the last illness through words with strong hagiographic content.

The last period began in the 1960s with the admission of Thérèse’s works in the scholarly edition. The impeccable critical edition of the yellow notebook in 1971 opened up a paradoxical debate. The disputed points come from the scholarship, the methodology and the interpretation.

Scholarship: Thérèse’s words in their main version were passed on in a later document written more than twenty years after the reported facts. And the suspicion of rewriting- or even falsification-could not be dispelled for lack of recourse to some missing original.

Methodology as well: placing the correspondence and last words as two paths of access to the texts of Thérèse created ambiguities. The correspondence which reconstructs a life, even discontinuous, makes possible a permanent dialogue with Thérèse’s texts; the Derniers entretiens can only be compared to the last letters of Thérèse’s entourage, principally by Marie of the Eucharist.

Lastly, interpretation: we enter into the domain of spirituality and theology as shown by the doctorate of Thérèse (1997) that relied upon the 1992 edition, which integrates the words into the complete works. Texts and words are set at the same level to comprehend an experience, to identify a message? Why, to put it differently, have the texts been cleaned up and not the words? But would we want it? We are tempted to think that they wanted to support the existence of two sources of Theresian discovery, writing and tradition. With this perspective, Thérèse’s words would have another meaning: to support the acknowledgement of Thérèse that began before her death and would take place through the privileged channel of Mother Agnès, which also placed her on altars.

Go to the top of this section

7. Family writing around a sick person

Three sisters and a cousin at Thérèse’s bedside

At the beginning of April 1897 Thérèse was gravely ill. By May, she didn’t go to the divine offices anymore; the prioress discharged her from all little jobs here and there, including the care of the novices at the end of the month. However it was not until July 8th that she was taken down to the infirmary where she died three months later. Three sisters, each from her family saw her every day. The first two were in charge of watching over her. Sister Geneviève was only an infirmary assistant, but the infirmarian in charge delegated her duties to her. “I slept in an adjoining cell and only left her for the hours of the office and to give care to other sick people.” After July 8th she moved to a nearby cell to be able to spend the night. On June 5th Mother Agnès also sat at her bedside. This was the consequence of late revelation of her illness and the proposition, authorized by Marie de Gonzague, to put Thèrése back to writing again. The prioress appoints Mother Agnès to watch her sister during Matins. Then after her transfer to the infirmary on July 8th, Mother Agnès watched over Thérèse during the hours of the offices and recreations, even during available time outside her participation during shared work. The third, Marie of the Eucharist, daughter of pharmacist Guérin, had complete permission to stop by to see her cousin each day from July to August to give daily information to her relatives absent from Lisieux.

When Thérèse went back to writing at the beginning of June, Mother Agnès for her part took the initiative of noting down her sister’s words on loose leaf paper and took advantage of the first days where her sister was busy with her manuscripts to also write down the comments she made to her in April and May. She explained this at the process: “During the last months of her life, I wrote day by day what I was a witness to, the special things of her days and above all the things she was saying.” Deposing the collection of words at the tribunal, she presented them like this: “Verbatim words collected by me [...] from the very mouth of the servant of God and written down as we went along in a notebook which seemed to tire her and which paralyzed her outpourings but she let me do it with simplicity, fearing to cause me sorrow.” Sr. Geneviève certified at the same process the importance and the accuracy of her sister’s notes: “She wrote at the same time that Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus spoke to those coming to her bed. She wrote it verbatim as the dear little sick person was saying it.”

Marie of the Sacred Heart, who saw her sister during recreations, recorded several words heard after her transfer to the infirmary July 8th. Sr. Geneviève is the last to start doing this. She was encouraged, July 18th, by a letter from her sister Léonie, living with Uncle Guérin: “If you could put everything into writing that she says it would be consoling for me to have that.” Indeed, from July 8th on, she noted down from day to day her sister’s comments, especially for herself. And each went until the end, September 30th.

In the beginning, Mother Agnès was content to copy down in the evening what she heard during the day. From July 8th on, more often present, she recorded word by word throughout the day, as she said at the process. She transformed her long moments of presence next to her sister into a continuous interview that Thérèse was of course aware of (CJ 18.8.3).

At the time that the process was prepared, Mother Agnès questioned Bishop de Teil on the way to make Thérèse’s words known basically and in depth. An occasion for each interlocutor to define how she understood the group of words. Mother Agnès on June 10th, 1910: “I had thought of writing the most beautiful words that Sr. Thérèse had, so to speak, dictated to me during her illness.”- Indirect answer by Bishop de Teil on June 17th: the notebooks where you gathered together her words “form a diary of the last illness”, a diary “written each day and almost at the same time.” Words in a manner of speaking dictated, words that can be considered like a diary. They had not finished wondering about this unusual collection of comments written and extorted, relics and proofs all at the same time.

Go to the top of this section

8. Why the yellow notebook?

Why were the Novissima verba replaced by the Carnet jaune?

It was conclusive progress in the knowledge of Thérèse’s writings to go from the rewriting of Histoire d’une âme to a publication of her three big texts from the authentic manuscripts. Likewise, it could be said about abandoning the Novissima verba for the edition of the Carnet jaune. The comparison is valuable for the undeniable scholarship on the period and on the words, but not for an identical study of a non-existent original, even more so because the proposed words are by no means word for word but always the fruit of the subjectivity of she who recorded them. The chosen version was established because it contained the greatest number of words.

Let’s explain this paradox. We have to date four versions of Thérèse’s words, all subsequent to her death. The first two (1909 and 1910) were elicited by the process and given by Mother Agnès to Bishop de Teil, the vice-postulator, then to the tribunal. The latter, the Novissima verba, was published in 1927 to satisfy a public eager to know the last moments of the new saint. And the much-talked about yellow notebook? It was like a treasure that Mother Agnès wanted to keep for herself alone with the authentic versions of the three great manuscripts…even beyond her death because she wanted to forbid their publication. The yellow notebook had been written in 1921-1923. A late date for a source that was meant to be sure. They would say that it brought back in a revised presentation a "Petit cahier de souvenirs" also called the "Gros carnet noir"  that came out in 1904-1905. This latter had compiled at that time the words collected day by day on loose leaf papers by Mother Agnès. It just so happened that the had been destroyed and of the initial loose leaves, only one remains (see it here recto/verso).

We see the reasons for this choice: the Carnet jaune is the available version of two old documents that have disappeared. But they had no way to verify its faithfulness to sources it uses. The true reason for this choice is that it represents the most complete version. The bulk of its 714 phrases were established when faced with the two versions of the process (306 and 275) and even that of Novissima verba (362). The three versions sorted out, only the first had everything! The choice of the Carnet jaune was accompanied by a pleasing synoptic presentation of the four versions (Dernières paroles, in the NEC edition). Let’s put this tangled story back on its feet. In 1904-1905, after the first success of Histoired’une âme, Mother Agnès took up again the scattered papers where she had recorded her sister’s words to put them in definitive form in a notebook…and she destroyed the unneeded loose sheets…except one. At the time of the process, she twice selected the most significant words of Thérèse from the said notebook. Less than twenty years later in 1921-1923, the process coming to an end, she recopied in a “yellow notebook” the words of the first notebook by indicating when needed the explanatory context…and she destroyed the preceding notebook. As for the Novissima verba, they drew from it to gather them together in the version of the process, via the Summarium and l’Esprit de laBienheureuse Thérèse but also from the new source of the yellow notebook.

This editorial choice begs two comments. The first is related to the supposed anteriority of the yellow notebook. For the words which were not selected from the three other collections, this one really reconstructs the way that Mother Agnès gathered Thérèse’s words; its quality of source is undeniable. On the other hand, when it was about strategic words, concerning for example the authority given by Thérèse to her sister to publish her writings and the words where Thérèse planned after her death, the yellow notebook notes the complex ways of Mother Agnès for transcribing verbatim the words of her sister and her habit of adding her own explanations to them.

The second concerns the sources used. Without having ignored successive versions of Histoire d’une âme, the 1971 editors did not give it enough importance. It is there however that Thérèse’s first words appeared. It is also in this crucible that certain words, rapidly highlighted, became benchmarks with which the public identifies Thérèse and identifies itself with her. Like the famous words of Thérèse about the shower of roses which we are now going to study. 

9. I will let fall a shower of roses

A study of the development of the well-known words: “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.

The entire posthumous life of Thérèse is summed up in those words which became over the years a figure of speech confirmed even more each day: it speaks of, through a suggestive image, the activism after the nun’s death, visible through the increase of graces and healings obtained by invoking her name. In 1911 Bishop de Teil wanted a picture of Thérèse that summed up the image that people had of her. Sister Geneviève, the official painter of her sister drew in 1912 a Thérèse “covering her crucifix with roses”. Thérèse with roses spread from then on into beautiful engravings and through the channel of Histoire d’une âme. Beginning in 1923 the beatification authorized a public cult; the sculpture of Thérèse with roses by Father Marie-Bernard was available for churches and individuals. 300,000 copies until now have been distributed all over the world. But how did the words which inspired these representations make their way?

In the first Histoire d’une âme (1898), in chapter XII, the story of Thérèse’s last moments is followed by testimony of Carmelites, especially novices, who immediately after her death felt her beneficial presence. It was introduced this way: “After my death,” she told us graciously, “I will let fall “a shower of roses.” It’s necessary to mention that a chapter XIV in an unused version regrouped Thérèse’s poems with the same title “Pluie de roses.” In the same chapter XII we find this crucial annotation:”Our children of the novitiate, trained by their young Mistress to throw before the crucifix in the courtyard unpetalled roses from the garden each night, now brought the flowers they picked to the infirmary. It was a touching spectacle to see with what piety [Thérèse] still paid this gracious homage to her crucifix.” To understand the meaning of these gestures shared with her novices, one must refer to the published poems, like La Rose effeuillée, and that admission made to Jesus, excerpt from manuscript B (chapter XI of HA):”I have no other means of proving my love to you than throwing these flowers”, which meant offering all sacrifices, to do everything by love. Roses yes, but with thorns!

From then on, the subsequent evolution is not linear. Pluie de Roses disappeared from the editions of 1899 and 1900 with the testimonies, weak, of the Carmelites on Thérèse’s appearances the day after her death. In 1901 the words reappeared with a clearer wording: “I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth”, which had been written on the wooden cross at her grave in the cemetery. In 1907 in a new category just entitled Pluie de roses, Histoire d’une âme published a first collection of miracles attributed to Thérèse. It would be like this in all the following editions. Starting in 1910 through 1914, the Carmel published each year under the same title works made up of collections of miracles which were more and more numerous.

The two versions of the words from the process gave the date of these well-known words (June 9th, 1897) and indicated its origin. “Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart said to her, “We will suffer a lot when you die”-“Oh! No, you’ll see, it will be like a shower of roses.” In her deposition, she explained: “I was reading in the refectory something about the life of Saint Louis de Gonzague where it is said that a sick person requesting a healing, saw a shower of roses fall on his bed, like a symbol of the grace that was going to be granted to him. “Me too,” she told me then during the recreation-“after my death, I will let fall a shower of roses”. The same collections report the other related words (“I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth”) specifying they had been said later (July 17th) in another context and that they made up another segment separate from a more detailed comment.

In a paradoxical manner, irrelevant to the testimony of Marie of the Sacred Heart and the collection of words by Mother Agnès, Bishop de Teil in his Articles and the witnesses in their depositions steered clear of the shower of roses but used at every possible opportunity the other wording (some twenty references). It took place as a division of the two most well-known phases attributed to Thérèse; the most theologically correct was kept for the process, the most picturesque one would soon be used for a more lifelike transcription which would have the success we know now.

10. Céline’s words

Céline’s words: the same old tune

It was the request of her sister Léonie, July 18th, which led Céline to record Thérèse’s words starting on the 21st. But she did it in another way than Mother Agnès. She wrote “all the beautiful words” of her sister. Sr. Geneviève saved “those which were personal to me.” These dozens of words don’t measure up in regards to the seven hundred recorded by Mother Agnès. But Céline covered the most difficult months, August and then September.

Céline had heard as well an “I will come back” on July 12th that she interpreted with these other words “I will come to find you as soon as possible, I will have Papa join me, you know how he was always in a hurry.” Again, in July, “I will come to get you” with this note: “My little Jesus, if you take me, you must take Mademoiselle Lili. That’s my condition […].There’s no in between, take it or leave it.” August 20th “ I will come to get you because you look heavenly when you’re good.” The 24th: “I will come to get you”. Fetch you, come to look for you then. On September 11th: “I love my Bobonne very much […] when I am gone I will come to look for you to thank you for having taken such good care of me.”

Céline didn’t realize that it was Thérèse who, with her soothing comments, calmed her sister’s fear, watching over her nurse. Thérèse spoke at length- still in August-of stories (allegories or dreams) that calmed her. It’s true that Céline knew how to listen, thus this confidence from August 16th after a night of anxiety: “The devil is around me, I don’t see him but I sense him…he torments me, he holds me with an iron hand […], he increases my illness so that I will despair…And I can’t pray…” The possibility of the confession slowly transforms the pain into an amorous sharing: ”I’m suffering for you and the devil doesn’t want that.”

Words heard, encrypted language. Céline draws from their joint memories of childhood to usher the two sisters, long standing companions, into a secret garden to flaunt death. And foremost names of the past given to Céline, Bobonne, Mademoiselle Lili. “Bobonne, no restlessness of spirit!” (Sep. 3) “This is the measure of Lili, but not of Jesus. (Sep. 5). Introducing words from August 24th, Céline wrote: “We were speaking a sort of childhood language that others couldn’t grasp.” “Unintelligible jargon,” according to Sr. St. Stanislaus.” On September 11th, Thérèse gave the key to it, “My bobonne, you’re no longer my little bobonne, you’re my nurse…and you’re taking care of a baby who is dying.” Impossible return to motherly origins.

Language of complicity where slang crops up, where the intonation is understood as a sign of recognition where neither plays on words or stories about a sparrow’s egg transformed, as a gift from heaven, into a beautiful bird are feared. Where Thérèse slips in her messages: “Bobonne, imperfect on earth, you will be perfect in Heaven” (August 4th).

To describe the closeness of the two sisters, Thérèse changed the Gospel where Jesus refused the sons of Zebedee the place of being on his right and left in Heaven (Mt. 20, 20-23). She said that place was reserved for children. Thus, for Thérèse and Céline. A way for the sick woman to keep in contact with her sister. And Céline fell for the game. In the days that followed the death of Thérèse, she wanted to know if she reached her goal, to know that she “was in the lap of the good God.” She received the assurance of it three weeks after her death: she had a flash of inspiration when hearing the words of the psalm for Terce “Haec facta est mihi” of which she checked the translation “This was done unto me”. The anecdote ends chapter 12 of Histoire d’une âme in 1898. But for the reader, they altered Therese’s words: “All that I wished for has been accomplished; today I can sign with more truth than in the past: “Your love […] is an abyss whose depths I cannot fathom.” (p.253-254).

Remonter en début du chapitre

 

11. Several keys for reading and interpreting Thérèse’s words

Several keys for reading and interpreting Thérèse’s words

Between the assertions of Mother Agnès and Sister Geneviève at the process presenting Thérèse’s words immediately put down in writing as soon as they came out of her mouth and later accusations of falsification through continual rewriting, how to come to a decision? By just listening to the explanations of both.

Sr. Geneviève, first of all. In the new version of chapter XII of the 1907 Histoire d’une âme, one could read: A sister was speaking to her about the beatitude of heaven. She interrupted her, saying: “That’s not what attracts me…What then? - Oh, it’s LOVE! TO LOVE, TO BE LOVED AND TO COME BACK ON EATH TO MAKE LOVE LOVED.” HOWEVER, IN A LETTER FROM JULY 22ND, 1897 ADDRESSED TO HER AUNT GUÉRIN, SR. GENEVIÈVE TOLD HOW SHE WAS READING TO HER SISTER A WORK ON THE BEATITUDE OF HEAVEN. THÉRÈSE INTERRUPTED HER. WHAT ATTRACTS ME: “IT’S LOVE, TO BE LOVED, AND TO RETURN TO EARTH.”

How then did they introduce this addition “to make love loved”? Sr. Geneviève explained later in 1950. It was Sr. Isabelle of the Sacred Heart (entered Carmel in 1904), charged with revising the edition of Histoire d’une âme in 1907, who gave to the public this embellished phrase, immediately repeated in the numerous publications of Carmel. It was soon on all lips and Sr. Geneviève could only support it in her deposition for the process. It would appear in Novissima verba and again in Conseils et Souvenirs by Sr. Geneviève…in 1952.

They own the autograph letter of 1897: the disputed expression had been added by another hand and then scratched. The altered words were spread in 1907 and its success made it untouchable. Now, Sr. Geneviève commented in 1950: in 1897 Sr. Thérèse was haunted by the desire to come back on earth, which this comment bears witness to. During the process, she added still, that it wasn’t the only phrase rearranged and endorsed as hers.

Mother Agnès wrote on April 4th, 1915 to her sister Léonie, Sr. Françoise-Thérèse, Visitation nun at Caen. She mentions a phrase spoken shortly before her death: “If in heaven I can’t do the good I wish to, to give joys to my little sisters through the good I will do on earth, I will go in my little corner and cry. What I wrote is verbatim. I wrote it when she said it and the rest is quite in the sense. First surprise, this enigmatic phrase is not part of the two collections for the process or in the Novissima verba. Only in the Carnet jaune on the date of July 8th in a peculiar form: “If when I am in Heaven I can’t come and play little games (joueries) with you on earth, I will go cry in a little torner.”

From these two documents, an assessment and two remarks. The assessment is wonderful: the Yellow notebook for words that weren’t given to the public retains the original wording. Here a dialectical way of speaking (joueries: ways of playing) and a lisping pronunciation (torner, corner). The remarks have to do with Mother Agnès’ way of acting. What she calls literal does not in any way mean word for word because the short citation is adapted with three modifications which change the meaning (notably joie/joy in place of jeu/game). Above all, Mother Agnès cites Thérèse by incorporating two interpretive elements (notably through the good I will do on earth) destined to make the meaning of the phrase understood by her reader.

She widely used these two joint ways to explain Thérèse. Let’s use an example. On July 11th according to the Yellow notebook, Thérèse cautioned Mother Agnès: “You’re like a fearful little bird that has never lived among men, you’re always afraid of being caught. I’m never afraid of anyone; I always went where I wanted to...I would have instead gone between their legs.”

Version for Bishop de Teil (in italics with explanatory added notes): “I always noticed, my little Mother that you are like a fearful little bird that has never, one might say, lived among men. You’re always afraid of being caught. I’ve never feared anyone. When it comes to the least task to be done, I always went where I wanted...If creatures blocked the way, I didn’t try to change it but...I slipped with ease between their legs....you know what I wish to say with that.  

Back to the top of this section

12. The time when the words were collected

In the yellow notebook, the first identified words of Thérèse date from April 4th, in the two collections for the process of May 15th. Mother Agnès took up systematically recording the comments of her sister at the beginning of June. In spite of all that, two thirds of more than 700 phrases collected are focused on July and August. Can we put some order in the short history of Thérèse’s comments while waiting for her death?

The key moment, that of the crisis between Thérèse and Mother Agnès, is purely dated between May 30th and June 4th, 1897: the late revelation by Thérèse to her sister about her first hemoptysis a year earlier, violent reaction from Mother Agnès, jealousy, tears, reconciliation, action. Thérèse, sick and without duties, was put back to writing by Marie de Gonzague, Mother Agnès heard from that to mean capturing her sister’s words.

With a slender immediate result in June (8% of the words for this month) because Thérèse was completely involved with her writing, also because Mother Agnès was not present alone with her sister except during Matins. She made up for it by returning during the last weeks. Little to glean for April and the first two weeks of May. Death certainly, but in a negative way. Death “isn’t a phantom”. “It’s not “death” who will come to look for me, it’s the good God” (May 1st). Humor still, Heaven is like a terminus: “I cough […] like the locomotive […] when it arrives at the station” (May 7th).

From May 15th on, an abundance of comments, seriousness, grief. Thérèse began her reflection on the Beyond: “I have formed such a lofty idea of Heaven…rather than be disappointed, I prefer to keep an eternal hope” (May 15th). She noticed as well the conventual reality: “All my duties were taken away from me.” She pleaded in vain: “I beg you, don’t prevent me from saying my “little” Offices of the Dead” (May 18th). She returns to this in a different way: she had nothing against an obituary circular because “I have always thought that I should pay for the Office of the Dead that each of the sisters will say for me.”

And if we look at the last month, yes again, beginning with September 7th, death was coming by eating away her lungs, her voice had a death rattle, except for a remission between the 21-24th, except for the words at the end, embellished to comply with the hagiographic model.

The time of plentiful words was concentrated then on two months, from July 3rd to September 5th, a long period of sixty-five days. The young Carmelite no longer wrote, nether poetry nor any great texts except for her letters of adieu (July 13-17th) and the last exchanges with Bellière (last letter, August 10th). The illness is made official with her transfer to the infirmary where they recorded her highs and lows, the pain, tamed and always unbearable. And then, Mother Agnès was always there with her sister, except for community activities. This was when she got out her paper and her pencil and she recorded ad hoc the dozen daily words of her sister.

Time shared certainly, because Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart joined in as of July 8th and Sister Geneviève followed suit two weeks later. But a very unequal sharing. Nearly nine words out of ten during these two months came from Mother Agnès. These two months were then for Thérèse and Mother Agnès, time measured by dialogue, of outpourings, of memories, but also interrogation, heavy questioning, of extorted comments. And later after the death of Thérèse will come the time of bare words, that need to be dressed up like the wooden virgins in old sanctuaries. To dress up as much as to clarify in the carnet noir, the black notebook of 1904 and more again in the yellow notebook twenty years later. Because a number of them had fallen into insignificance that is born of the inevitable forgetfulness.

Thus this word of August 22nd: “No, I mustn’t talk?...But…I believed…I love you so much!...I’m going to be good…Oh! Little Mother!” Immediate clarification, no doubt at the time of the editing of the black notebook: She wanted to speak to make me happy as she could hardly breathe. I told her to be silent. Twenty years after, Mother Agnès reread it, remembered. She relived the fleeting moment, emotion and pain: “She looked at me during prayer, then her picture of Théophane Venard, at his expression so gentle and penetrating.”

Keep, yes, all of Thérèse’s words even if they become over time enigmas to laboriously decipher.

Back to the top of this section

 

13. Last words or last interrogations ?

“They plague me with questions; it reminds me of Joan of Arc before her judges. It seems to me that I answer with the same sincerity.”

Sister Cécile, Carmelite from Lisieux, tackling the edition of the words of Thérèse, noted in 1971 in an introduction to Derniers entretiens: Persuaded by the approaching death of her sister [Mother Agnès] doesn’t hesitate to question her time and time again” with an “almost embarrassing” insistence […] “to provoke reactions and answers” (DE, 45). This lucid judgment was corroborated by a belated admission of the prioress for life (1930) to her Visitation sister at Caen concerning comments extorted in the days preceding her death. “We wanted to still get something out of her (I am underlining), some new words.”

The affair goes back quite far. It was Marie of the Sacred Heart who in January 1895, just after the success of the second Joan of Arc put on by Thérèse, who began the process. Our youngest sister, she said in substance to her two sisters, is beginning to distribute her poems here and there in Carmel. And we are not taking advantage of her talents? This is where the writing of the autobiography started. And in 1896, this same [sister] insisted by letter. Next year at the same date you will undoubtedly be dead-it was in September, she saw it correctly!- leave me something of yourself in writing during your retreat. And she got the sumptuous September poem (Manuscript B).

She who her sisters and Marie de Gonzague considered a child prodigy, she who those close to her kept her little words, hair, even nail clippings as relics no longer had anything but her words to offer even if this gift was somewhat requested. And Mother Agnès had the habit of putting the question to her sister by dressing her abrupt questions in kid gloves.

Why? Remorse and anxiety, calculation and provocation. Regret about being bypassed in the spiritual evolution of her sister and shameless use of the days that were left for catch up sessions. Fear, certainly, of death. How else to understand provocations like that of July 9th? “You will die no doubt on July 16th, Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel or on August 6th, feast of the Holy Face.” Mother Agnès, too involved, had not been recruited to help with palliative care. All the more so since these comments came close to being calculation, or even provocation. Thérèse saw herself dying smoothly, abducted by the Thief the preceding June 9th, for the anniversary two years earlier of the revelation of Mercy. One month after that missed death her sister made fun of her, you’re still here. Oh, I’m going to propose some better dates for you! Sidestep by Thérèse:”You can eat dates as much as you want. As for me, I don’t want to eat dates any more…I’ve been taken in too much by dates.” A history that started when she was ten years old.

But in the last analysis, isn’t it the result that counts? Very well, but rereading these words comfortably, isn’t rereading these stolen words participating in a kind of voyeurism, even if spiritual? Unless reading these last words as a modern version of instruction manuals for a good death. This would bring us closer to the usage that Mother Agnès made of Thérèse’s words destined for the judges of the Process: notice the heroism in suffering…

Mother Agnès, de facto, hedged her bets; she asked the questions and if the answers didn’t satisfy her, she rewrote them. A disturbing practice when one catches her in the act. But what this reveals, at first impression, is an attentive look at these words in continuity like a rosary- a decade per day on good (!) days-the work of a counterfeiter is targeted, thus quantitatively rare: the examination of daily words most often rings true.

Even more so because Thérèse was not purely passive. She was no longer, as with her pen, complete mistress of the game but she knew she was in the last scene. Her words were like a spring that gushed intermittently, outcropping of her ruminations of the night, her fears, her prayers, her pain. We can even hear the “mock death” that she dares in seeing herself after, in the Beyond, active, present for her own ones or making them come close to her, she didn’t know too much yet…Lucidity or madness.

Who controlled and who manipulated? It was evidently not so simple.

Go to the top of this section

 

14. Words awaited, words heard

Mother Agnès planned to have her sister’s words recorded by the tribunal during the 1910 process. Bishop de Teil dissuaded her from it in the name of a process where witnesses said what they saw and heard. If everything was done in writing, to what good here and now? Why not a process “in fifty years and a Chinese Carmel?” She understood the message, submitted in writing her share of words and interspersed the best of them in her depositions, proof of the virtues of her sister. Sr. Geneviève and Marie of the Sacred Heart did the same.

The other sisters acted likewise. Each had something to say. Thérèse of Saint Augustine remembered during a conversation about the threat of exile of congregations, having questioned Thérèse with “What do you think of this?” and noted her response, “I would go to the ends of the earth (if necessary); but I’m a baby, I abandon myself. I will go where the good God wishes.” She also had from a dying Thérèse a word of support; it concerned her desire to be a “little nothing”, expressed by the dying woman in a new floral style: Thérèse dying saw herself in Heaven as “a little bit of moss among the beautiful flowers of the good God.”

It was above all her novices who remembered how Thérèse’s words, that couldn’t be restricted to the last days, nourished and helped them live each day since her death. So it was for Sr. Martha. Thérèse in her last manuscript spoke of the way in which she rebuffed her companion when still novices, they had permission to speak together. Thérèse reproached her for badly loving Marie de Gonzague with a disordered affection, like a dog attached to its master. During the process, Sr. Martha offered the admonitions of Thérèse. She even added to it, painting an intrepid companion ready to sacrifice herself on the altar of truth. Let Sr. Martha complain to the prioress about her harsh manner, that mattered little to her: “I prefer to be badly viewed by her and that she sends me away from the monastery if she wants rather than to be remiss in my duty.”

Thus even more so, Marie of the Trinity who had been hurt from being excluded from Thérèse’s last days. Making reference to “Conseils et souvenirs” from Histoire d’une âme, the essential she explained to the judges comes from notes that I wrote down from my memories and that I’m using today for my deposition.” But the comments reported by Marie of the Trinity have a particular tonality, being advice on steadfastness coated with warm stories that often call upon the imagination. To reread! Marie of the Trinity presented as well words of another tone which in the sequence of events of the process marked a turning point. This was about Thérèse’s message, given as “the little way of spirituality.” Thérèse wanted to be sure that the novices would follow it after her death. Marie of the Trinity boasted, even if the pope told me the opposite, I would follow it. Thérèse retorted with humor that in any case, she would be quicker than the pope. In Heaven “if I learn that I misled you in error”, I will come to warn you. “Until then, believe me, my way is certain and follow it faithfully.”

This insistence on the soundness of the new way prefigured the certification of the Theresian doctrine by the last two witnesses, contemporaneous with the process, who reported words that were addressed to them by Thérèse herself. The first, Mr. Grant, was a Scottish pastor, converted to Catholicism by Thérèse. In his deposition, he reported how his objections on the veneration of the saints (particularly Mary) and on the Real Presence were swept away by interior words attributed to Thérèse, always authoritative. In the written narrative of his conversation which Bishop de Teil incorporated into the articles about Thérèse’s miracles, he reported that Thérèse told him the manner of how to love the saints: “Listen to me! Chose my little way, because it is certain and the only true one.”

This is also what the bishop of Nardo meant to feature in testifying about an apparition of Thérèse in the Carmel of Gallipoli (1909), in southern Italy based on fantastic facts and words somewhat solicited. The bishop reported the main words of Thérèse: “La mia via è sicura, e non mi sono sbagliata seguendola.” My way is certain and you are not mistaken in following it.”

Go to the top of this section

15. Writing and words apart

The writings of Thérèse are true because they have been verified for the most part with the originals so they can be worked on, commented on, analyzed. Her words are doubtful in the sense that they are the fruit of a co-production: of the person who speaks and the person who transcribes. The one who presently appropriates them hears a voice that one is never sure hasn’t been dubbed. I will give two concrete examples of that fundamental gap.

First of all, the words of June. What an infinite distance between the words of Thérèse revealing her night of faith, her didactic developments on charity, her inspired comments on charity and the rare words that Mother Agnès delivers in the scope of final daily writing! As well as her death, absent from her writing but omnipresent in her conversations. Not that her last manuscript is not eminently testamentary but Thérèse has the refinement to never speak of the unavoidable word. Let’s look at this famous June 9th. The only date written in her manuscript because in bringing to a close the narrative of her trial of faith, she also believed she was finishing this short notebook. We know through a conversation of June 9th concerning these “dates” that decidedly can’t be trusted, that she saw herself dying-like being ravished by God- on the second anniversary of the revelation of Mercy. For proof, a letter of parting to Bellière-when you receive these words I will be dead-that Marie de Gonzague intercepted. It is only if we reconstruct the overall context that the words of June 9th make sense. First of all, it is here that we find the first mention of the Thief “who will come to steal me nicely.” A wait in vain for such a sweet death! She admits that on the 15th: “the 9th [...], I saw the Thief, at present I don’t see him anymore at all [...], the hope for death is worn-out.” Thérèse herself during that day of deceptions blew hot and cold. She punctuated her hoped-for departure with the promise of fruitfulness to come: “it will be like a shower of roses”. She also mocked this death that left her on the platform:”I’m like a little child next to the railroad track who waits for his papa and mama to put him on the train. Alas! They don’t come and the train leaves.”

Second example, coming from letters of Marie of the Eucharist of July 1897. This time we can compare two listeners, two different styles of taking notes also, letters written daily, comments saved. These letters from Thérèse’s cousin permit the Guérins to know the evolution of the sick person from day to day. We hear Thérèse there through the prism of light-hearted and talkative writing. A very different tone of words than Mother Agnès applies herself to recording systematically. One example, July 9th. After some difficult days which led to a transfer to the infirmary, an improvement happened. Eight conversations were reported by her sister, three by her cousin. Of the last three, two that Mother Agnès omitted: an ironic commentary on the 2% survival rate for those stricken with her illness. Some warm words for her aunt and her uncle when her cousin told her she would write them. Mother Agnès had instead written down the bitter comeback of Thèrése on these vacationers who were “partying at La Musse”. In fact, the tone of the words recorded by Mother Agnès were serious, the wording brief. Going to Sister Geneviève: “I will return”; for the person speaking to her: “I’m going to take care of my little mother”; for herself: “Would like to leave”. As for Marie of the Eucharist, she told in detail how the chaplain seeing her looking good, refused to administer extreme unction to her. Feigned anger by Thérèse: “to be polite, I placed myself sitting on our bed, I was nice to him, I courted him and he refused what I asked of him.” And to conclude: “Yes, I really see that I don’t know my trade [mon métier], I don’t know how to handle myself”. Mother Agnès only noted the ending,” I don’t know the trade [le métier]”. This remains obscure despite a brief explanation.

What to conclude? The words are somewhat hidden behind the text. But as well, a collection of phrases is not a recording. It’s a selection carried out through the prism of subjectivity: two persons translate in an identical way the same comments because they don’t hear them in the same way and don’t give them the same meaning. We notice this every day when commenting during an evening with friends on a film seen together.

Go to the top of this section

16. Writing and words together

There is nevertheless a subject and a precise moment where it is possible to bring together Thérèse’s words with her writing when she asks herself what will happen to her and her loved ones after her death. Indeed, the corpus of Thérèse’s words on this subject are forged in the middle of the month of July and for a shorter time, between the 13th and 17th of the same month she says her goodbyes in writing to her family on the outside, to her family and her brothers. If there is convergence, it can only be then and on this serious subject.

What is striking in the words about where Thérèse imagines after her death, is the brevity of her wording, her personal involvement, confidence as well. On July 6th, she is still at a hypothetical future “When I am in Heaven, I will advance toward the good God” she said, opening a light-hearted narrative sequence. Again, the same day: “When I’m in Heaven, I will tell the truth...” The 7th, she gains confidence: “I will remember...” On the 8th she continues her exploration of the future: “If when in Heaven I can’t...”-“Oh! Certainly I will cry seeing the good God.”-“In Heaven, I will get many graces!” The 9th, this promise destined for Céline: “I will come back.” The 13th she retorts to her sister who sees her above in Heaven: “No, I will come down.” Come down or come back, spatial or temporal reference, it’s all the same. Come back to do what? Céline heard on the 12th: “I will come to get you as soon as possible.” And Thérèse wrote around the same date to Marie of the Trinity: “Goodbye poor little p [poupée, doll] that I should take quickly to Heaven! I want to have her all!”

This return, she wrote to Bellière on July 13th, will manifest itself as itself as a presence at his side: “When my dear little brother leaves for Africa, […] my soul will always be with him” and more resolutely: “Soon, little brother, I will be near you”. To Roulland on the 14th, she indicates the foundation of her confidence: “I count on not remaining inactive in Heaven, my desire is to still work for the Church and souls […] Do not the angels continually take care of us without ceasing to see the holy face […]? Why wouldn’t Jesus permit us to imitate them?”

At the same time she admitted her inability to “enjoy” Heaven. If we consult the words gathered by Pauline, the expression appears on July 13th: “I’m not experiencing some kind of joyful feast”; the same is noted on the 17th and again the 29th differently: “I don’t have the capacity for enjoyment.” Now, it was repeated on the 16th from Mother Agnès to the Guérins: “It’s impossible for me to enjoy.” In response to the blare of the July 14th dance (“beautiful music”) which reminds her of the “beautiful harmonies” of Heaven. These abrupt comments are explained to Roulland again on July 14th: “the thought of eternal bliss hardly thrills my heart; for a long time suffering has become my Heaven here below and I really have trouble understanding how I could adapt myself in a Country where joy reigns without any mixture of sadness. Jesus must transform my soul and give it the capacity to enjoy; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to bear the eternal delights.”

What is a problem is not the implication drawn by Thérèse, but the veracity of the magnified expressions that are attributed to her. In the same letter to Roulland she clearly said: “What attracts me to the Homeland of Heaven is the Lord’s call, it’s the hope of loving him so much finally as I have so much desired and the thought that I shall be able to make him loved by a multitude of souls who will bless him eternally.” Pauline on July 16th transcribed her sister’s words for the Guérins:“ I can’t think much of my happiness, I am thinking only of the love I will receive and that which I will be able to give.”

Go to the top of this section