This Sunday, 1 October, is the feast day of St Thérèse of Lisieux. In the lead-up to her solemnity, four Discalced Carmelites—Mother Angela, Prioress General at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew, and Srs Rosemary of the Sacred Heart, Miriam of Jesus, and Marie Aimee of Jesus—share their vocation stories and wisdom about St Thérèse, the young French nun who ‘rediscovered’ the very heart of the Gospel with her Little Way.
As a little girl, Thérèse lived with her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, in a house in the town of Alençon in the south of Normandy, France. Their house had stairs, and Thérèse was too little to climb them, so she would often cry out for help from her parents. ‘It’s the way of the child’, Sr Miriam says, ‘they have absolute trust and confidence in their parents. That is what we've got to have with regard to God.’
At a very young age, Thérèse began to understand that ‘God’s arms would be the elevator that would lift her up to his love’, Mother Angela says. ‘She was a human being, limited in every way. She couldn’t, as she explained, lift her little foot up the steep stairway of perfection. God had to lift her up.’ The image of little Thérèse being lifted up reminds us of the Magnificat, in the Gospel of Luke, where Mary says, ‘He has taken down princes from thrones and raised up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).
Thérèse did everything with great love, and strived to be merciful to her sisters, something the sisters try to emulate in their own community. ‘We live with sisters not of the same flesh and blood, not even of our personal choosing, not of our own particular culture or race’, Mother Angela explains. ‘You have to ask our Lord to love that person in you, as St Thérèse did, and try your level best to respond to our Lord’s grace, but that is loving the other person as God has loved.’
‘If you are here for yourself, it’s a selfish life’, Sr Miriam adds. ‘Some people are called to carry on the Lord’s healing ministry, and some teach, and ... they have to take the Lord into the world that way. As Carmelites, we are called to follow him as he went off in prayer to the Father, and we do that on behalf of the Church.’
‘It’s in the sacrament of the present moment where we meet our Lord and his grace, offering our lives to him in response to his love for us,’ Mother Angela says.
Thérèse knew this well. Towards the end of her life, she fell ill with tuberculosis, suffering from a fever and terrible hallucinations. Even then, Sr Miriam says, ‘Thérèse knew, “it’s trust and confidence only that will lead us to love”.’
‘It’s a beautiful moment when we are reduced to nothing’, Mother Angela adds. ‘That is where God loves us very particularly; he is there to help us … If we hand ourselves over to him, the little effort that we make can be multiplied infinitely.’
Mother Angela recalls the time she told her father she wanted to become a nun: ‘I told him, I want to be a Carmelite. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I want to love God”. He said, “What do you know about love?” He was right: I knew nothing.’ But after she left school, Mother Angela attended a retreat, and she remembers reading these words in a book by St Teresa of Ávila: ‘We need no wings to go in search of God, but we have only to look within ourselves.’
‘I now see how that really applies to her “interior castle”’, Mother Angela says.
We live a life of solitude and silence, and we are often thrown onto ourselves. The purpose of silence is to help us tune into our Lord’s voice. It’s a soft, gentle voice—like a whisper. All the noises can block it out.
‘In the carrying out of our work every day, we have to learn how to tune ourselves into our Lord and what he is asking of us or offering to us.’
Sr Miriam entered the novitiate around the same time as Mother Angela did. It was while reading Story of a Soul, St Thérèse’s autobiography, that Sr Miriam ‘got a very strong nudge.’
‘I knew my faith was sealed. Everything in me objected to it because I didn’t know much about the Carmelites, and I thought, they must live in a sort of a tomb-like place; they might as well be dead,’ Sr Miriam jokes. ‘But I knew I was being offered something. If I didn’t take it, it would have been as if I was throwing it out, and I wouldn’t become the person I was meant to be.’
As for Sr Rosemary, she says ‘I knew nothing about St Thérèse, really.’ At the time, she was working at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the neonatal intensive care unit when she felt the call to religious life. After reading The Life of St Teresa of Ávila, she thought, ‘What a tremendous woman, what a tremendous common sense.’ Sr Rosemary says, ‘I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life, and I thought, “What could be more worthwhile than being a Carmelite?”’
For Sr Marie Aimee, also a nurse by training, the call to religious life came about as she was doing some pastoral work. Sr Marie Aimee had just returned from a year abroad in London, where she says she ‘discovered the nothingness of the world; that the world didn’t really hold anything for me.’
Sr Marie Aimee found it very easy to pray for people as she was working.
I told one of my friends, whose name is Carmel, ‘I’m praying for you a lot; you must be needing prayers.’ My friend said, ‘No, that is your vocation.’ She was a Little Sister of the Poor.
‘Our relationship is really a daily growing in love with our Lord, a union with him, and a handing of ourselves over to him’, Mother Angela emphasises.
‘We have to understand the power of the cross’, Sr Rosemary adds, ‘that whatever we are enduring as a trial, it’s to take us further. We've got to find what God wants in this, to always look for the truth in what he is asking for, and to live by imitation of how he lived.’
The sisters would like people to know that ‘we are here for them. Life can be plain difficult, but we do give the assurance of our prayers for them in their situations,’ Sr Miriam concludes.
There will be a solemn Mass to commemorate the feast day of St Thérèse of Lisieux on Sunday 1 October at 3pm, at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew. The principal celebrant will be Bishop Terry Curtin. Roses will be blessed in honour of St Thérèse after the Mass. All are most welcome!
The sisters also have a range of cosmetics and skin care products called Monastique. The brand was inspired by the Cistercian monks of Caldey Island, off the Welsh coast in Britain, and developed by Sister Benedicta, who was a pharmacist before joining the Carmelites. The products ‘carry with them a little of the peace and spirit of prayer in which they are made’, and can be purchased at the Carmelite Monastery.
Melbourne Catholic28 September 2022
Melbourne Catholic06 June 2022