Marcel's Book Club, Take 6!
The photo above captures some early editions of Story of a Soul that my husband and I saw in Lisieux last month. Were we really there? St. Therese and Marcel tell me, "Yes, we were!" Lest you wonder if these copies are now in my possession, I must clarify that they are in a glass case. Probably locked, though now that you mention it, I should have checked!
Speaking of taking things from holy places (these were in the "Hall of Relics" museum attached to Therese's Carmel), I can't wait to get to Chapter VI of Story of a Soul, wherein our little sister freely admits to taking stones and dirt from the the Catacombs, the Holy House of Loreto, and the church of St. Agnes in Rome. This fun chapter is our reading for Marcel's Book Club, June meeting, and it's a blast! But first, I must defend our sister (and, as it turns out, myself, as you will see later) by pointing out that she's merely imitating our all-loving God.
Yesterday I received news that the Blessed Trinity couldn't wait any longer and stole from this earth (a holy place because God created it, became Incarnate here, and stays with us in all the tabernacles of the world) one of our dearest treasures. Like the little stone broken off of the mosaic in the church of St. Agnes, a little stone that no one else noticed but which Therese pocketed to bring home, so Fran Renda, a Catholic psychoanalyst in New York, was pocketed by our Heavenly Father last week so He could take her home.
Like that stone from the mosaic, Fran was a humble piece of something splendidly beautiful, but I cannot imagine anyone more self-effacing than this woman. I myself was unaware of her until I met a friend of hers in Lisieux (where she had many friends). He told me of her long work on the family correspondence of Therese's parents, Saints Louis and Zelie, and wouldn't you know she didn't even put her name anywhere on the cover or spine of this amazing book which was published a few years ago: A Call to a Deeper Love?!
Fran was the editor of the English edition, and she and the translator decided to add annotated footnotes for us. That means not just footnotes for Scriptural and other references (you know: footnote 32: 1 Cor 13: 1-12), but really wonderful, extensive explanations to fill in the blanks for us and allow us to wholly enter into the lives of Therese's family. This kept Fran working hard for years, and this work was not her profession, but her labor of love for Therese and Jesus and us. Wow!
Fran lived a full life, as far as I understand, but nothing half as full as the Real Life she is living now! Please join me in saying a little prayer for her before we get to our chat about Story of a Soul.
Dear little Therese and littler Marcel,
As you well know, Fran left us on earth to join you in Heaven. Luckily for us, you two spend plenty of time on earth still, helping us, but we're checking in with you in Heaven so you can make sure Fran is there. Slide over on Our Lady's lap and make room for her there with you and little Jesus! Give her a big kiss for us, thanking her for all her hard work on earth, and ask her to send us each a rose or two to let us know she's right there with you and our brothers and sisters in Heaven, and most of all with Jesus. Yes, Marcel, you must let her receive His kisses for a whole day at least, to help her adjust to the time change. Thank you!!! (oh, and give little Jesus and darling Mary and St. Joseph kisses from us too!!)
+ + +
I love beyond telling the line in Therese's Act of Oblation to Merciful Love where she offers to God "the merits of all the saints (in heaven and on earth) and their acts of love, and those of the holy angels." We can offer to God Fran's merits too! Here is what our mutual friend said of her in his note to me telling of her entry into eternal life:
"She died in her sleep and will be buried on Wednesday. She did a great deal to popularize St. Therese, the love of Christ and the Catholic Church."
Can you imagine a better send-off? Knowing Therese as she did, Fran will have appeared before the Father with empty hands, having given all her merits away to those who needed them. This means she will be rewarded according to Jesus' infinite merits, instead of her own!
Jesus Himself advised Marcel along these lines when He explained real spiritual poverty in Conversations. On May 15th (the day we first visited Therese in her Carmel!), He says:
"Today you asked me about the poverty I spoke of in the Gospel. Very well, I will explain it. Listen carefully. In speaking to the young man, why did I not tell him to give up all his riches and then to follow me? That is not exactly what I said to him. This is what I said: 'Go, sell your fields, your house and all your belongings, give it all as alms to the poor and, afterwards, come and follow me.'
"Little brother, it is necessary that you understand this, for souls. These words do not designate all material goods but only spiritual goods. By these words I intended to say to souls that, if they wish to follow me and be truly poor of heart, they must agree to make use of all their good works and the part of the inheritance that I have reserved for them, to offer them to the Trinity, so that the Trinity may distribute them to poor and wretched souls. It is on this condition that they will be able to follow me.
"Little brother, you must remember this text. In the Gospel, I am not saying: 'Give to the poor,' I am simply saying: 'sell' and by this word 'sell' I mean to say that it is necessary to offer everything to the Trinity and, after having offered all, to agree to give everything as alms to souls, without keeping anything for oneself. If a soul had the intention of keeping something for itself, it would not be able to follow me since, sooner or later, pride would be born in its heart on seeing its good works that had not been given entirely to souls. If, on the contrary, the soul has given everything, nothing more remains to it on which it can pride itself. It is because of this that one is in the position to recognize oneself as being truly poor of heart and that one accepts joyfully the necessary graces coming from my hand, since the truly poor person never complains about the food that one gives to him as a gift." (690)
Isn't God wonderful???
I want to say, "But enough of Conversations, we're here to talk about Story of a Soul today!" and yet how utterly absurd of me. That's like saying, "Enough of Jesus!" Let's say, instead, then, "Oops! Time is running out of June, so let's say a little about Chapter 6 of Story of a Soul before the day is done!"
Once again, as in each of our book club posts, I find myself torn between giving a line by line commentary (almost a word by word commentary, since our sister's words are so lovely) and recognizing my limits (and yours, and the internet's) and so simply zipping through with the highlights of a few lines that have especially caught my heart.
I'll cover my bases by saying, first, that if you haven't had a chance yet to read this chapter, please treat yourself to it soon! Or if, like one Miss Marcel I've heard from recently (and come to think of it, a Mr. Marcel from another part of the world, too) you are new here and/or just joining Marcel's Book Club, I can only say: Enjoy! I don't want to rush you through any part of Story of a Soul, but merely remind you instead that there have been many great saints who've enjoyed these chapters over and over again. Isn't that a thrilling thought?
Pope Pius XI, the one who called Therese his guiding star and the guiding star of his pontificate, said in his sermon at her canonization:
"She taught the way of spiritual childhood by word and example to the novices of her monastery. She set it forth clearly in all her writings, which have gone to the ends of the world, and which assuredly no one has read without being charmed thereby, or without reading them again and again with great pleasure and much profit."
Whether this is your first time venturing into her story's Chapter 6, then, or your umpteenth, or even if you're postponing it till you've heard what Marcel and I have to say in our MBC 6 post, welcome!
We last left Therese at the end of Chapter 5 (and if your chapter numbers don't line up with ours, don't worry, you'll find your place), after she'd visited the Bishop, hoping to obtain his permission to enter Carmel at 15, but alas, without obtaining her desire. And which of us haven't, at one time or another, experienced her feelings: "Ah! how painful it was," she writes. "It seemed my future was ruined forever."
Spoiler alert: her future was not, as it turned out, ruined forever!
In fact, she already had a Plan B lined up: if the local representative of Christ doesn't have an answer, she was ready (with her father's help) to try the Pope in Rome!
And so we read at the beginning of Chapter 6: "Three days after the trip to Bayeux, I had to make a longer one, that to the Eternal City."
What does Therese make out of this trip? She was never one to lose the opportunity of profiting from whatever twists and turns the good Lord put in her little way, and we must thank God with her that the Bishop hadn't simply said during her visit to him "Why not? I see the makings of the greatest saint of modern times in you, little 14 year old girl. Enter asap! Here's a letter with my permission!" Happily, he said no such thing!
I never tire of recalling the words Therese said to her little brother Marcel at their first meeting. Not, that is, when he first met her by reading this same book we're reading together now, but rather the first time she was allowed, in God's eternal providence, to speak to him audibly.
She said on that day that he needn't fret that he hadn't met her (in the book) sooner because, in fact, God's timing is perfect down to the very second He allows such meetings to occur. A moment sooner or later, and the graces He pours out may not have been so well received by us.
She knew this firsthand, for here she tells us regarding her pilgrimage to Italy, "The second experience I had relates to priests. Having never lived close to them, I was not able to understand the principal aim of the Reform of Carmel. To pray for sinners attracted me, but to pray for the souls of priest whom I believed to be as pure as crystal seemed puzzling to me!
"I understood my vocation in Italy and that's not going too far in search of such useful knowledge. I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His Gospel calls the 'salt of the earth,' show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn't Jesus say too: 'If the salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted?'
"How beautiful is the vocation, O Mother, which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel's vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls through their words and especially their example. I must stop here, for were I to continue I would never come to an end!"
How marvelous, indeed, is the vocation of Carmelites! My husband and I have the privilege of being Discalced Carmelite Seculars, in other words what's sometimes called "third order Carmelites" (the first order being the priests, the second the nuns), and we too are called by our holy mother St. Teresa of Jesus of Avila to pray for priests. This makes life quite an adventure, because we can't really blame "bad" priests for their difficulties, but must rather think, "Uh oh! I haven't been praying enough!"
If any of our dear readers would like to be a Carmelite, I invite you to join us in this magnificent order, whose principal aim is LOVE! But if you are not called to this vocation in Carmel, don't despair of being separated from us--look at Marcel! He, our dear little brother, was so smitten with our sister Therese that he wished to become a Carmelite just like her, but not having met any Carmelite friars, and having been told by Therese that God was calling him to be a religious brother, not a priest as Marcel had always thought and hoped, he decided - and our hilarious sister egged him on! - that he must ask God to change him into a girl so he could be, just like her, a Carmelite nun.
Of course God did no such thing, having made Marcel exactly who He wanted him to be already! But the beauty of it all was that Marcel did get what he really wanted, which was to be just like his sister Therese in the vocation of being an apostle to the apostles and having a special mission to pray for priests.
This is for all of us! I hope you will join Marcel and Therese and my husband and me (and all Carmelites and all lovers of Marcel) in praying for our priests - the fervent priests, the lost priests, and the lackadaisical ones in between! They all need our prayers, and what a wonderful apostolate is ours in being welcomed by Jesus to pray for them. Remember the gospel passage? Jesus said the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few . . . and then no matter how many times I read His words, I expect Him to say next, "So become laborers!" But He surprises me every time with the same unexpected exhortation: "Ask then the master of the harvest to send laborers" (Matthew 9: 37-38).
My poor two sons! I have decided recently to act on my long desire and pray that God give them (if He hasn't from all eternity) vocations to the priesthood. Why not? He may have His reasons why not, but they aren't obvious to me, so why not ask Him to send laborers from our own little vineyard?
Meanwhile, I love this next paragraph from Therese's pen. She writes:
"I'm going to recount my voyage, dear Mother, with some details; pardon me if I give you too many, for I don't have time to reflect before writing."
My sentiments entirely! Always! But then our great hope:
"What consoles me is the thought that in heaven I shall speak about the graces I received and will do this in pleasant and charming terms. Nothing will any longer intervene to interrupt our intimate outpourings; at a single glance, you will understand all. Alas, since I must still use the language of the sad earth, I'll try to do it with the simplicity of a child conscious of its mother's love."
You know what strikes me here? I was thinking that I now know the answer to the question of the charm and success, the almost immediate worldwide popularity and the long, long continued attraction of this book which Therese wrote with so many interruptions, and in the later pages, when sick and even dying . . . Story of a Soul was not published until exactly one year after her death and simultaneous entrance into heaven, which means she had plenty of time before its publication to explain to little Jesus that He needs must infuse her words and pages with a good portion of His own infinite and ineffable charm! And so He did!
Therese recounts next that a few days before the group pilgrimage was to meet and depart from Paris, her father had brought herself and Celine (for Celine was with her throughout these adventures) to the big city to see its offerings. And here, to my supreme delight, I found that she only had eyes for Our Lady of Victories, the dear mother who had healed her from her horrible and mysterious illness four years prior.
Therese had seen the Virgin smile at her from the lovely statue beside her sick-bed, and in that moment she had been cured. She meant to keep this grace of Our Lady's smile to herself, but her sister Marie had understood, and asked for the whole truth of what Therese had experienced. Dutifully the Little Flower told her sister, who then joyfully told their sister Pauline at the Carmel, which meant the word was out to all the sisters of the Carmel. What was Therese's mortification in having this grace "spread abroad"? She began to doubt whether Our Lady had really smiled upon her.
But in Paris, four years later, the graceful sequel: Therese is now at Our Lady of Victories, the church where her father had, when she was ill, a novena of Masses said, during which novena, back at her own home Our Lady smiled upon her. Therese recounts that first miracle of healing in Chapter 3, but never one to miss rejoicing in God's constant gifts, here in Chapter 6 she recounts the follow-up miracle:
"Ah! what I felt kneeling at her feet cannot be expressed. The graces she granted me so moved me that my happiness found expression only in tears, just as on the day of my First Communion. The Blessed Virgin made me feel it was really herself who had smiled on me and brought about my cure. I understood she was watching over me, that I was her child. I could no longer give her any other name but 'Mama,' as this appeared ever so much more tender than Mother."
And here I find it hard to go on.
If you have not read Story of a Soul, you have a treat in store.
If you have read Story of a Soul but are reading it again, you have the joy of new graces in store.
But if you have been reading Marcel's Conversations and are now reading Story of a Soul, you may, like me, be doing a Snoopy happy dance at this point!
And if, to cover one last possibility, you have not yet read Marcel's Conversations, you have a double delight ahead of you whether or not you've previously read Story of a Soul: namely, the exquisite graces you will find in Jesus' words to you in Conversations, and then the surprising parallels you will find in this book of Therese in which Marcel said truly, that he read his own story, his own soul!
Right here, for instance.
It hadn't struck me before, but recently as I was peeking into this chapter, I came across these words of Therese and my mouth dropped open:
"I could no longer give her any other name but 'Mama.'"
I think our little brother will forgive me for not quoting you chapter and verse from his book, lest I fail to tell you the rest that struck us about this chapter of our little sister's book, but suffice it to say that Marcel is a big fan, too, of calling Mary "Mama" and expresses over and over in his conversations with her that he has no intention of calling her anything else! In particular, he's not going to call our Mother "Queen," because he has no interest in putting distance between them, but is concerned instead to insist upon their intimacy. Wonderful, wonderful Marcel! The second Therese, indeed, as Jesus and Mary have named him!
As to the rest that we want to share with you - I have a rusty memory, so it was with joy that I read the next pages, in which Therese tells of the beauties of nature she saw in Switzerland. I saw those same beauties when I was a girl, and they have stayed with me as they stayed with her. To add some icing to the cupcake, I had remembered (or thought I did) these pages in Story of a Soul for years, and in particular, Therese's determination to store up such beauties for later. Yes, I had not remembered amiss! She writes:
"I said to myself: When I am a prisoner in Carmel and trials come my way and I have only a tiny bit of the starry heavens to contemplate, I shall remember what my eyes have seen today. This thought will encourage me and I shall easily forget my own little interests, recalling the grandeur and power of God, this God whom I want to love alone. I shall not have the misfortune of snatching after straws, now that my heart has an idea of what Jesus has reserved for those who love Him."
Wouldn't you know that as the third Therese (I like to think of myself as the second Marcel, and since he is the second Therese, I think this makes me the third Therese!), I made the same resolution when I was in Lisieux a month ago? Actually it was more like 6 weeks ago, which would explain why it feels like almost forever ago, but I cherish the memories and when I am a prisoner in my own little lovely world in the paradise of southern California instead of the paradise of Lisieux, I close my eyes and imagine I am praying, not in my local churches, but in my Basilica or the Carmel of Therese!
I'm sure you have seen marvels of nature, God's spectacular creation that bears His imprint. I hope you have stored up memories to nourish your imagination and your soul, to free you from the everyday-ness of ordinary life, to remind you how great He is and how much He loves you!
But if you haven't done that yet (purposely storing up sunny memories for a rainy day), you can start now! And I ask our good Jesus and our dear Therese to take you (and Marcel with you, since he likes to travel) somewhere gorgeous and redolent of His grandeur, and to take you there soon!
I can't wax eloquent any more, though, because Marcel thinks it's time to laugh at Therese and see what a mischievous darling she is.
Because what struck me quite forcibly as I was reading these pages was the readiness with which she gathered anything that wasn't nailed down, taking it with her as a souvenir of her trip!
There is at least one Miss Marcel reading this post who shook her head over her husband's Theresian propensities on his trip to the Holy Land. My heavens, if St. Louis had taken his daughter Therese there, she would have brought back part of the Holy Sepulcher!
Here we see her (she tells us so herself and paints a vivid picture!) digging furtively into the walls of the Holy House of Loreto - do you know of this house? By an amazing coincidence, I recently received an email from a man who lives in Loreto, Italy, with his young family. Marvelous!! I have promised him a visit someday, but I don't know if I'll really make it, since I left my heart in Lisieux and hope to return there at every possible opportunity. Still, this good man wrote to me about Loreto:
"It really is a lovely place to live. The 'shadow of the Holy House' that has been cast here in this area for the past seven and a half centuries has covered this area with a special grace, in my opinion, that has preserved the local culture from much of the junk that has crept into Italian society and culture the past fifty years. It is a pleasant place to live and to raise children."
Imagine! The Holy House was the home of the Holy Family, and it was transported by angels from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy. I don't know much more about it, except the history of its angelic relocation reminds me of the miraculous transfer of the image of the Mother of Good Counsel (and little Jesus) in Gennezano, Italy. When one hears of such things in our current age of mingled skepticism (of religious history) and credulity (in things like "artificial intelligence" and the promise of technological salvation), it's easy to think this must be some pretty legend with no basis in fact. Far from it, I know from reading about the image of our Mother of Good Counsel that these miracles are supported by reams of documentation that satisfy the strictest of historians.
And so there was little Therese, digging furtively into the walls to get some of the stuff little Jesus may have passed His divine hands along while walking as a boy!
But just as there were more stops on their pilgrimage, so there was more matter to collect! Therese shamelessly writes (bringing a huge smile to my face, and Marcel is actually laughing!) - "We had to carry off some souvenir from the Catacombs," so she and Celine "slipped down together to the bottom of the ancient tomb of St. Cecilia and took some earth which was sanctified by her presence."
And then there was the church of St. Agnes. Her dear Pauline, for whom she is writing these memoirs, was Sister Agnes (at this writing, Mother Agnes) in the Carmel, so what could Therese do? "I exerted all my efforts to get one of the relics of my Mother's angelic patroness and bring it back to her. But it was impossible to get any except a small piece of red stone that was detached from a rich mosaic, the original of which goes back to St. Agnes's time. She must often have gazed upon it. Wasn't it charming that the lovable saint herself should give us what were were looking for and which we were forbidden to take? I've always considered it a delicate attention on her part, a proof, too, of the love with which the sweet St. Agnes looks upon and protects my Mother!"
I feel safe revealing to you here in the depths of this post that this was also a "page I took" from our sister's story into my own . . . don't tell my husband (!) who doesn't know yet but will find out in August when I share my treasures with our Carmelite brothers and sisters, but when we were in the cemetery of Lisieux where Therese was first buried, Marcel and I imitated her little way of bringing home souvenirs!
If you wonder at the efficacy of such a relic, let me tell you what I was thinking . . .
When Therese's process was moving along and so, according to the custom of the Church, her body was exhumed, there were various miracles associated with the event. One of the miracles I remember occurred back in the Carmel, where her remains (ashes and bones) were brought, when some of the nuns smelled roses where there were none, and found the source of the heavenly scent in - some forgotten rotten boards and dirt from under her coffin, which boards and dirt had been left, after the transfer, in an unused corner.
What can I say? Like any true Christian, I can't help but believe in the efficacy, the goodness, the glorious potential of matter! And, too, there was a limit to how many holy cards I could bring back from Lisieux, whereas holy pebbles weigh hardly anything and cost nothing at all!
And now, having confessed my secret stash, I find myself many pages from the end of Chapter 6, but very near the end of my time for writing about it.
I must comment, though, on just two more of Therese's memories.
First, she speaks of Celine's Christmas present to her on that last Christmas they spent together at Les Buissonnets - it was "a little boat carrying the Little Jesus asleep with a little ball at His side, and Celine had written these words on the white sail: 'I sleep but my heart watches,' and on the boat itself, this one word: 'Abandonment.'"
My husband and I saw that very boat during our visit to Les Buissonnets! I didn't remember at the time that it was made by Celine for Therese, but this is one more reason to read and re-read Story of a Soul. Before you go to Therese's places, you can read to prepare yourself for what you'll find there. After you go to Lisieux, you'll discover even more in these pages!
Finally though, the last paragraphs of Chapter 6 cannot go unmentioned by myself and Marcel. We've learned so much from Therese's example here!
On New Year's Day, she found out that the Bishop had given his permission at last, and she would, according to her desires, be allowed to enter Carmel at 15. Mysteriously, though, just as the goal of her prayers and desires was in view, she was told she couldn't enter until after Lent - not because of the Bishop's decision, but because of a decision coming from the Carmel itself.
Therese faced a double disappointment: not only did she have to continue to wait, but her sadness at the delay would look to everyone else as an unreasonable response to the gift now almost given.
Really, what can one do in this ridiculous valley of tears but sigh?
Marcel teaches us (or Jesus, Mary, and Therese teach us through their words to Marcel) that we must sigh and weep as the need arises, for these are sighs and tears of love, and Jesus will happily gather them up and use them as graces for those who need our prayers.
So what did Therese do? She was inspired to use this three month delay to prepare her heart for Jesus. And her example has inspired me, in turn, to sometimes remember when I am waiting for some delayed (perhaps much longer than 3 months!) answer to my prayers and desires: "This time of waiting will never come again! Soon Jesus will answer my prayer, and I will never have to wait for this specific thing again, so while I can, I will offer this waiting to Him."
Come to think of it, before you canonize me (for wasn't that a holy thought?), I think I usually remember this when other people of my acquaintance are waiting for something! Then I counsel them to offer this unique time of delay as a special one-time gift for Jesus. Probably when I'm the one waiting I forget Therese's example and wish and wish I didn't have to wait!
But Jesus is so good, He never allows anything to be lost. If you, like me, are not so good at waiting, suffering, offering up delays and disappointments, why don't you join me now in offering that (all our failures) to Him? Let's compile all our little poverty as a gift for Him who is entirely rich, and ask Him for everything we need in one simple request. I hate to say it, but it's time to wrap up here, so let's end with our request, our prayer, our confident insistence to Jesus, our Love:
Draw me, we will run!!!
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