The suffering of St. Therese

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 20
St. Therese in July 1896. Unbeknownst to anyone but herself, she was already suffering greatly from tuberculosis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

A short time after Therese’s first communion, her sister Marie told her, “I think God will spare you from having to suffer.” The irony is that Therese had already suffered more than some people do in a lifetime. Throughout her life people discounted her suffering. And even today some people see Therese as a saccharine saint, simple-minded, sentimental, a saint for little girls. They are ignorant of her suffering and reject her as irrelevant.

Mother loss

When Therese was two months old, she almost died of enteritis. Her mother Zelie–probably already suffering from breast cancer–could not nurse her. A wet-nurse saved Therese’s life. Therese had to live five miles away from her family for thirteen months. She became attached to her nurse, whom she then had to leave behind.

Zelie Martin died when Therese was 4. Therese hid her great sorrow from her father and sisters. But when Pauline, the sister who became her substitute mother, entered the Carmelite monastery, Therese’s grief overwhelmed her. She became so ill, she once again barely survived. A smile from the Virgin Mary cured her.

Only four years later, her godmother Marie, who had cared for her since Pauline left, joined Pauline in Carmel.

We could count these as five instances of losing her mother.

Tuberculosis and spiritual darkness

Louis Martin, Therese’s beloved father, declined mentally and physically soon after Therese entered Carmel. She barely saw him again. He died three years before she did.

By the time she was 23, the saint had contracted tuberculosis. She hid the disease from others as long as she could. In June 1897, her doctor predicted she would not last the night. But she did. In fact, she lingered on until September 30. Her most intense physical suffering occurred after she had finished her autobiography. (Actually, her writing trailed off on the last page, as she became too weak to hold a pencil.) This explains why people who only know Therese from Story of a Soul are often unaware of how acute the suffering was.

For weeks, Therese was coughing up blood several times a day. She could keep nothing down. In the end she was breathing with a small portion of one lung. She slowly suffocated. Gangrene attacked her intestines. She was sweating so profusely that the sheets were soaked. Her body was emaciated. She said she understood why non-Christians in such a state would commit suicide.

At the same time, she experienced terrible spiritual darkness. All during her last illness, she was tormented by doubts of Heaven’s existence. She believed she was suffering for those who deny the reality of an afterlife.

No complaints or self-pity

Until late summer, some of the nuns did not believe she was seriously ill. She accepted her suffering so completely, they doubted she was suffering at all.

When her sisters or cousin visited her in the infirmary, she would tell jokes to keep them from being sad. Her last words were, “My God, I love you!”

Don’t let the phrase “the Little Way” fool you into thinking Therese had a sweet and easy life. She was a strong soldier of Christ, like Joan of Arc whom she so admired. She became strong by recognizing her littleness.

We are all little and weak when it comes to temptation. We are all helpless when it comes to being holy. But like St. Paul and St. Therese, it is when we are weak in ourselves that we can become strong in Christ.

I pray that on this feast of St. Therese, you may be able to admit and accept your weakness, and so be able to accept your trials with joy as she did. This can only happen through supernatural grace.

Happy feast day!

Connie Rossini

In conjunction with the book I am writing on St. Therese,ย  have started a Pinterest Board of all things related to her life. With each picture, I include information about her life. You can follow the board here.


20 Responses

      • spookchristian

        Im afraid not No..
        but if you gain comfort in some way from reading whatever you read..I wouldnt complain etc…

        I do hate false teaching though…

        Gotta say, that I do only read Scripture etc…+ mebbe other books, along the same lines.

        • Connie Rossini

          Thanks, Spook. I guess you’re saying my blog is along the same lines as Scripture, since you’re here reading it. That’s quite a compliment! But it would be a little presumptuous of me to agree. Yes, I find comfort in the fact that ordinary people can love God with all their hearts. It encourages me to do the same.

  1. Gabbi

    Connie, thank you for the highlights of St. Therese. Perhaps your blog, with the intercession of this mighty saint, can help turn more people to the Truth.

    • Connie Rossini

      Yes, let’s ask St. Therese on her feast day to pray for our friend “Christian Spook”–whose real name, I believe, is Robert. Thanks for the encouragement, Gabbi.

  2. Susan

    Great post Connie. Not all of us Protestants are anti-saints. Therese’s faith is very inspiring. Reading about her life encourages me to always turn to Christ despite my own “littleness”, just as she did.


    • Connie Rossini

      Susan, welcome and thanks for chiming in. I think it’s wonderful that non-Catholics can learn from and appreciate the Catholic saints. I have always admired Corrie Ten Boom since we read The Hiding Place as a family when I was a child. I also like Gladys Aylward–at least as she is portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in the movie “Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” I’ve never read about her, but perhaps some day I’ll have a chance. Catholics and Protestants share so much!

  3. Lora

    Beautiful and inspiring post! We need to learn from the saints especially in how to deal with suffering. We are all blessed with so many opportunities to practice imitating the saints in this. Therese of the Little Flower is such a sweet, gentle example, Thanks Connie!

    • Connie Rossini

      No one can avoid suffering, can they, no matter how much we try. It’s wonderful that you look at it as a blessing, because it really can be if we choose.

  4. Patricia

    Great article, Connie! I love Therese’s strength. She truly had a will of iron, and was so rich in the gift of wisdom. I have read the account of her death probably several dozen times, and I am still moved to tears by all that she suffered, and her amazing courage till the end. Imagine enduring a night of faith like she did, when you are young and slowly suffocating to death. I just love her…and know you do too ๐Ÿ™‚ Happpy Feast Day!

    • Connie Rossini

      Reading about her final agony, I almost want to hurry along to the part about her death, as though doing so will shorten it for her! God bless.

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