They were a middle class family, with middle-sized dreams and cares. And of course their own holiday traditions. One Christmas custom, enjoyed by all six of the Martin daughters in their childhoods, was leaving out their shoes to be filled with holiday treats.
The world has come to know the youngest of the Martin daughters, Thérèse, as the Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, but she remembers herself as a spoiled child, her father’s “Little Queen.” “I was really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness; if I happened to cause anyone I loved some little trouble, even unwittingly, instead of forgetting about it and not crying, which made matters worse, I cried like a Magdalene and then, when I began to cheer up, I’d begin to cry again for having cried. All arguments were useless; I was quite unable to correct this terrible fault.”
In her defense, because of her mother’s illness, Thérèse had been sent away as an infant to live with a wet nurse, and she wasn’t long returned to her unknown home before her mother died. One can certainly understand why the girl would be sensitive and prone to tears. But now, let Thérèse describe what she calls her conversion to God.
It was December 25, 1886, that I received the grace of leaving my childhood, in a word, the grace of my complete conversion. We had come back from Midnight Mass where I had the happiness of receiving the strong and powerful God. Upon arriving at Les Buisonnets, I used to love to take my shoes from the chimney-corner and examine the presents in them; this old custom had given us so much joy in our youth that Céline wanted to continue treating me as a baby since I was the youngest in the family. Papa had always loved to see my happiness and listen to my cries of delight as I drew such surprise from the magic shoes, and my dear King’s gaiety increased my own happiness very much. However, Jesus desired to show me that I was to give up the defects of my childhood and so He withdrew its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa, tired out after the Midnight Mass, to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace, and that he speak those words which pierced my heart: “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!” I was going upstairs, at the time, to remove my hat, and Céline, knowing how sensitive I was and seeing the tears already glistening in my eyes, wanted to cry too, for she loved me very much and understood my grief. She said, “Oh, Thérèse, don’t go downstairs: it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!” But Thérèse was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart! Forcing back my tears, I descended the stair rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart. I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing; Céline believed it was all a dream! Fortunately it was a sweet reality; Thérèse had discovered again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and half, and she was to preserve it forever.
Did Thérèse exaggerate in calling this her conversion? I don’t think so. Rather I think that her description of the remembrance shows her genius. The spiritual life is not, as many thought in her day—and in our own—about countless small acts of piety, though surely these have their place. It’s ultimately about surrendering our wills to that of God, of conquering those parts of ourselves that resist grace and therefore cannot find joy.
On this Gaudete Sunday, the Church verses us in joy. “Shout for joy, daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph 3:14). Yet, as most of us know, joy is not a guarantee of the season. In fact, for many, these days are among the most challenging and difficult of the entire year. It’s hard to imagine adding the burden of a feigned festivity to their struggle. And saying that “Christmas is all about the kids,” is a surrender, a sad admission that our hearts haven’t felt the stir of the season’s grace.
Note that the Church isn’t promising joy; she’s preaching it. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near” (Phil 4: 4-5). How can the Church command us to be joyful? Because joy doesn’t come from presents or any of the season’s splendors. Joy comes from forgetfulness of self, from surrender to God’s will. “What shall we do? He said to them in reply. Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 10: 3-11). Saint Thérèse writes of that Christmas, “I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I’ve been happy!”
Ultimately, joy comes from our surrender and God’s grace. If one or the other is missing, we must attend, and pray, because, in the end, joy is a gift. Our struggles can’t promise joy, but they can stir up hope. And, on this side of the grave, hope is more important than joy.
Zephaniah 3: 14-18a Philippians 4: 4-7 Luke 3: 10-18