the Carmel

The Carmel, a living environment for Thérèse


Thérèse had a vocation: to leave her family, to leave the world to live in Carmel, "this desert where the Good Lord wanted me to hide." (Ms A, 26r°) 

This desert, already known through his sisters Pauline and Marie, who entered in 1882 and 1886, this Carmel, what was it? Not one of those very first monasteries founded in the footsteps of the Carmelites who came from Spain, but a very poor Carmel, a laborious foundation who was just fifty years old, settled in Lisieux in 1838 by Carmelites from Poitiers, a monastery itself from the first monastery founded in Paris.

Little distance to Lisieux between Les Buissonnets and the Carmel. But between these two places of life, what contrasts... From the warm nest of which she was not the spoiled child but the pampered youngest, Thérèse experienced in the monastery the austere setting where an existence of prayer, silence, of solitude with God and for God, in the midst of a community of twenty-six sisters rubbing shoulders in a space of approximately 6000 square meters: the buildings had just been completed after 50 years of hard work.

Great continuity in the Carmels of France since the XVIIe century: influence of this century and of Cardinal de Bérulle, strict observance and punctilious closure codified by a thousand little customs, but the spiritual presence of Saint Thérèse of Avila, "our Seraphic Mother", it was said, the foundress among all whose spirit and constitutions are jealously guarded as the most precious of heritages. Interaction nevertheless with the evolution of Catholicism in France, the spirit of asceticism and reparation which had invested it somewhat.

Thus Lisieux in 1888: this small town of about ten to twelve thousand inhabitants was especially marked by its character as a sub-prefecture of an agricultural and livestock region, but also an important textile industry had developed there. , whose prosperity will decrease at the end of the century. However, local vocations had abounded in the new monastery.

If Mother Marie de Gonzague and Marie des Anges belonged by their families to the minor nobility of Normandy, if the Martin and Guérin milieu is known to us, we also find in the Carmel young people whose parents carried out various activities, often manual: example those that we have been able to list: tailor, wood turner, farmer and farmer – who may overlap –, stonemason, novelty dealer, castle servant, clerk, carpenter, policeman, solicitor, fisherman, teacher, carpentry contractor, sailor...

At the entrance of Thérèse, two octogenarians are contemporaries of the foundation. After the deaths subsequently due to the influenza of 1892, we can give 49 years as the average age of the community. The melting pot of common life never magically eliminates the divisions of temperament, primary education and various sensitivities: the level of the community was simple, the sisters as a whole were in the prime of life, hardworking and trained in a fervent observance which bore fruit in souls and hearts.

The Martin sisters will notice, however, that art and culture were not held in high regard in the minds of many of the sisters of the community: to certain astonishments expressed by Céline (sr. Geneviève) in private six months after her entry, Thérèse will be able to answer that she was right. Who would be scandalized by a time when the levels of general culture were more marked than today?

From Mother Geneviève – one of the foundresses of 1838 – they will appreciate the spirit of gentleness and humility, “a life sanctified by the practice of hidden and ordinary virtues, a holiness where no illusion is found.” (Ms A, 78 r°) Mother Marie de Gonzague emerges as a prioress endowed with authority, a broad spirit, a temperament of contrasts whose charm is not absent. We talked and wrote a lot about it, Thérèse really loved her prioress without being fooled by her flaws. She suffered from the suffering of her little Mother Agnès of Jesus, whose first non-renewed priorate was difficult (1893-1896): between the former prioress deprived of the authority she had long exercised and the new young shepherdess of extreme sensitivity, relations were not always easy to manage in the small space of cloistered life.

It is certain that each member of the community, in their own way, will have marked the new arrival. However, let us quote Sister Fébronie, one of those who died of influenza in 1892, who had noticed Thérèse's simplicity – simplicity of depth – and had said to her this: “When you are perfect, you will be even simpler: the closer we get to God, the more we simplify.” (Ms A, 70 v°)

The postulant then the novice will have to learn many things: not to be surprised at the last rank, because the hierarchy of the ranks of religion is established according to the dates of the religious profession; she will discover the standardization that is reflected in the religious habit, in the diet and dishes of the refectory, in the subjection of small housework and other dull maintenance, in the repetitive schedule, and the calls of the bell punctuating the days, in the formulas of the language, in certain unusual names – let us quote for example the clothing parts : the hat, the headdress, the coat, the hose, the alpargates... There are particular gestures to convey in his behavior: kissing the earth in various well-defined circumstances, sitting on his heels for prayer , kneel down to speak to the prioress, put your smallest acts in obedience by asking permission.

One is hardly surprised by a somewhat pompous ceremonial at the office, despite the simplicity of the psalmody and the song, but there is also a real ceremonial at the refectory, and this reading double-tono who was the terror of apprentice readers from the top of the pulpit! We are not talking about the cold, common regime of a monastery without heating: no more central heating at Les Buissonnets, except for the fire in the fireplace at the entrance, but what a difference in the length of the corridors, of the cloisters , the choir or other places of conventual life.

That this list with a touch of humor does not evoke a stuffy life. It is a whole climate that penetrates and nourishes under the guise of daily fidelity.

Which economic situation in the Carmel of Lisieux at that time? Certainly precarious and difficult. Mr. Martin then Uncle Guérin will be generous, often solicited by his nieces and his daughter themselves. The Carmel has other benefactors and manages some income; but the sisters busy themselves with various works: altar breads, where each one gave time, achievements with the needle and in painting, images carefully worked in watercolor. Orders were placed at the monastery for Sacristy supplies: there was a recipe for making incense, ecclesiastics had "flaps" made, this insignia of their habit which they wore at the neck of the cassock. Thérèse, she, especially skilled in holding the brush, will gradually take her share of this remunerated activity.

Apart from the daily rhythm, the community was mobilized for common works: one thinks of what the washes and detergents of that time represented, as well as the great traditional spring cleanings.

But community life had its joys, the liveliness of its recess, its songs, the simplicity of mutual relations, its holidays they are also repetitive: feast of the prioress, of the Good Shepherd, of Saint Martha, of Christmas, etc. ... where Thérèse largely paid with her own person; but “we are no longer at Les Buissonnets,” she said, refusing to take advantage of the presence of her own sisters. On the whole, she does not stand out: a Carmelite among the others, perfectly present, perfectly faithful, perfectly effaced. She made no secret of the shocks and pinpricks she had to suffer in Carmel, where, she wrote again, "I found religious life as I had imagined it, no sacrifice for me. surprised, the Good Lord gave me the grace to have no illusions when I entered Carmel. Ms A, 69 v°

Carmel is a paradox: true freedom is found there and unfolds there thanks to the sacrifices that promote the absolute gift of self, and Thérèse will say in 1897 how she wanted to "love her sisters as God loves them » Ms C, 12 r°

To underline some truth of Carmelite Therese, there is a moving testimony without emphasis: that of Sister Anne of the Sacred Heart who returned in 1895 to her Carmel of Saigon after having spent twelve years in Lisieux, seven of them with Thérèse. When she was later questioned about her, she invariably answered that she had noticed nothing in her except her kindness and her effacement, she would never have suspected her holiness.

When Monsieur Martin received from Thérèse the confidence of his vocation to Carmel, he offered her a little Flower from which all the roots had come without having been broken and Thérèse writes: "She seemed destined to live again in another land more fertile than the tender moss where her first mornings had passed." Ms A, 50 v°

Having truly transported all her roots into the fertile soil of Carmel, all of herself as an offering to Jesus, it was given to her by grace to discover the fullness of her vocation, a message, a mission, and to live this in silence in the usual setting of his Carmelite life. She was not the revolutionary against the tide of her environment, except in a smiling perfection of prayer and love.

Sr Marie de la Rédemption – archives of the Carmel of Lisieux