We must be humans before we can be saints

As I was holidaying nearby, I went for my third visit of the year to the maison natale of St Thérèse of Lisieux in Alençon. Somehow this feels like an easier place to contemplate and understand the Little Flower than Lisieux itself. That may just be the romantic in me. Alençon has changed very little architecturally since 1877, when Louis Martin was forced to take his young family to be near his in-laws in Lisieux, following the untimely death of their mother. Huge parts of Lisieux were destroyed in the war and it is really a rather ugly modern town, though Les Buissonets (their house in Lisieux ), and the Carmel survived the bombing. In Alençon however, save for lots of cars and fancy shop fronts, a walk round the town looks much as it would have done to the four-year-old Thérèse.

The house in which she was born and her mother died, an attractive maison bourgeois, is a place of memories. It feels a privilege to enter into this storehouse: you tread on holy ground. As Thérèse herself acknowledges in The Story of a Soul, the context in which she grew up is key to understanding how she became the person she did. Vocations, like fine vintages, are a great deal to do with extrinsic factors: the chemistry of soil and climate. To visit this family home of saints is not like visiting a museum, more like a laboratory where the extraordinary fusion of the supernatural love of God with the elements of ordinary domestic life gave rise to a remarkable discovery: that all is grace. God is to be found precisely in the little details and big struggles of the life he has ordained for me in the situation in which he has ordained it. So often we are looking for him “out there”. Like a teenager with a crush, I would happily do extravagant, dramatic things for him, but my self-seeking illusion is shattered if he asks me just to be patient with the shortcomings of my own, or someone else’s, temper, to suffer misunderstanding, disappointment, let alone illness or loss.

The Martin family history is told in an exhibition of photographs and artefacts. I was going to say that they emerge as an example of Christian virtue, but that’s a kind of cipher. What they emerge as first is as real people, like us. We must be humans before we can be saints, and sanctity is the action of grace on our humanity, not the power to leave it behind like a chrysalis as we take flight. In this context, the possessions of these saints anchor us to a world we can recognise.

From her childhood are Thérèse’s baptismal garment and some exquisitely stitched dresses. The tiniest of them were for her dolls. Her Story of a Soul recalls an occasion when Léonie Martin offered her younger two sisters a basket of dolls’ clothes and asked them to choose something. This gave rise to Thérèse’s famous “I choose all” moment, so illustrative of her psyche and personality. Thérèse recognises that this childhood trait, which actually has the potential to be quite destructive, was nevertheless integrated and ordered to the good by the action of God’s grace on her soul.

It is evident that Thérèse suffered profound psychological wounds. Soon after birth she was close to death and had to be parted from her mother to live with her wet nurse, with whom she naturally bonded closely and from whom she was then painfully parted after a year. She then had to learn to bond with her mother. In the Alençon house I always feel a surge of emotion as I climb the very stairs on which the toddler Thérèse invented a sort of litany of reassurance. She would call “Maman” on each tread and would not take another step until she heard her Mother’s voice answering with her name.

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