There’s something enchanting about rereading books. Not all of them – if someone told me to reread The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, a book the author himself found distasteful, I would rather contract leprosy. But there are some books that you grow up with and that shape your soul in a mysterious way. One of these books for me is The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux.
Therese has always had her eye on me, so I’ve been intimately familiar with her story from a young age. When the illustrated biographies and comic books were my source of edification on her life, I was captivated by her childhood. When I finally read The Story of a Soul cover to cover at age fifteen, I was struck by the fact that I was the same age that Therese was when she entered the convent. As the years have progressed, there are small passages from her writings that always speak directly to my situation or to the desires and fears in my heart.
But when I reread The Story of a Soul over the span of about five days earlier this month, it wasn’t just Therese who stood out to me. The Lord really focused my attention on the woman who is responsible for sharing the Little Flower’s little way with the world: Her older Sister and eventual Prioress, Pauline.
As we encounter Therese’s childhood, it is made abundantly clear that environment matters. Therese spent the formative years of her childhood completely surrounded by souls who were madly in love with Jesus and who taught her live and think only in the light of eternity. She first saw Jesus’ countenance from watching her parents pray. She first learned the good news of the Gospel from her older sisters, who made it their first priority to educate their younger sisters in the Faith.
For many of us, Therese was the first friend to introduce us to the perfumes of Carmel and the riches of that Carmelite tradition in our faceted gem of a Church. But Therese first learned of this hidden way from her older sister Pauline, the first of the Martin sisters to enter Carmel (all five would enter contemplative religious life, four of them to the same Carmelite convent). Therese writes,
“Then you [Pauline] explained to me about the life at Carmel that seemed so beautiful to me. As I was going over in my mind everything that you had told me, I felt that Carmel was the desert where God wanted me as well to go and hide…I wanted to go to Carmel, not for Pauline, but for Jesus alone…
The next day I confided my secret to Pauline, who viewing my desires as the will of heaven, told me that soon I would go with her to see the Prioress of the Carmelite convent, and that I would need to tell her what God was making me feel…”The Story of a Soul, Chapter 3, Emphasis in original
Years after Pauline became the first to encourage Therese in her vocation, Pauline would become Mother Agnes of Jesus, the Prioress of Therese’s convent. Cognizant of the unique role the Father had reserved for Therese in reinvigorating and revolutionizing the spiritual life of the Universal Church, Mother Agnes asked her younger sister and spiritual daughter to write down her life story. This became the bulk of the text compiled in The Story of a Soul.
If it was not for Pauline being utterly captivated by Jesus Christ, Therese would not have found her home buried in the heart of the Church as a cloistered nun. If it was not for Pauline’s wisdom, the Church would not know her own heart like she does today through the legacy and intercession of the Little Flower.
But have you ever heard of Pauline before this? You probably know Therese had older sisters, but have you ever been able to remember their names or given them much thought?
My guess is that you haven’t. And that’s ok. Pauline reminds me of John the Baptist or the apostle Andrew. Her job was to introduce her sisters to Jesus and then disappear from the world’s eye. Perhaps one of the greatest models of Therese’s humble way is this woman who gave Therese first to Jesus and then to the world. For the Carmelite who is now surely dwelling in perfect union with her Bridegroom at His wedding feast, that is more than enough.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the Church’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It can seem overwhelming to hear about the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep and then invites us to do the same. “Who are my sheep?” we ask. “Where is my pasture?”
These are big, overwhelming questions. They are far too big for you to answer. So instead, like Pauline and Therese, let us turn to the words of Jesus that are used as the title for the final chapter of Therese’s autobiography: Those Whom You Have Given Me.
Who has Jesus given you today? Not tomorrow, not five years down the road, but today. Who are the people directly in front of you? Get them to heaven. The way you do that is going to be different for each person. But Jesus has given you souls to nurture alongside Him. He does the difficult work of hoisting soil, bending over in the heat, and breathing life into the plants you forgot to water. But like a father first teaching his child to garden, He invites you to join Him. He compels you to join Him.
If you walk by His side in the garden, day by day, soul after soul, He will eventually lead you to the joy-filled home He has prepared for you in this life. But that’s on Him. Today, your vocation is to shepherd and garden those He has given you. There can be no greater call.
“Not for Pauline, but for Jesus.” May these words of Therese be our motto as we allow the Shepherd to lead us towards the distant mountains that will one day be home.1 Like Pauline, may we be concerned above all else with bringing those He has given us, most especially our families, to rest beneath His gentle crook.
1 – Shout out to Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien