Agonizing Death of St Therese of Lisieux
The passages below are taken from the Autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux, “Story of a Soul,” first published in 1898 and is translated from her original, unedited French manuscripts to English by John Clarke and re-published in 1975.
Mother Agnes collected the last words of Thérèse and wrote them in a notebook.
The concluding words of the manuscript are “. . . through confidence and love.” Here the pencil which has replaced the clumsy pen falls from Thêrèse’s hands. The manuscript shows evidence of wavy lines and illustrates the strong will of Thèrèse who cannot finish her work. She gives up and has still three months to live.
While reading over these pages which are filled with wisdom and peace, the reader would find it hard to believe that Therese has been seriously ill for several weeks. There are scarcely any allusions to the medical care she was receiving, without the notes taken down by Mother Agnes of Jesus while at her sister’s bedside, we would have no details concerning the sickness, the last agony, and the death of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Thanks to her notes and those of other witnesses, we can follow those final hours of Thêrèse step by step.
When Thêrèse finally gave up writing her manuscript, she was already a few days in the infirmary which was on the ground floor. She had been seriously ill for some months, but she was not declared officially sick until the end of Lent. Up until that time, she was only gradually relieved of her daily duties and permitted to stay away from the choral recitation of the Divine Office and from the periods of recreation in common. In the month of June, 1897, her sole duties were to rest in her cell, to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine in the garden, and to complete the writing of her memories. This last task she was ordered to do by the Prioress at the suggestion of Mother Agnes. She was never to complete this final assignment. When making a reference to it, she laughingly said:
“I am not breaking my head over the writing of my ‘little
life.’ It is like fishing with a line; I write whatever comes to the end of my pen.”
On July 6, a sudden worsening in her condition brought on series of hemoptyses which lasted until August 5. After Doctor de Cornière had observed her suffocating spells, her vomiting of blood, and her high fever, he became convinced that she was dying; he stated that in cases such as hers “only two percent got well.”
When she heard this news, Thérèse was filled with joy. She made her confession to the chaplain and asked him to give her the last anointing which she desired very much.
In the evening of July 8, she was taken down to the infirmary where she stayed until her death. These quarters were very small. In one corner there was an iron bed closed in by brown curtains to which Thérèse pinned her favorite holy pictures, namely, the Holy Face of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, her “dear little” Théophane Vénard, etc. On the same day as Thêrèse was brought to the infirmary, the statue of the “Virgin of the Smile” was installed there. Finally, there was an armchair which was used by Thérèse on the few occasions when she could get up. Through the window she could contemplate the garden in full bloom.
On July 9, the Superior of the Carmel decided she was not sick enough to be anointed; and so this was postponed. Thérèse still manifested at times a great deal of vitality and even surprised her sisters with her great cheerfulness. She was living in the constant expectation of the imminent coming of the “Thief,” for He is the one who “will break the web of this sweet encounter”: this “dying of love” as St. John described it had always been her hope. This is what Thêrèse had always wanted. Mother Agnes about this time wrote down the following dialogue:
Mother Agnes: “Are you afraid now that death is so close?”
Thërèse: “Ah! less and less!”
Mother Agnes: “Do you fear the Thief? This time He is at the door!”
Thêrèse: “No. He is not at the door; He has entered. But what are you saying, little Mother? How can I fear one whom I love?”
Thêrèse never ceased spitting up blood, suffering from her head and her side, and even vomiting the milk prescribed for her by the doctor. During this time her weakness increased considerably.
During the month of July, however, Therêse still had enough strength to answer the questions of Mother Agnes and her other two sisters; these were questions concerning her childhood; and they also sought her advice. The patient even agreed to the idea of using the notes to compose her obituary notice which was to be sent to the other Carmels. Gradually there was even talk of the eventual publication of her manuscripts on a larger scale. Therèse confided this work to Mother Agnes and strongly insisted that she complete her unfinished work by the addition of the story of the “sinner who died of love.” “Souls will understand immediately, for this is a striking example of what I am trying to say.” When she referred to her manuscripts, she added: “There will be something in them for all, except those following extraordinary ways.”
She had a presentiment that her activity after her death would extend far beyond the influence of a book, that it would be worldwide. “How unhappy I shall be in heaven if I cannot do little favors for those whom I love” She began to multiply mysterious promises: “I will return!” “I will come down!” Then on July 17, she made her now famous prediction: “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making others love God as I love Him, my mission of teaching my little way to souls. If God answers my requests, my heaven will be spent on earth up until the end of the world. Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”
There was a definite worsening of her condition on July 28th. According to her own statement, it was the beginning of “great sufferings.” The doctor himself was of the opinion she would not last through the night. They went as far as preparing in a room adjoining the infirmary the things necessary for her burial. She was anointed and received Holy Viaticum in the evening.
Contrary to all expectation, including her own, she came through the crisis. These sudden changes in her condition puzzled her greatly. She said to Mother Agnes: “This evening when you told me I still had a month or so according to Dr. Cornière’s opinion, I was absolutely amazed. It is so different from yesterday when he said that I should be anointed that very day! All this, however leaves me in a deep tranquility. I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love,”
In fact, the hemoptyses ceased entirely on August 5, and the patient experienced a short period of relief. Doctor de Corniere went on vacation after having prescribed some remedies on his learning of a lung infection. The calm lasted two weeks. Thérèse was without a doctor when a new attack began on August 15.
She experienced much coughing, difficulties in breathing, pains in her chest, and swollen limbs. She reached a peak in her sufferings between August 22 and 27. Doctor Francis La Neele, Thérèse‘s cousin through marriage, had to rush from Caen when the Carmel called him. He was the first one to speak about “tuberculosis.” This had attacked the intestines. Thérèse was suffering violently at each breath she took, and she felt as though she were stretched out on “iron spikes.” Then they began talking about the danger of gangrene. “Well, all the better! While I am at it I may as well suffer very much and all over–and even have several sicknesses at the same time!” This was Thérèse’s comment.
Later on, when she was in a state of exhaustion, she confided to Mother Agnes: “What would become of me if God did not give me courage? A person does not know what this is unless he experiences it. No, it has to be experienced!” She even apologized when she cried out with pain: “What a grace it is to have faith! If I had no faith, I would have inflicted death on myself without hesitating a moment!”
Then there was a new and unexpected lessening in her suffering in the last days of August. This lasted until September 13. Doctor La Neele said his cousin had only half a lung with which to breathe. She was to live for one more month.
The simple recounting of these sudden changes in Thérêse‘s condition and her reaction to them cannot possibly bring out the aspects of her personality which her “last conversations” and her letters reveal. She wrote her last letter on August 10.
Thérèse was a patient as are other patients; in other words, she was without any lofty thoughts. “Pray for those who are sick and dying, little sisters. If you only knew what goes on! How little it takes to lose control of oneself! I would not have believed this before.” Someone asked her: “What about your ‘little life’ now?” She answered: “My ‘little life’ is to suffer; that’s it!”
With unaffected cheerfulness, she had a definite “horror of any pretence whatsoever”; she tried to lessen anything which seemed to over dramatize her condition or anything that would cause her sisters too much pain. There was not the least bit of sadness in the atmosphere of the infirmary. Sister Marie of the Eucharist, Marie Guèrin, wrote a note to her parents in which she said: “As far as her morale is concerned, it is always the same: cheerfulness itself. She is always making those who come to visit her laugh. There are times when one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy!”
Thêrèse was in possession of a large repertoire which expressed the depth of her character: puns, tricks, mimic kings, jokes about herself and the doctor’s inability to help. The source of her joy came from her total acceptance of the will of “Papa, God,” whom she was about to see face to face. “Don‘t be sad at seeing me sick like this, little Mother! You can see how happy God is making me. I am always cheerful and content”
There existed in this “sensitive and tender heart” an exquisite form of consideration for others; she tried to meet each one’s needs. She accepted and even begged for a kiss: “A kiss that makes lots of noise!” The fraternal charity about which she had written so well in the month of June was now showing the extent of her hidden heroism. The Sisters came to the infirmary purposely to seek her advice or simply to receive a smile from her. Novice Mistress to the end, she was concerned about the tears of Sister Marie of the Trinity and the sadness of her “Bobonne” (Sister Genevieve). She even excused the errors of good old Sister Stanislaus, her infirmarian.
Who would have suspected, except for the few who actually knew, that all during this time Thêrèse remained constantly “in the night,” in that “underground passage,” before that impenetrable “wall.”
The terrible “trial of faith” about which she had spoken to Mother Marie de Gonzague persisted to the very last day of her life. Faced with death, tortured by physical sufferings, Thêrèse longed for heaven with all her strength: and yet it appeared “closed” against her! “It is upon heaven that everything hinges. How strange and incoherent this is!” Brief confidences made to Mother Agnes came like flashes of lightning: “Must one love God and the Blessed Virgin so much and still have thoughts like this! But I don’t dwell on them.“ Through the window she was looking at the garden and could see among the trees “a black hole.” She said to Mother Agnes: “I am in a hole just like that, body and soul. Ah! what darkness! However, I am still at peace!”
Seated alone “at the table of sinners,” she was unable to expect external help. The chaplain was frightened by his penitent’s temptations against faith: “Don’t dwell on them; it is dangerous!” She remained reserved with her sisters regarding these things lest she make them suffer the same torments. Finally she was not even able to depend upon the sacraments of the Church. She received Holy Communion for the last time on August 19. “When they bring her Holy Communion, we all enter her room chanting the ‘Miserere.’ The last time we did this, she was so weak that it got on her nerves just listening to us. She was suffering a martyrdom.”
The impossibility, however, of receiving Holy Communion did not sadden Thérêse. “No doubt, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments. When God does not permit it, it is good too! Everything is a grace!” She offered up her last Communion for an ex-priest, Father Hyacinthe Loyson, a Carmelite. She never kept anything for herself. “Everything I have, everything I merit, is for the good of the Church and for souls.” In fact, this obsession with sinners and universal salvation was the means of reviving her. She kept up a correspondence with her “spiritual brothers” and even promised them effective help: “When I shall have arrived at port. I will teach you how to travel, dear little brother of my soul, on the stormy sea of the world: with the surrender and the love of a child who knows his Father loves him and cannot leave him alone in the hour of danger. . . The way of simple love and confidence is really made for you.” This she wrote to Father Belliere
Life in the infirmary had taken on such an ordinary and monotonous appearance that no one could possibly suspect that a saint was dying. Mysterious words from Thêrèse, however, occasionally threw a light on the near future: “Little sisters, you know very well that you are taking care of a little saint!” And again: “Gather these (rose) petals, little sisters; they will help you to give pleasure later on. Do not lose one of them!”
And yet, at the same time, she candidly admits her total poverty. Even when certain dates were suggested as days for her death, Thérese said: “Ah! Mother, intuitions! If you only knew how spiritually poor I really am. I know nothing that you yourself don’t know! I know only what I see and feel!”
It was through the grace of God alone that Thêrèse had reached this state of absolute surrender to Him. She stated: “the words of Job: ‘Even though he should kill me, yet will I trust him,’ always fascinated me in my childhood days. It took me a long time, however, to reach that degree of surrender. Now I have reached it; God has placed me in this degree, for He has taken me up into His arms and placed me there.”
She recognized her own limitations clearly, and she accepted all the humiliations of her state of sickness with its weakness, tears, impatience, especially in the presence of a tiresome Sister. When she was corrected for showing impatience with this Sister, she said: “Oh! how happy I am to see myself imperfect and to be in need of God’s mercy so much even at the moment of my death!”
She had become perfectly simple: “Everyone will see that everything comes from God. Any glory that I shall have will be a gratuitous gift from God and will not belong to me. Everybody will see this clearly!”
After the terrible sufferings at the end of August, the infirmarians brought her bed to the center of the infirmary. Thérêse was able from that position to contemplate the beauty of the garden which was all in bloom. She loved flowers and fruit so much. She was able to see also the material heavens, the other remained closed. She could hear the nuns chanting the Divine Office or sometimes the sound of music coming from a distance. Life seemed to be returning; she was experiencing hunger again. Her Aunt Guérin tried to satisfy her “desire for all sorts of good things,” even a chocolate éclair!
On August 30, Thèrèse‘s bed was pushed out to the cloister walk, next to the entrance to the choir which she saw for the last time. Her sister, Sister Genevieve, took advantage of the situation and made a last photo of her sister. In this picture we see Thërèse unpetalling roses over her crucifix which is always in her hands. She looks emaciated and tries her best to smile.
She celebrated the seventh anniversary of her profession on September 8 and was literally surrounded by flowers. She cried with gratitude: “This is because of God’s goodness towards me. Exteriorly I am surrounded with flowers; but interiorly I am always in my trial; however, lain at peace!” Out of some flowers she wove a garland for the statue of the “Virgin of the Smile.”
The doctor returned from his vacation and was surprised at his patient’s condition. A new and final aggravation had appeared after nineteen days of relative calm: the left lung was infected by tuberculosis. Therèse was suffocating and could speak only by chopping her sentences: “Mamma! earth’s air is leaving me . . . When will God give me the air of heaven? Ah! my breathing has never been so short!”
Thêrèse reached the end of her way of the cross like a tired traveler staggering at the end of a long journey: “It is into God’s arms that I’m falling!” She experienced moments of uncertainty as she faced death: “I am afraid I have feared death. I am not afraid of what happens after death; that is certain! I don’t regret giving up my life; but I ask myself: What is this mysterious separation of the soul from the body? It is the first time that I have experienced this, but I abandoned myself immediately to God.”
The agony properly so-called was going to last for two days, but on September 21, Thêrèse sighed: “Ah! what is the agony? It seems I am always in it.”
On Wednesday morning, September 29, Thêrèse was breathing with great difficulty. Mother Marie de Gonzague gathered the community which recited the prayers for the dying for an hour. At noon, Thérèse asked her Prioress: “Mother is this the agony? . . . What should I do to prepare for death? Never will I know how to die!” After the doctor’s visit, she asked: “Is it today, Mother?”—”Yes, my child.”—”What happiness if I could die right now!” And a little later on she asked: “When am I going to suffocate entirely? . . . I can’t stand any more! Ah! pray for me! Jesus! Mary! I will it!”
In the evening, Father Faucon came to hear her confession; when he came out of the infirmary, he was very much moved and said: “What a beautiful soul! She seems to be confirmed in grace!”
Sisters Genevieve and Marie of the Sacred Heart stayed with her that night in spite of her objections. It was a painful night for her. Her three sisters remained with her during the Mass in the morning. Thérèse pointed to the statue of the Blessed Virgin and said to them: “Oh! I prayed fervently to her! But it is pure agony; there is no consolation!”
In the afternoon of Thursday, September 30, Thérese was able to lift herself up in bed which she had not been able to do for several weeks: “See how strong I am today! No, I am not going to die! I still have months, perhaps years!” According to witnesses, she was then undergoing “the final struggles of the most terrible agony.”
Toward 3:00 in the afternoon, seated up in bed, she extended her arms and rested them on Mother Agnes and Sister Genevieve. How could we fail to recall here the words Thérèse spoke regarding the “death of love” she longed for? In June she said: “Do not be troubled, little sisters, if I suffer very much and if you see in me, as I have already said to you, no sign of joy at the moment of death. Our Lord really died as a Victim of Love, and see what His agony was!” And in July she said: “Our Lord died on the Cross in anguish, and yet His was the most beautiful death of love. To die of love does not mean to die in transports. I tell you frankly, it appears to me that this is what I am experiencing.”
Mother Agnes collected the last words of Thérèse and wrote them in a notebook.
“I no longer believe in death for myself; I believe only in suffering. Well, so much the better!”
“0 my God!”
“I love God!”
“0 my good Blessed Virgin, come to my aid!”
“If this is the agony, then what is death?”
“Ah! my God Yes, life is very good; I find He is very good!”
“If you but realized what it is to suffocate!”
“My God, have pity on me; have pity on your little child. Have pity!’’
To Mother Marie de Gonzague Therèse said:
“0 Mother, I assure you, the chalice is filled to the brim!”
“God is surely not going to abandon me!”
“He has never abandoned me before!”
“Yes, my God, everything that You will, but have pity on me!”
“Little sisters, my little sisters, pray for me!”
“My God! My God! You are so good!”
“Oh! yes, You are good, I know it.”
“Yes, it seems I never looked for anything but the truth; I have understood humility of heart. It seems that I am humble.”
“Everything I have written on my desire for suffering is true!”
“I do not regret having surrendered myself to Love.”
“Oh no! I don’t regret it; just the opposite!”
Mother Agnes relates: “I was alone with her about 4:30 in the afternoon. I thought her end was approaching when I saw a sudden pallor in her face. Mother Prioress returned, and soon the whole community was assembled again around her bed. She smiled at the Sisters; however, she did not say anything until her death. For more than two hours the terrible death rattle tore her chest. Her face was flushed, her hands purple, and her feet were as cold as ice. She was shivering in her limbs. Huge beads of perspiration stood out on her forehead and rolled down her cheeks. It was becoming increasingly difficult for her to breathe. When trying to catch her breath, she uttered little cries.”
Thêrèse smiled at her sister, Sister Genevieve, who dried her forehead and passed a piece of ice over her parched lips.
When the Angelus bell rang at 6 o’clock, Thêrèse looked at the “Virgin of the Smile” for a long time. She was holding her crucifix firmly. As the community had been almost two hours in the infirmary, the Prioress allowed the Sisters to leave.
Therese sighed: “Mother! Isn’t this the agony? Am I not going to die?”
“Yes, my poor child, but God perhaps wills to prolong it for several hours.”
“Well, all right! Ah! I would not want to suffer a shorter length of time.”
Her head fell back on the pillow and was turned toward the right. The Prioress had the infirmary bell rung, and the Sisters quickly returned. “Open all the doors,” Mother Marie de Gonzague ordered. Hardly had the community knelt at her bedside when Thérèse pronounced very distinctly, while gazing at her crucifix: “Oh! I love Him!” And a moment later: “My God, I love you!”
Suddenly her eyes came to life and were fixed on a spot just a little above the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Her face took on the appearance it had when Therese enjoyed good health. She seemed to be in ecstasy. This look lasted for the space of a “Credo.” Then she closed her eyes and expired. It was 7:20 in the evening.
Her head was leaning to the right. A mysterious smile was on her lips. She appeared very beautiful; and this is evident in the photograph taken by Cêline after her sister’s death.
According to the custom of the Carmel, Therèse was laid out in the choir in front of the grille from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening. She was buried in the Lisieux cemetery on October 4, 1897 (She was 24 years 9 months old).
While in the infirmary, she had written these lines to Father Belliere on June 9: “I am not dying; I am entering into life!”
That marvelous life after death of this unknown Carmelite nun was about to begin. (261-271)