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Thérèse of Lisieux and the Bible

Although the memory of Thérèse of Lisieux is celebrated on October 1st, it is important to know that this was not the day of her death.

Thérèse died on September 30th 1897, but when a day to celebrate her memory was chosen, this date could not be chosen because another saint already occupied this place in the calendar, Saint Jerome, who died on September 30th 420.

Jerome translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin. This translation, known as "the Vulgate", made the Bible accessible to many of the saint's contemporaries who only spoke Latin. Centuries later, even when Latin was no longer a living language, the Vulgate became the official translation of the Bible, to be used in the Mass and other liturgical celebrations.

But St. Jerome was not simply a translator; he was above all a lover of the Word. He said that "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. In his honour, the month of September is the month of the Bible.

It does not seem to be a coincidence that Thérèse died on the same day as Jerome. She too loved the Bible. Her writings contain over 1,000 biblical quotations: more than 400 from the Old and over 600 from the New Testament. Those who witnessed during her canonisation and beatification processes expressed that the Word of God was always in her conversations, in the few moments of recreation that were allowed in her Convent.

Sister Mary of the Trinity, one of the sisters in her community tells us that Thérèse constantly quoted Holy Scriptures “with such accuracy that you would think her conversations were but a commentary on the Holy Books." [1] Her prioress, Mother Agnes (one of her blood sisters) tells us this anecdote:

It was the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. She asked me to read her the Sunday Gospel. I didn't have the missal and told her simply: “It's the Gospel where Our Lord warns us against serving two masters”. Then, imitating the voice of a little child reciting her lesson, she said it from memory from beginning to end. [2]

Today it seems totally normal and even logical for a nun to have a Bible. Any Christian has one in their library or on their bedside table. But in Thérèse’s times it was different.

Although she came from a very religious family, she was not in touch with a printed New Testament until the moment she entered Carmel, at the age of 15. She only had the Old Testament in fragments that she copied in a notebook. At Mass and other liturgical prayers she listened to the biblical readings in Latin, taken from the Vulgate of St. Jerome. This did not satisfy her desire to know the Bible more deeply.

Some time before she died she told Agnes: “Had I been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, and wouldn't have been satisfied with Latin. In this way, I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit”. [3]

Even when she did not have access to a complete version of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures had great influence on her and her writings. In her autobiography called "Story of a Soul" she says that she was concerned about forgetting the name of a loved one (or their needs) in her prayers. And she adds that a passage from the Bible gave her relief from this concern:

One morning during my thanksgiving, Jesus gave me a simple means of accomplishing my mission. He made me understand these words of the Song of Songs: “draw me, we shall run after you in the odor of your ointments”. O Jesus, it is not even necessary to say: “When drawing me, draw the souls whom I love!” This simple statement: “Draw me” suffices; I understand, Lord, that when a soul allows herself to be captivated by the odor of your ointments, she cannot run alone, all the souls whom she loves follow in her train. [4]

In this case and in many others we see how she discovered links between different words in the divine text, in the same way that a psychologist would do with what a patient expresses. She was free to apply to her life what she read. Speaking of this method she says:

You have said to me as the father of the prodigal son said to his older son: "everything that is mine is yours”. Your words, O Jesus, are mine, then, and I can make use of them to draw upon the souls united to me the favors of the heavenly Father. [5]

She also considered that, more than a book, the Word of God is a person, as she tells her sister Celine in a letter, reflecting on the Gospel of John:

To keep the word of Jesus, that is the sole condition of our happiness, the proof of our love for Him. But what, then, is this word? It seems to me that the word of Jesus is Himself... He, Jesus, the Word, the Word of God! [6]

Speaking of her praying with the Bible, a method known as Lectio Divina, Thérèse tells us:

Holy Scriptures come to my aid. In them I discover a solid and very pure nourishment. But it is especially the Gospels that sustain me during my hours of prayer, for in them I find what is necessary for my poor little soul. I am constantly discovering in them new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings. [7]

As we see, for Thérèse not all the books of the Bible have the same value, because the center is Jesus, who is in the Gospels.

Perhaps one of her most beautiful writings is the last poem she wrote, in May 1897, dedicated to the mother of Jesus. "Why I love you, Mary" [8] is a writing in which Thérèse expresses more than her love for a woman, it also expresses her deep respect for the Gospels. We could say that in this writing she follows the principle of Sola Scriptura, because she wants to speak about Mary only from the Scriptures. This is how she expresses it from the beginning of the poem:

In pondering your life in the holy Gospels,

I dare look at you and come near you.

She does not want to talk about what she imagines, about legends, or about what is supposed to be about Mary. Not even about the great Marian dogmas of the Church, such as that of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated by Pius IX in 1854; or about Marian apparitions, like those at Lourdes in 1858. Sola Scriptura is the principle that seems to follow until the end of the writing:

Saint John's home becomes your only refuge.

Zebedee's son is to replace Jesus

That is the last detail the Gospel gives.

It tells me nothing more of the Queen of Heaven.

And reflecting on that lack of more detail in the Gospels, she concludes:

But, O my dear Mother, doesn't its profound silence

Reveal that The Eternal Word Himself

Wants to sing the secrets of your life

To charm your children, all the Elect of Heaven?

It is not the first time that Thérèse speaks of heaven as a place where we will know the intimate life of all the chosen ones. Not only of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In "Story of a Soul" she had already written:

What a surprise we shall have at the end of the world when we shall read the story of souls! There will be those who will be surprised when they see the way through which my soul was guided! [9]

This is something that seems to be in consonance with what John says at the end of his Gospel: "There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written”. (Jn 21:25 NJB)

In the history of the Church, great value has been given to the relics of the saints. Centuries ago, great fortunes were paid for objects that were supposedly in contact with Jesus, Mary or the apostles. Long pilgrimages were made to approach and touch the tombs of the saints.

Thérèse left us a relic; it is her attitude towards the Scriptures, and especially the Gospels. Whoever wants a relic of her has only to reach out and take that Bible that is on the bedside table, or in the library. Opening it, repeat what she said:

Jesus: Make me wise in the ways of Heaven.

Show me the secrets hidden in the Gospel.

Ah! that golden book is my dearest treasure.

(by Francisco Albarenque Rausch - Argentina, May 2020)