It’s a Gift to Be Simple: Two Sisters of St. Thérèse

January 2000By Elaine Hallett

Elaine Hallett is co-author with her husband of Analyzing Shakespeare’s Action and The Revenger’s Madness.

Léonie Martin: A Difficult Life.  By Marie Baudouin-Croix. Veritas Publications. 128 pages. $10.95.

Céline: Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face: Sister and Witness of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.  By Stéphane-Joseph Piat, O.F.M. Ignatius. 201 pages. $12.95.



In essence, both books are about St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way of Spiritual Childhood, and reading the two together lets one see how the Little Way fostered spiritual growth in Thérèse’s own sisters, her earliest disciples. These are the stories of two very different temperaments, Céline’s and Léonie’s, working their way, under the tutelage of Thérèse, toward conquering the recalcitrant nature that we Christians call original sin.

Céline and Léonie Martin were not the only sisters of the famous Thérèse: Five of the daughters of Zélie and Louis Martin lived to maturity, and all five chose to abandon worldly life and become nuns. Léonie was the least gifted and was the last to settle into convent life, and it is Léonie’s life that I want to emphasize here, partly because her handicaps make her of special interest and partly because Léonie’s biographer, Marie Baudouin-Croix, makes a convincing case for her canonization. This is not to disparage Céline. It is merely to say that the talented and dynamic Céline is instantly attractive and easy to understand. To appreciate Léonie one has to work harder, and her effect on the heart may be correspondingly deeper.

Let me begin by introducing the five sisters. Born first was Marie Martin — Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart (1860-1940). Marie was Thérèse’s godmother and teacher and was the one who had the wisdom to ask Thérèse to write down “the secrets which Jesus shared with her,” thus assuring the preservation of the precious legacy of Thérèse’s manuscripts. Pauline Martin (1861-1951), the second of the sisters, entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux before Marie, and she ultimately became its prioress. Both were remarkable women. Even more remarkable was Thérèse, the family’s youngest child (1873-1897). Thérèse not only entered the Carmel at the unheard of age of 15 (having gone to Rome to seek permission from the pope), but also became a saint by the time she died at 24, and within a decade of her death was known and loved throughout France for her holiness. The two sisters who are the subjects of the books under review were born between Pauline and Thérèse — Léonie first (1863-1941) and, six years later, Céline (1869-1959).

Céline Martin, closest in age to Thérèse and her close companion, appears to have been even more talented than Marie or Pauline. Such was her talent for painting that her father wanted to send her to the Academies for lessons with some great master. Céline also loved photography, at a time when the craft was new, and became the official photographer of the convent. Without Céline we would not have the lovely pictures of Thérèse and her family that now exist (many of these appear in the book). Further, Céline had the intelligence, efficiency, and sense of order of a literary scholar. Added to all of these gifts was the energy to use them.

From these gifted sisters, we turn to Léonie, whose gifts were far less obvious. She is described in the preface to this biography as “a child with special needs. She seems to have had quite serious emotional problems, manifested by violent outbursts. She would also seem to have had some learning problems,” to have needed “skilled help and special education” in days when such problems not only went untreated but would not be spoken of in public by “a closed bourgeois family in a provincial town.”

What must it have been like for a child such as Léonie in a family of brilliant daughters, where one sister after another entered the strict contemplative order of the Carmelites? What was it like to feel that one also had a vocation, yet to fail time after time, in more than one religious order? Whereas Marie joined at 27, Pauline at 21, Céline at 25, and Thérèse at 15 — joined permanently and throve in the environment — Léonie tried to become a nun repeatedly and unsuccessfully. She was 35 before she was permanently professed as a Visitation sister.

Léonie made her first attempt at the religious life by joining the Poor Clares in 1886 but found the rigorous rule too difficult for her delicate health and left after two months. The next year she tried the Visitation convent in Caen but stayed only six months. She returned to the Visitandines a second time in 1893 — she was now 30 — and this time remained for two years, then returned home to Lisieux. What apparently made the difference for Léonie, finally, was the publication of Thérèse’s The Story of a Soul and her discovery of Thérèse’s Little Way, a Way that seemed made for Léonie. She read the book immediately upon its publication in 1898. On January 8, 1899, Léonie entered the Visitation convent for the third and final time, successfully.

How various are the raw materials from which great Christians can be formed! From contemporary descriptions of Céline’s childhood, her biographer Fr. Piat extracts an abundance of superlatives. “Sweetness” is a word applied to Céline from the beginning of her life. We hear “what a sweet little thing she is” from her mother. We hear of her “genuine sweetness.” Thérèse speaks of Céline as the “sweet echo of my soul.” Descriptions of the child Céline have her “intensely alive,” “already curious about everything, multiplying her whys.” She is “altogether given to virtue,” has “a candid soul,” “a noble nature,” displays “the best dispositions,” and has “rare inclinations to piety.” As a child she is “charming and witty…and learns anything she sets her mind to.”

The adjectives used in contemporary sources to describe Léonie, on the other hand, are emphatically negative. We read of Léonie’s “struggles, her failures, her disappointments” and of a “dogged perseverance” that throughout her childhood makes her unpopular. Her mother’s letters are filled with laments: “If only we could subdue her obstinacy.” Léonie “lacked moderation,” had extravagant, inexplicable mood swings between rebelliousness and enthusiasm. Concerns were expressed about her “slow intellectual development,” her “very undisciplined nature,” her constant stubborn insubordination, and her “lack of common sense.” Léonie’s aunt, a Visitation nun at Le Mans, found it “a continual battle to control her.” From childhood the unfortunate Léonie was subject to periodic outbreaks of “a purulent form of eczema” which covered her body and caused incessant itching. When Léonie was 13, Mme. Martin complained that Léonie “has a will of iron” and “does exactly as she pleases.” She “made all those around her suffer.”

So it continued as the girls grew up. Céline, according to Fr. Pichon, her spiritual advisor, had “enough personality for four.” She was “the thunder child,” the dauntless one, “overflowing with life,” and was much sought after by dazzled suitors. Céline read voraciously. Léonie, at 18, on the other hand, is reported to be “wild and uncommunicative.” She is consistently called “poor Léonie” by her aunts and uncles. One even hears that she was nicknamed “the lame duck.” Baudouin-Croix concludes that Léonie was “awful…in every sense,” even “the catalyst of family humility.”

Not that Léonie was unloved — far from it. She too had an innate sweetness. Yet it only served to make her family the more astonished at the stubborn recalcitrance that disfigured her gentle qualities. No wonder that this “cuckoo in the nest” (as her sister Pauline called her) had to cope throughout her life with a profound sense of inferiority.

The different ways in which the two sisters were disciples of Thérèse are equally striking, and here I speak of a later time in the lives of the Martins, spanning the years from 1895 — when Thérèse (nearly 24) had reached spiritual maturity and was practicing her Little Way — until the middle decades of the 1900s, when Céline and Léonie reached their spiritual apex. Céline (Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face) lived in the Carmel with Thérèse. Léonie (Sister Françoise-Thérèse) lived in the Visitation convent, too far away to visit. Céline, we read, was a valuable assistant to Thérèse in working out the details of her doctrine. As novice mistress, Thérèse taught Céline directly, and Céline’s responses allowed Thérèse to refine and clarify her thoughts. Léonie also received loving advice from Thérèse but only through correspondence; though Thérèse understood Léonie’s soul and addressed her specific problems, the contact was briefer and infrequent. After Thérèse’s death, Céline became the chief custodian and editor of Thérèse’s manuscripts, letters, and notebooks. She worked incessantly till the end of her life, overseeing the publication of these works in response to a growing demand for them that was first national and then international. Léonie, too, received copies of these books as they became available and she studied them assiduously. But her practical contribution to the public veneration of Thérèse was of a more modest sort: Léonie would hand-stitch beautiful little pouches to contain the bits of cloth which had touched the relics of Thérèse and were being distributed to the pilgrims who were flocking to Lisieux.

Both sisters lived far enough into old age to suffer from the usual deteriorations of the body and manifest in their interior lives the unique spiritual transformations of the soul. And over time, while retaining their individuality, they came to resemble each other more closely. In the end, both received the great gift of simplicity and, through it, both light the world with their holiness.

In Fr. Piat’s Céline, one can follow the process through which God ensured that Thérèse would have a capable and dedicated editor to gather and preserve every word that she bequeathed to this world. Tirelessly, Céline passed on to posterity what she had been taught, directly, by the saint, counting herself as naught except as she could fulfill God’s purpose. Her strong will — she was as undaunted in her way as Léonie in hers — served her when she was called to witness at the beatification and canonization processes. Fr. Piat stresses the forcefulness with which Céline put off attempts of Church authorities to downplay the most significant aspects of Thérèse’s teachings, such as the idea of spiritual childhood, which struck the interviewers as not heroic enough to pass muster. Céline declared that the story must be told as it was and not as they thought it should be. In this life of Céline, one can see how the Little Way combines with intellectual and artistic talents to bring those talents to fulfillment in holiness.

In Léonie’s story one observes a path less easy but every bit as admirable, perhaps even more encouraging — for few of us have the talents of a Céline. Léonie’s life shows that the Little Way can be the salvation of even the most limited minds and most recalcitrant souls. The “one thing necessary,” to use a phrase much loved by Thérèse, is to be so thoroughly humble that Jesus can perform His work. “Léonie liked her ‘littleness,’” writes Baudouin-Croix. “She compared herself to a little log, asking Jesus to set it on fire, and the Spirit of love to stoke the flames.”

Let me make a further observation about the value of reading these biographies in juxtaposition. It is sometimes said that souls who are truly abandoned to God tend to value suffering and happiness equally. What the biographers of both Céline and Léonie make manifest is not that suffering and happiness are equivalent but that suffering can be profoundly productive of happiness. Those who accept and endure suffering can be rewarded with a particular kind of happiness — self-fulfillment — in which God’s purpose for them seems to shine all the brighter against the seeming darkness of this world.

Perhaps there was a providential reason why circumstances caused Thérèse to enter the convent first, when it would normally have been Céline, the older one, who entered the Carmel first. Céline suffered when she made the sacrifice of staying in the world to care for her father so that Thérèse, whose vocation seemed stronger, could enter the Carmel first. God seems to have preferred that Thérèse be Céline’s teacher in the convent rather than the other way around. M. Martin had to suffer insanity, and this trial, too, seemed inexplicable. So with the trials of Léonie. Yet Léonie’s difficult temperament had its purpose in the family. Not only must it have prevented pridefulness in a family that had such brilliant children, as Baudouin-Croix points out, but Léonie’s hardships also ultimately confirmed the validity of Thérèse’s doctrine.

In what ways are these women models of sanctity for us? It is Léonie’s persistence when the goal seemed unattainable that endeared her to those who knew her, and to us. The Carmelite Fr. Christopher O’Donnell, who wrote the Preface to the Léonie book, finds in her “the hard steel that always lies just below the surface in Thérèse”; like Thérèse, he says, Léonie was “almost ruthless in her pursuit of holiness, in her complete sacrifice to God’s merciful love.” Baudouin-Croix recommends Léonie’s story to us because “Léonie’s good will, the deep humility which led her to declare herself unworthy, and her trust in the Divine Mercy left her docile in the hand of God; she was clearly chosen to follow the spirituality of the Little Way.” Baudouin-Croix presents this biography as “the story of one woman’s struggle to conquer a difficult, intractable temperament.” Lives like hers, says the author, “build in silence, here on earth, the edifice of sanctity, the true city of God.”

Baudouin-Croix’s desire is that “the story of the young rebel who was Léonie can help and give hope to parents who are hurt by their clashes — often violent — with their children.” Such parents, she writes, might recall the “mystery which the prophet Isaiah foresaw: ‘We can save our children by the wounds they inflict on us.’” We can, that is, offer up our suffering on their behalf. This book may speak to any parent whose child’s behavior, like Léonie’s, has grown so disruptive of family life as to become a source of despair.

What of Céline, who became at her death “a little lamb on the funeral pyre”? Céline at the end of her life felt that she had accomplished nothing. A century later, we can admire her and be glad for her efforts, knowing that to her we owe in large part our acquaintance with the Little Flower. Thérèse is venerated, while Céline seems forgotten. But (isn’t it true?) Céline, both in her earthly and in her eternal life, would prefer to be seated at the foot of the table (even as she seems to be in this review, where Léonie, at long last, is being put first). Céline might endorse the opinion stated in Fr. Marie-Eugène’s preface, that her life “will be a pressing invitation and an invaluable encouragement” to many souls who mistakenly see “little” Thérèse as too sentimental and have therefore “kept a distance from the great spiritual mistress of our times.” Céline’s life teaches us that “Thérèse’s doctrine has a universal scope…and can be carried out up to the most advanced age and even by those in the highest positions.”



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