Joy in Suffering/Third Day
St. Therese's Threefold Martyrdom
(1) Martyrdom of the Body.—St. Therese had prayed to endure the pains of martyrdom, and she was heard. Her physical suffering alone was more than a martyrdom. Even in her earlier years she suffered much, but it was especially toward the end of her earthly pilgrimage that her pains were multiplied many times over. Her strength wasted, she would literally drag herself to the various exercises of the community, sharing every duty, even the exhausting midnight office, though she had to fight against numbness, weariness and giddiness to keep on her feet. When all was finished, she would pull herself up the stairs by the banister, resting on each step for breath, so that it took her fully half an hour to traverse the icy corridor that led to her unheated cell. When she reached it, she was so worn out that sometimes it took her a full hour to undress. Then she tried to rest on her hard pallet, but having only two thin blankets, the entire night at times was spent shivering from the cold. Her sickness having impoverished her blood, she was all the more sensitive to the cold, so that she confessed on her deathbed: "My greatest physical suffering was from the cold; I have suffered so much from the cold that I thought I should die of it." But she fought on, for one of her principles was: "We must go to the end of our strength before we complain."
At length, however, she was no longer able to remain on her feet. Being forced to take to her bed, her pains increased; she coughed the greater part of the night; in the daytime she was consumed by a burning fever and exhausted by copious sweats; she was seized by violent hemorrhages and attacks of suffocation; her extreme emaciation caused very painful sores; when the infirmarian tried to relieve her by raising her to a sitting position, she said it felt as if she were sitting on spikes. "If you only knew," she said, "what I am suffering. One has to experience it to know what it means. I can easily understand why people without faith are tempted to take their life when they suffer like this…. I tell you, when one is suffering like this, one is but a step removed from going out of one's mind." Dare I still ask: "Did St Therese really suffer much?" Yet there was always a sweet smile on her lips. And I cannot even bear trifling pains with a smile for the love of God?
(2) Martyrdom of the Heart.—This is even more painful than martyrdom of the body. Even as a child the heart of St. Therese craved for love and affection. "My heart," she wrote, "is naturally sensitive, and because of this, is a cause of much suffering. I wish to offer Jesus all that it can bear." What one might ordinarily lament was for her a source of joy, because of the opportunities it afforded her of proving her love by suffering.
A natural aversion which she felt for another Sister was so strong that her only refuge often lay in flight; yet she was so pleasant toward the Sister that she was suspected of having a particular friendship with her. She volunteered her services to assist a sick nun, though she "knew beforehand the impossibility of satisfying her," and she did it "with such great care that she could not have done better had she been waiting on our Lord Himself." She offered her aid to the portress, who sorely tried her patience by her particularities and unbearable slowness; but Therese's playful amiability did not allow anyone even to guess the violent interior struggle she was waging.
Living in the same convent with three of her sisters, she had much to suffer in curbing her naturally very affective nature and said that God offered her more than one bitter chalice through them. Of all the members of the community she was the one who at recreation associated least of all with her sisters; she worked side by side for many months with her dear Pauline; but never spoke a word to her. "O my little mother," she said later, "how I suffered! I could not open my heart to you and I thought that you no longer knew me."
This martyrdom of the heart was especially bitter in regard to her dearly beloved father in his trying illness. Words failed to express her grief, and she made no attempt to describe it. Her tears flowed so fast that she could not hold her pen to write, and yet she said: "The three years of my father's martyrdom seem to me the sweetest and most fruitful of my whole life. I would not exchange them for the most sublime ecstasies, and my heart cries out in gratitude for such a priceless treasure: 'We have rejoiced for the days wherein Thou hast afflicted us.' Precious and sweet was this bitter cross." Mysterious words! Bitter, yet sweet! If I am eager to offer Jesus all the suffering my heart can endure, I shall understand. Am I…?
(3) Martyrdom or the Soul.—This is the severest of all suffering. It comes directly from God, and apparently without reason, without warning. St. Therese ate the hard and dry bread of spiritual aridity, of want of consolation in prayer daily throughout her religious life. "For me it is always night, always dark, black night." "Dryness and drowsiness—such is the state of my soul in its intercourse with Jesus! But since my Beloved wishes to sleep, I shall not prevent Him." She found retreats exceptionally trying: "I went through the retreat in a state of utter dryness and as if abandoned by God. Jesus, as was His wont, slept in my little barque. How rarely do souls suffer Him to sleep in peace! Their good Master is so wearied with continually making fresh advances that He eagerly avails Himself of the repose I offer Him, and, no doubt, He will sleep on until my great and everlasting retreat; but instead of being grieved at this I am glad." There was no time at which she felt less consolation than at Holy Communion. But she did not give up, shorten or hasten through her spiritual exercises on that account. "When I am in this state of spiritual dryness, unable to pray, or to practice virtue, I look for little opportunities, for the smallest trifles to please Jesus, such as a smile, a kindly word when I would rather be silent…. If no such occasion offers, I try at least to say over and over again that I love Him."
The darkness became ever more and more dense, and to it were added fearful temptations against faith. She herself said: "I was sorely tried, almost to sadness. So great was the darkness that I no longer knew if God loved me." Nay more, "When my heart, weary of the surrounding darkness, tries to find rest in the thought of a life to come, my anguish increases. It seems to me that out of the darkness I hear the mocking cry of the unbeliever: 'You dream of a land of light and fragrance; you dream that the Creator of these wonders will be yours forever….' Nay, rejoice in death, which will give you not what you hope for, but a still darker night, the night of utter nothingness!" A fearful trial indeed for one who loves God most ardently. And "it was not a veil but a wall rising to the very heavens." Besides, the devil held her "with a grip of iron to drive her even to despair." And how did she act? Without even facing the enemy, she fled to Jesus and assured Him of her readiness to shed her blood in testimony of her faith in a life to come; she turned to Heaven and "thanked God and the saints just the same, feeling that they wanted to see how far she would push her trust."
"…with many a sweet caress
I to Him my love confide,
With redoubled tenderness
When He stealeth from my side."
This indescribably painful triple martyrdom was endured, not successively, but simultaneously, and lasted till her death. It was so intense that she said: "I did not think it was possible to suffer so much." Yet she was ever peaceful and calm, cheerful and smiling, "Amid these waters of tribulation that I had so thirsted for," she said, "I was the happiest of mortals." I shall be able to fathom this "austere sweetness" only in so far as I am willing to experience it. How strong is my love of God?
Dear St. Therese, even these few brief reflections leave me astounded at the appalling extent and intensity of your sufferings. What must they have been in reality! I begin to understand something of the full and deep truth of those words you uttered toward the end of your life: "I did not think it was possible to suffer so much." I can indeed think of much, even seemingly boundless "possible" suffering, and you said that your actual anguish exceeded all that you thought it possible to endure. The very thought of such an ocean of pain overwhelms me. How I thank God for the heroic love with which He filled you and the strength of soul with which you bore all! This is the incredibly great price you paid for that veritable deluge of roses you have sent down upon the world from heaven. Pray for me, that I, too, may be filled with courage in all the sufferings of body, heart, and soul that it may please God to send me for His greater glory, the salvation of souls, and my own eternal bliss. Obtain for me the grace to endure them all with the cheerful sentiments with which you welcomed this simultaneous triple martyrdom, and thus prove my love for God. I also recommend to you my special intentions in this Novena…. To one who has suffered so much for Him, God will refuse nothing.
Other Novena Prayers on page 46.