Passing to Heaven

During the last months of St. Thérèse's life, her sisters faithfully sat by her bedside through her long protracted illness and agony, taking notes of her words. Her "last conversations," therefore, are preserved for posterity. Follow some extracts.

Taken from St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations. Translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. Copyright (c) 1977 by Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road, N.E. Washington, D.C. 20002 U.S.A.

From Mother Agnes's notes

[The flies tormented her, but she wouldn't kill them:] "I always give them freedom. They alone have caused me misery during my sickness. I have no enemies, and since God recommends that we pardon our enemies, I'm happy to find this opportunity for doing so."

. . .

"I have found happiness and joy on earth, but solely in suffering, for I've suffered very much here below; you must make it known to souls . . . "Since my First Communion, since the time I asked Jesus to change all the consolations of this earth into bitterness for me, I had a perpetual desire to suffer.* I wasn't thinking, however, of making suffering my joy; this is a grace that was given to me later on. Up until then, it was like a spark hidden beneath the ashes, and like blossoms on a tree that must become fruit in time. But seeing my blossoms always falling, that is, allowing myself to fall into tears whenever I suffered, I said to myself with astonhisment and sadness: But I will never go beyond the stage of desires!"

[*St. Thérèse was not a masochist. However, she knew the redemptive value of suffering, and out of love for Our Lord, she wanted to suffer for souls. Suffering is an inevitable component of life -- instead of shirking it or alleviating it, she took it on . . . and look at the results!]

. . .

"This evening, when you told me that Dr. de Cornière believed I still had a month or more to live, I couldn't get over it! It was so different from yesterday when he was saying that I had to be anointed that very day! However, it left me in deep peace. What does it matter if I remain a long time on earth? If I suffer very much and always more, I will not fear, for God will give me strength; He'll never abandon me."

. . .

"After my death, you mustn't speak to anyone about my manuscript before it is published; you must speak about it only to Mother Prioress. If you act otherwise, the devil will make use of more than one trap to hinder the work of God, a very important work!"*

* St. Teresa of Jesus [of Avila] (1515-1582), the Mother Foundress of the Discalced Carmelite reform, also used of this strategy of silence for the same reason, as she traveled about Spain making her foundations.

. . .

"What beauty? I don't see my beauty at all; I see only the graces I've received from God. You always misunderstand me; you don't know, then, that I'm only a little seedling, a little almond."

. . .

[We were showing her a picture of Joan of Arc in her prison:] "The saints encourage me, too, in my prison. They tell me: As long as you are in irons, you cannot carry out your mission; but later on, after your death, this will be the time for your works and your conquests."

. . .

"I'm suffering only for an instant. It's because we think of the past and the future that we become discouraged and fall into despair."

. . .

"Well, it's better to have several sicknesses together as long as one has to suffer very much and in all parts. It's like a journey on which we bear with all sorts of inconveniences, knowing very well that these will end promptly, and that once the goal is attained, we will enjoy ourselves all the more."

. . .

[On 9 June 1897 Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart told her we would be very sorry after she died. She answered:] "Oh! no, you will see . . . it will be like a shower of roses. After my death, you will go to the mail box, and you will find many consolations."

From the testimony of Sr. Geneviève of Saint Teresa [Céline Martin] at the diocesan inquiry into the life of St. Thérèse, given as a part of the process for the cause of canonization.

Source: St. Thérése of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her. Edited by Christopher O'Mahony. Dublin: Pranstown House, rep. 1989.

About mid-afternoon on the day she died she was seized with strange pains all over her body. So, she placed one arm on Mother Agnes’ shoulder and the other on mine, and we supported her like that for a few minutes. Just then the clock struck three, and we could not help being deeply moved. What was she thinking then? For us she was a striking image of Jesus on the Cross; I regarded this coincidence as full of mysterious significance.

Her agony began immediately after this, a long terrible agony. She could be heard repeating: "Oh! This is sheer suffering, because there is no consolation, not even one. O my God! I love him though! O kind Blesses Virgin, come to my aid! . . . If this is agony, what will death be like? . . . Mother, I assure you the chalice is full to the brim. . . . Yes, God, as much as you wish . . . But have pity on me! No, I would never have thought it possible to suffer so much . . . never, never! Tomorrow it will be still worse. Ah, well so much the better!" The poor little martyr’s words were broken and heart-rending, but they always bore the stamp of perfect resignation.

Mother Prioress now summoned the community, and Sister Thérèse welcomed them with a pretty smile. Then she clasped her crucifix to her and seemed to hand herself over entirely to suffering, so to speak. Her breathing was laboured; a cold sweat bathed her face, and soaked her clothes, her pillow and the sheets; she was shaking all over.

Sometimes in the course of her illness, Sister Thérèse had said to us (her own sisters): "My dear sisters, you must not be upset if, when I am dying, my last look is for one of you rather than another; I don’t know what I will do; it will be whatever God wants. If he leaves me free, however, my last goodbye will be for Mother Marie de Gonzague, because she is my prioress." She repeated these words to us a few days before she died.

Now, during her agony, just a few moments before she died, I rendered her some little service. She gave me a beautiful smile, and a long penetrating look. A kind of shiver ran through the community. Then Thérèse’s eyes sought Mother Prioress and rested on her, but with their habitual expression. Mother Prioress, thinking the agony was going to be prolonged, dismissed the community a few minutes later. The angelic patient then turned to her and said; "Mother, is this not the agony, am I not going to die?" And, when Mother replied that it could take a while longer, she said, in a low, plaintive voice: "All right, then! Let it go on. . . . Oh! I would not want to suffer less!" Then, looking at her crucifix: "Oh! . . . I love him. . . . My God. I . . . love . . . you!"

These were her last words. The words were hardly out of her mouth when, to our great surprise, she collapsed, her head a little to the right. Then, suddenly, she sat up, as if a mysterious voice had called her; she opened her eyes and fixed them radiantly on a spot a little above the statue of our Lady. She stayed that way for a few minutes, about as long as it would take to recite the Creed slowly.

I have often tried to analyse this ecstasy since then, and tried to understand that look of hers, which was not just an expression of beatitude. There was an element of great astonishment in it, and her attitude expressed a very dignified assurance. I thought we had been present at her judgment. On the one hand, she had, as the Gospel says, "been found worthy to stand before the Son of man" (Lk 21:36), and on the other, she saw that the gifts which were about to be showered on her were infinitely beyond her immense desires. For there was another expression joined with that of astonishment: she seemed unable to cope with the sight of so much love; she was like someone who is assaulted several times, tries to fight back, but because of his weakness he is happily vanquished. It was too much for her; she closed her eyes and breathed her last. It was 7 p.m. on Thursday, 30 September, 1897.

From the testimony of Mother Agnes of Jesus [Pauline Martin] at the diocesan inquiry into the life of St. Thérèse, given as a part of the process for the cause of canonization.

Source: St. Thérése of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her. Edited by Christopher O'Mahony. Dublin: Pranstown House, rep. 1989.

About 3 p.m. she crossed her forearms and said to the prioress: "Mother, introduce me to the Blessed Virgin quickly please; prepare me to die well." She also repeated: "All I have written about my desire for suffering is quite true; I do not regret having offered myself to Love; quite the contrary."

A few minutes after 7 p.m. Mother Prioress decided that the patient was holding her own, and she sent the community away. The poor victim sighed: "Mother, is it not the agony yet? Am I not going to die?" "Yes, my child," replied the prioress, "it is the last agony, but perhaps God wants to prolong it for a few hours." She answered bravely: "All right, then . . . let’s go on . . . wouldn’t want the time of suffering cut short." Fixing her eyes on the crucifix, she slowly said: "Oh! . . . I love him . . . My . . . God! . . . I . . . love . . . You!" Having pronounced these words she fell back gently, her head a little to the right. Mother hastily summoned the community to return, and all were in time to witness her ecstasy.

Her face, which had become purple and contorted during her agony, had returned to its pristine freshness and the lily-white colouring of healthier days, her eyes stared upwards, shining with peace and joy. A sister drew near with a torch to get a better look at this sublime gaze, and the light of the torch produced no movement of the eyelids. This ecstasy lasted for the space of a Credo. Then I saw her close her eyes; she sighed several times, and rendered her soul to God.

After she was dead she preserved a sweet smile; she looked ravishingly beautiful. As is the custom in Carmel, she was laid out in the choir, by the grille. By Sunday evening, 3 October, there were some signs of decomposition, and the coffin was closed. She was buried on 4 October at the Lisieux cemetery, without anything out of the ordinary happening.

What I have just related about Sister Thérèse’s last illness is only a very incomplete summary of my memories. During her last months on earth, I wrote down daily, so far as I could witness them, the details of the day’s happenings, especially anything she said. The best thing I can do to complete my testimony is to present the tribunal with a copy of these daily notes.

She was buried in the Carmelite plot in the town cemetery. Her body has remained there to this day, in the same grave.

I have been told personally and in letters that people visit her grave every day, and that the number of people doing so is increasing daily. Obviously, I have not been able to check these facts for myself, as I am enclosed, but they are public knowledge.

Almost all the nuns who have entered this convent since the Servant of God’s death have done so because of her. The first to do so in these circumstances was Mother Marie-Ange of the Child Jesus. She took the Servant of God as her model, and advanced very fervently along the way of spiritual childhood. She was entirely devoted to her Cause, and when she was prioress she succeeded in having it officially introduced. She offered up her life for its success, and, after proving herself a worthy imitator of Sister Thérèse of the child Jesus during her seven and a half years in religion, she died at the age of 28 with the most admirable sentiments of trust in and love for God. All the others took up the same ideal of perfection, and just concentrated on following in the Servant of God’s footsteps.

From the testimony of Marie of the Angels of the Sacred Heart, O.C.D. [St. Thérèse's novice mistress] at the diocesan inquiry into the life of St. Thérèse, given as a part of the process for the cause of canonization.

Source: St. Thérése of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her. Edited by Christopher O'Mahony. Dublin: Pranstown House, rep. 1989.

Although I rarely saw the Servant of God during her illness, so as not to tire her, I saw her often enough to realize how heroic her courage was. I can confidently say that hers was the most beautiful death I have witnessed in Carmel. It was a harrowing experience to see he pain increase day by day. On the afternoon of 30 September we felt the end was near, and we all gathered at her bedside. At 4:30 p.m. her agony began, and she thanked the community with a pretty smile for having come to help her with their prayers. She held the crucifix in her failing hands, a cold sweat bathed her brow, and she was shaking all over. Shortly before 7 p.m. Mother Prioress sent the community away, for the agony looked like dragging on for some time. Only Mother Prioress and her own three sisters stayed on. But we had hardly left when we were summoned back again. I was convinced this was the end. Back at the bedside, I saw her bend her head as she looked at the crucifix, and we heard her say: "Oh! yes, I love Him . . . My God I love You . . ." Suddenly she raised her head erect with surprising energy.he opened her eyes wide and gazed in a marvelous sort of way at a point above the statue of our Lady. We felt she was looking at something supernatural at that moment. I thought it must have been our Lord. Almost immediately afterwards, her head fell back on the pillow: it was all over. I shall never forget that look of hers, nor so beautiful a death.

It is marvelous to see how the Servant of God's "furore in the world" has gone on increasing since her death. The phrase I quote is the expression a religious used recently in the parlor. She seems to be everywhere -- in communities, in seminaries, and in families. Every day we have letters telling us how much she helps priests and missionaries. In China, they tell us, she has converted whole villages.

In my own family I can see devotion to her growing steadily; they pray to her, they feel free to ask anything of her, and are always asking me for books, pictures, novena leaflets, etc.

We turn out these pictures by the thousand here, and still cannot meet the demand. Sometimes we receive as many as 100 letters in one day acknowledging favors and telling of the devotion they all have to the Servant of God. Some of these are read to us at recreation, and they establish beyond question her worldwide reputation for holiness.

The numerous letters from so many different quarters establishing the Servant of God's fame also prove that the faithful everywhere are confident of obtaining extraordinary temporal and spiritual favors through her intercession. There are numerous accounts of cures, conversions, and all sorts of favors. I am not very well informed about these, but I am sure it would be easy to collect a multitude of such attestations.

In our own convent, there have been numerous instances of sweet-smelling perfumes, which do not appear to have any natural explanation. Two or three months ago I learned of an extraordinary thing that happened to one of our young lay-sisters, Sister Jeanne-Marie of the Child Jesus, whom I regard as an angel of virtue and piety. A few days after the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1910, she found that she was almost completely out of the little printed seals which Mons. Teil, the vice-postulator, had given her to stick on pictures and souvenirs by way of authentication. The sister who was helping her in this work, by cutting up sheets of them into individual seals, told her she did not have time to cut out any more just then. Sr. Jeanne-Marie recommended herself to the Servant of God and went back to her room. To her great surprise and delight, she found her little box of seals filled up again. There were over 500 of them there. The matter was looked into, to see if any of the other sisters had done it go give her a surprise, but no one had done it. Besides, it was unlikely that they would have done so, because the work could not have been undertaken without Mother Prioress's permission, and also because we are forbidden to enter each other's rooms.

It was Sr. Jeanne-Marie, too, who was similarly favored last year, when she found a certain water tank inexplicably filled up for her at a time when she was doing her duty in spite of being very tired.

Sweet St. Thérèse, pray for us!