“Death reigned everywhere”: this is how St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus described the terrible winter of 1891 to 1892 in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux, which during its course did not escape the pandemic of the ‘Russian flu’, which took more than 1 million victims around the world between 1889 and 1895. The young Carmelite nun gave entirely, expecting nothing in return, in service of her bedridden sisters. Daily communion, extraordinary for the time, would give her great support.
These two pages of the “The Story of a Soul”, the narrated autobiography of little Thérèse, seem to have been written recently, following the challenging weeks, where the pandemic of the coronavirus does not seem to ease in France. However, they were written between 1895 and 1896, time when MANUSCRIPT A was written, it describes a time of challenges faced by the Community of the Lisieux Carmelites, then being the winter of 1891-1892.
On 2nd January 1892, Thérèse celebrated, overtaken by a great sadness, as we will soon see, her 19th birthday. She who was admitted into the Carmelite Convent on 9th April 1888, was now a professed religious person, and for her this is a time of maturation in her vocation. In October of 1891, a retreat preached by Abade Alexis Prou, who insisted on mercy, the confidence and abandonment in the hands of God, “He launched me full sail upon that ocean of confidence and love in which I had longed to advance, but so far had not dared”.
The Russian Flu and the Carmelite youngster
The challenge of the pandemic came to, no doubt, deepen the interior journey of the Saint. The Russian flu, in its first attack took around 70,000 lives in France, in 1889-1890, it arrived in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux in January 1892, a month after the death of its founder, Mother Geneviève de Sainte-Thérése. By the weekend, all the nuns had been affected, expect three, amongst those three was Thérèse. Four religious nun died, the first death coming…on the birthday of Thérèse.
The young Carmelite nun remains courageous and devoted towards her sick sisters. She lavishly spends time caring, takes part in organising the communal life, undergoes courage tests and tests of soul strength within adversity. The community who judged the youngster, at times, to be useless and clumsy, from that moment on discover her to be something more, highlight the experts of the Saint of Lisieux.
Thérèse equally received Holy Communion everyday: an extraordinary act for the time, as the Church only declared holy communion a daily act definitively in 1905, under the pontificate of Saint Pope Pio X, he who was deeply touched by the writings of the future Saint on this topic. It is in Eucharist Jesus that the young Carmelite probably draws her strength to serve her sisters and to overcome her apprehensions, even through she insisted on the absence of “consolations” during thanksgiving that follows communion.
We will let Thérèse describe this painful winter herself:
“About a month after that seraphic death, towards the close of the year 1891, an epidemic of influenza raged in the Community; I only had it slightly and was able to be about with two other Sisters. It is impossible to imagine the heartrending state of our Carmel throughout those days of sorrow. The worst sufferers were nursed by those who could hardly drag themselves about; death “was all around us, and, when a Sister had breathed her last, we had to leave her instantly.
My nineteenth birthday was saddened by the death of Mother Sub-Prioress; I assisted with the infirmarian during her agony, and two more deaths quickly followed. I now had to do the Sacristy work single-handed, and I wonder sometimes how I was equal to it all.
One morning, when it was time to rise, I had a presentiment that Sister Magdalen was no more. The dormitory was quite in darkness, no one was leaving her cell. I decided, however, to go in to Sister Magdalen, and I found her dressed, but lying dead on her bed. I was not in the least afraid, and running to the Sacristy I quickly brought a blessed candle, and placed on her head a wreath of roses. Amid all this desolation I felt the Hand of God and knew that His Heart was watching over us. Our dear Sisters left this life for a happier one without any struggle; an expression of heavenly joy shone on their faces, and they seemed only to be enjoying a pleasant sleep. During all these long and trying weeks I had the unspeakable consolation of receiving Holy Communion every day. How sweet it was! For a long time Jesus treated me as a spoilt child, for a longer time than His more faithful Spouses. He came to me daily for several months after the influenza had ceased, a privilege not granted to the Community. I had not asked this favour, but I was unspeakably happy to be united day after day to my Beloved.
Great was my joy in being allowed to touch the Sacred Vessels and prepare the Altar linen on which Our Lord was to be laid. I felt that I must increase in fervour, and I often recalled those words addressed to deacons at their ordination: “Be you holy, you who carry the Vessels of the Lord.”
What can I tell you, dear Mother, about my thanksgivings after Communion? There is no time when I taste less consolation. But this is what I should expect. I desire to receive Our Lord, not for my own satisfaction, but simply to give Him pleasure.”
Excerpt From The Story of a Soul (L’Histoire d’une Âme): The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux / With Additional Writings and Sayings of St. Thérèse (Manuscript A, 79r-79v)
Translation: Gabriela Gois