At the age of 15, Thérèse entered the Carmel in Lisieux. It was a poor convent, damp at times, and always cold in winter. She tells us that her little cell filled her with joy. Rising from the corridor where she lived, there was a circular staircase leading to the cell for the prioress, Mother Gonzague, whom she loved very much. As a young novice, Thérèse felt a deep attraction to her prioress; and she often tried to find an excuse to go to visit her. Perhaps she needed the attention and affection she had had back at home. Thérèse realized the danger of false affection; at times she had to hold onto the banisters to stop herself from going up those stairs. This heroic self-discipline bore rich fruit. Instead of being spoiled and dependent, her relationship with Mother Gonzague grew into a pure, strong love between two independent, respectful, mature women.
The love Thérèse had for the prioress is evident in the section of the autobiography written for her. When going through a deeply traumatic time after the difficult election of 1896, it was Thérèse who was able to comfort and strengthen the older woman. The battle with immature love on the stairway yielded a rich bounty later on.
Under Mother Agnes, Thérèse was practically the mistress of novices; and she lived with the novices upstairs in the Novitiate. This wing was on the opposite side of the quadrangle from where most of the community lived. On cold winter nights, the sisters gathered around the fire in the community recreation room. To go to her cell, Thérèse had to traverse the open cloister in the cold night air and climb the stair. She spent hours trying to sleep but was unable to do so because the cold went right through to her bones. As her tuberculosis developed, she suffered more from the freezing weather.
As she climbed the stairs, she must have offered the painful, breath-consuming steps for her beloved missionaries. Turning a bend in those stairs, she saw each time a saying boldly written over the window: “Today a little work, tomorrow eternal rest.” Though exhausted emotionally and physically and dragging her weakened body Thérèse could not accept that pious saying. For her, heaven was not eternal rest but, in the words that Florence Nightingale said at this time, “an immense activity.”
Stairs were a fact of life for Thérèse. She used them as metaphors at various times. As her desire for sanctity grew, she sought a direct and easy way for little souls to ascend to God. She remembered an experience she and Celine had in Paris on their way to Rome. In a big department store, they discovered an elevator. One can imagine the excitement of two teenagers, tired from shopping and sightseeing, riding the elevator from floor to floor. They were fascinated by this new invention. Thérèse would find in the elevator a new metaphor for her little way. A weak child did not have to ascend to God by climbing the steep stairs. The elevator was the merciful arms of the good God, carrying the child aloft in confidence and love. Thérèse even wrote to her missionary brother, a man plagued with a sense of weakness and inadequacy, “Ascend the elevator of love, not the stairs of fear.”
Years after Thérèse’s death, her novice mistress, Sister Mary of the Angels wrote: Thérèse teaches and enlightens me. I ask her continually to help me enter her Little Way so that in death Jesus will truly be my elevator.
SOURCE: Carmelite Digest, Autumn 1997, reprinted with permission
Copyright 1997, Father James Geoghegan, OCD