The Word Among Us

January 2018 Issue

Dear Little Brother

The spiritual friendship that sustained St. Thérèse in her last year.

By: Fr. Michael J. Denk

Dear Little Brother: The spiritual friendship that sustained St. Thérèse in her last year. by Fr. Michael J. Denk

In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too?’”

St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a “You too?” moment with a seminarian named Maurice Bellière in her final year of life. Describing their unique friendship in her autobiography, she wrote:

When it pleases Jesus to join two souls for his glory, he permits them to communicate their thoughts from time to time in order to incite each other to love God more.

Letters to and from Maurice account for 60 percent of Thérèse’s correspondence in the last four months of her life. Initially, Thérèse wrote to encourage Maurice in his love for the Lord, but she ended up receiving something just as valuable: a caring friend for her darkest hour.

A Plea for Help. Maurice Bellière, an energetic young man from Normandy, was known in the seminary for his vivid imagination and his acting skills. But as he entered year two of his studies in October of 1895, he felt anxious, even desperate. A voice in his head kept telling him, “You’ll never be holy enough to be a priest, let alone a missionary.” Plagued by doubts, Maurice knew he needed help.

On the seminarians’ annual retreat with the Diocese of Bayeux and Lisieux, Maurice heard some people talking about the Carmelite cloister in Lisieux. Among the nuns there were several daughters of the Martin family of Lisieux, all holy women dedicated to intercessory prayer.

Maurice decided to write to the mother superior—who happened to be one of the Martin sisters. He asked her to select a nun to pray for him, someone who could “devote herself particularly to the salvation of my soul and obtain for me the grace to be faithful to the vocation God has given me.”

Mother Agnes wrote back, telling him she had chosen her younger sister, Thérèse, to take up his cause.

Saved by Faithful Prayers. It was laundry day when Mother Agnes handed Maurice’s next request for prayers to Thérèse. Standing in the washroom with the other sisters, she was excited to receive more news. Maurice was about to begin his required year of military service. He hoped to “labor for God” and return with tales of soldiers converting to Christ. But it was not to be so. Instead of bringing people closer to God, Maurice drifted farther from him. Nine months later, in July of 1896, he reported in a third letter to the cloister that he had committed “unheard-of blunders” at camp. He requested that Mother Agnes ask Thérèse to redouble her prayers.

Only twenty-two years old, Thérèse had been in failing health. Praying for Maurice’s vocation was a source of spiritual consolation at the very moment when she began to experience doubts that clawed at the foundation of her faith. Maurice’s letters provided a new focus for her prayer, and she began interceding for him daily.

By October of 1896, Maurice was back at the seminary and back on his spiritual feet. He attributed this to Thérèse’s prayers. When his next letter arrived, Mother Agnes suggested that Thérèse reply directly. Thus began their ongoing correspondence: a spiritual partnership in mission that neither the seminarian nor the saint would ever forget.

An Unexpected Brother. Although she was spiritually advising Maurice, Thérèse started to enjoy his letters as well. She even called their correspondence her “sweet mission.” She shared her spiritual poetry with Maurice and asked him to recite a special prayer for her daily. The only sons of the Martin family had died in infancy, and Maurice fulfilled a missing piece for her. She told him, My gratitude is not less great than yours to Our Lord, who has given me a little brother. Right away, Thérèse brought her new brother into a Martin family tradition. She asked him to send her the important dates of his life. One stood out because it was also on Thérèse’s list of important dates. On September 8, 1890, the day of her profession as a Carmelite, Maurice had felt God confirm his vocation to be a priest and missionary.

It made sense to Thérèse that God would have her partner with a missionary priest. She had long admired the missionary life but clearly felt called to the cloister. By praying and suffering with her spiritual brother, she could claim a share in his work. “Let us work together for the salvation of souls,” she wrote to him.

Without even realizing it, Maurice had given Thérèse several gifts: brotherhood, a missionary vocation, and spiritual friendship. Although he didn’t consider himself to be exceptionally holy or wise, Maurice responded to Thérèse’s insights and poetry with words of encouragement and zeal:

Yes, Sister: “Let us live by love.” Without God, without his love, how cold it is around us. But when a holy fervor animates our hearts, what serenity. . . . As the Saint says: when we love, there is no longer any sorrow.

Maurice’s words cast a ray of light into Thérèse’s room at the cloister. Seriously ill with a prolonged fever, coughing, and weight loss, she had been released from the ordinary duties of a Carmelite. At this point, there was little for her to do but suffer and pray.

Disciple of the Little Way. By Easter of 1897, Thérèse knew her death was near, although she would not go to meet God until September of the same year. From her bed in the infirmary, she thought about how to respond to Maurice, who continued to seek her counsel. Because he described himself as progressing slowly in the spiritual life, she decided to share with him the “Little Way” that God had showed her.

Thérèse told Maurice that he did not have to fear God’s judgment because God is merciful love. Maurice could depend on that love like a little child. Thérèse confided to him, “I am not a great soul, but one who is very little and very imperfect.” What gave Thérèse hope was not her holiness, but God’s ability to transform her smallest act of goodness into something worthwhile. After reading the simple yet profound lessons that God was showing Thérèse, Maurice wrote back:

Do you realize that you open up new horizons to me? Especially in your last letter I find insights on the mercy of Jesus, on the familiarity which he encourages . . . which until now had hardly occurred to me. . . . I am guided by your way, which I would like to make my own.

Maurice was maturing spiritually and simultaneously becoming more united with Thérèse in mind and heart. This buoyed Thérèse greatly at a moment when she felt enveloped in darkness. Hopeful thoughts began to fill her mind. The “Little Way” was also meant for other people. Maurice, her brother, would fulfill his calling because of her prayers. Her life of enclosure and suffering was worthwhile!

Communion of Saints. In a previous letter, Thérèse had explained to Maurice what she expected heaven to be like for her:

I shall want the same thing that I want on earth: to love Jesus and to make him loved. . . . Our roles will still be the same. Yours will be apostolic labor, and mine will be prayer and love.

By late summer, her death was imminent. Only then did Thérèse reveal her condition to Maurice. He responded right away. “What a blow for my poor heart! It was so unprepared,” he began. “Go, Little Sister,” he continued. “Don’t make Jesus wait any longer.”

Maurice finally believed what Thérèse had always insisted: that their unity would be strengthened, not lost, in eternity. “Your soul will guide mine, speak to it and console it—unless Jesus, annoyed by my complaining, does not will it,” he told her, with a touch of humor.

Maurice and Thérèse exchanged several more letters before her death on September 30, 1897. Providentially, on the very day Thérèse entered heaven, Maurice arrived in Africa to begin his life as a missionary. He was ordained to the priesthood a few years later. He continued to pray for Thérèse and invoke her intercession until his own death in 1907.

The Light of Friendship. St. Thérèse’s last year may have been the darkest period of her life—physically and spiritually. It’s amazing that she was able to impart spiritual wisdom and pray so regularly for Maurice. But even more amazing is that a struggling seminarian, unsure of his calling, could bring such light and hope into the life of a saint.

Maurice affirmed Thérèse and had compassion for her. He pursued Christ as she did and took an interest in everything that she cared about. He became her companion as well as her student. He may have been less spiritually mature than Thérèse, but he still supplied the encouragement she needed—and it was a valuable gift.

Neither do we have to be in a good place to offer God’s love and encouragement to the people around us. If we are doing well, God can certainly use it. But if we are struggling or doubting, God can use that too! The Holy Spirit works through the most regular among us to help make each other holy. Priests can be inspired by a sincere confession or a kind word from a parishioner. Our parents, teachers, and friends can be uplifted by our thanks or our understanding. We all have something to give, especially when our goal is to give and receive love, just as Maurice and Thérèse did.

Fr. Michael J. Denk is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and founder of TheProdigalFather.org. This article draws from the book Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love.

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