Story of a Soul: A Catholic Classic

The book Story of a Soul is often referred to as the autobiography of St. Thérèse – the French saint sometimes affectionately called the Little Flower.  It might seem rather presumptuous for a young nun in her twenties to have written an autobiography, however the fact is that this “autobiography” was put together by a collection of three manuscripts the young Carmelite was either ordered or asked to write.  Thérèse had no idea that the works would be turned into a best-selling Catholic book.

Manuscript A – Family Memories
By the time Thérèse was 22, she had been in the Carmelite convent for almost seven years.  She had three older blood sisters with her at the time:

Marie (Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart);
Pauline (Mother Agnes of Jesus); and
Céline (Sr. Geneviève of the Holy Face). 

One evening, Thérèse was visiting with two of these sisters, sharing some fond childhood memories.  Marie’s heart evidently felt full during the dialogue, for she suggested to Pauline, who was Prioress at the time, to direct their young sister to write down a collection of stories and memories from her life.  Pauline/Mother Agnes of Jesus easily agreed.  She turned to Thérèse and said, “I order you to write down all your childhood memories.”  Thérèse was a bit taken aback … confused because she knew her sisters would learn nothing new from a memoir like this.  But, she obeyed and began to write.

This first portion of Story of a Soul, sometimes referred to as “Manuscript A,” is a delightful chronicle covering Thérèse’s early childhood until the time of the composition.  For all Thérèse knew, this manuscript would simply be somewhat of a family souvenir.  The writing was completely from the heart - not consciously prepared, revised, or reworked in hopes to please a potential worldwide audience.  Writing in her free time, she completed it in about a year, turned it into her sister/Prioress, and seemingly forgot about it.

“When the preacher spoke about St. Teresa (of Avila), Papa leaned over and whispered: ‘Listen carefully, little Queen, he’s talking about your Patroness.’”
     -      Story of a Soul, Manuscript A

 Manuscript B – A Vocation of Love
The oldest of the Martin sisters, Marie (Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart) yearned for more from the heart of her little sister.  On September 13, 1896 she wrote a letter to Thérèse (who was then 23 years old), asking her to record some of her spiritual insights.  Within a few days, Thérèse completed this project.  She gave to Marie what is now the middle segment of Story of a Soul. 

While this section of her “autobiography” is quite short, it is loaded with evidence of the little saint’s powerful grasp of God’s Love.  Thérèse was already sick while writing this letter to Marie, and had had a presentiment that she would die an early death.  In the letter she expressed a firm awareness that great saintly deeds were beyond her ability, yet she fully realized and wrote how Love is the basis of all that matters. 

     -      Story of a Soul, Manuscript B

 Manuscript C – Approaching Heaven
Pauline (Mother Agnes of Jesus) felt powerfully the profound insights of her younger sister’s soul.  By the time Thérèse was very ill with tuberculosis, Pauline regretted that her younger sister had written very little about her religious life.  Because Pauline was no longer the Prioress, it was not in her power to order Thérèse to write another manuscript, however, she was able to convince the Prioress at the time (Mother Marie de Gonzague) to do so.  

By this time (June, 1897), Thérèse was 24 years old and entering the last four months of her life.  She spent about one month working on this third requested essay; again, not writing for a large audience, rather simply putting together some thoughts and observations to share with her fellow sisters.

This section is more difficult to follow.  Thérèse was close to death and her words lack some focus.  Nonetheless, “Manuscript C” still includes great insights.  Within this portion of the book Thérèse reiterates her Little Way, her feelings of smallness and needing to reach Jesus in a simple, non-heroic manner.

“But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.”
     -      Story of a Soul, Manuscript C

 Thérèse used an impressive amount of scriptural reference to clarify and support her Little Way.  She also expressed a clear awareness of her imminent death – and joy at hoping to see Jesus soon.   

About one month into this piece, Thérèse was moved to the infirmary, and soon after she lost the strength required to continue writing. 

A Book Is Published
Thérèse lived another three months after writing the third manuscript.  After her death, there was a strong sense within the convent that the three manuscripts should be published.  They were compiled into one book, entitled Story of a Soul by Pauline, and printed one year exactly after the death of Thérèse on September 30, 1898.  Remarkably, within one year, 4,000 copies were sold.  Before long, pilgrims began to arrive in Lisieux, looking for more inspiration from the Little Flower, and the convent began receiving countless letters. 

The writings produced by this young nun have guided and inspired multitudes of other souls to know and love the Lord better, to have faith in Him, to show kindness and love toward others, and to strive for a life of simple goodness.  Rare is the heart that is not touched by reading Story of a Soul.

Martin, Thérèse.  Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  Translated by John Clark, O.C.D.  Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976.