In the lives of the Saints we can find some amazing stories of conversion: the Risen Lord literally knocking his persecutor Saul to ground and blinding him, in order to raise him up as St. Paul; the rich and spoiled son of an Italian cloth merchant who needed a year in a dungeon as a POW followed by a near fatal illness before he cast off self-indulgence to become St. Francis of Assissi; the vain (vainglorious, in fact) Spanish nobleman who had his leg nearly shot off with a cannonball, and then went through months of excruciating recovery, before he could begin to see God in All Things as St. Ignatius of Loyola. How startlingly different, and yet how strikingly the same, is the conversion of the little French girl Thérèse Martin, now St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, as she tells it her autobiographical Story of A Soul:
I had a constant and ardent desire to advance in virtue, but often my actions were spoilt by imperfections. My extreme sensitiveness made me almost unbearable. All arguments were useless. I simply could not correct myself of this miserable fault. . . A miracle on a small scale was needed to give me strength of character all at once, and God worked this long-desired miracle on Christmas Day, 1886. . . Now I will tell you, dear Mother, how I received this inestimable grace of complete conversion. I knew that when we reached home after Midnight Mass I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner, filled with presents, just as when I was a little child, which proves that my sisters still treated me as a baby. Papa, too, liked to watch my enjoyment and hear my cries of delight at each fresh surprise that came from the magic shoes, and his pleasure added to mine. But the time had come when Our Lord wished to free me from childhood’s failings, and even withdraw me from its innocent pleasures. On this occasion, instead of indulging me as he generally did, Papa seemed vexed, and on my way upstairs I heard him say: “Really all this is too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope it is the last year it will happen.” His words cut me to the quick. Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: “Don’t go downstairs just yet—wait a little, you would cry too much if you looked at your presents before Papa.” But Thérèse was no longer the same—Jesus had changed her heart.
Choking back my tears, I ran down to the dining-room, and, though my heart beat fast, I picked up my shoes, and gaily pulled out all the things, looking as happy as a queen. Papa laughed, and did not show any trace of displeasure, and Céline thought she must be dreaming. But happily it was a reality; little Thérèse had regained, once for all, the strength of mind which she had lost at the age of four and a half.
On this night of grace, the third period of my life began—the most beautiful of all, the one most filled with heavenly favours. In an instant Our Lord, satisfied with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do during all these years. Like the Apostle I could say: “Master, we have laboured all night, and have taken nothing.” More merciful to me even than to His beloved disciples, Our Lord Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it out full of fishes. He made me a fisher of men. Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took possession of me, and from that time I was perfectly happy.
The Lord didn’t need to knock Thérèse down, beat her up, or have her shot in order to get her full attention; all he needed was to allow her to overhear a couple of stray comments from the father she loved so dearly. That wounded her deeply enough to reveal to her the reality of her own selfishness, and to open her up completely to Christ’s Grace. The meaning of conversion, after all, is to “turn around”, away from a way of life dictated by our own desires to one truly centered on God.
Now, a majority of us probably need a wake-up more like the one which was granted to St. Paul or St. Francis; perhaps not quite as dramatic, but most of us, I suspect, are much more wrapped up in our sin than was little Thérèse Martin. But that is precisely why the Little Flower’s conversion stands out: even someone who seems to be doing just about everything right is still in need of conversion, and not just in one instant, but continuously over a lifetime (and of course she did experience much greater suffering later in her short life). Sin will always be trying to turn us back.
St. Thérèse’s conversion story reminds us of something else. There will always be opportunities for conversion. We don’t need to go out looking for trouble, because we will all have ample opportunity to experience The Fall in our lives. The more enmeshed we are in sin, however, and the higher the walls between ourselves and God, the harder our fall must be. Wouldn’t it be better to come to Christ like Thérèse did, without too much collateral damage to ourselves and to others?
Finally, on Christmas Day in 1886 St. Thérèse learned to turn her hurt and disappointment into generosity of spirit, her selfishness to selflessness. What a wonderful reminder to all of us that we need to ask our Lord for the Grace to do the same. O come, O come Emmanuel!
Featured image top of page: St. Thérèse (right) and her sister Céline, 1881