The Sense of Humor in Saint Therese

When the centenary year of Saint Therese finished in September 1997, I was in Guam. The Carmelite Sisters celebrated this event with a Solemn Mass presided by Most Rev. Anthony S. Apuron, OFM. Cap., Archbishop of Agana in their beautiful Church, San Isidro, Malojloj. The Archbishop kindly invited me to give a homily on this occasion.


Just one month and four days ago, on the 24th of August, I was in Paris. The occasion was the World Youth Day. After an enormous mass in front of 1.2 million youth from all over the world, just before he recited the Angelus, the Pope said that he wishes to recall the great figure of Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose birth took place one hundred years ago. He called her “Carmelite and apostle, mistress of spiritual wisdom for many consecrated persons and lay people, patroness of the missions, “And then he declared that “”in response to many requests, and after attentive study, I have the joy to announce that on Mission Sunday, October 19, 1997, in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I will proclaim Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face a Doctor of the Church.” Just 22 days from now. The enthusiasm which this proclamation provoked was unbelievable. Flags waving, youth cheering, clapping, dancing, sisters embracing, the cardinal standing and waving… Sheer excitement!

What is the secret of this young woman who died at the age of 24 years and nine months, just a hundred years ago (minus two days – she died at 7.20 pm on the 30th of September 1897) and who has become renowned all over the world?

There is a tiny incident which happened just after the death of Saint Therese which very few people know about but I think is very revealing of one aspect of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus which we tend to overlook. It is Sister Marie of the Trinity who speaks about it. Sister Marie was one of St Therese’s closest companions in the Carmel of Lisieux; she was a year younger than Therese and rather high spirited; in fact, a lot of the nuns in the Lisieux Carmel did not expect her to persevere because she had already left once before from the Carmel in Paris. But she became one of Therese’s novices and actually Therese was very hard on her at times. But Therese also shared with her some of her deepest spirituality. In fact it was Marie of the Trinity who was one of the ones that Therese invited to make the Act of Oblation to Merciful Love and the Consecration to the Holy Faith…

In her testimony at the Apostolic Process, she tells us that after Therese died, the body was laid out in front of the grill, according to custom, so that visitors could come and view the body. Often people would pass rosaries through the grill so the Sister on duty could touch the rosary to the body and then back to the visitor. Marie of the Trinity tells us that during her watch she couldn’t stop crying. She had been very close to Therese so the tears were just pouring down her cheeks. But suddenly something very strange happened. As one visitor came up and gave her a rosary, she reached with it into the coffin and touched the body of Therese and somehow the rosary got entangled in Therese’s fingers! And so there she was pulling away, and she couldn’t get it loose! As she was struggling with this and crying and crying, she thought she heard Therese saying to her interiorly “I’m not going to let go until you give me a smile.” And she said, herself, interiorly “No, I feel like crying; I’m not going to smile.” And then pretty soon the visitor starts saying “Well, what’s taking so long?” Suddenly she was struck by the humor of the situation and she laughed. And the fingers seem to let go and there she had the rosary back again. So Therese got what she wanted, even there at the grill!

Here is a central characteristic of Therese’s spirit that we can easily overlook or take for granted. Which? Her sense of humor… Carmelite spirituality is something deadly serious. And because it is serious it is full of joy! Our God is a happy God. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”(John 15,11). The one who started the whole Carmelite adventure, Saint Teresa of Avila, used to remark : “God deliver me from sad-faced Saints.”

Therese herself described herself as a happy person “I always find a way of being happy”, “The first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses.” (Story of a Soul) “I’m always happy, for I always manage in the midst of the tempest to preserve interior peace.” (Her Last Conversations). Here’s how one of the nuns in the Lisieux Carmel, Sr. Marie of the Angels described Therese long before she became the familiar holy card image that we now know. She said “Sr. Therese of the Child Jesus, novice and jewel of the community, tall and strong, with the expression of a child, hiding within her a wisdom, a perfection, and an insight of a fifty year old. Her head is full of mischief to play on anyone she pleases. Mystic, comic, everything. She can make you weep with devotion and just as easily split your sides with laughter during recreations.” Therese saw no incompatibility between humor and spirituality. On the contrary, they’re constantly interwoven in her life as we can see in all the stories that she tells about herself and that others told about her.

When she wrote about her childhood illness she described the visits of her relatives this way : “friends of the family came to visit me. It displeased me to see people seated around my bed LIKE A ROW OF ONIONS.” This was considered so outrageous that it was deleted in the edited version of her auto-biography! It’s no mere coincidence that what saved her at the most critical moment in her illness was a smile – the smile of the heavenly mother, the Blessed Virgin. One paragraph of her auto-biography is enough to show the kind of person Therese was : “I left the Abbey, then, at the age of thirteen, and continued my education by taking several lessons a week at the home of Mme. Papineau. She was a very good person, very well educated but a little old-maidish in her ways. She lived with her mother, and it was charming to see the little household they made up together, all three of them (for the cat was one of the family, and I had to put up with its purring on my copybooks and even to admire its pretty form). I had the advantage of living within the intimacy of the family; as Les Buissonnets was too far for the somewhat old limbs of my teacher, she requested that I come and take the lessons in her home. When I arrived, I usually found only old lady Cochain who looked at me “with her big clear eyes” and then called out in a calm, sensuous voice: ‘Mme. Papineau … Ma … d’moizelle The … rese est la! …” – All the accents in French are misplaced to give us a sense of the comic tone of her voice – Her daughter answered promptly in an infantile voice: “Here I am, Mamma.” And soon the lesson began. Who could believe it!”

We know that Therese, like her father, was a great mimic and even in Carmel she often entertained the Sisters with imitations of others. The younger sisters in the community were always disappointed when she was absent for recreation because then they said it was going to be boring without her.

And when she receives her decisive grace of conversion at Christmas when she’s 14 years old, she tells us first of all that God worked a miracle to “make her grow up in an instant. ” And she adds she recovered the strength and happiness of her childhood. Growing up for her was a return to the happy state of her childhood. The gloomy periods in her life were the exception rather than the rule.

Even in the accounts of her final illness this comes out very clearly. Though she was the one facing death, Therese took it on herself to cheer up the other sisters with her sense of humor. Mother Agnes tells us “She was always cheerful in spite of her sufferings. She began amusing herself by talking about everything that would happen after her death. Because of the way she did this, when we should have been crying, she had us bursting out with peals of laughter. I believe she’ll die laughing.”

They cut her finger nails. “Keep them,” she said, “some day someone will treasure them.” She performed little skits for them with her drinking glass. Once when Mother Agnes was sitting at the foot of the infirmary bed, Therese told her she had come up with a new sign of affection for her that she never received from anyone else, and lifting up her leg she brushed Mother Agnes’ cheek with her foot! Another time she called to Mother Agnes, “Give me a kiss, a kiss that makes noise; so that the lips go ‘smack’.”

When the chaplain refused to give her Extreme Unction one day because she made a special effort to sit up and be ready, and he decided that she looked too well, she said to the sisters “Well, I’ll just try to look sicker next time!” When she confided to another priest all the temptations she was having in her trial of faith, he said to her “Don’t think about that; it’s dangerous.” And she said “That wasn’t too helpful!” She teased the attending physician a lot… who kept changing his diagnoses on her… She told him that nevertheless he wasn’t going to prevent her from going to heaven but that she would have her revenge on him and keep him on earth longer. And in fact he died at the ripe old age of 81, so she got her revenge! She joked with the sisters about being the one to try out the new cemetery plot. And when they were talking about how they would arrange her in the coffin, she said “Well, put the candle in my hand but not those candlesticks–they’re too ugly!” 1

She laughed and made others laughed. And all this when she was passing through physical pain and internal darkness. Saints always manage to find rays of light even in darkness.

What’s the connection between humor and spiritual childhood? Between humor and the Little Way? At the beginning of her autobiography, St. Therese gives us a clue : she opens the Gospels and finds these words in Luke 3:13, “And going up a mountain, he called to him people of his own choosing and they came to him.” Therese then goes on, “This is the mystery of my vocation, my whole life, and especially the mystery of the privileges Jesus showered upon my soul. He does not call those who are worthy, but those whom He pleases.”

This is the key. We have built a whole spiritual edifice on merits. I do good and God will love me. I will try hard and God will respect me. Because this is the way in the world : be good and everyone loves you; be bad and everyone discards you. Therese understood that Christianity is something else. She did start with many good intentions to love God and to love others. But life taught her that this is not only difficult, but also impossible. We can never love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves. Hence, she thought, if I cannot do it, He has to do it. There are two dangers in spiritual life – one is pride…thinking that we are so good, so strong that we can do everything with our strength, the other is discouragement, which creeps in when we discover how inadequate we are and hence we throw the towel and give up. Therese finds the Gospel way – we are weak, we are puny, but we have one startling power – HIM. “I can do everything in Him who strengthens me,” says Saint Paul. She uses the simple image of the elevator… I cannot climb the stairs of sanctity. Therefore God has given me an elevator – these startling modern inventions as she called them – so that I can arrive at Him at no effort of mine. All the effort is His.

We are here touching the heart of the Gospel. God is love and because He is love he has a need to give. He cannot not love us. He cannot not give himself to us. He gave us His Son not when we were good but when we were bad. She opens the Gospel, her only book for many months, and there she finds, Mary Magdalene : God had forgiven her much, and therefore she loved much. She finds the errant son who meets a prodigal father who received with joy his son. Joy because He can give himself. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance. This was Thérèse’s discovery: what gives God joy is the power to give. He delights in giving more than what is required by strict justice, freely.

This deep conviction that God delights in giving took away all fear. Listen to her words : “I shall take care not to present any merits of mine, but only those of our Lord. As for me, I shall have nothing, I do not want to present anything, I prefer to let God love me as much as he wants.” Then she added, “It is because of this that I shall get such a good reception.” Here we have the heart of her teaching. “God has so much Love to give, and he can’t do it; people present only their own merits, and these are so paltry.”

That is why she always wanted to remain a child. Not out of a neurotic fear of being an adult but because she understood that being a child gives GOD THE POSSIBILITY TO BE A GOD – a giver, a constant forgiver. The smaller you are the bigger He can be, the weaker you are the stronger He can be. In her weakness and poverty, the adult-who-becomes-a-child offers God the widest vessel, capable of holding all. Not only she was not concerned about her powerlessness, on the contrary she would rejoice in it. “How happy I am to realize that I am little and weak, how happy I am to see myself so imperfect.”

She comes to this basic affirmation: “We can never have enough confidence in God who is so good, so powerful, so merciful.” On her lips the words “Papa the good God” are not childish. On the contrary they testify to the simplicity and depth of her intimate relations with Him and to a confidence so absolute that she can dare to say: “I know what it means to count on His mercy.”

This is wisdom. She was so happy to be “like a weaned child with its mother” as Psalm 131 says. She felt at home in her Father’s house. She could laugh and play, and suffer and look up. She knew that God likes us goofy as we are, He likes variables and imperfections. What we all find charming about small children is how they bungle up words, how they make funny little pictures, how they alter stories in the tellings…exactly what is so beautiful about them is their imperfection.

You may have heard the story about the little girl who was telling a shocked mum that before she goes to bed she likes telling Jesus jokes and how much He was pleased last night when she told him the joke about the chicken crossing the road. “But He surely knows that joke!!”, the mother remarks. “Yes, but God told me that no one ever bothered to tell TELL IT TO HIM…!!” The world is dying because there are not enough children!!!

What does it mean to be a child in practical terms?

To be a child means not to worry – the Father is doing all the worrying.

To be a child means to enjoy what you are given because everything is a grace, everything is a gift given to you not because you deserve it but because God is good.

To be a child means accepting and using even your failings and your sins. “Look at kids,” she writes to Celine, “they break things, they tear up paper, they fall even if they love their parents and their parents keep loving them all the same.” To her missionary she writes : “We do not want to fall, ever! How stupid we are!!” “Make it clear, Mother, that if I had committed all possible crimes, I would still have the same confidence. I would feel that this multitude of offenses would be like a drop of water cast into a blazing fire.” If the dad calls him, the child does not bother to clean himself before running to embrace him.

To be a child means to rely on someone else. On a Father who is powerful and good. And to be happy about it! Sometimes the child goes to the well of life to draw water. The bucket is too heavy. He tries and tries because there is often stubbornness. The child thinks, “Of course I am strong and can surely do it, all alone.” He cannot. He realizes this and turns to the Father with a smile that says, “I give up.” The large arms move. One holds the hands of the child and the other the rope. Slowly the two pull up the bucket. “So we did it,”, the Father tells the child. (Father Santan Pinto, S.O.L.T.) That’s God!

This is the originality of Therese : she sought a way that depended on this very weakness of ours.

No more a question of becoming strong but a question of being happy in our deep weakness. What a relief! Has not the Apostle said: “When I am weak then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12: 10).

A simple story to conclude. When Schia was 4 years old, her baby brother was born. Little Schia began to ask her parents to leave her alone with the new baby. They worried that, like most 4-year-olds, she might want to hit or shake him, so they said no. Over time, though, since Schia wasn’t showing signs of jealousy, they changed their minds and decided to let Schia have her private conference with the baby. Elated, Schia went into the baby’s room and shut the door, but it opened a crack – enough for her curious parents to peek in and listen. They saw little Schia walk quietly up to her baby brother, put her face close to his, and say, “Baby, tell me what God feels like. I’m starting to forget.” (AOL Illustrations)

Perhaps we have grown older and have forgotten how God is like. Therese tells us today that it is not too late to return and enter the kingdom of God like a little child (Mark 10:15).


[1] This first part is deeply indebted to Father Steven Payne, O.C.D., drawn upon a talk on Therese’s humor that given at the 1997 OCDS Congress in Long Island.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.