3 Times St. Thérèse of Lisieux Used the ‘Art of Escape’ to Get Through a Sticky Situation

Lenten Lessons in the Little Way from the Autobiography of the Little Flower

St. Thérèse_of_Lisieux displays a parchment with the words of St. Teresa of Ávila, “I would give a thousand lives to save a soul,” in the courtyard of her Carmel of Lisieux, France, in 1896. (Photo: Céline Martin)

During her life, Thérèse of Lisieux mastered what might be called the “art of escape” and described the technique in different episodes in her autobiography, Story of a Soul.


One of my favorite moments was at age 6, when she wanted to use an inkstand up on a shelf beyond her reach, and noticed Victoire, the household servant, standing nearby. Needing Victoire's help but knowing she often perturbed her, shouting, then stomping her feet if denied her way, Thérèse resolved to practice virtue this time, and explained:

I very nicely asked Victoire to give it to me, but she refused, telling me to get up on a chair.” At first, Thérèse obeyed in silence and stepped onto the chair, but immediately plotted a way to make her displeasure known, and continued, “I searched out in my little head what offended me the most. Victoire often called me ‘a little brat’ when she was annoyed at me, and this humbled me very much. So before jumping off the chair, I turned around with dignity, and said, ‘Victoire, you are a brat!’ Then I made my escape, leaving her to meditate on the profound statement I had just made. (Story of a Soul, ICS Publications) 

This written “smile” by Thérèse recalls not only a less-than-perfect childhood attempt at virtue, but also reveals her humorous perspective. A delightful irony, it is often through humor that Thérèse teaches us some of the most serious truths of our faith, especially in the practice of charity.

Mother Marie de Gonzague

Toward the perfection of charity, Thérèse continued to use her escape strategy in Carmel and recounted a particular episode for her prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, and wrote:

Dear Mother, I have already told you that my last means of not being defeated in combats is desertion; I wish to give you an example that I believe will make you smile.

She then recalled her duty while sacristan to return a certain key to the prioress each day. That day, Mother Gonzague was suffering bronchial attacks and resting in her quarters, so Thérèse approached her door quietly, “not displeased,” she said, to have a moment in private with her. But just as she reached for the door, another sister rushed to her side, trying to prevent her, convinced that the young religious would awaken Mother Gonzague. 

Combat ensued. Therese battled against her natural stubbornness while “politely” trying to explain her duty to the other sister. She attempted to push the door, determined to open it even as the other sister resisted and pushed back. Back and forth the tug-of-war continued until what Thérèse feared the most happened. She told Mother Gonzague:

The racket we were making made you open your eyes. Then, everything tumbled upon me. The poor sister whom I had resisted began to deliver a whole discourse, the gist of which was: It’s Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus who made the noise. My God, how disagreeable she is, etc.

Shaken, Thérèse prepared to defend herself but held her tongue upon a sudden inspiration. “There came a bright idea into my mind,” she explained, “and I told myself that if I began to justify myself I would not be able to retain my peace of soul.” As well, Thérèse felt too weak in virtue to speak with any amount of charity, so fled, realizing, she said, “my last plank of salvation was flight.” 

Although she maintained a placid demeanor during the confrontation, by the time she fled the scene, Thérèse's heart was beating so fast that she had to sit down at the foot of the stairs she had descended, listening as the other sister continued her discourse, which, Thérèse added as an additional touch of humor, “resembled the imprecations of Camillus against the city of Rome.”

Sister St. Pierre

Later in her autobiography, Thérèse then shared a less dramatic but equally challenging opportunity for charity by recounting what reads like a comedy act between herself and Sister St. Pierre, an elderly infirmed member of the community. Thérèse set the scene by explaining that Sister St. Pierre was seated in front of her in the choir, so as an act of charity to the overburdened infirmarians, Thérèse offered to assist Sister St. Pierre from her place in the choir to her place in the refectory each evening. “It cost me very much to offer myself for this little service,” she said, “because I knew it was not easy to please Sister St. Pierre. She was suffering very much, and she did not like it when her helpers were changed.” Nevertheless, Thérèse “set to work,” spurred on by the words of Jesus, “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

It was like clockwork. “Each evening when I saw Sister St. Pierre shake her hourglass,” Thérèse wrote, “I knew this meant: Let’s go! It is incredible how difficult it was for me to get up, especially at the beginning; however, I did it immediately, and then a ritual was set in motion.”

Thérèse listed the details, including having to remove Sister St. Pierre's “little bench” in a certain way, and above all not to hurry. “It was a question of following the poor invalid by holding her cincture,” she continued, and “I did this with as much gentleness as possible. But if by mistake she took a false step, immediately it appeared to her that I was holding her incorrectly and that she was about to fall.”

With this, Thérèse then heard the inevitable outcry: “Ah! my God! You are going too fast; I'm going to break something.” If Thérèse slowed down, she would hear the next lament, “Well, come on! I don't feel your hand; you've let me go and I'm going to fall! Ah! I was right when I said you were too young to help me.”

At last, the toilsome twosome would arrive at the refectory where Thérèse would settle Sister St. Pierre at her place. But one evening, as she turned to leave, she noticed her dear charge struggling to cut her bread in her crippled fingers, and so returned and cut the small loaf for her. Later, Thérèse was certain she had received a portion of her eternal reward, even in this life, as she described Sister St. Pierre's sudden transformation. “By this ‘little service,’ she explained, I gained her good graces, and this especially (I learned this later) because, after cutting her bread for her, I gave her my most beautiful smile before leaving her all alone.”

How appropriate! Thérèse had changed a life by her smile. And she still does, for me, every time I read her autobiography.

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