Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) was four years old when her mother died. She entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, France, at the age of fifteen and took the name Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. (Thérèse’s five sisters also became nuns.) She died at the convent when she was twenty-four. Thérèse was canonized in 1925 and would have been fifty-two years old. In 1997 Saint Thérèse was made a Doctor of the Church and was known to the world as “The Little Flower.” Thérèse achieved a great intimacy with God that she shared with the world in her still best-selling autobiography The Story of a Soul, which has been translated into more than sixty languages. Thérèse said “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.”
Gabrielle Ange L’Evesque Kerouac (1895-1973) was born in St-Pacôme, Quebec, Canada, and orphaned at the age of sixteen. Saint Thérèse was her favorite saint. Gabrielle was a pious woman whose life was entrenched in the Catholic Church of the Latin Mass (before the changes of Vatican II), and her first language was French, (a French-Canadian dialect, as was Jack’s).
Jack Kerouac had a boyhood habit of praying to Saint Thérèse and was an altar boy at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral, (the site of his funeral Mass). After the death of his older brother Gerard, at the age of nine
from rheumatic fever, Gabrielle spoke of Gerard as a saint. Jack said, “I really believe in sweet baby Jesus” and the “little lamby Jesus,” and wrote of the “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs” that ascends to heaven in Visions of Gerard, Gerard’s vision. Ti Jean relates the tender story of Gerard’s little mouse and its death, so in spirit and sweetness like a letter Thérèse wrote to her sister, Marie, when she spoke of an actual lamb and the symbol of the lamb:
“Well, my dear Father bought me a new-born lamb, all white and fleecy… a lamb is symbolic…We were already building castles in the air, and expected that in two or three days the lamb would be frisking round us. But the pretty creature died that same afternoon. Poor little thing, scarcely was it born when it suffered and died. It looked so gentle and innocent that Céline made a sketch of it, and then we laid it in a grave dug by Papa. It appeared to be asleep. I did not want the earth to be its covering, so we put snow upon our pet, and all was over…”
There was a statue and holy pictures of Saint Thérèse in the Kerouac home. The orphan Gabrielle could easily identify with the French-speaking, pious, forever-young Thérèse. Gabrielle lost a beloved child; the Martins had four children who died before adulthood.
Thérèse is a modern saint. Her life is documented in photos from the late nineteenth century (The Photo Album of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux), which show Thérèse from infancy to her death. Thérèse’s sister, Sister Genevieve (Céline Martin), was an amateur painter and photographer, so the short life of Thérèse is well preserved in images and her own words and manuscripts; she wrote volumes of letters, poems, prayers, and eight plays. She was a mystic, writer, and contemplative. Jack the writer drew and painted religious images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and at times yearned to be contemplative. Apparently,
Jack thought of Thérèse as a friend stating, “It’s a nice thing we can go to church, that St. Thérèse is there.” Jack stopped attending Mass as a teenager and perhaps never fully returned to the Church, but he never fully turned away from Catholicism either.
Thérèse called herself a hermit and withdrew from the world, “The desert where God wanted me to go also to hide myself.” Jack often said he wished to live as a hermit and withdrew from society—to his mother’s house—and attempted his unsuccessful retreat to Big Sur:
“And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I’ll do in three weeks only) ‘no more dissipation, it’s time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that’s it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony…it’s time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time…Yay, for this, more aloneness.”
In The Darma Bums on a freight train leaving Los Angles, Jack wrote, “But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy…” He rides a boxcar with a “thin old little bum” and together they share a meal with bread and wine. The bum is meek, grateful, and accepting, and reveals a scrap torn from a magazine that he reads “most every day,” a “prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to earth by showering it with roses from heaven, forever, for all living creatures.” How many living creatures he asks after the bum has departed and he is on the beach alone in a contemplative happy mood, in one of the “most pleasant nights” of his life? “I don’t rightly know but it must be a couple umpteen trillion
sextillion infideled and busted up unnumberable number of roses that sweet Saint Teresa and that fine little old man are now this minute showering on your head, with lilies,” such is Jack’s memorable encounter with the devout, humble “little bum of Saint Teresa.” In a letter to her sister, Céline, Thérèse wrote, “Time is but a shadow, a dream; already God sees us in glory and takes joy in our eternal beatitude. How this thought helps my soul! I understand then why He lets us suffer…” But, little Gerard asks the great questions, “God why’d you do all this this suffering?…Why did God leave us sick and cold? Why didnt he leave us in Heaven…I dont like it. I wanta go to Heaven. I wish we were all in Heaven …Why cant we have what we want?” After a torturous night the adult Jack (Duluoz in Big Sur) surmises, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad…On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars—Something good will come out of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that…”
Parents are first teachers and Gabrielle was certainly Jack’s. Requiescat in pace, mater cara, Mémère.
In loving memory of Tina Rose (who loved Teresa of Calcutta)…and her mother Teresa (who kept a painting of Saint Thérèse)
(June 30, 1993, was the termination of St. Jean Baptiste Parish as the mother parish of the French Catholics of Lowell, Massachusetts.)
(Thérèse dreamed of being a missionary and hoped “to travel over the whole earth.” A Carmelite community in New Caney, Texas, provided a Discovery shuttle astronaut a relic of the saint, which he took with him into space in 2008, the same year the parents of Saint Thérèse were beatified.)
(In recent years, the Reliquary of Saint Thérèse toured the world and drew record crowds, as she remains one of the world’s most popular saints. The most recent tour was February 2013, Philippines.)
Society of the Little Flower littleflower.org
Therese Letters.pdf pathsoflove.com