How to Write a Book

Fifty-four years ago three sisters called Mary, Pauline, and Teresa spent an hour of joy in each other’s company. The youngest sister, Teresa, told tales of her childhood with such charm that the other two were captivated. Finally she came to the story of herself and her little cousin Marie, deciding at the tender age of eight, that they were two anchorites. Teresa must be blind to the wicked world, and her cousin must lead her, eyes shut, down the street. The second little anchorite decided she too was blind, so hand in hand, eyes tightly closed, they bumped into a street display of groceries, knock­ing hither and thither boxes and jars. Out came a scolding grocer and down the street fled the anchorites, hair flying out straight and ribbons dancing like butterflies.

At this point in Teresa’s story, the laughter of all three sisters rang out with utter gaiety — which was natural for they were Car­melites. And this was Lisieux and this was Carmel and this was France.

Because this was Carmel, they had other names. Soeur Marie du Sacré Coeur was the eldest, Mere Agnes de Jesus came next, and last Soeur Thérèse de l’Enfant Jesus. Sister Marie spontaneously begged her sister Mother Agnes, at that time Prioress, to command Teresa to write her childhood memoirs. Teresa was reluctant, fear­ing, she said, that “cela dissiperait le coeur.” Mother Agnes, how­ever, was finally won over to her elder sister’s wish, and ordered Teresa to write about her childhood, and to bring the manuscript to her on the feast day of Saint Agnes, a little over a year later. None of the three sisters had any idea of the memoirs ever being published.

Without the slightest delay, Teresa knelt and prayed before that statue of Our Lady, which had smiled at her and cured her of a terrible sickness during her childhood. She writes, “I begged her to guide my hand, so that I would not write one simple line that would not please her.” Next, she opened the New Testament and read a few verses, then sat down and began to write. “The History of a Soul” was begun.

She consulted no books, no dictionary, no grammar, nothing but a few family letters. She did not bother her head about the technique of composition, but quietly, obediently, neither depressed nor exalted, she wrote on. She wrote only during her hour of recreation, seated in her cell on a bench so low as to be almost on the ground. She wrote in a school copybook costing two sous, which she held firm against a flat wooden box placed upon her knees. She wrote without plan, and without crossing anything out.

Remember, however, that as a school child of twelve she could already tell stories with such charm that even the oldest schoolgirls left their games to surround her and listen. Remember that from her youngest childhood she observed keenly and reflected with order. She did not write merely with childlike ingenuousness. That child­like quality in her book could not have existed in its radiance without the opposite quality of wisdom. Does not Saint Thomas teach that no one virtue can exist without its opposite? So the most opposing and divers virtues give Sister Teresa a balance. She herself loved to quote David in saying, “I am young and yet I have become more prudent than the aged.” Never was a book better prepared; it was already in her mind and in her life.

The manuscript was finished on the day appointed: she entered the choir for evening prayers and presented it on her knees to Mother Agnes. Mother Agnes at that time was taken up with turning over her duties as Mother Superior to Mother Marie de Gonzague. She placed the copybook absentmindedly upon her stall, later carried it to her cell and then forgot to read it for two months.

Teresa made no mention of it.

When at the end of two months Sister Agnes did read it, Teresa was seriously ill and her sister feared she had not long to live. She was charmed and strengthened by what she read, but saw that prac­tically all it covered was Teresa’s childhood, and thought it should be continued. What could she do? Only a prioress could give the order to finish it. Mother de Gonzague, who had taken her place, was a stern traditionalist. No one in this Carmel of Lisieux had ever written a memoir, and Sister Agnes feared the new prioress would refuse curtly to give the wished-for order, and might even throw what was already written into the fire.

Fearfully, but with infinite tact, she told Mother de Gonzague of the manuscript and of how it needed to be continued. “God,” she said, “blessed the steps I had taken” and the following day Mother de Gonzague gave the necessary command to Teresa who received a new copybook from Sister Agnes. “Teresa,” she writes, “found the copybook too handsome, although it was an ordinary one, and feared to commit a fault against poverty in using it. She asked me if at least it would not be necessary to crowd the lines together, so to use less paper. I answered her that she was too sick to tire herself thus.”

With her usual radiant simplicity (a simplicity so beautiful one could marvel and weep for joy over it for days upon end) Teresa asked her sister what she should write upon. “Upon charity, upon the novices,” answered Sister Agnes. Without hesitation Teresa wrote upon charity, upon the novices, and so on to the way of abandon.

All the last chapter could be resumed in her quotation from Saint John of the Cross, “The smallest monument of pure love is worth more to the Church than all other actions reunited together.”

Indeed, she was too ill to write “crowding the lines together,” as she had at first suggested. She wrote this time seated in a wheel­chair rolled out under the chestnut trees. The novices, wanting her advice, came often to interrupt her. One month after having resumed her writing the pen fell from her hand. The last lines were written in pencil for she was exhausted and ill to such a point that it was too difficult to dip her pen into ink.

These last penciled lines were written even more to us than to her sister Carmelite nuns.

“It is not because I have been preserved from mortal sin that I turn to God with confidence and love. Ah! I know that even if I had upon my conscience all the crimes that could be committed I would not lose any of my confidence — I would go, my heart broken with repentance, to throw myself into the arms of my Saviour. . . . I know what to expect from His love and charity.”

(This article was originally published in From the Housetops, Volume III, No.1, September, 1948.)