“O Thou who cam’st to smile on me at dawn of life’s beginning! Come once again to smile on me. . . . Mother! the night is nigh.” – St. Thérèse of Lisieux1
‘Our Lady of the Smile’ is not a special title of Mary. It refers, instead, to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s claims that a figure of Our Lady of Victory smiled at her at the time of her miraculous healing. The statue, which had been a gift to her father, Louis Martin, had initially stood in his garden. After he married his wife, Zélie, they moved it into their home and gave it a special place of honour. Once the children were old enough, the family often gathered together to pray before Our Lady’s image.
St. Thérèse had a great devotion to Our Lady of the Smile. Some years later, after Mother Agnes of Jesus asked St. Thérèse to write down her childhood memories, she first prayed before the statue of our Blessed Mother to ask her guidance. “Before taking up my pen,” she wrote, “I knelt before the statue of Mary (the one that has given so many proofs of the maternal preferences of heaven’s Queen for our family), and I begged her to guide my hand that it trace no line displeasing to her.”2 To understand what is at the root of her great love and devotion, we must turn to the early days of St. Thérèse’s life.
Early Life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97) was a precious “Little Flower” who was no stranger to suffering, grief, and loss. Though born a strong and healthy infant, she almost died because of intestinal troubles when she was just two weeks old. Two months later, her health took such a serious turn for the worse that it seemed unlikely she would survive. Broken-hearted, her mother wrote, “She is very bad and I have no hope whatsoever of saving her. The poor little thing suffers horribly since yesterday. It breaks your heart to see her.”3
Thérèse overcame these early setbacks and grew to be a robust and happy child, but tragedy lay just around the corner. She was only four and a half years old when her mother died of breast cancer at the age of 45 (in August, 1877). Her family was so caught up in their own grief that they had no time to pay attention to her. She didn’t recall crying very much, and she didn’t tell anyone what she was feeling.
But she was devastated, and the little girl who had once had such a happy disposition changed completely. She would later write, “I, once so full of life, became timid and retiring, sensitive to an excessive degree. One look was enough to reduce me to tears, and the only way I was content was to be left completely alone. I could not bear the company of strangers and found my joy only within the intimacy of the family.”4
On the day of her mother’s funeral, God willed to console Thérèse by giving her another mother on earth. In Story of a Soul, Thérèse tells the story of how Louise, the family’s maid, saw Céline and Thérèse at the proceedings and exclaimed, “‘Poor little things, you have no mother any more!’ Céline [then] threw her arms around Marie [their eldest sister] saying: ‘Well, you will be my Mama!’ Accustomed to following Céline’s example, I turned instead to you, Mother [Pauline], and as though the future had torn aside its veil, I threw myself into your arms, crying: ‘Well, as for me, it’s Pauline who will be my Mama!’”5
A Second Mother
Pauline was a true mother to her little sister, saying her prayers with her, teaching her about the faith, and carefully preparing her to receive the Sacraments. She lovingly dressed and cared for Thérèse, nursed her tenderly when she was sick, helped her with her studies, and tucked her into bed each night. If Pauline told Thérèse she wasn’t allowed to do something, even their Papa was obliged to conform to her will!6
And so, it is no surprise that when Thérèse accidentally overhead Pauline speak to Marie about her plans to enter the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, it was a heavy blow for the young girl. She was just 9 years old, and all she understood at that time was that “she [Pauline] would not wait for me and I was about to lose my second Mother!” She wrote,“Ah! how can I express the anguish of my heart! In one instant, I understood what life was; until then, I had never seen it so sad; but it appeared to me in all its reality, and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation.”7
Pauline entered the convent on October 2, 1882, and Thérèse, who had been accustomed to having long heart to heart talks with her, was now only able to speak to her privately for perhaps two or three minutes at the end of her family’s visits. She felt certain that Pauline was lost to her, and she brooded over this to such an extent that it wasn’t long before she fell ill. At first, it was just constant headaches which fortunately weren’t too severe, so no one took much notice of them. But during an Easter visit to her Uncle and Aunt’s home some six months later, Thérèse fell seriously ill.
Illness and a Miraculous Healing
She wrote, “The sickness which overtook me certainly came from the demon; infuriated by [Pauline’s] entrance into Carmel, he wanted to take revenge on me for the wrong our family was to do him in the future. But he did not know that the sweet Queen of heaven was watching over her fragile little flower, that she was smiling on her from her throne in heaven and was preparing to stop the storm the moment her flower was to break without any hope of recovery.”8 Thérèse suffered from violent chills, delirium, and often appeared to be unconscious. At times, she was incapable of even opening her eyes. “I was absolutely terrified by everything,” she wrote. “My bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; some nails in the wall of the room took on the appearance of big black charred fingers, making me cry out in fear. One day, while Papa was looking at me in silence, the hat in his hand was suddenly transformed into some indescribably dreadful shape, and I showed such great fear that poor Papa left the room, sobbing.”9
Her family cared for her with great love and tenderness, but her mysterious illness didn’t respond to any of the simple remedies they tried. Pauline sent her a beautiful letter that she treasured greatly, and her sister, Marie, was always at her bedside, caring for her with a mother’s tenderness.
It was “the beautiful month of May,” wrote Thérèse, and “the ‘little flower’ alone was languishing and seemed forever withered.”10 Her family had placed the statue of Our Lady of Victory in her room to console her, though, and so “she had a Sun near her, and this Sun was the miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin that had spoken to Mama twice, and the little flower often, very often, turned her petals toward this blessed Star.”11 Overcome by sadness, her Papa asked Marie “to write to Paris and have some Masses said at Our Lady of Victories so that she would cure his poor little girl.”12 There was no question that a miracle was needed, and it was Our Lady of Victories who brought it about. We turn to the words of St. Thérèse:
“One Sunday during the Novena of Masses, Marie went into the garden, leaving me with Léonie who was reading near the window. After a few moments I began calling in a low tone: ‘Mama, Mama’. Léonie, accustomed to hearing me always calling out like this, didn’t pay any attention. This lasted a long time, and then I called her much louder. Marie finally returned. I saw her enter, but I cannot say I recognized her and continued to call her in a louder tone: ‘Mama’. I was suffering very much from this forced and inexplicable struggle and Marie was suffering perhaps even more than I. After some futile attempts to show me she was by my side, Marie knelt down near my bed with Léonie and Céline. Turning to the Blessed Virgin and praying with the fervor of a mother begging for the life of her child, Marie obtained what she wanted.
“Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse had also turned toward the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin’. At that instant, all my pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes, and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy. Ah! I thought, the Blessed Virgin smiled at me, how happy I am, but never will I tell anyone for my happiness would then disappear. Without any effort I lowered my eyes, and I saw Marie who was looking down at me lovingly; she seemed moved and appeared to surmise the favor the Blessed Virgin had given me. Ah! it was really to her, to her touching prayers that I owed the grace of the Queen of heaven’s smile. Seeing my gaze fixed on the Blessed Virgin, she cried out: ‘Thérèse is cured!’ Yes, the little flower was going to be born again to life, and the luminous Ray that had warmed her again was not to stop its favors; the Ray did not act all at once, but sweetly and gently it raised the little flower and strengthened her in such a way that five years later she was expanding on the fertile mountain of Carmel.”13
Our Lady of the Smile
St. Thérèse was miraculously healed of all her physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual sufferings by a smile – the simple and powerful smile of Our Mother. Today we, too, turn to Our Lady of the Smile to ask her intercession. Mother Adela, the foundress of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary writes, “The Mother’s Smile is a reflection of Her maternal and immaculate love. She smiles to the depth of our hearts, to the depths of our wounds … to our most hidden inner lackings and sufferings. She smiles and we know Her love for us! She smiles and everything becomes so peaceful, so calm in the ocean of our hearts … She smiles and love flourishes in our whole being… She smiles and the voids of our lives are suddenly filled… She smiles and the brokenness in our humanity is restored, is elevated, is healed… She smiles and the path of grace to our hearts opens up with a new freedom.
“She smiles and we know we are loved, deeply loved, by a mother’s love! She smiles and our fears are driven away. She smiles and the doubts are enlightened with Her kindness… She smiles and the lackings and excesses in our lives are leveled to the perfect measurement of love… She smiles and our hearts know that there is so much more… so much more… There is tenderness, there is courage, there is freedom, there is fruitfulness, there is communion, there is life, there is love… and love makes us stronger, freer, younger and more joyful. She smiles and we are healed… healed in the depth of our hearts!”14
We bring everything to you, dearest Mother; we place before you every hurt, all our worries, and all the hopes of our hearts. Smile on us, gentle Mother, and fill us with your healing love.
Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer to Our Lady of the Smile15
Composed by Mother Adela, SCTJM
For private use only
Gentle Mother, smile in our hearts and heal us! Your maternal smile heals because it is a reflection of your motherly and immaculate love. Smile with the tender force of your maternal love and heal our hearts to know love, to receive love, to experience the fullness of love, to live in the path of love and to communicate freely the love we receive.
Smile into the depth of our hearts and bring healing to our wounds! Smile into our hearts and heal the brokenness in our humanity. Smile and make us whole, with perfect communion of mind, heart, body and soul.
Smile, Mother, and heal us with your love! Smile toward us and cast out all our fears and anxieties. Smile, Mother, and heal us from all that imprisons love in our hearts. Smile to our minds and heal the memories that hurt the vision of love. Smile to our hearts and heal the experiences that have hardened us and have made us run away from love. Smile to us with your maternal love; and knowing that we are loved, heal us from the fears and hurts that impeded us from generously and freely loving. Smile, O Mother, and with the radiance of your maternal countenance, heal our bodies from the lack of transparency in communicating the language of love. Smile, Immaculate Mother, to our souls and heal us from all that is wounded in our communion of love with the Blessed Trinity.
Smile, Mother, smile with your love in the deepest recesses of our hearts and heal us; so that, thus restored and freed, we may know the depth, the height, the width and the length of God’s love; so that we may live in perfect bonds of love with other hearts and so that we may ardently witness to love in the Heart of the Church.
Smile, Blessed Mother… Smile at us, smile for us. One smile from your Maternal Heart will heal our hearts.
Our Lady of the Smile, pray for us.
St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.
1 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Why I Love Thee Mary,” Poems of St. Teresa, Carmelite of Lisieux, known as the ‘Little Flower of Jesus’, trans. S.L. Emery (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1907), 84; available from http://www.ccel.org/download.html?url=/ccel/therese/poems.pdf; Internet; accessed 3 April 2018.
2 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, ed. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1975; 3rded. 1996), 13. Mother Agnes of Jesus – St. Thérèse’s older sister, Pauline – was elected prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux on Feb. 20, 1893.
3 Ibid., “Prologue,” 6.
4 Ibid., 34-35.
5 Ibid., 34. Céline was 3 ½ years older than Thérèse and they were close playmates; she was 8 at the time of their mother’s death. Marie was their oldest sister (she was 17 at that time); Pauline, the second eldest, was almost 16 years old.
6 Cf. Ibid., 44.
7 Ibid., 58.
8 Ibid., 60.
9 Ibid., Footnote 56, 63.
10 Ibid., 64-65.
11 Ibid. In footnote 57 we read, “She was wrong as it was only once. After our little sister Hélène’s death, Mama was disturbed at the thought of a little lie the child had told. She was praying in front of the statue, regretting she hadn’t brought the child to confession and fearing she was in purgatory, when she heard these words: ‘She is here by my side’ (note of Mother Agnes of Jesus).”
12 Ibid., 65.
13 Ibid., 65-66.
14 Mother Adela, SCTJM, Foundress, “Our Lady of the Smile,” Servants of thePierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary; available from http://www.piercedhearts.org/mother_adela/ol_smile_prayer.htm; Internet; accessed 5 April 2018.St. Thérèse first spread devotion to the intercession of the ‘Virgin of the Smile’ within her own family, and later the statue accompanied her to the convent in Lisieux. From there, devotion to Our Lady of the Smile spread throughout the Carmelite communities and into the world.
*Carmel Lisieux. Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACarmel_Lisieux.jpg.
** Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, Paris, France. Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AP1000564_Paris_II_Basique_Notre-Dame-des-Victoires_Fa%C3%A7ade_reductwk.JPG.