Thérèse must have been consoled to see how changed Maurice was from the man who first wrote to the Carmel almost two years before. In those days he was pleading for prayers that he desperately needed. Now he was praying for her. His was not the prayer of words but that of action, as he gladly gave himself in service to the poor, carrying them in his arms to be immersed in the waters of the shrine at the very spot where Mary had once appeared to a young girl named Bernadette. He had grown more solid in his faith, more heedless of himself as he reached out to others. The Little Way was taking hold. He was willing to let go of Thérèse, thinking ahead to the new relationship that would exist between them once she died.
My dear and more than dear little Sister,
Rejoice with me. The one you love so much and for whom you have offered so many prayers and good deeds has at last had his dearest desires fulfilled, at least almost completely. Little Sister, your brother has been a missionary for a day! Tell me, to whom does he owe it? To Jesus first of all Who chose him, but after Him to my good little sister from the Carmel in Lisieux, to my Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. You have succeeded completely, for it is you who have done it all. From the way I was acting it looked as though I would derail what you were doing, but your Jesus is so good. He loves you so much that He could not say no to your suffering which was begging mercy for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, kind little Sister. I owe you this immense honor of being today a missionary of Jesus. And see how good He is! He has willed for you to be present for this triumph of grace, since He has preserved you until now. You will depart soon[…]”
“You will depart soon, little Sister. Soon you will come to your brother who waits for you here. Jesus is waiting for you and so am I. Come quickly.
Thérèse died as he was crossing from Marseilles to Algiers—the same night, he would later recall, that he was standing at the ship’s rail, gazing at the stars and praying for her. She died in terrible agony. Her lungs hemorrhaged for the first time on Good Friday of 1896, and the tuberculosis which caused the hemorrhage lasted eighteen months until her death. Slowly it undermined her young body, every cell of which fought back fiercely. To the end her vitality astonished those around her, but it was all in vain. The disease was well named “consumption” for it consumed those whom it attacked. In the last days she was skin and bone. One morning, Sister Aimée lifted her in her arms while her bed was being remade. Mother Gonzague was called to see how thin she was; the bones were almost protruding through her back. “What’s this,” she said gently, “our little girl so thin?” Still attempting to maintain her good humor, Thérèse replied: “A skeleton!”
Her breath had become alarmingly short, something she always feared. Her great obsession was that she would die of suffocation. It seemed to those around her that Thérèse, who lived to love Jesus, was now living his Passion. Asphyxiation is what ultimately caused the death of Christ on the cross. Céline would recall the image of her sister one afternoon, gasping for breath, trying to find some relief. She was seated in bed with her arms extended outward, as if in the form of a cross, leaning on her and Pauline. “For us she was a striking image of Jesus on the cross,” Céline said. And as with Christ, Céline realized, there was no consolation for her sister. “[Her] broken words, all bearing the stamp of perfect conformity to God’s will, were heartbreaking to hear.”
In the early evening, the bell rang, summoning the community again. Thérèse welcomed the sisters with a weak smile. She was holding her crucifix in a firm grasp. The “terrible death rattle” tore at her chest. Her face was flushed, her hands purplish, her feet ice cold. She was sweating so profusely that the mattress was soaked through.
Suddenly she sat up. Her eyes grew luminous with a look the nuns never forgot. Her gaze was fixed above the statue of Our Lady of the Smile. She spoke her last words: “Oh, how I love You! … My God. … How I love You!” She obviously “saw” God. It was the only vision she ever had and it was said to last only a few moments, “for the space of a Credo.” Then she sank back on the pillow, her eyes closed. Her face was serene, with just the suggestion of a smile. There was a beauty about her again which gave her the appearance of a very young girl. It was about twenty past seven in the evening of September 30, 1897.”
Excerpts From: Ahern, Patrick. “Maurice and Therese.”