Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)
Generations have admired this young woman, calling her the "Little Flower of Jesus," and found in her short life more inspiration for their own lives than in many volumes written by theologians.
Yet, Thérèse died when she was only 24, after having lived as a cloistered Carmelite nun for less than ten years. She never went on missions, never founded a religious order, never performed great works. The only book of hers, published after her death, was a brief edited version of her journal called Story of a Soul" (Collections of her letters and restored versions of her journals have been published recently.) But within 26 years of her death, the public demand was so great that she was canonized. The message she has for us is still as compelling and simple as it was over a century ago.
"Our fulcrum is God: our lever, prayer; prayer which burns with love. With that we can lift the world!"
Thérèse (Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin) was born into a pious and loving Catholic family in France in 1873. She was the pampered daughter of a mother who had wanted to be a saint and a father who had wanted to be monk. The two had gotten married, but determined they would be celibate until a priest told them that was not how God wanted a marriage to work! They must have followed his advice because they had nine children. The five children who lived were all daughters who were close all their lives.
From an early age, it was Thérèse's ambition and desire to be a saint. She remembered spending time with her parents and four sisters in the French countryside. However, this early childhood memory was broken by the early death of her Mother from breast cancer. At only four years old, she felt the pain of separation. The next couple of years of Thérèse's' life were a period of inner turmoil. She was unhappy at school, where her natural precociousness and piety made other school children jealous. Eventually, her father agreed for her to return home and be taught by her elder sister, Pauline.
Thérèse enjoyed being taught at home, however after a while, Pauline who had become her second mother, made a decision to leave to enter the local Carmel Convent at Lisieux. This made Therese feel like she had lost her mother twice. Shortly afterward, Thérèse experienced a painful illness with a fever, from which she suffered delusions. The doctors were at a loss as to the cause. People thought she was dying. For three weeks, she suffered with the high fever. She began to pray and reported that suddenly, she felt completely healed with her health and mental state returned to normal very quickly.
Without realizing it, by the time she was 11 years old, she had developed the habit of mental prayer. She would find a place between her bed and the wall, and in that solitude think about God, life, eternity.
When her other sisters, Marie and Leonie, left to join religious orders (the Carmelites and Poor Clares, respectively), Thérèse was left alone with her last sister Celine and her father. She said she wanted to be good, but that she had an odd way of going about it. This spoiled little Queen of her father's wouldn't do housework. She thought if she made the beds she was doing a great favor!
Every time Thérèse even imagined that someone was criticizing her or didn't appreciate her, she burst into tears. Then, she would cry because she had cried! Any inner wall she built to contain her wild emotions crumbled immediately before the tiniest comment.
Thérèse wanted to enter the Carmelite convent to join Pauline and Marie, but how could she convince others that she could handle the rigors of Carmelite life, if she couldn't handle her own emotional outbursts? She had prayed that Jesus would help her, but there was no sign of an answer.
On Christmas day in 1886, the 14-year-old hurried home from church. In France, young children left their shoes by the hearth at Christmas, and then parents would fill them with gifts. By 14, most children outgrew this custom. But, her sister Celine didn't want Thérèse to grow up. So, they continued to leave presents in "baby" Thérèse's shoes.
As she and Celine climbed the stairs to take off their hats, their father's voice rose up from the parlor below. Standing over the shoes, he sighed, "Thank goodness that's the last time we shall have this kind of thing!" Thérèse froze, and her sister looked at her helplessly. Celine knew that in a few minutes Thérèse would be in tears over what her father had said. But, the tantrum never came. Something incredible had happened to her. Jesus had come into her heart and done what she could not do herself. He had made her more sensitive to her father's feelings than her own. She swallowed her tears, walked slowly down the stairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father said. (The following year she entered the convent.) In her autobiography, she referred to this Christmas as her "conversion."
She says she lost her inclination to please herself with her own desires. Instead, she felt a burning desire to pray for the souls of others and forget herself. She says that on this day, she lost her childhood immaturity and felt a very strong calling to enter the convent at her unprecedented early.
Thérèse became known as the Little Flower, but she had a will of steel. When the superior of the Carmelite convent refused to take her and let her enter holy orders, because she was so young, the formerly shy little girl went to the bishop. He also said "No" and advised her to come back when she was 21 and "grown up." She then decided to go over his head as well. Her mind was made up. She couldn't bear to wait, believing God was calling her to enter the cloistered life.
Thérèse's father and sister took her on a pilgrimage to Rome to try to get her mind off this crazy idea. She loved it. It was the one time when being little worked to her advantage! Because she was young and small she could run everywhere, touch relics and tombs without being yelled at. Finally, they went for an audience with the Pope. They had been forbidden to speak to him, but that didn't stop Thérèse. As soon as she got near him, she begged that he let her enter the Carmelite convent. She had to be carried out by two of the guards!
The Vicar General who had seen her courage was impressed, and soon Thérèse her heart's desire was fulfilled. She was admitted to the Carmelite convent of Lisieux that her sisters Pauline and Marie had already joined. Convent life was not without its hardships. Her romantic ideas of convent life and suffering soon met up with reality in a way she had never expected. Her father suffered a series of strokes that left him affected, not only physically but mentally. When he began hallucinating and grabbed for a gun as if going into battle, he was taken to an asylum for the insane. Horrified, Thérèse learned of the humiliation of the father she adored and admired and of the gossip and pity of their so-called friends. As a cloistered nun she couldn't even visit her father. It was cold and accommodations were basic.
This began a horrible time of suffering when she experienced such dryness in prayer that she stated, "Jesus isn't doing much to keep the conversation going." She was so grief-stricken that she often fell asleep in prayer. She consoled herself by saying that mothers loved children when they lie asleep in their arms so that God must love her when she slept during prayer.
Thérèse knew as a Carmelite nun that she would never be able to perform great deeds.
"Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."
She took every chance to sacrifice, no matter how small it would seem.
She smiled at the sisters she didn't like. She ate everything she was given without complaining—so that she was often given the worst leftovers. One time she was accused of breaking a vase when she was not at fault. Instead of arguing she sank to her knees and begged forgiveness. These little sacrifices cost her more than bigger ones, for these went unrecognized by others. No one told her how wonderful she was for these little secret humiliations and good deeds.
"Love attracts love, mine rushes forth unto Thee, it would fain fill up the abyss which attracts it; but alas! it is not even as one drop of dew lost in the Ocean. To love Thee as Thou lovest me I must borrow Thy very Love. Then only, can I find rest."
This was the "little way" which Thérèse sought to follow. Her philosophy was that what was important was not doing great works, but doing little things with the power of love. If we can maintain the right attitude, then nothing shall remain that can't be accomplished. She was encouraged by the older nuns to write down her way of spiritual practice. She wrote three books that explained her "little way" and also included her personal spiritual autobiography.
When Pauline was elected prioress, she asked Therese for the ultimate sacrifice. Because of politics in the convent, many of the sisters feared that the Martin family would take over the convent. Therefore, Pauline asked Thérèse to remain a novice, in order to allay the fears of the others that the three sisters would push everyone else around. This meant she would never be a fully professed nun, that she would always have to ask permission for everything she did. This sacrifice was made a little sweeter when Celine entered the convent after her father's death. Four of the sisters were now together again.
Thérèse continued to worry about how she could achieve holiness in the life she led. She didn't want to just be good, she wanted to be a saint. She thought there must be a way for people living hidden, little lives like hers. She wrote:
"I have always wanted to become a saint. Unfortunately, when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passers-by.
Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults.
"We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in holy Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words: "Whosoever is a little one, come to me." It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less."
She worried about her vocation:
"I feel in me the vocation of the priest. I have the vocation of the Apostle. Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that it embraced all times and places... in a word, that it was eternal! Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love... my vocation, at last I have found it... My vocation is Love!"
Not all sisters warmed to this 15-year-old girl. At times, she became the subject of gossip. One of her superiors took a very hash attitude to this young "spoiled middle class" girl. However, Thérèse sought always to respond to criticism and gossip with the attitude of love. No matter what others said. she responded by denying her sense of ego. Eventually, the nun who had criticized her so much said, "Why do you always smile at me? Why are you always so kind, even when I treat you badly?"
When an antagonist was elected prioress, new political suspicions and plottings sprang up. The concern over the Martin sisters perhaps was not exaggerated. In this small convent they now made up one-fifth of the population. Despite this and the fact that Thérèse was a permanent novice, they put her in charge of the other novices.
In 1896, she coughed up blood. She kept working without telling anyone until she became so sick a year later that everyone knew it. Worst of all, she had lost her joy and confidence and felt she would die young without leaving anything behind. Pauline had already had her writing down her memories for a journal and now she wanted her to continue, so they would have something to circulate on her life after her death.
Her pain was so great that she said that if she had not had faith, she would have taken her own life without hesitation. But, she tried to remain smiling and cheerful. She succeeded so well that some thought she was only pretending to be ill. She died on September 30, 1897 from tuberculosis at the age of 24 years old. She herself felt it was a blessing that God would allow her to die at exactly that age. She had always felt that she had a vocation to be a priest and felt that God let her die at the age she would have been ordained if she had been a man, so that she wouldn't have to suffer.
After she died, everything at the convent went back to normal. One nun commented that there was nothing to say about Thérèse. But, Pauline put together her writings (and heavily edited them, unfortunately) and sent 2000 copies to other convents. Her writings became avidly read first by other nuns, and then the wider Catholic community. Although initially intended only for a small audience, her books have been frequently republished.
Thérèse's "little way" of trusting in Jesus to make her holy, and making small daily sacrifices, instead of great deeds appealed to thousands of Catholics and others who were trying to find holiness in ordinary lives. Within two years, the Martin family had to move because her notoriety was so great.
She was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 17, 1925, only 26 years after her death. In 1997, Thérèse was declared one of the only three female Doctors of the Catholic Church (there are 33 doctors of the church in total).
Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the patron saints of missions, not because she ever went anywhere, but because of her special love of missions, and the prayers and letters she gave in support of missionaries. This is a reminder to all of us who feel we can do nothing, that it is the little things that keep God's Kingdom growing.
"The good God does not need years to accomplish His work of love in a soul; one ray from His Heart can, in an instant, make His flower bloom for eternity."