Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
by Bernadette Vesco
“Whosoever therefore, shall humble himself as this little child,
he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:4)
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s short life was not distinguished by extraordinary accomplishments, at least not the kind that are equated to greatness from the standard of the modern world.
She led a hidden life, modeled after that of the Holy Family at Nazareth, who lived unnoticed in their simple surroundings. Imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary, Thérèse’s “eminent virtues and graces were likewise hidden under the simplicity of her actions”.1
Born in 1873, Thérèse Martin was only fifteen years old when she entered the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux. She was 24 when she died of tuberculosis. Yet within her short life this little flower of God reached the great heights of sanctity, composing a “Little Way” to Heaven that would prove a sure path to holiness, and the spiritual childhood outlined by Our Lord in the Gospel.
Her life, which she described in her autobiography The Story of a Soul, was filled with humiliations and sacrifices which advanced her swiftly in sanctity. Maintaining that she was a “very little soul”, she alleged that even the smallest and most flawed souls could follow her Way through love, sacrifice and perseverance, and surely attain the gardens of Heaven.
Thérèse often pondered the fact that there is such a disparity between souls, some of whom are blessed to live their whole lives as great saints, while others are deeply flawed and continuously fall along their journey.
She wondered how the smaller, flawed souls could be assured of Heaven, since they were much weaker than the greater souls. This saint, who believed herself to be one of the deeply flawed souls, prayed fervently to be enlightened on the subject, and described her enlightenment in her autobiography:
“[Jesus] opened the book of nature before me, and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own, that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violet of its scent nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm. I saw that if every little flower wished to be a rose, Nature would lose her spring adornments, and the fields would no longer be enameled with their varied flowers.
“So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord. It pleases Him to create great saints, who may be compared with the lilies or the rose, but He has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or violets, nestling at His feet to delight His eyes when He should choose to look at them. The happier they are to be as He wills, the more perfect they are.
“I saw something further: that Our Lord’s love shines out just as much through a little soul who yields completely to His Grace as it does through the greatest. True love is shown in self-abasement, and if everyone were like the saintly doctors who adorn the Church, it would seem that God had not far enough to stoop when He came to them … What delights Him is the simplicity of these flowers of the field, and by stooping so low to them, He shows how infinitely great He is. Just as the sun shines equally on the cedar and the little flower, so the Divine Sun shines equally on everyone, great and small.”2
Thus, though Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the roses of Our Lord’s garden, her encouragement for all souls, especially the least, is of the greatest value to those of us who despair that we will never rise above our own lowliness. On the contrary, St. Thérèse teaches us that we should not dwell on our faults and imperfections, but instead recognize and rejoice in our smallness, for this condition will surely get us to Heaven if we persevere.
St. Thérèse’s Little Way
St. Thérèse, believing herself incapable of reaching the lofty heights of a sanctity consisting in great acts and perfection, sought to become a saint and reach Heaven through a different means: her “Little Way”.
The Little Way of St. Thérèse is a “simplifying” of our spiritual life in an assured union with God. It consists in love, perseverance and childlike trust. Neither fear nor discouragement can daunt a simple child of God who lives this Way, who is always dependent on God’s strength and acknowledges his own smallness.
In her autobiography, Saint Thérèse explained her Little Way. First picture yourself as the smallest of children. Then she says:
“By the practice of all the virtues, raise your little foot in an attempt to mount the stairway of sanctity, but do not imagine that you will be able to go up even the first step. God only asks for your good intentions. At the top of the stairway, He watches you lovingly. Soon, His love will be conquered by your vain efforts and He will come down Himself to carry you up in His arms … ‘Remaining little’ means that we recognize our own nothingness, that we await everything from the goodness of God, as a little child expects everything from its father, that we are not solicitous about anything, and that we do not think about amassing spiritual riches. Even amongst the poor, a child receives what is necessary while he is still small; once he is grown up, his father will no longer keep him, but tells him to work and support himself. It was to avoid hearing this that I have never wished to grow up, for I feel incapable of earning my livelihood, which is Eternal Life. That is why I have remained little; my only care has been to gather flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His good pleasure.”
She further explained: “To be little means that we do not attribute to ourselves the virtues we practice, as if we were capable of any good; we recognize that God has placed this treasure in the hand of His little child and that the treasure is always His … To be little means that we are never discouraged at our faults, for, although children often fall, they are too small to hurt themselves seriously.”
In the Little Way of St. Thérèse, the flowers of small, everyday sacrifices are the greatest proofs of our love for God: they are how we “win Him”. Examples from this Carmelite nun’s life exemplify this perfectly: through her sacrifices in every possible situation, from suffering in silence for God’s love to withholding a harsh comment and instead offering a smile, she conquered her own strong will and human self-love.
Once, when Thérèse was washing dirty laundry, another Sister kept unknowingly splashing her with dirty water. Sister Thérèse described how she was tempted to step back and wipe the water from her face as a signal to that Sister that she was being splashed, but instead remembered to offer this mortification as a sacrifice to God.
She said, “why be foolish enough to refuse treasures offered so generously? I took care to hide my exasperation. I tried hard to enjoy being splashed with dirty water, and by the end of half an hour, I had acquired a real taste for this novel form of aspersion. How fortunate to find this spot where such treasures were being given away! I would come back as often as I could.”
Perpetual mortifications in daily acts and duties are perhaps harder than any other form of penance for poor human nature, so inclined to impatience.3 Fighting our own self-will relentlessly in everything we do, day after day, is certainly no small matter. Thus we see that small, everyday sacrifices are not trivial. On the contrary, they are “treasures”, and the means by which Thérèse flew so quickly to the lofts of sanctity.
Thérèse’s Love for Souls
Before her entrance into the Carmel of Lisieux, Thérèse pondered her specific vocation and, “for a while, she hesitated in her choice between the active vocation of a missionary and the contemplative life of Carmel; she felt a very strong attraction for the distant missions, but the voice of Jesus called her to a more hidden and more intimate life with Himself”.4
Thérèse’s sister Céline, with whom she often discussed the decision, described Thérèse’s vocation in this way: “The religious life seemed to Thérèse above all a means of saving souls. For that reason, she thought of joining the foreign missions, but the hope of saving a greater number of souls by mortification and self-sacrifice made her decide to become a Carmelite. She considered that it is harder for our nature to work without ever seeing the fruit of its labor, without encouragement, and without any kind of diversion, and that the most trying work of all is self-conquest; she chose ‘this living death’ because it is the surest way of gaining souls”.5
In addition to the strong pull she felt coming from Carmel, another grace was given to Thérèse to understand the mystical form of her great apostolic calling. One Sunday, as she closed her book after Mass, a picture of Our Lord on the cross slipped partly out, exposing just one of His Sacred Hands:
An unutterable feeling of sorrow, such as she had never previously experienced, penetrated her heart at the sight of this adorable Hand, pierced and bleeding, which seemed to plead for love that should be given to the abandoned Savior. Instantly came her loving response, for she tells us: “I resolved to remain ever at the foot of the cross, in order that I might receive His Precious Blood and pour it down upon souls.”
This zeal for the salvation of souls grew ever more intense, and, in her mind, there echoed the words of the dying Savior: “I thirst”, enkindling “a hitherto-unknown and very ardent fire” of love in her heart. She longed to quench the thirst for souls, and her apostolic zeal counted on miracles such as were accorded to the Apostles after Pentecost.
A hard-hearted bandit, seducer, and murderer, named Pranzini, was the first to benefit by her consuming zeal. All the newspapers of the time recounted a threefold shocking murder committed by this miserable criminal, who had been condemned to the scaffold and deserved it on many counts. The news penetrated even to Thérèse’s quiet home circle. Thérèse, who now became an ardent “fisher of souls”, at once determined to “cast her net to capture this enormous fish.” In other words, she was bent on converting that most depraved and impenitent of men, and for that purpose employed all the spiritual means in her power, deciding at once on the surest means of gaining the victory, as she herself tells us: “Knowing that of myself I could do nothing, I offered for his ransom the infinite merits of our Redeemer and the treasures of holy Church.” Her faith did not falter, but, in order to gain courage in her quest for souls, she turned to Heaven and prayed in her characteristically simple and confident way: “My God, I am quite sure Thou wilt pardon this miserable Pranzini; I should believe this even if he did not confess his sins nor give any sign of contrition, because I have confidence in Thy unbounded Mercy. But as he is my first sinner, I beg for a sign of repentance for my own consolation.”
Although she did not usually read the newspapers, Thérèse now eagerly scanned the pages of La Croix, just to learn about Pranzini. The day after his execution, she hastily opened the paper to get final news of the unhappy murderer, and this is what she read: “On the threshold of the prison, the assassin looked deadly pale. The chaplain went before him, to hide the hideous guillotine from view; others were helping him along. He pushed aside the priest and the executioners. When he came to the block, Diebler pushed him down. But before that, his conscience was evidently touched by sudden repentance, for he asked the chaplain for his crucifix, which he kissed three times.” And the Catholic paper commented: “If human justice was satisfied by his death, perhaps this last kiss of the crucifix satisfied Divine Justice, which asks only for repentance”.6
This sign confirmed Thérèse in her unique role as “fisher of souls”, as it was in looking at the Wounds of Jesus the thirst for souls took possession of her, and now the final act of her “first sinner” was “to place his confidence in these Sacred Wounds by kissing the crucifix three times”.7
Thérèse, devoting herself to the hardest of sinners, was already setting an example for responding to the sad plea Our Lady of Fatima would make only thirty years later: “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because they have no one to make sacrifices and pray for them.” Thérèse understood that by “fishing for souls” through her Little Way of love and sacrifice, she could be assured of a most abundant catch.
Pope Pius XI, who canonized Thérèse in 1925, proclaimed her the co-patron of foreign missions, placing her alongside the great missionary St. Francis Xavier. The reason Pius XI gave for this special role was the fervent love Thérèse had for souls and for the missions “that were so dear to her and the inspiration of her most burning accents”.8 From her convent she had been the spiritual Sister of two missionary priests, with whom she kept a correspondence and for whom she especially prayed.
It was Thérèse’s love for God that reflected so clearly in her dedication to souls: in the silence of her cloister, the flame of love in Thérèse’s heart inspired her with an ever-increasing zeal for souls. She yearned to save souls. Her zeal, however, was always in accordance with her Little Way. She knew that “the most ordinary sacrifices, if made for love of God, delight His Divine Heart.” Her aim was the salvation of souls; and for this end she offered her most ordinary actions — even the picking up of a pin — as acts of love to God’s most Merciful Love. Her smallest actions were laden with eternal life.9
Even through the intense agony of her fatal illness, her heart remained inflamed with the love for souls, saying “I would never have believed that it was possible to suffer to such an extent; I can only understand it through my intense desire to save souls.”
Thérèse’s Mission — Her Shower of Roses
Throughout her life Thérèse had the premonition that she would not live long in this world. She understood that her life’s mission, loving God and saving souls, would only be fully realized after death. As she lay dying she said, “I believe that my mission is about to begin — my mission to make others love God as I love Him — to teach souls my Little Way. I wish to spend Heaven doing good upon earth … I count on not being idle in Heaven, for it is my wish to work for the Church and souls. I ask this grace of God, and I am certain that He will grant it … You will see. After my death, I shall let fall a shower of roses.”
Is it any wonder that God could not refuse the ardent desires of His dear flower Thérèse? She promised to return to earth and do good after her death, and the saint has truly kept her word. Immediately after her death Thérèse began showering souls with the blossoms of God’s love, and her answers to the prayers of souls still on earth were so striking, prompt and numerous that, for her Canonization, the Church shortened the delays customary in the Canonization of Saints.
There are numerous documented miracles, conversions and answered petitions attributed to the intercession of the Little Flower; and there are certainly a great many more that are recorded only in the hearts of those who have been aided by her. Clearly, St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of those saints to whom anyone can turn in time of need, sure of being answered.
She lovingly helps the poorest and lowest of creatures, in both spiritual and temporal needs. Very often the answer to a petition to St. Thérèse will be accompanied by a rose, in one form or another, sent to the petitioner. This sign of heavenly favors is the literal fulfillment of her dying promise to “let fall a shower of roses.” She has converted the most hardened of sinners, cured “incurable” diseases, and interceded in the most dire circumstances.
Roses are Thérèse’s special signature. They are her way of “whispering to those who need a sign that she has heard, and God is responding. Thousands of people have given witness to the way Thérèse responds to their petitions and prayers with grace and roses.” Many miracles have occurred through St. Thérèse’s intercession without the appearance of a visible rose: “usually the deep inner peace of accepting God’s will and seeing His loving plan and presence is the ‘rose’ experienced”.10
It is impossible to even begin to describe the assistance that Thérèse has provided to the living since her death. “The succinct accounts of marvels of help, healing, conversion, forewarning, and vision fill seven volumes, entitled Showers of Roses,and they form only a drop in the torrent of testimonies that ceaselessly flows into the convent at Lisieux. Sister Thérèse is everywhere and her solicitude passes nobody by: … a young priest is instantaneously cured of advanced tuberculosis and henceforward has perfect health; a blind girl sees Thérèse and at once recovers normal sight; the prioress of an Italian convent, unable to meet her bills, finds sufficient money in an empty desk; a Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh is led by her into the Church; … a motor-car is held back on the edge of a cliff by people calling on Thérèse; one of the petals from her crucifix banishes a cancer of the tongue … There is scarcely a country which has not seen her benefactions or where her name is not invoked: her holiness is clear, her miracles undeniable”.11
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way of spiritual childhood is the path to holiness that Christ commanded of us in the Gospel when He said, “Whosoever, therefore, shall humble Himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 18:4).
Recognizing the efficacy of her Little Way and the supernatural wisdom of St. Thérèse, in 1997 Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, stating: “Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the youngest of all the ‘Doctors of the Church’, but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters”.12
The Little Way of St. Thérèse should encourage us in our daily fight to attain our salvation, for it does not overwhelm us with unattainable demands, but inspires us with confidence and diligence. For, as St. Thérèse said, “Sanctity does not consist in the practice of certain exercises of piety, but in a disposition of the heart which makes us humble and little in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness, but confiding — unhesitatingly — in His Fatherly Goodness.” Let us therefore strive to humble ourselves as the smallest children of God and, by means of the everyday sacrifices of the Little Way of St. Thérèse, earn our rewards as flowers in the heavenly garden.
- Morteveille, Blanche. The Rose Unpetaled: St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Translated by Mother Paula O.S.B. The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee: 1942, p. 209.
- The Story of a Soul.
- The Rose Unpetaled: St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus
- Ibid, p. 77.
- Ibid, pp. 89-90.
- Ibid, p. 90.
- Ibid, p. 240.
- Ibid, p. 190.
- Society of the Little Flower website.
- Gheon, Henri. Secret of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux
- Homily of Pope John Paul II as he proclaimed St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church (October 19, 1997).