(1873 – 1897)
Oh! how I love Thee, Jesus! my soul aspires to Thee
And yet for one day only my simple prayer I pray!
Come reign within my heart, smile tenderly on me,
To-day, dear Lord, to-day”
Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, She is popularly known as “The Little Flower of Jesus” or simply, “The Little Flower.”
Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in Alençon, in France, on 2 January 1873. Her mother, who already had breast cancer, died when Thérèse was four, and the family moved to Lisieux. She became a nun at the Carmelite convent there at the age of 15, after a long battle against the superior, who insisted that 16, or even 21, would be a more sensible age. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, and that was that. Another forgotten nun: born, was good, died. Holy, no doubt; but nothing much to write home about.
In 1895 Mother Agnès of Jesus, the prioress, had commanded Thérèse to write her memoirs. Writing “not to produce a literary work, but under obedience,” Thérèse took a year to fill six exercise books. She presented them to the prioress, who put them in a drawer unread. A year after Thérèse’s death, the memoirs were published in a small edition of 2,000: the first spark that ignited a “storm of glory” that swept the world. Miracles started to happen: conversions, cures, even apparitions. “We must lose no time in crowning the little saint with glory,” said the Prefect of the Congregation of Rites, “if we do not want the voice of the people to anticipate us.” The beatification process opened thirteen years after Thérèse’s death. She was canonized in 1925, the Pope having suspended the rule that forbids canonization less than 50 years after someone’s death.
When Thérèse was 17, she confided to a visiting Jesuit her hope of becoming a great saint and to love God as much as the Carmelite Saint Teresa of Ávila. The Jesuit thought he found traces of pride and presumption and advised her to moderate her desires. “Why, Father?” asked Thérèse, “since our Lord has said, Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 100 years after Thérèse’s death, Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, joining St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Ávila.
The very storm of glory that propelled Thérèse into sainthood makes her a difficult saint for many of us to stomach. The late 19th century was a highly sentimental period, and much of the literature about Thérèse has taken that quality and made it sweeter and sicklier still, to the point where you feel like brushing your teeth after reading every page. There are antidotes. One is raw Thérèse: The Story of a Soul is still in print in most languages. Another is a clear and astringent biography such as that by Guy Gaucher, Bishop of Meaux.
What makes St Thérèse so special?
We have grown used to the idea that just as there are people with talents for sport or scholarship, and the rest of us can only admire them without trying to keep up, so there are people with a talent for holiness and heroic virtue, and the rest of us can only bumble along as best we can. We can’t do better because we’re not designed to do better, so there’s no point in trying. We sink into a consoling mediocrity.
Thérèse wrecks this. She was physically weak and psychologically vulnerable. For her the great saints were giants, they were inaccessible mountains, and she was only an “obscure grain of sand;” but she was not discouraged. St John of the Cross taught her that God can never inspire desires that cannot be fulfilled. The Book of Proverbs told her, “If anyone is a very little one, let him come to me.” If you only look, Scripture is permeated with images of our littleness and weakness with respect to God, and of his care for us in our insignificance.
Thérèse’s “Little Way” means taking God at his word and letting his love for us wash away our sins and imperfections. When a priest told her that her falling asleep during prayer was due to a want of fervour and fidelity and she should be desolate over it, she wrote “I am not desolate. I remember that little children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake.”
We can’t all hug lepers or go off and become missionaries and martyrs. But we all do have daily opportunities of grace. Some of them may be too small to see, but the more we love God, the more we will see them. If we can’t advance to Heaven in giant strides, we can do it in tiny little steps. Our weakness is no excuse for mediocrity.
Extract – St Thérèse’s autobiography: In the heart of the church I will be love
Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognised myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction