I was fourteen years old and mad at my parents. They were wasting a whole day of our French vacation driving a four hour round trip to the Basilica of St Therese of Lisieux. The car was uncomfortable, it was a perfect hot sunny day and I didn’t want to go. All I knew of this saint was the saccharine prayer cards of her sweetly smiling and wreathed in flowers. I was aware that she died young and had a very holy childhood.
She was a child saint, but I was not impressed.
Yet when we got to Lisieux, I found to my surprise that I was to experience one of the most profound experiences of my life. Profound, not in any theological or deeply spiritual way, but profound in its realness and honesty. Kneeling by her shrine, I found myself praying and expressing to the saint my utter frustration at religion in general, and my confusion of my own place in the world.
Even more to my surprise, I felt an overwhelming sense that St Therese understood me. My confusion was familiar to her. My struggles were real to her. It seemed that she told me very clearly that: “It is enough that you have come here today.”
I, who had moaned my whole way in the car to the Shrine, left with a new sense of peace.
She was right, it was enough that I had simply come that day. Because at the age when all I felt about religion was rules and confusion, I came away with a new sense that faith could be a gift, not a burden. And so, though I often forgot about St Therese, I realized that she had not forgotten about me.
Eleven years later as I sit down to write this, I find that she has dropped her intercession and gentle guiding hand into my life on many occasions. These interjections have always been to my surprise. And so on her feast day, in addition to a great video from Bishop Robert Barron, I would also like to share what I have learnt about St Therese with you, partly out of gratitude to her, but also in the hope that they will inspire you to turn to her intercession also, and in turn, find the love of all life, Christ.
It a well-known fact that St Therese had scruples, which are most basically described as a form of religious OCD. Fear that her sins had offended God or that she had committed a mortal sin plagued her at different times in her life. A childhood that included the death of her mother at a very young age, the loss of her sister, her ‘second mother’ Pauline, to the Carmelites, harsh bullying at school and an extremely sensitive nature, meant that she displayed many of the symptoms of depression even at a young age.
Her extreme physical suffering of tuberculous at the end of her life also caused her the temptations of despair and the wish that her life could end due to the pain she was in. Yet she constantly turned back to Christ, and kept firmly in the right way. Throughout my life, I have been familiar with depression and mental illnesses, both in my own experience and through the experience of family members. In some of my darkest times, I have turned to St Therese, the only saint I felt at the time could understand. Her intercession has always been powerful and swift.
I was always a very sensitive child. I used to cry over everything. Sometimes I cried and I didn’t know why, I just felt sad at the world. So it was irritating to hear of St Therese’ childhood piety when I felt I’d been such an overly emotional child. But I discovered that she too, had cried her way through her early years, unhappy at school and generally not coping with the day to day social expectations placed on her. Her mother wrote that she had to “correct [the] poor baby who gets into frightful tantrums when she can’t have her own way. She rolls in the floor in despair believing all is lost. Sometimes she is so overcome she almost chokes. She is a very highly-strung child.”
She was generally seen to be a happy child, she was spoilt and treated as the baby of the family. Yet her hypersensitivity caused her and her family great stress. I have often seen my hypersensitivity- crumbling like St Therese under criticism, as shameful, yet the example of St Therese gives me hope. She came from a very real childhood environment, with all the rawness and messiness that comes with hypersensitivity. I turn to her when I need a reminder of perspective in my life, and I know she understands.
St Therese was miraculously cured of her hypersensitivity, and after joining the Carmelite nuns, became much more emotionally stable and a dependable sister in Carmel. I have found that during those times of crisis in life, when the ground seems to have been robbed from under your feet and the future feels like it has been wiped out, she remains firm. St Therese knew and learnt in her life that no matter what shock happened or how much change she had to endure, the foundation of her life is the unchanging love of Christ. A prayer to her in a crisis is a swift reminder of this fact.
When St Therese’s relics were brought to London in 2009, my mother and I made sure to go. By sheer coincidence, my brother also happened to be in London that day and met up and joined us. I prayed for my family that day, for all our struggles, for the myriad of seemly unsolvable problems that exist in every family. In the years that followed, I know that graces flowed from her intercession for us that day we all venerated her relics, graces that overcame what felt like impossible struggles within our family. Growing up in a large family that knew the pains of illness and death, the struggles of work and school, matched with the joys of celebrations and play, St Therese is the perfect saint to ask for help for our families. She knows well the importance of healing wounds within a family. Her own family was seed and nurturing of her faith.
I defy anyone to look at pictures of St Therese throughout the years of her life and deny that she had a sense of humor! A barely suppressed cheeky smile and an enormous sense of fun seem to be lurking in her eyes. This puts pay to any suggestion that she was too out of touch, solemn or serious to be relatable! Reading her ‘Story of a Soul’, despite its flowery language, shows her realness, and in one letter to her sister after her famous meeting with Pope Leo XIII, whom she begged to let her become a nun aged 15, she described “The good Pope is so old, one would think he is dead”, although he outlived her, so maybe he got the last laugh.
Two quotes from St Therese that have stuck with me whenever I feel frustrated at my lack of endurance in my faith. The first relates to sleep. She said: “I should be distressed that I drop off to sleep during my prayers and during my thanksgiving after Holy Communion. But I don’t feel at all distressed. I know that children are just as dear to their parents whether they are sleep or awake and I know that doctors put their patients to sleep before they operate. So I just think that God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
The second quote is the admittance of St Therese that despite her great love of the Virgin Mary, she struggled to pray the rosary. “When alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance.” But, as a reminder to all of us, she also wrote, “Now I am less desolate; I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my mother, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it.” The important thing, as St Therese knew, was that, though we fail and know that we may fail again, we try.
OK, so I didn’t like all the flowery imagery around St Therese, but I did love that she said “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. I will raise up a mighty host of little saints. My mission is to make God loved.”
Simply put, if a saint promises that they will spend their time in heaven helping those of us still left on earth, then don’t be afraid to ask her for that help! She’s a saint and she’s promised! Her goal is that we may all reach real holiness, so she will not turn a request for help down.
Finally, in my life, I discovered her Little Way. Whenever I struggle in my faith, it is usually because I have let my own failings, sins and shortcomings become greater in my mind than the mercy and love of God. I have lost all perspective of myself in the hands of a Father who loves me. St Therese is a perfect reminder that every day, no matter our struggle, all we need do is simply turn to God and throw ourselves into His arms and ask for help, confident that He understands our failings and loves us as we are and towards who we will become.
If you would like to understand more about St Therese, you can find more about her life here: as well as an excellent myth busting article addressing some of the common misconceptions of her life here. Happy Feast Day!
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