St. Therese of Lisieux | Doctor of the Church

St. Therese of Lisieux was born on January 2, 1873, and died on September 30, 1897. St. Therese of Lisieux was a French Discalced Carmelite nun, the same order founded by St. Teresa of Avila. Her religious name is St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. She was also known as the “Little Flower of Jesus” or just the “Little Flower.”

Simplicity of Life for St. Therese

Simplicity and practicality summarize the approach to the spiritual life by the Little Flower. On her death bed, she would say, “I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretense.” Pope St. Pius X referred to her as “the greatest saint of modern times.” What was so remarkable about this tremendous young woman to merit such a statement?

Therese was often sickly as a child. She would have tremors and had anxiety. She was healed after gazing upon a statue in her room of the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the moniker Our Lady of Victories, which she perceived to smile at her. She said, “Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am.” Though, she was so questioned about the incident that she doubted herself.

The Christmas Eve Conversion Of St. Therese

On Christmas Eve in 1886, she had what she called a “complete conversion.” She felt that she had received a miracle where God worked to “make me grow up in an instant.”  She experienced a great period of calmness before she was 14. She intently read Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. She would carry the book around with her at all times.

Carmelites

In May 1887, Therese went to her father Louis, also a canonized saint, on a Sunday afternoon in the garden. She told him that she wanted to celebrate the anniversary of her conversion by entering the Carmelites before Christmas. Both father and daughter began to cry because of the sacrifice this meant in her going away. Louis got up, picked up a small white flower with the roots intact and gave it to her. He explained to her that God formed it and sustained it. She said, “while I listened I believed I was hearing my own story.” The flower, like herself, was “destined to live in another soil.”

Due to her young age of 14, the priest-superior of the monastery would not allow her to join. On a pilgrimage to Rome, the young saint even asked Pope Leo XIII to allow her to join. He told her that if it is God’s will, the superiors would allow it. Do what the superior says. A year later, she finally was authorized to enter as a Carmelite postulant by the Bishop of Bayeux in 1888. 

Postulancy and Novitiate

At last she was in the desert that she longed for, to be with God. She adhered strictly to the rule of life and did not speak idly during work. As someone who struggled with scrupulosity, God graced her with a Jesuit spiritual director who likewise had struggled with scruples.  So, she made a good general confession of all her past sins and felt very relieved. 

However, like most religious, due to differing temperament, character, and sensitivities, communal life was difficult. In 1889, she became a novice and took the habit. She was very taken with the work of St. Teresa of Avila and one of the other famous Carmelites, St. John of the Cross. She also received a new name. She took Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. These two devotions together show her love and veneration for the childhood and simplicity of Jesus and of the Holy Face which is, in many ways, a reflection of the incarnation and the humility of the humanity of the Christ. 

In January 1890, she was still too young to make her final vows. But by September 1890, she made her religious profession.

Life as a Carmelite

In her life as a Carmelite, she worked to increase in small acts of love and care and concern for others. She would listen to and accept criticism without a word of protest even when it was undeserved. She was completely abandoned to the love and mercy of Jesus. She wrote of prayer, “I say quite simply to the good God what I want to tell Him, and he always understands me.”

Remarkably, she asked to remain a novice indefinitely so that she would always have to ask permission for things from the full sisters.

The “Little Way”

She developed what she called the “petite voie” or “little way.” She said, “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.” This little way of spiritual childhood is the foundation of her spirituality.

She also felt drawn to a devotion to the merciful love of God.  She described this merciful love in this way, “If through weakness I should chance to fall, may a glance from Your Eyes straightway cleanse my soul, and consume all my imperfections – as fire transforms all things into itself.”

Tuberculosis

This young saint shows us how to embrace suffering and death with grace. She suffered from the painful and deadly disease of tuberculosis. This debilitating disease bears with it fever, chills, night sweats, a cough, loss of appetite, and coughing up blood. She suffered all these things without complaint and with a resolution to suffer with Jesus.

After a rigorous Lenten fast in 1896, before knowing of her illness brewing, she went to bed on the eve of Good Friday. She writes,

“Oh! how sweet this memory really is! … I had scarcely laid my head upon the pillow when I felt something like a bubbling stream mounting to my lips. I didn’t know what it was… I thought immediately of the joyful thing that I had to learn, so I went over to the window. I was able to see that I was not mistaken. Ah! my soul was filled with a great consolation; I was interiorly persuaded that Jesus, on the anniversary of His own death, wanted to have me hear His first call!”

Her own doctor would later exclaim, “Ah! If you only knew what this young nun was suffering!” Yet, she did not complain. She merely would remark that she did not think that such suffering was possible. At the end of her life, she said, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.” Her dying words: “My God, I love you!”

This mature, wise, and holy young woman died at the age of 24.

The Legacy of St. Therese

Devoted to the Holy Eucharist, she was enraptured in doing little things with great love, hidden from the view of the world and of others. In declaring her a Doctor of the Church, St. John Paul II writes this,

“Thérèse of the Child Jesus is not only the youngest Doctor of the Church, but is also the closest to us in time, as if to emphasize the continuity with which the Spirit of the Lord sends his messengers to the Church, men and women as teachers and witnesses to the faith. In fact, whatever changes can be noted in the course of history and despite the repercussions they usually have on the life and thought of individuals in every age, we must never lose sight of the continuity which links the Doctors of the Church to each other: in every historical context they remain witnesses to the unchanging Gospel and, with the light and strength that come from the Holy Spirit, they become its messengers, returning to proclaim it in its purity to their contemporaries. Thérèse is a Teacher for our time, which thirsts for living and essential words, for heroic and credible acts of witness. For this reason she is also loved and accepted by brothers and sisters of other Christian communities and even by non-Christians.”

 

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