“Who is wise? Let him take heed of these things and understand God’s love.” –Psalm 107
- Like her Holy Mother in Carmel, St. Teresa of Avila, little St. Thérèse of Lisieux loved the Saints who came before her and the saints among whom she lived on earth.
- She said truly of her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, that they were more worthy of heaven than of earth—they will be canonized by Pope Francis on October 18 of this year, the first time in the history of the Church that a married couple will be canonized together.
- It was St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the young Jesuit saint, who inspired her with the notion to send us roses after she went to Heaven. She said, “In this world all things pass away, even little Thérèse—but she will return,” and she promised, “I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.”
- In order to achieve her goal of spending her Heaven doing good on earth, on Ash Wednesday, March 3, 1897, little Thérèse made a novena of grace, “never known to fail,” to St. Francis Xavier, Patron of the Universal Missions. To her “unfailing” prayer, she added prayers to St. Joseph, just to be sure.
- To her desires and her prayers she added logic. “God will do everything I want in Heaven because I have never done my own will on earth,” she argued.
- She began showering roses quite soon after her arrival in Heaven on September 30, 1897. Her memoir, Story of a Soul, was given the imprimatur on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, March 7, 1898, and printed in October of that year, then sent out to Carmelite convents throughout France, and to select prelates and friends of the Carmel as a circular letter of her death. The seemingly large number of copies (2000) paid for by her mother’s brother, her Uncle Isidore Guérin, prompted a nun to say, “How are we going to dispose of all these? We are going to have them left on our hands.” This turned out not to be a problem…The first printing was gone within the year; by October of 1899, half the second edition (4000) had been sold. At this time the first favors and cures from Thérèse’s intercession were reported to the Carmel. Seven years later, Story of a Soul had been translated into Polish, English, Italian, Dutch, German, and Portuguese.
- When Therese had been in the convent, in 1896 Monsignor de Teil, Postulator for the cause of the canonization of the martyred Carmelites of Compiégne (who had gone to the guillotine in the French Revolution after offering themselves to God to end the Reign of Terror), came and spoke in the parlor; he was on a tour of the Carmels in France, begging for prayers and miracles to aid the canonization of his clients. He said to twenty-two year old Thérèse and the other nuns, “If any of you who are listening to me have the intention of being canonized, please have pity on the poor Vice-Postulator and work plenty of miracles!”
- In 1909, twelve years after her death, Monsignor de Teil was named Vice-Postulator of Thérèse’s cause. At this point hundreds of miracles had already been reported. Father de Teil said, “Souer Thérèse, obedient child, did precisely as she was told.”
- So far, so good, but to be canonized, new miracles are necessary after the beatification, in order to show that God Himself desires to raise up one of His friends for universal emulation…On the day of her beatification (April 29, 1923), the obedient child simply turned to Jesus and procured the requisite miracles—and a few more for good measure: thirty miracles were reported to have occurred through her intercession on this day. No surprise for the nuns in Lisieux. Thérèse has told her sisters, “After my death, you will go to the mail box, and you will find many consolations.” By 1923 the Carmel was receiving 800-1000 letters daily to report on Thérèse’s roses and solicitude for little souls.
- Lest there be any confusion regarding her determination to continue showering roses after her glorification…On May 17, 1925, at the solemn Mass of Thérèse’s canonization in St. Peter’s, just as Pope Pius XI finished his homily, five of the roses decorating a cluster of lights in the apse broke away and fell at his feet.
- In 1927, Pius XI decreed St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face to be Principal Patroness, equal to her intercessor St. Francis Xavier, of all missionaries, men and women, and of the missions in the whole world; in 1944, Pope Pius XII named her Secondary Patroness of France, equal to her hero St. Joan of Arc (both of them second to St. Denis).
- She never would have been satisfied with these minor accolades; as she said in childhood, “I choose all!” Her desires, then, extended beyond patronage of the missions and France. As she had explained to her sister Marie, “In spite of my littleness, I want to enlighten souls as did the prophets and doctors.” Moreover, it was a point of great importance to her that “God cannot inspire unrealizable desires,” and she didn’t make this up—she’d extracted the idea from the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. John put it quite clearly: “The more God wants to give us, the more He increases our desires.” Most clearly of all, in the words of Jesus, “Ask, and you shall receive.”
- Unsurprisingly, then, given her desires and God’s delight in fulfilling them, in 1997, the centenary year of her death, St. John Paul II proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church.
- Yet if we are discouraged, as Marie was, by Thérèse’s obvious greatness in spite of her littleness (a paradox perhaps only Chesterton can fully appreciate), this Doctor reassures us as she reassured Marie, “Oh, I beg you, understand your little girl, understand that to love Jesus, to be His victim of love, the weaker one is, without desires or virtues, the more suited one is for the workings of this consuming and transforming Love…”
- Even in the face of her conviction that one need not be full of desires, she cannot put a lid on her own: “How I wish I could explain to all the souls that are conscious of their own littleness, how great Your condescension is, O Jesus! I am certain that if by some impossible chance You could find a soul more feeble, more insignificant than mine, You would overwhelm it with graces still more extraordinary, provided it would give itself up in entire confidence to Your infinite mercy.” And then with a turn worthy of her holy Mother, the great Teresa: “But why should I feel any need to tell others about the secrets of Your love? You and nobody else have taught them to me—and can I doubt that You Yourself will reveal them to others as well? I know You will, and I implore You to do it; I implore You to look down in mercy on a whole multitude of souls which share my littleness; to choose out for Yourself a whole legion of victims so little as to be worthy of Your love.”
- Heaven knows (or so we think) that we are far littler than Thérèse, and thus fulfill the first part of her program…so it remains only for us to give ourselves up in entire confidence to His infinite mercy. But this is too much! How will we manage such sublime abandonment, we who are so very little? Ah, but our mistress has already shown us that God gives her whatever she asks of Him, and she has just implored Him to do this very thing—to look down in mercy on a whole multitude of souls who share her littleness. That would be us.
- Still—another paradox—one begins to suspect that Thérèse is not content to abandon all to Jesus; she is also a workaholic of sorts. She is a missionary to the Nth degree, not even content to “die with her boots on,” but rather intending to begin her mission in earnest when she reaches Heaven’s shores. She expressed her plan a few months before her death to Mother Agnes of Jesus (her sister Pauline), saying, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love Him, to teach souls my little way.”
- Yes, it is not enough for her to be a missionary; she is also a Doctor. What, then, is her teaching? When he bestowed her doctorate, St. John Paul II identified it as the Science of Love. Thérèse herself explained it in her conversation with Mother Agnes, when the latter asked, “And what is this little way you want to teach to souls?” Thérèse replied quite simply, “It is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute surrender.”
- Childhood. Trust. Surrender. Can we believe her? Hasn’t she betrayed us, turning out to be as great—or greater still—than the greatest of saints? At the very least, Pope Saint Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times.” How, then, can we trust her, she who claims to be little but is actually great? Thérèse was only interested in the truth; she will not deceive us, but we must look beyond her reputation—whether we see that reputation as splendid or sappy. Forget the accolades, and look closely at her life and her words, for these will reveal the reality of her littleness. As an illustration, consider three instances which prove she is, in fact, as little as she claimed and a perfectly imperfect model for us:
- In mid-August of 1897, just six weeks before she died, when Mother Agnes told her she was very patient, Thérèse retorted, “I haven’t even one minute of patience. It’s not my patience! You’re always wrong!” Who can fail to love such an impatient little saint? Truly her virtue was, as she had always declared, from God, not from herself.
- And even while she was making prophetic statements—unpetalling a rose over her Crucifix on her sickbed, she saw the petals slipping onto the floor and said quite seriously, “Gather up these petals, little sisters, they will help you to perform favors later on…Don’t lose one of them”—she was still enough like us to worry about spiders. Spiders? Yes, spiders. All her life she was terrified of them, and now, at this late date, she said, “In the state of weakness in which I actually am, I wonder what would become of me if I were to see a huge spider on our bed. Well, I still want to accept this fear for the sake of God.” Heroic? Perhaps—until she has a better idea and adds quickly, “But would you ask the Blessed Virgin not to allow this to happen?”
- When told she must have had to struggle a lot in order to become perfect, she responded in words that thrill the heart of the least among us: “Oh, it’s not that!” And she echoes the words of Her Savior (“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,”) when she goes on to explain, “Sanctity does not consist in this or that practice; it consists in a disposition of heart which makes us humble and little in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness, and confident to the point of audacity in the goodness of our Father.”
- If, though, with 22 reasons behind us, we wonder if this Little Way is yet too much for us to manage—confident audacity perhaps not being our strong suit—“Do not fear,” little Thérèse tells us. “The poorer you are, the more Jesus will love you. He will go far, very far in search of you, if at times you wander a little.”
- When we fall off her beaten path—and how inevitable that little children will let go of the hand that leads them and chase the shiny things right into the heart of the dark forest—there is hope, always hope. For “He alone disposes the events of our life of exile…His hand guides everything,” and finally, she assures us, “The good Lord is much kinder than you can imagine. He is satisfied with a glance, with a sigh of love.”
Let us glance at Him, let us sigh, let us laugh with little Thérèse and imitate the clever tricks of the one who said, while dying: “I’m not afraid of the Thief. I see Him in the distance, and I take good care not to call out: ‘Stop! Thief!’ On the contrary, I call to Him, saying: ‘Over here, over here!’”
The Thief has come for little Thérèse long since, but her interest in us continues unabated. To Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, who said, “What sorrow we’ll experience when you leave us!” Thérèse responded, “Oh, no, you will see; it will be like a shower of roses.’”
Copyright 2015 Suzie Andres.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons, PD.
About the author: Suzie Andres is the author of Homeschooling with Gentleness and A Little Way of Homeschooling. She is the editor of Selected Sermons of Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J., and to her surprise, author of the new romantic comedy The Paradise Project. You can read about her favorite St. Therese books at www.suzieandres.com or go to https://www.facebook.com/ElizabethsParadiseProject and join everyone from St. Therese to Jane Austen for a quote-a-day.