St Thérèse: A Saint For Today

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm.

There are several kinds of saints. There are any number of great saints and mystics buried in cemeteries throughout the land. On the Last Day we will learn with surprise the holiness of people buried there, their greatness now known only to God. There is a much smaller group whose holiness is more public: they are people beatified and canonised, the official saints set before us as examples. There is a much smaller group of saints who have a special mission to write and to teach the Church. St Thérèse, who had no serious secondary education, belongs to this last category. She has been called by Pope Pius XI, “The greatest saint of modern times.” At her canonisation, the same pope said that she had a new message, a new mission, and a new model for holiness. In recent years she has been named one of the doctors of the Church; these are thirty-three saints regarded by the Church as its greatest teachers.

The basic facts of her life are well known. She was born into a bourgeois family in late nineteenth century France. She became a Carmelite nun at the age of fifteen and died nine years later. One way of looking at her would be to say that it was easy for her: comfortable home; cut off in a contemplative convent; an early death. What if she had to face the real world?
One could also paint a contrary picture: she was quite spoiled as a child; her mother died when she was four; her father doted on her. As a child she was in many ways stubborn, self-willed, very self-centred, somewhat neurotic, living in a wealthy home. At school she was a bit of a dreamer, and she was quite unable to cope with the rough and tumble of other children’s games. She could have turned out very selfish. Instead she struggled against these traits and became a saint.

She was cured of a strange, probably psychosomatic, illness when she was about ten. The Lord gave her a profound healing of self-centredness when she was thirteen, and almost immediately she asked her father’s permission to enter the enclosed Carmelite convent at Lisieux. There was much opposition to her entering at such an early age. When she did join, her life was rather uneventful. Even her own blood-sisters in the convent did not realise until about a year before her death that she was in any way remarkable. She contracted a horrible form of tuberculosis which led to a death with terrible suffering at the age of twenty-four. The rest is history.

From her childhood she had wanted to be holy. About two and a half years before she died, she became somewhat desperate — time was slipping away, and she still did not know how she could be holy. She thought “if only I could find a lift to God!” Then she came across two scripture texts. The first was from Proverbs, “If anyone is a very little one, let him come to me” (Prv 9:4). The second was from Isaiah, “As mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; you will be carried at my breast and fondled in my lap” (Is 66:12-13). Thérèse took off: she had found her “Little Way,” as she would later call it — the lift that would bring her to God.

In her time, and still today, there were three distorted ideas about holiness. One was that holiness consisted in doing big things for God. Thérèse’s Little Way was to do ordinary things exceptionally well. Again, many people thought of God as an angry or demanding God. Thérèse’s response was to act like a child before a loving God. A third distortion of holiness was to think of it as primarily a matter of long times of prayer. Carmelite nuns do indeed pray a lot. But Thérèse often fell asleep and had many distractions. But she knew that she was a child in the presence of God, who loved her just the same.
The Little Way is a way of love and consideration in the smallest things. Some in her community were unkind; she replied by going out of her way to be nice to them. Her life was made up of thousands of small things. What made it heroic was that she kept it up. Any of us could live like Thérèse for an hour or two, but day after day — that is the stuff of saints. Her Little Way is simple, straightforward, but it is not easy.

She also found faith very difficult in the final eighteen months of her life; she lost her sense of God and of future life. But she held on. She tested her Little Way in a life that had much physical, psychological and spiritual suffering. All the time she held on to her sense of humour and refused to take herself too seriously. She joked about the medicines and strange often-painful remedies that were prescribed for her. She could put up with snail syrup, provided the horns were not visible. When the nuns thought she was dying, some of them thoughtlessly placed a palliasse in the next room to have it convenient for laying her out. She recognised the odour of the straw and joked about her acute sense of smell. She could liken her painful breathing to an old steam train. She amused herself and others by thinking of the problem with ropes that the gravediggers would have letting her down into the deep new grave that the convent had recently purchased.

Her superior asked her to write her life story, an account of how God had blessed her. This work written in three school copybooks became a great spiritual classic, The Story of a Soul. She never finished it. In the end she was took weak even to write with a pencil. The last words she wrote of her life story were “I lift myself to him with confidence and love.” These words “confidence and love” sum up her life, her Little Way, her legacy to all of us in the Church.

The full text will be published in a forthcoming issue of Good News (magazine of the Charismatic Renewal in England).