St. Therese of Lisieux

(1873-1897)

St. Therese of Lisieux, fondly known in English as “The Little Flower,” died on September 30, 1897. The Discalced Carmelite nuns throughout the world observed her centennial of death during the whole twelvemonth of October 1996-1997.

Although Therese was born in a century — and in a civilization — now passe, she has been appropriately termed “a beacon … of the atomic century.” Her writings were applicable even more to the future than to her own day, and she is still fulfilling her promise to “spend her heaven doing good on earth.” Let us recall who she was and what contribution she has made to her fellow men.

Marie-Frances-Therese Martin, youngest of the nine children and of the five surviving daughters of Louis Martin (1823-1894) and Azelie Guerin (1831-1877), was born at Alencon, Normandy, on January 2, 1873. Her father was a prosperous watchmaker. Her mother, an expert at creating Alencon lace, had a lace-making business of her own. What was more important than their economic prosperity was their holiness of life: a trait testified to by Pope John Paul II on March 26, 1994, when he declared the Martin couple “venerable,” the first step to sainthood.

The Martin household was therefore a devout and an affectionate one. Unfortunately, Azelie died in 1877. The widower thereupon moved to Lisieux so as to be near his wife’s family and have their help in raising his daughters. His own older daughters assisted him greatly, of course. Marie, the eldest, was his housekeeper; Pauline, the second, became the new “mother” of the four-year-old Therese. Therese subsequently attended a convent school, but because of her shyness found the classroom difficult. Thereafter she was carefully taught at home by a tutoress and by her sisters.

In 1882, her “second mother,” Pauline, entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux. Therese felt called to the same way of life when she was only nine. She was not attracted to the convent for loneliness or as a copycat, she always insisted. Hers was an individual vocation.

Physically and emotionally delicate in her early years, Therese at 13 suddenly became spiritually grown-up, strong of heart, and eager to be a saint. Thereafter this junior teen, naturally bright, earnest and thoughtful, devoted much time to serious reading, not only in spirituality but in history and science. She set her mind on entering the local Carmel at 15. Objections were raised at so early a reception, but Therese was determined, and though prayer and persistence she got her wish. She entered the convent on April 9, 1888, taking the name Therese of the Child Jesus. (Later she added the words “of the Holy Face.”) Eventually, two others of her sisters, Marie and Celine, joined the same community. Did the four Martins take over Carmel? By no means; Carmel definitely took over the Martins, but they had their impact.

Therese would live only nine years as a Carmelite, dying of a painful consumption in 1897. In that brief term she had become a “perfect nun;” still, nobody would have thought of her as a great saint on the basis of their own observance. What disclosed her true holiness was her spiritual journal or “autobiography” published posthumously. In 1895, on the command of her superior, Mother Agnes (who was also her sister and “second mother” Pauline) she had commenced to write down her reflections. After her death, Mother Agnes sent around selections from this Story of a Soul to a number of Carmelite monasteries and certain churchmen. The readers were captivated by it, and more copies were demanded. Published formally in 1898, the book became a perennial “best-seller” throughout the world. By now it has been translated into over 40 languages and dialects.

What message in this book had identified the writer as a major saint?

The message communicated in Therese’s spiritual autobiography The Story of a Soul was a plan to achieve holiness, which she called “the little way of spiritual childhood”. Intent as a nun to become a saint, she had long sought in prayer and the Scriptures a specific vocation. She aspired to many, even contradictory apostolates: priest, missionary, doctor of the Church, martyr, etc. But eventually she realized that the apostolate that included and surpassed all these was love. Love, therefore, would be her mission: love of God and neighbor.

With regard to love of God, it is a mistake to conclude from the title “Little Flower” that Therese Martin was simply a routine votary. Quite the contrary. She was a strong character, down-to-earth, and truly a “valiant woman”. She did not favor heavy acts of penance, for she found in constant good cheer and the little trials of everyday life ample material for self-discipline. If she was physically prevented from travel by the convent walls, spiritually she could tour the world freely in quest of souls. She was a mere helpless child, she said, but she trusted God as a loving father, and found her strength in Him.

No wonder the little Saint said of her book, “There is something there for all tastes.” Its approach to holiness made it comprehensible to people in every walk of life. The crowds that have hailed her and still visit her shrine include saints and sinners; men, women and children; philosophers and theologians; poets and novelists; Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; Christians and Buddhists; cabaret entertainers; prisoners and prostitutes. In her they have found an empathetic figure and one eager to help.

The popes, too, have saluted Sister Therese as a gift of God. St. Pius X formally introduced her cause of canonization in 1914, only 17 years after her death. Benedict XV declared her “venerable” in 1921. Pius XI beatified this “cherished child of the world” in 1923, and canonized her in 1925. The same pope, in 1927, declared her co-patron, with St. Francis Xavier, of all foreign missions. In 1944, Pius XII proclaimed her co-patron of France along with St. Joan of Arc. Pope John Paul II, on pilgrimage to Lisieux in 1980, stated that God had permitted St. Therese to communicate to the world once more “the fundamental truth that God is our loving Father.”

In 1956, on the order of Pius XII, the full text of Therese’s manuscripts was published, and in 1961 were issued the photos of her taken in the cloister by her sister Celine. These and other hitherto unpublished materials made it quite clear that the nun of Lisieux was no dreamer but a sublime realist.

St. Therese of Lisieux is not alluded to in the texts issued by the Second Vatican Council, but the Council and its sequel reflect many of her insights: daily Communion; the duty of all the baptized to work for the good of the Faith; women as theologians; the importance of the missions; the frailty of the clergy and the need to pray and sacrifice for them; Christian reunion; and so forth.

Abbe Domin, the priest who in 1880 prepared Therese for her first Holy Communion, called her “my little doctor” (i.e. teacher). History would prove him a prophet. Popes have long since been conferring the title “doctor of the Church” on certain canonized churchmen whose teachings on the Faith have been of memorable value. No women, however, were given that formal honor prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1968).

One sequel of the Council’s viewpoint was the correction of this practice. As early as 1970 Pope Paul IV added the names of two outstanding women saints to the roster of church doctors. First came the great Spanish Carmelite foundress, St. Teresa of Avila (d. 1582); then came the brilliant Italian Dominican tertiary St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380).

On October 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II bestowed the doctoral title on a second Carmelite nun, St. Therese of Lisieux.

Why? When he canonized the Little Flower in 1925, Pope Pius XI pointed out that in her spiritual autobiography Therese had proven that even those called to an uneventful life can become holy by living that life holily.

A suggestion: for fuller knowledge about St. Therese, read the authentic, fascinating biography, The Story of a Life: St Therese of Lisieux by Guy Gaucher, O.C.D. (Harper San Francisco paperback, 1993, ISBN 0-06-063096-5.)

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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