The spread of the cult of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the impressive religious manifestations of our time. During her few years on earth this young French Carmelite was scarcely to be distinguished from many another devoted nun, but her death brought an almost immediate awareness of her unique gifts. Through her letters, the word-of-mouth tradition originating with her fellow-nuns, and especially through the publication of Histoire d’un âme, Thérèse of the Child Jesus or “The Little Flower” soon came to mean a great deal to numberless people; she had shown them the way of perfection in the small things of every day. Miracles and graces were being attributed to her intercession, and within twenty-eight years after death, this simple young nun had been canonized. In 1936 a basilica in her honor at Lisieux was opened and blessed by Cardinal Pacelli; and it was he who, in 1944, as Pope, declared her the secondary patroness of France. “The Little Flower” was an admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, and a comparison at once suggests itself. Both were christened Teresa, both were Carmelites, and both left interesting autobiographies. Many temperamental and intellectual differences separate them, in addition to the differences of period and of race; but there are striking similarities. They both patiently endured severe physical sufferings; both had a capacity for intense religious experience; both led lives made radiant by the love of Christ.
The parents of the later saint were Louis Martin, a watchmaker of Alencon, France, son of an army officer, and Azélie-Marie Guérin, a lacemaker of the same town. Only five of their nine children lived to maturity; all five were daughters and all were to become nuns. Françoise-Marie Thérèse, the youngest, was born on January 2, 1873. Her childhood must have been normally happy, for her first memories, she writes, are of smiles and tender caresses. Although she was affectionate and had much natural charm, Thérèse gave no sign of precocity. When she was only four, the family was stricken by the sad blow of the mother’s death. Monsieur Martin gave up his business and established himself at Lisieux, Normandy, where Madame Martin’s brother lived with his wife and family. The Guérins, generous and loyal people, were able to ease the father’s responsibilities through the years by giving to their five nieces practical counsel and deep affection.
The Martins were now and always united in the closest bonds. The eldest daughter, Marie, although only thirteen, took over the management of the household, and the second, Pauline, gave the girls religious instruction. When the group gathered around the fire on winter evenings, Pauline would read aloud works of piety, such as the Liturgical Year of Dom Gueranger. Their lives moved along quietly for some years, then came the first break in the little circle. Pauline entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. She was to advance steadily in her religious vocation, later becoming prioress. It is not astonishing that the youngest sister, then only nine, had a great desire to follow the one who had been her loving guide. Four years later, when Marie joined her sister at the Carmel, Thérèse’s desire for a life in religion was intensified. Her education during these years was in the hands of the Benedictine nuns of the convent of Notre-Dame-du-Prè. She was confirmed there at the age of eleven.
In her autobiography Thérèse writes that her personality changed after her mother’s death, and from being childishly merry she became withdrawn and shy. While Thérèse was indeed developing into a serious-minded girl, it does not appear that she became markedly sad. We have many evidences of liveliness and fun, and the oral tradition, as well as the many letters, reveal an outgoing nature, able to articulate the warmest expressions of love for her family, teachers, and friends.
On Christmas Eve, just a few days before Thérèse’s fourteenth birthday, she underwent an experience which she ever after referred to as “my conversion.” It was to exert a profound influence on her life. Let her tell of it —- and its moral effect —- in her own words: “On that blessed night the sweet infant Jesus, scarcely an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, He made me strong and brave: He put His own weapons into my hands so that I went on from strength to strength, beginning, if I may say so, ‘to run as a giant.'” An indelible impression had been made on this attuned soul; she claimed that the Holy Child had healed her of undue sensitiveness and “girded her with His weapons.” It was by reason of this vision that the saint was to become known as “Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”
The next year she told her father of her wish to become a Carmelite. He readily consented, but both the Carmelite authorities and Bishop Hugonin of Bayeux refused to consider it while she was still so young. A few months later, in November, to her unbounded delight, her father took her and another daughter, Celine, to visit Notre-Dame des Victoires in Paris, then on pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The party was accompanied by the Abbé Reverony of Bayeux. In a letter from Rome to her sister Pauline, who was now Sister Agnes of Jesus, Thérèse described the audience: “The Pope was sitting on a great chair; M. Reverony was near him; he watched the pilgrims kiss the Pope’s foot and pass before him and spoke a word about some of them. Imagine how my heart beat as I saw my turn come: I didn’t want to return without speaking to the Pope. I spoke, but I did not get it all said because M. Reverony did not give me time. He said immediately: ‘Most Holy Father, she is a child who wants to enter Carmel at fifteen, but its superiors are considering the matter at the moment.’ I would have liked to be able to explain my case, but there was no way. The Holy Father said to me simply: ‘If the good God wills, you will enter.’ Then I was made to pass on to another room. Pauline, I cannot tell you what I felt. It was like annihilation, I felt deserted…. Still God cannot be giving me trials beyond my strength. He gave me the courage to sustain this one.”
Thérèse did not have to wait long in suspense. The Pope’s blessing and the earnest prayers she offered at many shrines during the pilgrimage had the desired effect. At the end of the year Bishop Hugonin gave his permission, and on April 9, 1888, Thérèse joined her sisters in the Carmel at Lisieux. “From her entrance she astonished the community by her bearing, which was marked by a certain majesty that one would not expect in a child of fifteen.” So testified her novice mistress at the time of Thérèse’s beatification. During her novitiate Father Pichon, a Jesuit, gave a retreat, and he also testified to Thérèse’s piety. “It was easy to direct that child. The Holy Spirit was leading her and I do not think that I ever had, either then or later, to warn her against illusions…. What struck me during the retreat were the spiritual trials through which God wished her to pass.” Thérèse’s presence among them filled the nuns with happiness. She was slight in build, and had fair hair, gray-blue eyes, and delicate features. With all the intensity of her ardent nature she loved the daily round of religious practices, the liturgical prayers, the reading of Scripture. After entering the Carmel she began to sign letters to her father and others, “Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”
In 1889 the Martin sisters suffered a great shock. Their father, after two paralytic strokes, had a mental breakdown and had to be removed to a private sanitarium, where he remained for three years. Thérèse bore this grievous sorrow heroically.
On September 8, 1890, at the age of seventeen, Thérèse took final vows. In spite of poor health, she carried out from the first all the austerities of the stern Carmelite rule, except that she was not permitted to fast. “A soul of such mettle,” said the prioress, “must not be treated like a child. Dispensations are not meant for her.” The physical ordeal which she felt more than any other was the cold of the convent buildings in winter, but no one even suspected this until she confessed it on her death-bed. And by that time she was able to say, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
In 1893, when she was twenty, she was appointed to assist the novice mistress, and was in fact mistress in all but name. She comments, “From afar it seems easy to do good to souls, to make them love God more, to mold them according to our own ideas and views. But coming closer we find, on the contrary, that to do good without God’s help is as impossible as to make the sun shine at night.”
In her twenty-third year, on order of the prioress, Thérèse began to write the memories of her childhood and of life at the convent; this material forms the first chapters of Histoire d’un âme, the History of a Soul. It is a unique and engaging document, written with a charming spontaneity, full of fresh turns of phrase, unconscious self-revelation, and, above all, giving evidence of deep spirituality. She describes her own prayers and thereby tells us much about herself. “With me prayer is a lifting up of the heart, a look towards Heaven, a cry of gratitude and love uttered equally in sorrow and in joy; in a word, something noble, supernatural, which enlarges my soul and unites it to God…. Except for the Divine Office, which in spite of my unworthiness is a daily joy, I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers. . . . I do as a child who has not learned to read, I just tell our Lord all that I want and he understands.” She has natural psychological insight: “Each time that my enemy would provoke me to fight I behave like a brave soldier. I know that a duel is an act of cowardice, and so, without once looking him in the face, I turn my back on the foe, hasten to my Saviour, and vow that I am ready to shed my blood in witness of my belief in Heaven.” She mentions her own patience humorously. During meditation in the choir, one of the sisters continually fidgeted with her rosary, until Thérèse was perspiring with irritation. At last, “instead of trying not to hear it, which was impossible, I set myself to listen as though it had been some delightful music, and my meditation, which was not the ‘prayer of quiet,’ passed in offering this music to our Lord.” Her last chapter is a paean to divine love, and concludes, “I entreat Thee to let Thy divine eyes rest upon a vast number of little souls; I entreat Thee to choose in this world a legion of little victims of Thy love.” She counted herself among these. “I am a very little soul, who can offer only very little things to the Lord.”
In 1894 Louis Martin died, and soon Celine, who had of late been taking care of him, made the fourth sister from this family in the Carmel at Lisieux. Some years later, the fifth, Leonie, entered the convent of the Visitation at Caen.
Thérèse occupied herself with reading and writing almost up to the end of her life. That event loomed ever nearer as tuberculosis made a steady advance. During the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, 1896, she suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage. Although her bodily and spiritual sufferings were extreme, she wrote many letters, to members of her family and to distant friends, as well as continuing Histoire d’un âme. She carried on a correspondance with Carmelite sisters at Hanoi, China; they wished her to come out and join them, not realizing the seriousness of her ailment. She had a great yearning to respond to their appeal. At intervals moments of revelation came to her, and it was then that she penned those succinct reflections that are now repeated so widely. Here are three of them that give the flavor of her mind: “I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.” “I have never given the good God aught but love, and it is with love that He will repay.” “My ‘little way’ is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.”
A further insight is given us in a letter Thérèse wrote, shortly before she died, to Père Roulland, a missionary in China. “Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises, in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind soon grows weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul, perfection seems easy; I see that it is enough to realize one’s nothingness, and give oneself wholly, like a child, into the arms of the good God. Leaving to great souls, great minds, the fine books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because ‘only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.’”
In June, 1897, Thérèse was removed to the infirmary of the convent. On September 30, with the words, “My God . . . I love Thee!” on her lips she died. The day before, her sister Celine, knowing the end was at hand, had asked for some word of farewell, and Thérèse, serene in spite of pain, murmured, “I have said all . . . all is consummated . . . only love counts.”
The prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, wrote in the convent register, alongside the saint’s act of Profession: “. . . The nine and a half years she spent among us leave our souls fragrant with the most beautiful virtues with which the life of a Carmelite can be filled. A perfect model of humility, obedience, charity, prudence, detachment, and regularity, she fulfilled the difficult discipline of mistress of novices with a sagacity and affection which nothing could equal save her love for God….”
The Church was to recognize a profound and valuable teaching in ‘the little way’—connoting a realistic awareness of one’s limitations, and the wholehearted giving of what one has, however small the gift. Beginning in 1898, with the publication of a small edition of Histoire d’un âme, the cult of this saint of ‘the little way’ grew so swiftly that the Pope dispensed with the rule that a process for canonization must not be started until fifty years after death. Almost from childhood, it seems, Thérèse had consciously aspired to the heights, often saying to herself that God would not fill her with a desire that was unattainable. Only twenty-six years after her death she was beatified by Pope Pius XI, and in the year of Jubilee, 1925, he pronounced her a saint. Two years later she was named heavenly patroness of foreign missions along with St. Francis Xavier.