“In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)
Introduction: A short summary like this is by its very nature inadequate and needs to be balanced out and given more depth by the writings of professional theologians who have written books about the life and spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux. Moreover, the best way to gather in the spirituality of Saint Therese is to read her autobiography, either in its traditional, edited version or in its full version. Nevertheless, I hope I capture in this note some of the key elements of St. Therese’s spirituality which, in turn, caused her to become a great saint and Doctor of the Universal Church. We may say therefore, in reference to the above quote, that Saint Therese loved God intensely and therefore fulfilled the purpose in life to which God called her.
1. Here is a key quote from St. Therese’s famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul, emphasizing the core of her spirituality, namely, the primacy of love, or of capturing God’s heart through love:
“But what I demand is love. I care now about one thing only – to love You, my Jesus! Great deeds are forbidden me, I cannot preach the Gospel nor shed my blood – but what does it matter? My brothers toil instead of me and I, a little child, well, I keep close by the throne of God and I love for those who fight. Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Well, I will scatter flowers, perfuming the Divine throne with their fragrance, and I’ll sweetly sing my hymn of love. Yes, my Beloved, that is how I will spend my short life. 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 of actions for love. I wish both to suffer and to find joy through love” (p 156, Image Books edition).
What did Saint Therese see with great accuracy (great spiritual insight)? She saw that God has a FATHER’S HEART! And growing up in a very affectionate home she knew that a good Father helps out his little children. And seeing clearly that God is an Infinitely Good Father, she realized that her littleness and weakness would draw down the Father’s help. She realized she could trust God…her Father…because she was a child, a daughter, of the Father! She saw she could take God by love! (Ref. The Way of Trust and Love: A Retreat Guided by Saint Therese of Lisieux by Father Jacques Phillippe).
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ “ (Romans 8:15 ). Abba literally means Daddy or Papa. That’s what Therese did with God: she cried “Abba,” or “Papa,” as the adopted daughter of an Infinitely Good Father. So now we see why, despite her weakness and littleness, Therese had such confidence in God. Father Faber says that so much stunted growth in the spiritual life comes from not truly seeing God as our Father. We must get this right: “Abba.” Saint Therese’s way of spiritual childhood is reflected nicely in this quote from her: “To remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, to expect everything from God, as a little child expects everything from his father.”
2. She was a cloistered Carmelite nun (Born: 1873 in Alencon, France) who from as early as age three had an intense longing for God (a key element of her spirituality). She grew up in a very loving and Catholic household and her faith development was greatly influenced by her parents and older sisters. The early part of her autobiography recounts her childhood years and the many steps she took to gain early admission to the convent at Carmel at the age of fifteen. She would die nine years later.
As is not uncommon with the great saints, Therese had a profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Carmelites are under the patronage of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel). Therese developed a debilitating nervous condition when her sister, Pauline, left the family home to enter the convent at Carmel (Pauline had become Therese’s “second mother” upon the death of Zelie Martin – Therese’s mother – in 1877). Therese attributed her sudden cure from this illness to a prayer she made while gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary – a prayer in which she asked the Virgin to have pity on her. Suddenly, as Therese relates:
“The Blessed Virgin glowed with a beauty beyond anything I had ever seen. Her face was alive with kindness and infinite tenderness, but it was her enchanting smile that really moved me to the depths. My pain vanished and two great tears crept down my cheeks – tears of pure joy” (p.46).
Therese was ten years old at the time she was cured by “Our Lady of Victories,” and approximately one year later she made an act of consecration to the Virgin Mary on the day of her First Communion.
3. As a Carmelite nun, she was well grounded in Carmelite spirituality (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), a spirituality which emphasizes, above all other considerations, the primacy of the love of God. Austerity, detachment, mortification, contemplative and community prayer, trust in God, solitude (Saint Therese was a cloistered nun), and a keen realization that the passing things of this world do not amount to a hill of beans when compared to the glory God has prepared for those who love Him, are key elements of Carmelite spirituality. Well before she entered Carmel to be a contemplative, cloistered nun, at about the time she made her First Holy Communion, she states:
“Our friends were too worldly and too clever at mixing the pleasures of the world with the service of God. They scarcely gave a thought to death…. And I knew that all is fleeting that we cherish here under the sun. The only good thing is to love God with all one’s heart and to stay poor in spirit” (49-50).
4. Saint Therese was ardently Eucharistic from a very early age. She relates that she received exceptional graces when she made her first Holy Communion at age eleven. The Saint – describing her first Holy Communion “as a flood of divine joy” – relates the following in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul:
“Oh how sweet the first kiss of Jesus was! It was a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved and I declared: ‘I love you and I give myself to you forever!’ …on that day it was no longer a matter of gazing: it was a union. There were no longer two of us . Therese had disappeared like a drop of water in the depth of the ocean. Only Jesus remained….” (Image Books, page 52).
5. The image of her as a charming French girl who gave her life to God by becoming a nun and offered up little sacrifices on God’s behalf is true and of great importance – and yet her life runs even deeper than that. Her life is the story of a girl and then a young woman who was radically in love with God and who wished to offer herself to God in an exchange of love that took her completely beyond herself and into God (nuptial union).
Here are a few examples from Saint Therese’s autobiography which demonstrate her great desire to offer herself to God:
– she reflects in her autobiography that around age 6 “I loved God intensely, and very often I offered Him my heart in words taught me by Mummy” (Image, p.32);
– At age 13 she writes these words of Saint John of the Cross in “fine lettering” : “To suffer and to be despised” (Gaucher, p.11);
– At age 14 “while contemplating an image of Christ on the cross, she resolved to ‘remain in spirit at the foot of the cross’ in order to gather the blood that drips from his wounds and give it to souls” (Gaucher, p. 13); and
– While a nun at Carmel (around age 22) she makes a profound offering of her life to God as a “victim of love” in a written text available online entitled, “An Act of Oblation to Merciful Love.”
6. At a young age she realized that self-love was the greatest obstacle to her sanctity. She learned to check self-love by making acts of self-denial – a practice taught to her by her sisters. Later in her life she stated:
“True love grows by sacrifice and the more thoroughly a soul rejects natural satisfaction, the stronger and more detached its tenderness becomes” (132).
Renunciation is a foundational element of her spirituality.
7. At the time of her First Holy Communion she is given the grace to understand the important role suffering will play in her life:
“After Holy Communion…I was seized with a passionate longing to suffer. I felt certain that Jesus had many, many crosses in store for me. My soul was flooded with such consolation that I regarded it as one of the greatest graces of my life. I was drawn to suffering” (53).
The value of redemptive suffering is a key component of her life and spirituality.
8. Her favorite book, besides the Bible, is The Imitation of Christ, which is, in essence, a practical Christian handbook for overcoming disordered self-love. In Carmelite spirituality self-denial and mortification of the senses and spirit are means of purgation that open up our hearts to the love of God.
9. She is very well versed in the Bible, and the following passages from the Old Testament have a tremendous impact on how she views herself:
“Whoever is a little one, let him come to me” (Proverbs 9:4)
“For to him that is little, mercy will be shown” (Wisdom 6:7)
Humility and littleness are foundational to Therese’s spirituality. “Unless you become like a little child you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 18: 3). Additionally, she draws great strength from the Bible.
10. She had a great yearning in her heart to be a missionary or a martyr for God. A famous picture of Therese in Carmel (her convent at Lisieux) shows her dressing up as the great Saint Joan of Arc. Therese also desired to perform “heroic deeds.” She states: “I want to be a warrior….I should like to die on the battlefield in defense of the Church. I should like to wander through the world , preaching your Name and raising your glorious Cross in pagan lands” (153). Yet she realizes that, given the circumstances of her life, including her ill health, great deeds do not seem to fit within God’s plan for her life. This realization of her “littleness” and “weakness” does not weaken her resolve to love and serve Jesus. From 1 Cor. 13, where St. Paul writes about the primacy of love, she comes to the insight that even small acts done with love are very pleasing to God. She states: “Charity gave me the key to my vocation. My vocation is love! I will be love…. I remember that the smallest act of love is more…than every other work put together….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 of actions for love.”
Therese’s “little way” of “making love the mainspring of every action” requires the profound, constant and universal mortification of self-love and self-interest. It is a little way but with huge implications for growth in holiness. The sweet, little way is a death – a death to self. Undergirding Therese’s little way, therefore, is an ardent love of God expressed by a sacrificial life.
We affectionately call Saint Therese “The Little Flower”. And all the saints were aware of their extreme littleness compared to God: humility is the pathway to God. But it would be a mistake not to see in Saint Therese the heart of a lion who went after God with a ferocious appetite. In fact, Saint Therese in her autobiography compares herself to “a weak little bird” who has “the eyes and heart of an eagle” (Manuscript B)
11. The real essence of her spirituality is her great confidence and trust (indeed abandonment) in God’s love and mercy. She states: “O Jesus, if only I could tell all little souls of your immeasurable condescension. I feel that if you found a soul feebler than mine…You would delight in heaping even greater favors on it if it abandoned itself with supreme confidence to Your infinite mercy” (159). I feel the following words of St. Therese best summarize her spirituality:
“Holiness is not one exercise or another. It consists in a disposition of the heart, which renders us humble and little in the hands of God, conscious of our weakness but confident, even daringly confident, in God’s goodness.”
12. Of Therese, Father Christopher O’Donnell says: “When we get beneath the language and culture of Therese, we find that for all her charm, she was almost ruthless in her pursuit of holiness in her complete sacrifice to God’s merciful love.” Thus, our own desire and determination to love and serve God, albeit supported by grace, is crucial if we want to grow in holiness. Our own effort to love and serve God is very important. “Strive for that holiness without which no one can see God” (Hebrews 12:14).
13. Therese underscores that we stray from the path of holiness when we take our eyes off of Jesus. This is a fundamental spiritual maxim that St. Teresa of Avila was fond of repeating:”Don’t take your eyes off of Jesus.” Therese states: “I resolved never to let my soul wander from the gaze of Jesus, so it could sail peacefully towards the shores of Heaven” (p.38). Like the apostle Peter, we begin to sink when we take our eyes off of Jesus.
14. She underscores the vanity of all earthly things, stating: “the only way to get happiness in this world is to remain in ignorance of all created things….I saw that He alone was unchanging and that He (God) alone could satisfy the immensity of my desires” (p.107). In our present times, we should reflect deeply on how our possessions and “things” impede our love of God. Although some possessions are necessary, we should renounce any attachment to them.
15.Therese understands that so many of the activities we do in life are boring and hum-drum. Nevertheless, with each present moment – no matter what we are doing – we have the opportunity to grow in grace and holiness by performing our duties faithfully and for the love of God. The essence of her sanctity, as John Beevers points out, is in the realization that great love, not great deeds, is what makes us holy. This is Therese’s “little way,” and it involves the recognition that God is present in every moment of our lives no matter how insignificant our lot in life may be. Each present moment is an opportunity to grow in holiness, this especially when we are motivated by the love of God. Some scholars note a similarity here between Therese’s spirituality and Jean Pierre de Caussade’s theology of the “sacrament of the present moment” (Reference: Introduction of Abandonment to Divine Providence, audio Cds, Ignatius Press). Another great French spiritual writer, Father Lallemant, once said: “The smallest measure of holiness, the least action that increases holiness, is to be preferred before scepters and crowns. Whence it follows, that by losing everyday opportunities of doing so many supernatural actions, we incur losses of happiness inconceivable in extent….”
16. Despite her littleness, Therese had a prophetic intuition that God was accomplishing great things through her, despite the fact that she would not witness these things in her lifetime (talk about confidence in God!) She states in her autobiography: “I was made to understand the glory I was to win would never be seen during my lifetime – I shall become a saint.” What a prediction! She is no doubt the most popular saint of modern times. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is one of the best selling religious books of all time.
17. In the months before her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she suffered through a terrible dark night of the soul – battling heroically the temptation that her belief in Heaven was a mere illusion. It was only shortly before her death that this tempest of darkness broke, and there can be no doubt that Therese’s voluntary participation in our Lord’s passion during her dark night of abandonment won countless graces for many souls (and obviously continues to do so). Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta also underwent a very trying and elongated dark night, so this type of abandonment and experience of desolation is a sign of great sanctity.
18. She is a saint of God’s divine mercy. From the opening line of her autobiography she is constantly praising the mercy of God. It is from God’s mercy that she draws her strength and confidence. Because of God’s incredible mercy, Therese is secure in her littleness and imperfections – knowing that God loves her in spite of her flaws and failures. Although she laments often falling asleep during meditation, she nevertheless remains untroubled by her weakness because she knows that God loves her even when she is sleeping! Thus, even when we sin and offend God we should never despair but rather put all our trust and confidence in God’s incredible – unfathomable – mercy!
The core of Saint Therese’s message, says Saint John Paul II, is the merciful love of God. In his Apostolic Letter Proclaiming Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, Pope John Paul II made the following observation regarding the core of Saint Therese’s message:
“The core of her message is actually the mystery itself of God-Love, of the triune God infinitely perfect in himself. If genuine Christian spiritual experience should conform to the revealed truths in which God communicates himself and the mystery of his will (cf. Dei Verbum, 2), it must be said that Therese experienced divine revelation, going so far as to contemplate the fundamental truths of our faith united in the mystery of Trinitarian life. At the summit, as the source and goal, is the merciful love of the three divine Persons, as she expresses it, especially in her “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love.” At the root, on the subject’s part, is the experience of being the Father’s adoptive children in Jesus; this is the most authentic meaning of spiritual childhood, that is, the experience of divine filiation, under the movement of the Holy Spirit. At the root again, and standing before us, is our neighbor, others for whose salvation we must collaborate with and in Jesus, with the same merciful love as his.” (no. 8)
19. A core feature of Carmelite spirituality is contemplation or contemplative prayer (Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, both Carmelites, were great mystics and contemplatives). It is sometimes thought that Saint Therese was less graced with the gift of mystical contemplation, but Father Garrigou-LaGrange challenges this notion. He states:
“Truly St. Teresa of Lisieux traced for us the simple road which leads to great heights. In her teaching, as it pleased Pope Pius XI to point out, the gift of wisdom appears in a lofty degree for the direction of souls thirsting for the truth and wishing, above all human conceptions, to live by the word of God….The way of childhood thus understood, especially as we see it toward the end of the life of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, is very elevated in its simplicity. Its lofty simplicity comes home to us because the saint certainly passed through the night of the spirit (which corresponds to the sixth mansion of St. Teresa of Avila), as may be seen on reading chapter nine of the Histoire d’une ame. It was the reading of this chapter, some thirty years ago, that gave us the idea of explaining the night of the spirit by a profound and intense influence of the gift of understanding, which brings out in powerful relief the formal motive of humility and of each of the three theological virtues. Thereby these infused virtues are purified of all alloy or attachment to secondary and accessory motives on which until then the soul had dwelt excessively” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Chapter 41, regarding the way of spiritual childhood).
20. I think one could make a strong case that the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit were highly operational in Saint Therese’s life, even from an early age: the Gift of Fear in her reverence for God and holiness; the Gift of Piety in her tenderness and affection for God as Father; the Gift of Fortitude in her ability to overcome many difficulties and sufferings in the pursuit of holiness; the Gift of Counsel in her docility to the will of God; the Gift of Knowledge in her grasping the vanity of all earthly things that pass away; the Gift of Understanding in her profound understanding of spiritual truths and her ability to express them in written form; and the Gift of Wisdom in her union with God through love and contemplation . What I have said here is both cursory and inadequate and could be greatly expanded upon by many concrete examples from her life and writings.
21.Therese’s last words moments before she died in Carmel were: “Oh! I love Him…My God…I love You.” She died on September 30, 1897.
22. In 1898, 2000 copies of her autobiography were printed. By 1914, Carmel was receiving 200 letters a day regarding Therese and her “favors”; this number grows to 800 a day by 1923.
23. She was beatified in 1923 and canonized by Pius XI in 1925.
24. She was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997. She is the patron saint of missions and the Secondary Patroness of France (behind her hero, Joan of Arc).
25. Pray to her, for she promised “to do good from Heaven.” John 15:15 is a summary of her life:
“I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.”
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
References: I am relying primarily on St. Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, including the Introduction by John Beevers in the Image Edition and the Introduction by John Clarke in the ICS Edition; and John Beever’s biography of St. Therese, Storm of Glory; and Ralph Martin’s audio presentation on Saint Therese available at renewalministries.net
Image: Saint Therese at age 13 (Public Domain, U.S.A.)
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