What is the great secret of St. Thérèse of Lisieux? A bourgeois French girl joins a cloistered convent at the age of 15, spends her days in prayer, work and silence, hidden from the world, journals her spiritual experiences and tragically dies of tuberculosis at 24 years old in 1897. Yet, just 28 years later, during the Holy Year of 1925, Pope Pius XI canonizes her a saint at a Mass attended by tens of thousands, a magnificent basilica is built in her honor in her hometown and she rapidly becomes one of the most popular saints in the entire history of the Catholic Church.
It is a rare parish, school or Catholic institution that bears no image of her. Millions of believers around the globe devotedly pray to her, exulting in her powerful heavenly intercession. How do we explain this extraordinary religious phenomenon that propelled an unknown girl to the heights of recognized sanctity?
Born in Normandy, France, in 1873 to extremely devout parents, Thérèse Martin grew up in a secure, loving and prosperous family, surrounded by servants and Catholic faith. The loss of her mother at the tender age of 4 wounded her deeply, triggering a distressing illness and a vision of the Blessed Mother smilingly comforting her. As Thérèse’s sisters, one by one, left home to join the local Carmelite convent, she felt the same urgent call to religious life herself.
Spiritually precocious, the young Thérèse also suffered from an extremely sensitive nature, prone to storms of copious tears and distressing scruples. Arguably coddled and spoiled by her affectionate father, who called her his “Little Princess,” she rose above her limitations, boldly seeking entrance to the convent as a teenager, which was against all the rules. When her pleading with the local bishop and even Pope Leo XIII during a pilgrimage to Rome bore no fruit, Thérèse surrendered her will to God and waited. Against all expectation, she was granted permission to enter the cloister at the age of 15, joining two of her blood sisters in a hidden silence of prayer, renunciation and penance.
Once the novelty of her new life wore off, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus admitted to a gnawing restlessness. The long days of prayer, silence and work, coupled with the dynamic of a vivacious teenager in a cloistered world of much older women, along with the resentment expressed by some of the nuns regarding the preferential treatment Thérèse received, made for some daunting challenges. In her more challenging moments, Thérèse dreamed of a different life, inspired by the glory of Joan of Arc, imagining herself as a martyr, a missionary — or even a priest — anything other than the endless sequence of quiet days behind convent walls which she had embraced when she professed her vows and put on the Carmelite habit.
In this context of vocational angst, the young nun discovered the spirituality that she would come to call her “Little Way” in the pages of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 12 of this epistle reminded Thérèse that different roles of service exist within the Church — apostles, prophets, teachers — and that the eye is not the hand. Then, she read Paul’s great hymn to love in Chapter 13 and felt a spiritual explosion of joy within her: “Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation … I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love … I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything … Then nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love … In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.”
In this scriptural meditation, Thérèse experienced a transformation in her heart which changed everything. She realized that God was calling her to great love, not heroic deeds, that her cloistered life, hidden from the world, mattered to the Lord and the life of the universal Church. Doing little things with enormous love became the nucleus of her Little Way. Being kind and patient with a cranky old nun in the cell next to her, smiling when she wanted to cry, loving a neurotic sister who drove her to distraction — these small acts of virtue, often unnoticed by others, became Thérèse’s path to sanctity. Immersed in a cloistered world of silence and prayer, she became love, offering the totality of her heart to the Lord for the good of His Mystical Body, the Church.
The other essential component to the mystery and mysticism of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is the depth of her suffering. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in the winter of 1897, she rapidly deteriorated. Exhausted, coughing up blood, realizing that she was under a death sentence at the age of 24, the saint was plunged into a deep spiritual darkness. She despaired of heaven, feeling shut out from the Lord’s light and love. Maybe she had thrown away her life on a naive illusion. Wondering if God even existed at times, she pondered the tragedy of dying and simply falling into an abyss of nothingness. Sensing no divine consolation, Thérèse persevered in a radical trust of God’s tender love for her, despite fleeting thoughts of suicide.
This dark night of the soul persisted until the very moment of her death on Sept. 30, 1897, when she looked up to heaven with a beatific smile on her face and uttered, “My God, I love you!” and closed her eyes for the last time. Many of the greatest saints, including John of the Cross, Teresa of Calcutta and Teresa of Ávila experienced this same intense purification and were asked to surrender to the Lord, despite no consolation, light or inspiration to guide their spiritual path. In the passion of their suffering, they drank Jesus’ chalice to the dregs, knowing in their heart and flesh the night of abandonment.
Thérèse was quietly buried in the local cemetery, but never forgotten by her sisters. Her intense love for Jesus and burning desire to do good remained as a luminous example of holiness, as did her promises that she would spend her heaven doing good on earth and that she would let drop a shower of roses upon those who prayed to her.
During the horrors of World War I, the Lisieux Carmel distributed prayer cards to French soldiers, which asked for her intercession and protection. When the war ended, the convent was flooded with hundreds of letters, testifying to the spiritual power of Thérèse in the ravaging danger of war. Soldiers claimed that they saw her next to them in the trenches; one said she pushed him out of the way to avoid a mortar blast; another hid in a barn at Thérèse’s direction and avoided capture. The testimonies were so astounding and similar that they fueled her cause for sainthood and created a sensation around the world as these experiences became known. Her spiritual autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” became a best-seller.
What does this paradoxical saint teach us? Most of us will never perform epic deeds of holiness or achieve great distinction as canonized saints, so Thérèse is for us, the saint of the little people. As she lay dying, she overheard two nuns wondering what the mother superior would say about Thérèse in her obituary, since she had done nothing extraordinary! She teaches us to do simple things — the ordinary tasks and duties of the daily with great love, that our faith is more about the desire for God in our hearts than the fame of our deeds.
Thérèse embraced the mundane details of her life as she found it and lifted them to the Lord in a glorious act of oblation. Her sanctity speaks to the subversive power of the Gospel itself, which tells us to accept the kingdom of God as a child and to embrace our weakness, inadequacy and poverty in a liberating humility.
She is also a saint of the dark night, a patron for those who feel abandoned by God in suffering, pain, depression or loneliness. Her Little Way is not a saccharine path of spiritual naiveté, but rather an honest grappling with the forces of despair and evil that beset each of us on our path to the kingdom of heaven. The crucible of her tubercular death shows us how to persevere in faith in those terrible moments bereft of all consolation and light. Her victory is ours. If we simply love God in the duties and relationships before us, Christ will lift us up and place us next to His heart.
I have personally experienced many times the powerful efficacy of St. Thérèse’s intercession, often in startling and unexpected ways. Her promise to spend her heaven doing good on earth reminds us that love is never idle, that, for the saints before the throne of God, eternity is a busy time as they pray for us and love us toward the glorious place of salvation they enjoy.
Pray regularly to St. Thérèse. Ask her for favors. She will not disappoint.
Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop-elect for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.