SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX
Doctor of the Church
Also Known as: Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, The Little Flower
1873 – 1897
Feast Day: October 1
Patron of: France, Russia, Vietnam, aids patients, concerns of children, florists, foreign missions, pilots, religious freedom in Russia, tuberculosis patients,
Invoked: for a loving atmosphere
“...My vocation is love! Yes I have found my place in the Church….in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love.”
Therese of Lisiuex
Considered the greatest saint of modern times, Therese of Lisieux lived and died in obscurity. A Carmelite nun who never rose above novice, she spent her days performing routine chores and dying just a few miles from where she was brought up. Hers was an interior life and she quietly developed a system of living that has since attracted hundreds of millions of devotees around the world.
Born Therese Martin into an upper middle class family in Normandy, France, she was the youngest of five sisters. The Martin family were happy and pious as both parents had wanted religious vocations before they met and married. When Therese was four her mother died of breast cancer and the family moved to the town of Lisieux to be near extended family. Raised by her older sisters, Therese was outgoing and extremely spoiled. She later admitted that she refused to do any chores and the slightest rebuff of what she wanted would reduce her to hysterical fits and tears. When her eldest sister joined the local Carmelite convent, Therese, nine years old, requested to follow her. She had decided that she wanted to become a saint. The Mother Superior advised her that the earliest she could enter would be at the age of 16. When a few months later, Therese fell gravely ill, her bedside was surrounded by concerned relatives. According to her later writings she was instantly cured when she saw the statue of the Virgin Mary in her room smile at her.
The religious atmosphere of her home absorbed her three older sisters, by the time she was 14 years old they had all joined the convent. Her remaining sister, Celeste enjoyed babying Therese and made their father leave gifts in Therese’s shoes for Christmas, a custom enjoyed by only very young French children. As Therese raced home from church to receive her gifts, the girls overheard their father saying how glad he was that this would be the last year for something so silly. Instead of bursting into tears at this slight, Therese reported that her heart filled with an incredible warmth. She felt the presence of Jesus and suddenly was able to identify fully with her father’s feelings. Without acknowledging that she had heard the remark, she ran and received her gifts with enthusiasm. She declared that this was the point of her “conversion”. Shortly after she decided that she too would like to become a nun. Since she was far too young, the convent refused her. Steeling her resolve she petitioned the bishop. When he also refused her, her father decided to take his two remaining daughters on a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the Christian sites. This was one of the happiest experiences of her short life. Together with her sister, they saw where the early martyrs died and happily touched relics of the saints. While at an audience for Pope Leo XIII, Therese burst out of her seat and requested permission to join the Carmelites. She was told by him that it all depended on the will of God. Upon her family’s return to France, Therese was admitted to the Carmelite Order. Despite the fact that she was only fifteen years old, the Vicar General had seen in her the steely resolve needed to endure such a difficult life of sacrifice.
According to Therese, all her romantic and pious notions of the sentimental holiness of convent life ended upon her admittance. For one thing, her beloved father had suffered a series of debilitating strokes and because she was a cloistered nun, she could not see him. For another, her daily routine consisted of hours of prayer interspersed with menial labor. She felt her prayers were not being heard and would often fall asleep grief stricken in a state of “spiritual dryness”. She also knew that the life of a cloistered nun devoted to prayer was far from the active life of a great saint or martyr, instead, she came face to face with her personal failings and weaknesses. Feeling like a very little being she pictured herself as a small child being carried by Jesus. She later asked someone, “Why would I fear a God who made himself so small for me?” She discovered that if she could not stand another nun, she would ask Jesus to become part of her and he would show her how to love that person. She began to apply this approach to everything in life, to food she could not stand, to chores she disliked, to being uncomfortable and cold in the convent. By accepting the reality of her own weaknesses and offering herself to God so that he could work through her, she began to see God as love personified and wrote, “It is not so essential to think much as to love much.” Noting that everyone has their special talents and abilities, Therese decided that her special devotion would be to love. “…My vocation is love! Yes I have found my place in the Church….in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love.”
Since the Carmelites had convents all over the world, Therese had the dream to travel to Viet Nam to be a missionary, welcoming possible martyrdom, she felt a strong desire to act as an apostle. Instead, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and forced to remain in her convent. Her sister had been elected Prioress of their house and then asked Therese to sacrifice her desire to being a full fledged nun in order to allay fears that the Martin sisters were taking over the convent. Therese never advanced above the role of novice and lacked the privileges of the other nuns. She insisted that God would not give her the desire to be a saint if it were an impossible achievement. She became obsessed with finding a way to holiness by living a small and hidden life.
By 1896 her health was deteriorating and she was ordered by her sister to write a book of memories detailing her spiritual life. This is a common Carmelite exercise of self examination. As she approached her own death doubts began to plague her. She worried that there was no after life, that all the future held for her was a “nothingness of being”. In this spiritual autobiography “The Story of A Soul”, Therese details the development of her “Little Way”. She realized that since great deeds were forbidden to her due to her personal circumstances, she would scatter small loving deeds, a smile, a kind thought, like flowers. By the end of her life, her devotion to love and her willingness to make small daily sacrifices had reconciled her to looking forward to her death. She knew that no act, no matter how small, was insignificant. Her wish was to spiritually come back to earth, to work without rest until the end of the world. When one of her sisters visited her on her deathbed and cried about how much she would miss her, Therese said “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.”
After her death in 1897, her memoir, “A Story of A Soul” was printed and sent out among the Carmelite sisters. This story had great appeal for Catholics struggling to find holiness while living everyday lives. It became a major best selling book all over France and has since been translated into over 60 languages. People everywhere felt an intense connection with Therese, her doubts and solution to accepting the life one is given made her a saint for modern times. Pilgrimages to Lisieux began and miraculous healings were reported. During World War I it was common for French infantrymen to carry her picture in their wallets. She was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the Church for her writings in 1997. Devotion to her philosophies continue to grow. Her relics have visited the four corners of the world. Wherever they go, an outpouring of visitors numbering in the tens of millions come to be in their presence. These visits are used as opportunities to educate about the “Little Way”of Therese.
In art, Saint Therese is depicted holding a crucifix as roses, signifying graces fall from her hands. It is said that all who invoke her know their prayers will be answered when they see roses as a sign. She is the patron of foreign missions because of her interests in being a missionary and because of the fact her relics have visited so many countries of the world. The Carmelites have had a long time presence in Russia, their convent in Siberia has administered to exiled rulers from East Germany and Poland for centuries. Tensions with the Orthodox Church have made the advances of Roman Catholicism difficult there. It is thought that the Orthodox and Roman churches could be reconciled by enacting on Therese’s simple theories of divine love. Because of her dream to work in Viet Nam, she is patron of that country. She is also the secondary patron of France for her writings in French and for the love her countrymen have for her. She is the patron of AIDS sufferers as well as tuberculosis, since she like many with these diseases have been cut off in the prime of life. Since it was her great dream to travel she is the patron of pilots.
Novena to Therese of the Child Jesus
O little Therese of the Child Jesus,
Please pick for me a rose from the heavenly
gardens and send it to me as a message of love.
O little flower of Jesus,
ask God today to grant favors
I now place with confidence in your hands…
(Mention specific request)
Saint Therese, help me to always believe as you did,
in God’s great love for me,
So that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day.
Say this novena nine times in a row for nine days in a row.
Excerpted from the book “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua