Here was one of the most brilliant popes the Church has ever seen declaring that little Thérése Martin was to be studied and analyzed alongside the great Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine!
St. Therese of Lisieux: as a child, dressed as St. Joan of Arc, as a cloistered Carmelite nun, kneeling doing the wash, and in death.
C.S. Lewis says fear can come in one of two forms. The first is the fear that arises upon learning, say, that there is a tiger in the room where you are sitting; this is the fear that comes from realizing what such a savage beast could do to you. The other kind of fear comes upon hearing that there is a ghost in the room; it is a fear not of something happening to you, but a knee-trembling awe in realizing the utter otherness of such a reality. This latter fear is what the scriptures call the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prov 1:7; 9:10) and this is the kind of fear that Thérése and her petite voie, her “little way” instills in me.
Scared of a saint, of a holy young sister? Scared of one suffering from incurable tuberculosis, who rarely left the confines of cloister, and of one who died at only 24 years old?
Yes. Embarrassingly so—but not for what she could ever do to me but simply out of who she is!
Marie-Françoise-Thérése was born on January 2, 1873 in Alençon in Normandy, about 100 miles west of Paris, to Louis and Zélie Martin, the Church’s first modern-day beatified couple. By all accounts she was an overly sensitive child but played joyfully with her sisters and was, overall, a fun-loving little girl. Her day (and the Martin’s entire family life together, rightly) centered around the local parish and the habit of attending the 5:30 morning Mass each day. Here, the Martins lived an exemplary life, active not only in the silence of regular prayer, but in the active life—stories abound about the Martins’ attentiveness to the shut-ins and the poor of their community, and even of how they would share the food and company of their own home’s table with needy passers-by.
When she was just 4½, Thérése’s mother, Zélie, died from breast cancer. That day was forever etched on her little soul: “Every detail of my mother’s illness is still with me, specially her last weeks on earth.” Yet, instead of making her bitter, this experience showed Thérése the providential care of God, making his presence more real than ever in her life, and inviting her to trust that life on this earth would be glorious only for those who laid their lives down out of love for him.
Very early on, Thérése sensed a call to consecrated religious life, and with two older sisters having already entered the local Carmel, she, too, realized that she would find her true love there. She entered in 1888, and for the next 9 years Thérése’s life was fairly uneventful. For a time, she was made an assistant to the novice mistress. Yet, nothing overly-eventful occurred to her in the Carmel, and she admits that toward the end of her life she even struggled with the sensible loss of feeling God’s closeness. She spent the last months of her life in bed slowly handing herself definitively over to the Lord—weakening, coughing, and graciously receiving all who came to her. By all human accounts, her life was too short and too ordinary for most to take special notice.
Yet, in 1927, Pope Pius XI declared Thérése to be the patroness of the missions, a charge she now shared with the swashbuckling Francis Xavier. In 10 years, Xavier labored in India, Borneo, Japan, the Maluku Islands chain, and died off the coast of China awaiting permission to enter. But apart from her one memorable pilgrimage to Italy (where she petitioned Pope Leo XIII to allow her to enter the Carmel at only 15 years old), Thérése passed her life within the confines of Normandy, France. Whereas most missionaries are polyglots, and able to adjust in any social setting, her capacity for other languages and cultures would never be known. Yet, now having stretched the Church’s understanding of missionary and apostle, Pope Pius XI was asking us to rely upon Thérése, now and until the end of time, to be a model and intercessor for the Church’s missionary efforts throughout the world.
In 1944, Pope Pius XII named Thérése a patroness of war-torn France, a title she now shared with the indefatigable Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc is rightly depicted in battle armor, leading her troops into mortal combat with the English who were trying to control the French throne. This “Maid of Orleans” is otherwise unrecognizable from her lance and chain mail, otherwise unknown apart from the Hundred Years’ War. And then there is that famous picture of Thérése, who looks so out of place in her costume when playing Joan of Arc: a bit shy-looking, nowhere near the heat of battle, but instead, chained alone to a prison wall, clearly out of place by the military dress and arms.
In 1997, on World Mission Sunday, Pope John Paul II elevated Thérése to an official Doctor of the Church, an illustrious title she now shared with about only 30 others at the time, and only the third woman (after Sts. Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna) to be recognized with this honor. Whereas most of these Doctors studied for decades, and bequeathed to the Church volumes of erudite theology and philosophy, Thérése has left us only a slim volume of her life, and some beautiful correspondence. However, here was one of the most brilliant popes the Church has ever seen declaring that little Thérése Martin was to be studied and analyzed alongside the great Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine!
Such a list of ecclesial recognitions “scares” me, not because of what Thérése might do to me, but because of what she represents. She holds a mirror up to all of my busyness, reminding me that it does not matter how much I do, but that I do all things with great love. She tests me because she was more fruitful for the kingdom from her sickbed than I am in my classrooms and in all my travels. She challenges my sense of personal communion because she was better connected to the human condition from her little cell in the Carmel than I am with all of my technology and socializing. Her warm smile and simplicity of soul defies my self-determination and all my degrees. Her insistence on charity and holiness in any little way possible has me constantly rethinking my plans.
As one delves more deeply into the amazing soul of Thérése, her little story, and her little way, one actually finds that she had a true missionary’s soul, laboring hours in prayer, day and night, interceding for the lost sheep of France, and the world. We learn that she loved the noble Christian sense of battle, admitting that “God wanted to make me conquer the fortress of the Carmel at the sword’s point … God has granted me the grace of being totally unafraid of war; I must do my duty, whatever the cost.” We also come to find that during her life, she was in fact recognized as “my little Church doctor”—by the Abbé at her local grade school, due to her quick and catechetically sound answers.
When I was younger, I thought writing one’s life story was like sculpting a statue—everyone got one or two big hits with their chisel, and then were forced to live with what they formed. For example: Should I marry or join religious life? Should I take this career path or that one? Now that I am well into midlife, I realize that while life certainly does have those more grandiose moments, they are rare. One’s life story is more like forming a mosaic: we become the product of thousands of little choices and daily commitments. Should I make time each day for prayer and Mass? Should I choose this form of recreation, of exercise, and so on. What is uniquely beautiful about a mosaic, however, is that it only makes sense as one steps back, as one makes some space to see what one has become. Is this not the purpose of every nightly examination of consciousness, of every preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, of every annual retreat? But even more wonderful is how mosaics have room only for broken pieces. Hardly any aspect of our lives has been absolutely perfect. In most of our good actions, there is impure intention; in our charity toward others, there is often some self-satisfaction and hope to be recognized.
This would be a good month to study, once again, the “small way” of Thérése. Masters of Thérése’s thought almost always conclude that trust is the essential component of her little way. According to Jacque Phillipe, Thérése’s sense of trust is what connects God’s strength to man’s weakness (The Way of Trust and Love: A Retreat Guided by Thérése of Lisieux—Scepter Publishers); Hans Urs von Balthasar calls such trust the “great plunge” into the mystery of divine love, the way we ourselves begin to take on God’s own life (Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérése of Lisieuxa nd Elizabeth of The Trinity—Ignatius Press). The saints call us to trust in Christ, to trust that he is God, and that he loves us. The saints teach us that he loves us so much, he wants to make us like himself. St. Thérése—patroness, warrior, and doctor—teaches us not to be afraid, that:
To live out of love means to banish all fear
Every memory of past faults.
I see no mark of my sins,
In a moment, love burnt everything
(New Poetry [PN] no. 17, sixth stanza).
Above all, St. Thérése extends her Savior’s incarnation, teaching us that love is not “out there,” exotic, and foreign to our daily life. Love is now humanly incarnate—as close to us as our neighbor, as available to us as bread and wine. This is the beginning of the little way!