The Moral Theology of St. Thérèse of Lisieux

St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born in 1873 in France, the youngest of the nine children given to Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin. Zelie Martin died while Thérèse was very young, so Thérèse adopted her older sister Pauline as her surrogate mother. Thérèse was spoiled by her very devout parents and sisters, in both the physical and spiritual sense. Her family taught her the tenants of the faith, but due to her culture and philosophies in vogue at that time, she misunderstood the person of God.1 St. Thérèse, as we all are, was influenced heavily in her moral thinking by contemporary culture. But, through growth in holiness and her development in her relationship with and understanding of God, she developed a more teleological and authentically Catholic moral theology. This theology, and her development of it, is extremely helpful in assisting the modern soul to advance towards sanctity.

St. Thérèse, growing up as she did in the “Modern West,” and in particular in France, was surrounded by philosophy and theology rooted in un-Catholic premises. There were two main schools of thought at that time, neither true nor teleological. On one hand were the secularists or modernists, and on the other there were the traditionalists. Modernism was the philosophy of the people! Rooted in Ockham’s nominalism and brought to fruition through the wars of religion and corrupt clergymen, modernism no longer found a need for God or religion. Freedom — wrongly understood as license — was the most praised virtue and was only accessible by shaking the shackles of the bourgeois, clergy, and most importantly, the Pope.

With this understanding of freedom, new guidelines for understanding ‘what made actions moral’ had to be invented in order to retain traditional moral teachings without needing to reference the authority of the Church or the Bible. This led to the moral philosophies of Kant and Hume. Their moral teachings were based primarily in doing traditionally moral actions because that what was culturally acceptable. (Of course, with this understanding, as cultural expectations change what becomes morally acceptable also changes.)

The traditionalists attempted to maintain the same Church after the nominalist Protestant revolution, but due to the influence of nominalism, their understanding of God and the role of the Church changed. This led to clericalism, where the expectation for the average Catholic was to aim for Purgatory, pay his tithe, and be somewhat present at Mass. The sacraments became misunderstood; Confession was no longer a sacrament of healing, but a sacrament of judgment. The Mass was no longer a sacrament of joy, but a sacrament of rubrics. Reception of the Eucharist was only permitted with permission from the priest, because the laity would abuse that privilege. The manuals taught priests how to judge in the confessional, and the tenants of the Faith became the rules of an arbitrary God established for no other reason but to restrict our freedom. The promise of Heaven or Hell was the only motivator, for one feared the justice of God. And so nominalism corrupted vast numbers of people, giving them cause to fear their created deontological god, for his wrath for the sinful was just and eternal.

Nominalism prevented both traditionalism and modernism from being good moral systems. Hume’s utilitarianism retained a need for human happiness, which became the ‘end’ for all actions. Granted, the individual’s happiness was not the end, but rather the happiness of the collective. Clericalism retained the actions that are proper to a human being, but they were not done for the proper end. Both failed to have a proper understanding of the ‘nature of man’ so neither were able to both retain the proper actions and ultimate end of man.

This was the culture with which St. Thérèse was surrounded as she began to grow in her own faith. Due to her devout family background, she was taught to pray and mortify herself at a young age. However, because of her cultural background, prayer and mortification did not have their proper connotation. God was not a loving God, and thus heaven and hell were earned by the will of the individual through their actions, prayers and mortifications. Thérèse saw prayer as an economic exchange, and mortification as a duty through which its performance one proved their love of God. Thérèse’s love for God was not what is meant by love by the Gospel writers — hers was a servile love, actions that are performed not authentically out of love, but out of obedience, fear, and hope. In this sense her moral understanding was heavily influenced by the contemporary traditionalism.

Because it is impossible to earn heaven by one’s own merits, and man, because of his fallen nature, is not able to perform actions to the perfections he desires, Thérèse began to develop a severe attitude of scrupulosity. Her scrupulosity caused her to begin to despise God and caused her much misery and additional suffering. She was able to subdue her scrupulosity by sharing her troubles with her sister Pauline, but when Pauline entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux, she lost her confidant and was quickly filled with despair.

On Christmas 1886 she had what she referred to as her ‘complete conversion.’ While attending Mass, she came to the realization “if I was loved on earth, I was loved in heaven.”2 It was here that her understanding of God was redefined. Thérèse, through a great gift of God’s grace, came to understand that God’s love was not tempered by His justice or wrath, but rather the opposite — that he was to be primarily understood as Love itself.

With this new teleological outlook on God and creation, all of the divine attributes were to be re-evaluated to reflect his resplendent love. God’s justice was no longer the Old Testament understanding of ‘do good, receive good’ and vice versa, but rather God, in his divine justice, recognizes the weaknesses and faults in man, and in his love deigns to forgive the prodigal son who all sinners are called to imitate. God’s grace, instead of Luther’s analogy of snow on top of a pile of manure, transformed the life of the individual to whom this grace was given.

Once God was understood to be loving, Thérèse began to enter into a deep friendship with him. With this friendship came new understandings of Catholic practices. Prayer was no longer a duty, but a conversation of the heart to its Greatest Lover. It became joyful to pray, and Thérèse continued to be astounded by the fruits that God gave her.

Mortification too took on a new meaning. In the past Thérèse saw herself not loving God because she imperfectly performed her mortifications and did not mortify herself in all of her pleasures. She now saw the real purpose behind mortification is not the suffering itself, but the unification of your will to God’s. Mortification is a tool that should be used to aid the individual in forming good habits and bringing their desires more closely to those of God.

Thérèse’s understanding of love for God was also redeveloped. Love was no longer a servile duty, but a gift, itself a reflection of God’s love in a more perfect manner. It also was something that naturally occurred after time spent in the conversation of prayer.

With this new friendship forming, Thérèse desired to make the fostering of that friendship her complete and total vocation and so began her desire to enter the Carmel. After several years, she entered the Carmel at age 15. While there, she developed her little way, and began to develop her moral theology. She wrote her autobiography Story of a Soul at the request of her sister Celine (now Mother Genevieve) which was a compilation of her experiences viewed through her current relationship with Christ. Because Thérèse was never formally formed in theology, she presents her moral and spiritual theology, not as separate fields, but as two parts to the same whole.

Her moral and spiritual theology can be summarized into the following points: the purpose of life, constancy of prayer, a deep friendship with and love of Christ, charity to others, unification of her own and God’s wills, recognition for the need of God’s grace, absolute humility and the good of suffering. Each of these deserve a book, but for the sake of space they will each be addressed only briefly.

Her religious education and her family’s influence helped her to understand “Life is your barque, not your home.”3 It is an exile from your true home, Heaven, but also your means of getting there. It is by living life with God that one has the possibility for the attainment of Heaven. Heaven, and the absolute happiness that accompanies it, is the end of man. This is the first half of St. Thérèse’s moral methodology. With an end for man, there is now a direction that each of our human actions should be directed towards.

As life on earth is not your end, this life should have no hold on you. All things belong to God properly, and out of love we offer them to Him. While not explicitly stated by Thérèse, she seems to have inferred from Church teaching that this is the true offering of the people at Mass, an offering of self to the Creator.

This ideal was fostered through a very active prayer life. Reading the letters of Saint Paul where he exhorts the followers of Christ to ‘pray always,’ Thérèse saw the fruit of prayer, and sought to fulfill this high standard. She would extol:

How great is the power of prayer. . . . I say simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and he always understands me . . . prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is the cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy: finally it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.4

It is in this manner that she understood prayer. It was from her prayer that she drew the strength to continue the arduous journey to heaven,

It was also through her prayer that she had a sincere and deep friendship with the person of Christ. She saw Christ as her only friend, and the only friend that she needed.5 This friendship was formed through a recognition of God’s infinite love.

It seems to me that if all creatures had received the same graces I received, God would be feared by none but would be loved to the point of folly. . . . All of these perfections [of God] appear to be resplendent with love; even His Justice (and perhaps this even more so than the others) seems to me clothed in love.6

The recognition of this love, and the formation of her friendship with God led to a profound love of God. She saw this absolute love of God as being the primary duty of all vocations,7 and because of that, she strove to love God in every moment of her life.

With this growth of love towards God came a unification of St. Thérèse’s will with God’s to a point that she said:

The only thing necessary is to unite myself more and more to Jesus . . .8 He has made me desire what He has willed to give me.9

I can no longer ask for anything with fervor except the accomplishment of God’s will in my soul without any creature being able to set obstacles in the way.10

I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for ‘I choose all’ that [God] will[s].11

She united her own will to God’s so completely that she no longer had desires of her own that were not also in union with those of God. Each moment of her life was seen as a great gift from God, and each circumstance an opportunity to do God’s will, and to love him by doing so.

Because God had a great love for each of his children, and Thérèse sought to form her will to God’s resplendent Will, she also loved deeply her sisters in the cloister stating; “The more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my sisters.”12 It was in this love that she saw a great need for charity to all those around her. She states “Charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice. But I understood above all that Charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of the heart.”13 In this we see that Thérèse strove to have charity in all things, and in all her dealings with others. Her charity expressed itself in all aspects of her relationships, from her thoughts about others to her selfless acts of servitude.

In Story of a Soul, Thérèse relates to the reader an incident she had when she was just beginning on her road to perfect charity. She states that while in choir, there was an older sister who needed assistance going to the refectory from the choir daily. While she did not want to assist this sister, she saw it as an opportunity to grow in love of God, through the love of her sister. This particular sister was crotchety in her old age, and no matter how one assisted her, she complained. Thérèse made an effort to assist her with joy, and attentiveness to her needs to a point where Thérèse assisted her in things that she did not ask for help with.

Her charity towards others was an outward expression of her developing love of Christ. Her love for and attraction to her fellow sisters was not directed at them personally, but rather, through them as surrogates of Christ. When speaking of a sister whom she did not naturally care for, Thérèse wrote: “What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul; Jesus who makes sweet what is most bitter.”14 She loved others for the presence of Christ inside of them, the presence of Christ which can be found in the soul of every individual. This sister, because of Thérèse’s persistent kindness and joy directed at her, believed that Thérèse had a special affection for her and could not understand why.

Thérèse saw her charity as “the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.15 Her mission through her charity was to bring others to Christ. As stated above, she understood that she was loved by God when she encountered the love of her family. She sought to bring others to God in this same way. By loving them, she introduced others to the love of God.

She recognized that this total love of others, or even any love at all, was not possible by her own volition. She had to solicit the aide of God to assist her in her activities. “Without the help of His grace it would be impossible not only to put [the Gospels] into practice but even to understand them.”16 This grace was the strength by which she loved God and her sisters. She states earlier, “It was impossible for me to do anything by myself.”17 In God was her strength and fortification, and she took none of her abilities as fruits of her own ambition, nor as reason to praise her. In fact, she sought always to aim the praise at God, where she saw it as rightfully belonging.

This grace was only efficacious through Thérèse’s humility. Thérèse saw humility as absolutely necessary before God and man. She saw clearly that only through spiritual childhood could one get to heaven. The spiritual child had absolute trust and love for their Father and understood that all strength and good came from Him. She quotes the Gospels several times referencing Christ’s preferential treatment of children and wished to emulate their relationship with Christ. She frequently refers to herself as the littlest of God’s children and compares herself to an insignificant dandelion in the great garden of souls; a flower that adds to the beauty of the garden, but is far outshined by the roses and lilies of the great saints.

“I had to remain little and become this more and more.”18 This was her mantra. She strove to become little in the eyes of everyone, and in her littleness praise God, just as the dandelions. She sought littleness because in littleness, one is not humiliated nor is one admired, except for an appreciation of the whole beauty of the garden. A good analogy is that of a mosaic. She wished to be a dim tile, boring in comparison to the gilded tiles. However, the mosaic taken as a whole and her part in it points to the artist, God.

The final significant element of St. Thérèse’s moral theology is her understanding of suffering. As discussed earlier, suffering in a teleological system is a good and positive thing that unites our wills to Christ. Thérèse sees this all-important role of suffering very clearly.

To become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. . . .19

Love is nourished only by sacrifices, and the more a soul refuses natural satisfactions, the stronger and more disinterested becomes her tenderness.20

Suffering was the road to holiness and growth in love for Christ. One who does not suffer for the sake of Christ, in the view of St. Thérèse, is not seeking after the great lover who is Christ. “My God ‘I choose all!’ I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You.”21

In addition, Thérèse saw suffering as a means to salvation for other souls. She states, “Suffering alone gives birth to souls.”22 In this way, she saw her own suffering as a means of salvation for those souls who did not have the grace or ambition to suffer for Christ themselves. She offered herself and her sufferings for those around her, and the salvation of souls around the world.

Though her system is teleological, due to her environment, she retained some of her deontological bad habits. One example of this is when she woke up one night coughing blood, she told herself that she would wait until morning to find out if she had tuberculosis, because finding out if she had tuberculosis is what she wished to do. In this manner up until the end of her life, she still practiced some suffering for the sake of suffering, and not for the sake of uniting herself to the Will of God.

Perhaps, one of St. Thérèse’s most well-known contributions to the faith is her little way- With a teleological hermeneutic, the little way is a good summation of her moral theology. The starting premise is that God is complete love. Upon reflection of herself, she surmised that compared to the Love of God we are very little. With this understanding of ourselves, the logical conclusion is that we can only do little things. Because God is complete love, He loves us completely. This absolute outpouring of love deserves a response, and love can only be repaid through love. As stated above, we can only do little things, therefore we should do all of our little things with great love. Doing this is only possible with the assistance of God’s grace. He is not mandated to give us this grace, but when He chooses to do so, it is done out of love for us.

Thérèse has had a profound effect on the church since Story of a Soul was published in 1898, one year, to the day, after her death. The most profound effect that it had was introducing phenomenology to the Catholic moral tradition. It invited the reader to reinterpret his or her own experiences in light of Thérèse’s interpretation of her own experiences. As she herself says, “He has made me understand all the sufferings I would meet with, asking me if I would want to drink this chalice to the dregs.”23 With her means of interpreting one’s own life, it helps one to understand how he or she is supposed to love God in his or her position in life. An accountant can look at a day full of excel sheets and see it as an opportunity to glorify God. A professor can look at a sunny day through which she must grade poorly written essays written by unengaged students as an opportunity to unite her will with God. Someone who is battling depression can come to understand with Thérèse the absolute love for every soul that God has, and the purpose to our life here on earth.

St. Thérèse’s little way inspired St. Josemaria in his founding of Opus Dei. The core of Opus Dei is the universal call to holiness of all Catholics, and their achievement of it through the ordinary acts of daily life done out of great love for God. In this way, the spirit of Opus Dei reflects the spirituality of St. Thérèse and also systematizes a spiritual life necessary to achieve this constant charity.

If just her own extraordinary witness was not compelling enough reason to study her work, St. John Paul II declared St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church. In so doing he raised the stature of her writings to all Catholics as inspired by God24 to assist people in coming to know greater truths about the Catholic faith and about God no matter what age they live in.

One also clearly sees a parallel between St. Thérèse’s unintentional phenomenology and John Paul II’s systematized phenomenology. It is clear that St. John Paul II recognized the ability for phenomenology to assist in the growth of souls and imitated it in many of his numerous writings to assist a wide variety of souls in seeing the truth of Catholic teachings.

Saint Thérèse can easily be misunderstood if the reader does not grow with her in the development of her understanding of God; one can end up attempting to do all the right things for the wrong reasons, just as Thérèse did in her early life. Misunderstanding Thérèse in this manner is difficult to do when one reads the entirety of Story of a Soul. However, if one just looks at her practices that lead her to sanctity without their context, her acts of devotion can be interpreted in a deontological manner.

The most common error in the interpretation of St. Thérèse is the failure to recognize that she can only be understood properly if one also understands her relationship with the Church. For her, moral decisions must be made within the laws of the Catholic Church. Any decision that is not in accord with the teachings of the Church is neither a positive moral decision, nor a decision rooted in authentic love of God.

Without this understanding, many people read St. Thérèse and fall to the sin of presumption. They presume that with right intentionality alone they can do whatever they wish and God in his mercy and love understands. This is the case when people do sinful actions with good intentions. It is this misunderstanding that causes people to believe that the means justifies the ends.

Thérèse through her various writings encourages a personal and selfless love of God. As St. Josemaria says, we all have a “universal call to holiness,” and it is through an imitation of the great saints that we can strive to achieve personal holiness. St. Thérèse is an example of the ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’ as a means to holiness that is especially needed in the modern times. She shows how even the simplest soul in ordinary circumstances can become one of the greatest saints of the modern era. This is Thérèse’s unique and irreplaceable contribution to Catholic moral theology. We should ask for her intercession in our spiritual and moral lives so that we too may come to be great saints for Christ within our humble day to day lives.

 

Lord, if you will it, you can make us saints.

  1. All historical facts and dates from the life of St. Therese used in this paper were taken from St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Story of a Soul, 3rd ed., trans. by John Clarke, OCD. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996).
  2. Story of a Soul, 93.
  3. Story of a Soul, 87.
  4. Story of a Soul, 242.
  5. Story of a Soul, 87.
  6. Story of a Soul, 180.
  7. See Story of a Soul, 194.
  8. Story of a Soul, 238.
  9. Story of a Soul, 250.
  10. Story of a Soul, 178.
  11. Story of a Soul, 27.
  12. Story of a Soul, 221.
  13. Story of a Soul, 220.
  14. Story of a Soul, 223.
  15. Story of a Soul, 194.
  16. Story of a Soul, 229.
  17. Story of a Soul, 221.
  18. Story of a Soul, 208.
  19. Story of a Soul, 27.
  20. Story of a Soul, 258.
  21. Story of a Soul, 27.
  22. Story of a Soul, 174.
  23. Story of a Soul, 218.
  24. This Divine inspiration is not the same as the same infallible Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures. Doctors of the Church, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, are not infallible.
John Madigan About John Madigan

John Madigan is a law student at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, MI. He graduated from Benedictine College in 2017 with bachelor degrees in theology and philosophy, and in 2018 with a master's degree in business. He is currently researching the relationship between law and ethics in business.

Comments

  1. Hi John,

    Thank you for this article about St. Therese’s understanding of love, well done! I do have one critique. You write this:

    “Her scrupulosity caused her to begin to despise God and caused her much misery and additional suffering. She was able to subdue her scrupulosity by sharing her troubles with her sister Pauline, but when Pauline entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux, she lost her confidant and was quickly filled with despair.”

    I have never in books about her or her letters ever read she in the least began to despise God or was filled with despair.” As far as I can see–I could be wrong–you are here being rhetorical, but inadvertently taking your point too far. Do you have citations for her beginning to despise God or being filled with despair? Thanks! Sorry to put you on the spot, but it’s a serious point I think that deserves to be addressed.

    • Avatar John Madigan says:

      Therese lived in a world where directly stating any resentment or despise towards God was seen as not pious. The same goes towards despair- it is considered one of the gravest of sins still today. My analysis comes from reading Therese, not as a perfect saint, but as a flawed, but holy person striving for sanctity. I suggest that you re-read Story of a Soul, looking to Therese as overcoming great interior struggles including wrestling with her faith and her feelings of unworthiness.

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