Saint Therese of Lisieux: Doctor of Divine Love

In her Story of a Soul and other writings, St. Therese of Lisieux reveals profound insight into Christ’s passion as the ultimate revelation of God’s love.1 In her inimitable style, she presented the mystery of human salvation in terms of a personal encounter of each Christian with the Crucified God who draws men and women to himself and into his love for all who are alienated from him through sin.

At the center of St. Therese’s theology of redemption is the dogmatic fact that Jesus Christ, a Divine Person, became man and died on a cross to restore the gift of grace, that is, eternal life with God, to all people. Today, while many theologians and popular preachers profess belief in this truth, they nevertheless do not draw out the logical consequences of the dogma. They explain that Jesus suffered a horrific death that was identical to the deaths of other men crucified by the Romans.

Admittedly many, if not most, authors propose that Christ intentionally offered his sufferings in humble obedience to his Father’s will for the salvation of all people. However, there is often little or no advertence to the fact that the Divine Person of the Word-made-man knew the Father in such a unique way that, in that knowledge, he encountered every human being of every time and place.2 For Therese, Christ saw, knew, and loved each of us in his passion. He took every human sin to himself and suffered in place of the sinner.3  Therese took St. Paul’s words as her own: The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered himself up for me (Gal. 2:20). She had no doubt that Jesus knew her and loved her in an intimate and personal way in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary. She was there with him in his heart.4

Although she did not possess the exact theological vocabulary to explain it fully, Therese displays profound insight into the dynamic divine-human synergy at work in the justification of a sinner. Steeped in the Letters of St. Paul, she understood justification as an intimate, transformational re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery in us that not only cleanses us of all sin and initiates the Divine Indwelling but also equips us for the ascetical and mystical life and makes us channels of Jesus’ redeeming love for others.

Therese understood that Christ’s self-offering on Calvary constitutes our objective redemption. The sinner existentially experiences this meeting with Christ in the unmerited gifts of faith and baptism. In the Story of a Soul, perhaps influenced by the charism of teaching, Therese explains perceptively the operation of God’s grace in her soul. She helps the reader understand that the graces flowing from Christ in baptism are unmerited. Therese, truly a little one among the anawim, received the freely given grace freely, i.e., with empty hands. In this way, she explains, the Lord captures the heart of the person redeemed and begins to communicate to him/her his desire to draw as many other people as possible into this new and life-changing relationship with him. In this way, Doctor Therese resolves the apparent conflict between faith and good works. Faith is in fact a good work and good works are the manifestation of faith living by charity.

On Christmas night, 1886, having died to self intentionally, she said, I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and please others: since then I have been happy!5

We might borrow words used by others to explain her experiences: She was justified by grace. She was enlightened. She experienced an awakening. She received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a new effusion of the Holy Spirit who lived within her. To use her own words, she experienced her complete conversion. In the vocabulary of her own Carmelite family, on that night of light, she passed beyond the threshold of the unitive way of charity. She identifies this grace as a Eucharistic grace: It was December 25, 1886, that I received the grace of leaving my childhood, in a word, the grace of my complete conversion. We had come back from Midnight Mass where I had the happiness of receiving the strong and powerful God.

I might opine that in the smile of the Virgin Therese “forgave” God for the terrible losses she had suffered in her childhood and accepted his healing grace. This event completed her journey through the ascetical way. Having experienced profound illumination in prayer and Gospel living, Therese crossed over the threshold of the unitive way on Christmas morning, 1886. All that would follow, including her trial of faith, contributed to her growth in supernatural charity and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As a fourteen-year-old, Therese flexed the muscles of her interior life. She read about a serial murderer, Henri Pranzini, in the local press. The newspapers reported that Pranzini adamantly refused to repent of his crimes. Shortly before hearing of Pranzini, she had a deep spiritual experience. We might say that she was illumined by the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding. Praying with a picture of the crucified Christ, Therese experienced interiorly Jesus’ cry from the cross: I thirst. She knew that worse than his terrible physical thirst was his thirst for the love of all men and women. However, on that day and in that particular prayer, she understood that Christ’s thirst was for the faith and love of all people, especially those furthest from him.

In light of that experience, she was determined to save the unfortunate man from the fires of hell and so spare Jesus the pain of losing one for whom he suffered on the cross. She begged God to convert him; she mortified herself for him, she had Masses offered for him. She asked God for a sign that he had heard her prayers.

When she discovered in the newspaper that the murderer had taken the crucifix from the hands of the prison chaplain and kissed the wounds of Jesus three times as he awaited execution, Therese had her sign. She knew that she had given birth to her first child and, in so doing, quenched Jesus’ thirst for love. In this experience, Therese realized the beginning of her apostolic vocation to save souls for Jesus’ sake.

Therese perceived that her prayers and sacrifices for the conversion of those farthest away from God helped them turn to him in contrition. The act of humility by which the sinner freely receives grace, repents, and clings to God, sates the thirst of the crucified God to bring salvation to all. This way of loving Jesus became the driving motive of Therese’s life. It reveals her insight into the role of the Church in the mediation of the grace of salvation. This experience of working for and with Christ brought the young woman directly to Carmel. There she would offer her life to bring joy to Jesus through the conquest of conversions.

As she matured in Carmel, Therese grasped at ever-deeper levels that Christ draws his friends into his life and particularly into his passion. From her first days in the monastery, she experienced mysterious sufferings, the meaning of which at first eluded her comprehension. As she traveled down this path of suffering, she sensed that these sufferings might be an infused, mystical communion with the passion of the Lord. In other words, she began to experience, as far as she was able, what Christ had experienced on Calvary as the result of sins, especially sins against the Catholic Faith.

Therese discovered even before she entered the monastery that there were serious moral problems among the French clergy of the day. During her first years in the monastery, she detected that many people no longer believed in God and hated the Church. The Diana Vaughan fiasco convinced her of that! She mourned most of her monastic life for Hyacinth Loyson, who had abandoned the priesthood, married, and established a schismatic church. Until the day of her death, Therese prayed and made sacrifices for this renegade pastor. She offered her last Holy Communion for him.

The French Church faced formidable theological problems, e.g., biblical and doctrinal modernism, Gallicanism, and Jansenism. These theological tendencies held back the evangelization of a culture wounded by the ideology of the Enlightenment and the revolution it spawned. Over and beyond all of this, the monastic community Therese joined suffered significant dysfunction.

In the face of these issues, some of the nuns offered themselves as victims to God’s justice to save their contemporaries from eternal damnation. Their prayer took this or a similar direction: Lord, there are many people who have no concern for you or your law. They live as your enemies and seem to be on the path to hell. Pour out your anger on me for the sake of their salvation. Punish me in their place and through my suffering for them, draw them to you.6

Respecting those who made this Act of Oblation to Divine Justice, Therese chose another path. She was convinced that God does not desire to punish any of his children. She would find incomprehensible any Calvinist view of the redemption that speaks of the Father venting his wrath upon his son who stood in the place of sinful humanity. At the heart of Therese’s theology of redemption was the certainty that God is love and that the cross is the ultimate manifestation of that love. Following St. John of the Cross, Therese believed that although Jesus suffered immense physical and mental pain on Calvary, he died nonetheless of love, love for his Father, and love for all men and women, especially those in danger of losing their souls.

Therese composed an Act of Oblation to Merciful Love and prayed it with her sister, Celine on June 11, 1895. In the prayer that was similar to a Consecration, they asked the Father to allow them to share intimately in Jesus’ death of love. To paraphrase Therese, she said, Father, I understand that many people will not allow you to love them as you wish. There is an infinite ocean of merciful love pent up in your heart. Pour that love out on me. Love me for those who do not allow you to love them. Consume me with this love as love consumed your Son in his passion. May this love overflow in me to draw many into your embrace of love. Father, through my love, spare your son Jesus the pain of the loss of even one man or woman for whom he suffered. In the end, may I, with him, die of love.

Feeling the need to attack the darkness of her day with the weapons of love, Therese asked the Trinity to draw her into the heart of Christ’s sacrificial death for the salvation of the world. She asked to become one with the crucified God. Shortly after Therese made the Oblation to Merciful Love, she had a mystical experience that she recounts in Her Last Conversation:

Well, I was beginning the Way of the Cross; suddenly I was seized with such a violent love of God that I cannot explain it except by saying it felt as though I was totally plunged into fire. Oh, what fire and what sweetness at one and the same time. I was on fire with love and I felt that one minute more, one second more, and I would not be able to sustain this ardor without dying. I understood, then, what the Saints were saying about those states that  they experienced so often. As for me, I experienced it only once and for one single instance, falling back immediately into my habitual state of dryness.7

Approximately ten months after she had made the Oblation to Merciful Love and experienced mystically the charity of God, St. Therese entered into what she called her trial of faith. She began to doubt the truths of the faith, especially the existence of heaven. She not only prayed for atheists and materialist, modernists and rationalists, but, in some sense, became one of them. During her trial of faith, Jesus shared with Therese the agony caused by the modern world’s revolt against the faith of the church. With Christ, through Christ and in Christ, Therese took upon herself the transgressions of our times, becoming sin so that others might become the holiness of God. (2 Cor 5:22). It is noteworthy to mention that the trial of faith was coterminous with a physical trial — terminal pulmonary tuberculosis.

Therese’s doubts were so intense that she drew blood from her hand and wrote the Apostles’ Creed out in her own blood. She carried the Credo over her heart and touched it whenever her doubts persisted. Her doubts were so vivid that, at times, she perceived in flashes of intuition that she was experiencing the sins of others against the faith. She attempted to explain her agony in Story of a Soul:

If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me! Pray very much for me in order that I do not listen to the devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It’s the reasoning of the worst materialists that is imposed upon my mind: Later, unceasingly making new advances, science will explain everything naturally; we shall have the absolute reason for everything that exists and that still remains a problem, because there remain very many things to be discovered, etc., etc.8

One sees in her physical and mental suffering a kind of miniature of Christ’s passion. Although she lived in a Carmelite monastery, her real dwelling was among sinners. She felt herself one with them. She willingly identified with her contemporaries who had no faith, consenting to live with them and share their “soiled” table so that she might purify it through a kenotic act of faith. The darkness of unbelief in which she was enveloped seemed to speak to her: You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.9

In her harrowing trial of faith that lasted with hardly any relief for a year and a half, Therese experienced an inexplicable grace, a mystical, infused sharing in Christ’s passion. She felt as her own the thirst of the Crucified for all those people who reject his love. The words of St. Paul offered her light in her darkness: For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:22).10 During these long days of physical and mental agony, Therese encountered from within Christ becoming sin. Through the Spirit’s gift of understanding the love of Christ for all men and women, especially those farthest from God was infused into her mind. Through the Spirit’s gift of Wisdom the infinite love of the Crucified, his thirst for human love, cascaded from his heart into her heart. Therese was convinced that this divine love in her human heart would be the ultimate cause of her death. Like Jesus, she would die of love.

St. Therese’s trial of faith was not the purification of the soul of a beautiful young woman who had surrendered herself in mystical marriage to Jesus long before her trial began. Nor is it a dark night except in the sense that both the trial and the Story of her Soul have brought and continue to bring light to a Church living in a dark, confused and consolation-seeking culture.

Rather, the trial of faith is a Christophany — a marvelous manifestation of Christ in the life of a Christian who believed that Jesus had seen her and loved her from the cross. She knew that there was nothing of wrath in the passion, but only a staggering outpouring of Divine love with a human plea for love in return. She received that love into the empty hands of an anawim, that is, one who is poor in spirit. Through his grace, Therese learned to die to herself and receive the new life of charity in ever deepening degrees.

Simple facts indicate that Therese was in the high levels of the unitive way as she suffered her trial of faith. She told her sisters that she was afraid of nothing. The trust in God that inspired her fearlessness as she faced physical suffering and interior terrors reveals perfect charity. She had learned this from the Beloved Disciple: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (1 John 4:18).

She was not aware of ever having said no to anything God asked her. She knew that she would spend her heaven doing good works on earth. She was certain that in heaven God would never deny her any request, hence the shower of roses. Therese arrived at her understanding of the intercession (prayer) of the saints in Heaven by reflecting on the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:10: See that you do not despise one of these little ones (children). For I tell you, that their Angels in Heaven always see the face of my Father in Heaven. She concluded that if the (guardian) angels both care for the little ones and adore God simultaneously, the good Lord would allow her after her death to adore Him in glory and, in communion with His sovereign will, to care for her friends on earth. In a sense, her shower of roses is a way of fulfilling the two great commandments of charity as they operate in Heaven until the end of time (Mark 12:30-31).

She knew that she would not die of pulmonary tuberculosis, but of love. In death, she would be one with Jesus in her transitus, in the ecstatic abandonment of his spirit to the Father. According to John of the Cross, the death of love is the seal of God on the transforming union. These signs are all counter-indicative of either the night of the senses or the night of the spirit, each identifying that the grace of redemption needs to take deeper hold of the human heart.

In Story of a Soul, Therese expressed her experience of grace in the midst of her trial: 

You know, O my God, I have never desired anything but to love you, and I am ambitious for no other glory. Your Love has gone before me, and it has grown with me, and now it is an abyss whose depths I cannot fathom . . . O my Jesus, it is perhaps an illusion but it seems to me that you cannot fill a soul with more love than the love with which you have filled mine. It is for this reason that I dare to ask you “to love those whom you have given me with the love with which you loved me” . . . Here on earth, I cannot conceive a greater immensity of love than the one which it has pleased you to give me freely, without any merit on my part.11

 Since she often did not fully understand her trial of faith, she learned to love Jesus — and love him madly — on his terms. She accepted his invitation to make his passion present in her life for the sake of her brothers and sisters. The Oblation to Merciful Love was her acceptance of that invitation. Therese joyfully acquiesced to the immolation, for the salvation of others, but in the first place, for Christ’s sake — to spare him the pain of the loss of even one for whom he shed his blood on Calvary. Saved by Jesus’ love, Therese offers her sufferings to save him! The lover and the Beloved become indistinguishable in a breathtaking, transforming union. Here we discover the substance of Doctor Therese’s holiness as well as her theology of salvation.

  1. On October 19, 1997, in the Apostolic Letter Divini Amoris Scientia, Saint John Paul II declared St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. In so doing, the Holy Father recognized Therese as a theologian with special expertise in the science of Divine Love.
  2. Pope Francis in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, teaches that Jesus in his human consciousness saw the Father: To enable us to know, accept and follow him, the Son of God took on our flesh. In this way, he also saw the Father humanly, within the setting of a journey unfolding in time (#18).
  3. Without stripping the doctrine of its mystery and ultimate incomprehensibility, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council affirmed in Gaudium et Spes, 22 the same faith that St. Therese of Lisieux articulated in communion with the whole Church: For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion (quodammodo) with every man.
  4. See the sermon by Blessed John Henry Newman,, The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion. http://www.newmanreader.org/works/discourses/discourse16.html
  5. St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul. Trans. by John Clarke, O.C.D., Washington, DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies Press, 1974. P. 99.
  6. Story of a Soul, Pp. 180-182.
  7. Therese of Lisieux. Her Last Conversations. Translated by John Clarke, OCD. Washington, DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1977. P. 177.
  8. Therese, Her Last Conversations, pp. 257-258.
  9. Story of a Soul, P.213.
  10. See my The Trial of Faith of St. Therese of Lisieux. New York, Alba House, 1997.
  11. Story of a Soul, P. 256.
Fr. Frederick L. Miller, STD About Fr. Frederick L. Miller, STD

Fr. Frederick L. Miller, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is presently Spiritual Director of the College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at Seton Hall University. He is also an adjunct professor of Systematic Theology at the major seminary. Fr. Miller has taught theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, and Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.

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