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St. Thérèse of Lisieux: The Elevator of Divine Love

Happy feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Virgin and Doctor of the Church!

Born in Alençon, France on January 2, 1873, Thérèse was the ninth child born to Louis and Zélie Martin (the only married couple to date canonized together), five of whom survived past the age of five (three of whom died as infants). Though the youngest of her family in age, in time Thérèse would become by far the most well-known of her family. Thus, one might say that her very birth spoke to how this young woman would become one of the greatest saints the Church has ever known precisely by making herself the least (cf. Matt. 23:11).

It was not always this way, however. Thérèse was nothing if not entitled as a young child. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Thérèse recounts how her mother, Zélie, “laughingly said that” her father, Louis, “always did whatever I wanted, but he answered: ‘Well, why not? She is the Queen!’ Then he would lift me on to his shoulder, and caress me in all sorts of ways” (Story of a Soul, 18). That said, Thérèse writes, Louis was not accustomed to unnecessarily spoiling her, and was prepared to walk away from her childish behavior if need be (Ibid.). Her feelings of entitlement led Thérèse to being overly sensitive. She writes: “My extreme sensitiveness made me almost unbearable. All arguments were useless. I simply could not correct myself of this miserable fault” (Ibid., 49). In all of this we see in Thérèse what we all too often forget about the saints, that this side of eternity they were not perfect but struggled, sometimes intensely, with their brokenness. The difference between most of us and those officially recognized as saints in the Church is not that we are horribly fallen creatures and they were not, it is that at some point they came to recognize this sad truth of our reality and most of us don’t. Whereas the lives of the saints depict those heroes of our faith who struggle with the help of God’s grace to leave behind the ego-drama and live the Theo-drama, most of us spend much of our time justifying our little ego-dramas, trying to convince ourselves and the world that these autobiographical narratives are in fact the Theo-drama.

A pivotal moment in Thérèse’s life, she tells us, came on Christmas Day, 1886, an event which she refers to as an “inestimable grace of complete conversion.” Coming home from Midnight Mass, the 13-year-old Therese was excited, for she knew that when she reached home, she would find her shoes filled with presents, just as she always had since she was a little child, the entire family indulging her childish ways. However, on this night, Thérèse writes:

instead of indulging me as he generally did, Papa seemed vexed, and on my way upstairs I heard him say: “Really all this is too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope it is the last year it will happen.” His words cut me to the quick. Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: “Don’t go downstairs just yet—wait a little, you would cry too much if you looked at your presents before Papa.” But Thérèse was no longer the same—Jesus had changed her heart. Choking back my tears, I ran down to the dining-room, and, though my heart beat fast, I picked up my shoes, and gaily pulled out all the things, looking as happy as a queen. Papa laughed, and did not show any trace of displeasure, and Céline thought she must be dreaming. But happily it was a reality; little Thérèse had regained, once for all, the strength of mind which she had lost at the age of four and a half (Story of a Soul, 49).

From this moment on, as Thérèse says, she was no longer the same. She no longer wanted to live in a world of fantasy wherein everything revolved around her. Later, after she entered the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux as a postulant in 1888, Thérèse shared just such a sentiment when reflecting upon her interaction with Mother Genevieve, who had taken to her deathbed. One day Thérèse went to visit Mother Genevieve in the infirmary, only to find two older sisters there visiting with her. As she was about to walk away, Mother said to Thérèse: “Wait, my child, I have just a word for you; you are always asking me for a spiritual bouquet, well, today I give you this one: Serve the Lord in peace and in joy. Remember that Our God is the God of Peace” (Ibid., 82). Such advice seemed to Thérèse to have been a divine revelation to Mother concerning the state of her soul, for, she writes, “that day I had been sorely tried, almost to sadness” (Ibid.). Therefore, the following Sunday, Thérèse asked Mother Genevieve whether she had in fact received a revelation about the state of her soul which had prompted the words of advice. However, Mother Genevieve said she had not. Thérèse’s  response here should speak volumes to us who in today’s world have ready at hand an almost infinite number of ways to retire into fantasyland through various forms of entertainment, alcohol, drugs, or even simply the musings of our ego-centric minds. She writes: “this only made me admire her the more, for it showed how intimately Jesus lived in her soul and directed her words and actions. Such holiness seems to me the most true, the most holy; it is the holiness I desire, for it is free from all illusion” (Ibid.).

Freedom from all illusion, however, did not for one instant mean that Thérèse had to see herself as a “grownup.” In fact, just the opposite. It meant that she had to learn how to be a child in the right way. Living as a child of God rather than as a child of the world is precisely what lies at the heart of Thérèse’s famous, “Little Way.”  Dorothy Day captures this idea in her own work on Thérèse by appealing to the writing of Père Liagre. Father Liagre writes: “God appears to [Thérèse] understanding and above all to her heart as a Father, as her Father, as the most affectionate and tender of fathers; in a word as fatherly love, and that at its very highest perfection…It is the very essence of the Gospel teaching that God is our Father…Therese is the living commentary on the Gospels, the most beautiful commentary because the most simple” (Dorothy Day, Thérèse, 161). In Father Liagre’s words we see the genius of Thérèse made clear. Deep down in her heart, Thérèse knew that something about how she saw her relationship with her own father, however immature and sometimes distorted it had been, had been right. She knew, above all through the radical experience of her conversion on Christmas 1886 that she would not and, more to it, could not gain holiness for herself, it had to be given to her.

This does not mean that Thérèse’s Little Way is one of idleness, far from it. She also knew that if she was going to become the child of her Heavenly Father, she had to live like His Son, relying on Him to do the heavy lifting for her while she set about to perform “little sacrifices” that consisted in obediently carrying out the simple day to day tasks necessary for running the convent and in dealing patiently and kindly with the sisters who irritated her most (Dorothy Day, Thérèse. 159). In this way she would grow in virtue. Thus, she writes:

To be little…is…not to attribute to ourselves the virtues we practice, nor to believe ourselves capable of practicing virtue at all. It is rather to recognize the fact that God puts treasures of virtue into the hands of his little children to make use of them in time of need, but they remain always treasures of the good God. Finally, to be little means that we must never be discouraged over our faults, for children often fall but they are too small to harm themselves very much (Ibid., 182).

Notice the language of “treasures” used by Thérèse here, language reminiscent of the gifts she hoped to find in her shoes as a little girl, only now, she sought the heavenly gifts of virtue.

Though Thérèse saw this as a little way fit for the child of God, this did not mean that she thought it to be little in impact. In fact, because our growth in virtue and holiness is always a response to the treasures God gives to us, our cooperation with them in unity with Christ has the power to do nothing less than to transform the world. “Through our little acts of charity, practiced in the dark, as it were,” she wrote, “we obtain the conversion of the heathen, help the missionaries, and gain for them plentiful alms, thus building both spiritual and material dwellings for Our Eucharistic God” (Story of a Soul, 157). The language of “heathen” here may be off putting to modern sensibilities, but we have to attend to what is going on here. From what has already been said about Thérèse it is clear that she realized that “the heathen” ran through the middle of every human soul, every heart that was plagued by pride and suffered from the disease of egotism.

The key virtue in the little way, perhaps unsurprisingly, is thus humility. Only through imitating the humble Son of God do we become children of God, fit to receive the treasures the Father wants to give us (see Mt. 18:1-5). While simple, Thérèse recognizes that it is precisely here that many will recoil from her little way. She writes: “It is true that to enjoy these treasures we must humble ourselves, must confess our nothingness . . . and here is where many a soul draws back” (Writings, July 13, 1897).  

Thus, she prayed continually for the virtue of humility, the virtue that would allow her to imitate Christ Crucified and Christ present in the Eucharist, knowing that the only way to simultaneously dispel the darkness in her own soul and shed Christ’s light into the life of others, was to abandon herself to the grace of divine love, present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Only this virtue, which made the Son of God the Creator of the Universe small enough to fit in our humanity, small enough to be nailed to a cross, and small enough to be laid in a tomb (see Philippians 2:7-8), would likewise enable Thérèse small enough to fit into the outstretched arms of her Savior, which could carry her up to Heaven. She writes:

We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection… Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow; on the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less (Story of a Soul, 90).

Today, let us not recoil at the thought of leaving our self-centered lives behind, but in imitation of Thérèse, and in turn of Christ, let us pray for the courage to make ourselves small through the virtue of humility. Only then will we fit on the elevator of Divine Love, the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, becoming sharers in his Sonship, sons and daughters of the Most High God (Psalm 82:6), transforming the present as we are drawn into the embrace of eternal Love.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

3 thoughts on “St. Thérèse of Lisieux: The Elevator of Divine Love

  1. Beautiful, as always! May the world become as the Little Flower and bring about the conversion we so desperately need!!! God bless you!

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