In Thanksgiving for St. Thérèse: Doctor of the Little Way
I was introduced to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux ten years ago in a most dramatic way. My dad and I had been praying novenas together through the website “Pray More Novenas,” which sends the day’s prayers directly into your email inbox. When the novena to Saint Thérèse began in 2013, we decided to pray for each other. I had been struggling with a health issue that had stumped doctors for over a year and, unbeknownst to me, my dad prayed specifically for my healing. Miraculously, on her feast day, Saint Thérèse interceded in a powerful way and I woke to complete physical healing. That ailment has never returned. This overwhelming experience of answered prayer led me on a journey of friendship with this special saint. I resolved to learn everything I could about her and what she preached, so I dove into her autobiography, Story of a Soul, and later chose to write my undergraduate thesis on how she understood and lived out the virtue of humility.
Whether or not you experience the powerful intercession of Saint Thérèse as I have, she is a saint worthwhile to know. She is one of the four female Doctors of the Church, declared “the greatest saint of modern times” by Pope Pius X and beloved by recent popes, including Pope Francis who has a special devotion to her. Though her earthly life was short – she lived to be only 24 - she has wasted no time in sharing the love of God from her place in heaven, just as she promised: “I shall spend my heaven doing good on earth.” The tenets of her “Little Way” of spiritual childhood can be adopted by anyone in any state of life. Saint Thérèse is a witness to the power of prayer marked by unmatched confidence and complete trust in God’s love and mercy.
Her Early Life
Born to Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin in 1873 in Alencon, France, Thérèse Martin was cherished by her parents and grew up in a loving Catholic home. She was the fifth surviving daughter of this special couple, both of whom had initially desired religious life. When Thérèse was just four years old, her mother died of breast cancer. This early loss profoundly shaped Thérèse and caused her to cling to her older sisters in her mother’s absence. She also had a very close relationship with her father, who called her his “little queen.” When her eldest sister entered the Carmelite convent, it was another blow to Thérèse’s fragile emotional state. She entered a period of inexplicable serious illness. Two months into the illness, she experienced a miracle: the family statue of the Blessed Mother “smiled at her” and she was cured. Thérèse’s emotional issues continued, however, until Christmas 1886, when she suddenly regained the inner strength and confidence she had had before her mother’s passing, what she considered a “Christmas miracle” of tremendous grace.
With her strength renewed, Thérèse set out to join the convent at Carmel, following in her sisters’ footsteps. At fifteen, she was too young to enter, and she sought out the pope himself (Leo XIII) on a pilgrimage to Rome for permission to enter early. The papal guards had to pull Thérèse off the pope’s knees as she was begging for his permission. His evasive answer did not dissuade this saint who famously said, “God does not inspire us with desires that cannot be realized.” She finally received her bishop’s permission to enter Carmel in April 1888.
Her Little Way
Life in Carmel was not easy. Thérèse wrote candidly of the daily struggles of convent life in her autobiography: the annoyance of particular sisters, the monotony of the daily rosary, the cold, the harsh diet. Many of the sisters, including Thérèse, battled scrupulosity. However, a turning point in her spiritual life occurred in 1895 when Thérèse became more aware of her own weakness and boldly asked Jesus to lift her to heavenly heights. The smaller she became, the more easily Jesus could lift her into sainthood. This was the birth of her Little Way.
At its heart, the Little Way is about simplicity. Simple, humble acts done with great love are the hallmark of her life. She teaches that every act of surrender, every sacrifice - no matter how small, and every offering of love for another – even as simple as a smile – can be offered to the Lord. It is not what is done that matters, but how it is done. She said, “I understood that all we accomplish, however brilliant, is worth nothing without love.” She recounted her small acts of daily love such as keeping back an impatient word, being especially kind to the sisters she liked the least, and doing little things for others without their knowledge.
Thérèse called prayer “a simple glance directed to heaven, a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.” The Little Way is marked by trust and confidence in God rather than oneself. Thérèse was tremendously aware of her weakness. Rather than succumbing to despair, she saw her weakness as a gift because it forced her to rely on Jesus all the more. She remained a little child in Jesus’ arms, relying on Him for everything, with perfect confidence and trust that He will give us exactly what we need – and all we must do is respond by returning love for love.
As she matured, Thérèse began to identify even greater desires within herself. She longed to be a priest, prophet, saint, and missionary. Even though she never left her small convent in provincial France, she is indeed the patron of missionaries today, remembered for the encouragement and spiritual friendship she offered to two missionary priests with whom she corresponded and prayed for until her death. She felt that all her desires would be realized in her ultimate vocation: “In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. This way, I shall be everything.” Her vocation of love included much suffering. She died of tuberculosis at age 24 in the midst of a spiritual “dark night of the soul,” but held fast to her faith until the end.
The Power of Prayer
How did this young woman who lived in obscurity become known and loved throughout the world? We are indebted to her sister Pauline, who as prioress of the community asked Thérèse to write her life story. The book which she never wanted to write, but completed out of obedience, became the world’s window into Thérèse’s remarkable spirituality. And once she was known, the miracles began. Her canonization process began only ten years after her death and she was officially canonized in May 1925. She was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for her Little Way of confidence and love in 1997. Today, we have access to the original version of the autobiography (which had been heavily edited by her sister), her many letters, several plays, and even poetry written by the Little Flower. Countless people have experienced miraculous answers to prayer (showers of roses) often with the presence of roses, through her intercession.
Let us join in praying the opening prayer of Thérèse’s Mass: God our Father, You have promised Your kingdom to those who are willing to become like little children. Help us to follow the way of Saint Thérèse with confidence, so that by her prayers we may come to know Your eternal glory. Amen.