The Power of the Little Flower

You’d be hard pressed to find a practicing Catholic who hasn’t heard of St. Therese of Lisieux.  Pope St. Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times.” The Little Flower enjoys chart-topping popularity in the holy-card-and-statuary department, and come October 1st, many a pair of eyes will be trained on gardens (and floral departments) hoping to land a signal rose from her “shower from Heaven.”

I have loved St. Therese from childhood, but it wasn’t until I became an adult and read about her childhood that I really came to truly know and appreciate the diminutive author of the Little Way.

Therese was not born a saint, but she was born into a family whose saint-making engine churned at a terrific speed. Raised in a family both broken and defined by love, Therese’s spirituality was formed and shaped by loss. The pattern for her entire childhood went pretty much like this: bond, lose, mourn, heal, re-attach, repeat. Beginning with the loss of her mother at age 4, (and even earlier than that with the necessity of being cared for by a wet-nurse for much of her infancy) Therese suffered a series of devastating blows, each one of which could have unhinged her or embittered her. But they didn’t. Or rather, she didn’t allow them to. While Therese could not control her circumstances, her poor health, or her propensity toward depression, she could control her self. Realizing her capacity for self-mastery turned out to be the key upon which her entire spirituality hinged. Her Little Way, practiced in little choices and little moments, hour by hour and day by day, unlocked the treasury of Heaven.

I mistakenly presumed Therese to be a saint who came easily by her pious title; her childhood innocence was preserved by her devoted, equally-pious family and she entered Carmel as a teenager, not even old enough to have made any serious mistakes. There, safely ensconced against any real temptation or danger, she had passed 10 uneventful years before dying and going straight to Heaven. That was my outsider’s take on her life, anyway.

But I was wrong.

In “Story of a Soul,” the autobiography Theres penned at the insistence of her superiors, the real Little Flower walked me through the stages of her spiritual development, growing from a self-described petulant and manipulative child to an overly emotional pre teen to a highly sensitive and depressed teenager to a young adult who found the very existence of some of her housemates (read: fellow nuns) endlessly irritating. In other words, she sounded completely normal. Typical, even. And she was! She certainly possessed natural graces given to her and earned for her by her loving and holy parents and siblings, but she was pretty much a normal girl. It was her response to her circumstances that set her apart as extraordinary. And her response was consistent: He must increase, I must decrease.

Her littleness is what made her a spiritual giant. Her Little Way prescribed a fool proof path to Heaven, should the practitioner follow it to the letter. It was – and is – pretty simple. But in its simplicity it is profoundly difficult to practice. In sum, she instructs us: be a child. Approach God as His child. Depend completely and utterly on Him to provide, and then accept every situation, every little inconvenience, every opportunity to serve one’s sibling or neighbor or elderly father as a direct and irrefutable invitation from Him. And that’s it.

She wanted to go to heaven by an entirely new little way. “I wanted to find an elevator that would raise me to Jesus.” The elevator, she wrote, would be the arms of Jesus lifting her in all her littleness.

And so Therese celebrated her littleness. She reveled in it, really. If there was a dull or humiliating task to be performed in the domestic realm, she volunteered. If she encountered a particularly irritating community member occupying the chapel when she entered for prayer time, she positioned herself so she could be annoyed to the maximum degree by nasally intonations and mouth breathing. She took the raw material of her life and her banal, daily experiences and she made something extraordinary of it. And all from beyond the four walls of her family home and, later, the cloistered walls of her Carmelite monastery. She didn’t travel the world, she didn’t hold a high powered job, she didn’t even get married…she just accepted God’s invitation to make something of the life she had today, right now, and then she showed up.

She didn’t turn away from the life God laid out for her, and she didn’t look to Him accusingly and demand different terms. It got me thinking, how often do I bargain with Him about changing this or rearranging that and then and only then, I can be happy.

Enough of that. That’s not the way to happiness. That’s not the route to holiness.

Therese knew this. She didn’t wish her life away, nor did she complain over the arguably awful hand she’d been dealt: poor health, dead mother, dead siblings, over sensitive temperament. She could have wallowed in it, but instead, she opened herself wide to the grace Jesus longed to give to her, and she changed the world. All without penning a single best seller. Without holding political office. Without any measure of worldly success. But her last words were “My God, I love you.”

It’s hard to top that, even with a Nobel prize.

St. Therese, make us more receptive to the little ways God is speaking to us in our circumstances, in our disappointments and our happy accidents, that we may offer Him a whole bouquet of “yeses” more beautiful than any single gesture of momentary greatness. We’re not all given those large moments to prove our fidelity or test our courage, after all. But we’re most of us saddled with other human beings to love and floors in need of sweeping. May we each make our little way to heaven, too.

image: photogolfer / Shutterstock.com

Jenny Uebbing

By

Jenny Uebbing is a freelance editor and writer for Catholic News Agency. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Dave and their growing army of toddlers. She writes about marriage, life issues, politics, sociological trends, and traveling with kids here.

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  • laurapearl

    This is one of the most beautifully written pieces I have ever read, about a saint I love so much. Thank you!!

  • Very beautifully written, thank you!

  • Kate Rhodes

    Thank you, Jenny!!! I SO appreciated this!

  • Mary Anne

    Off to sweep the floor… =)

  • teresa24

    Congratulations on your baptismal date! Your post struck a chord because I, though a convert, was baptized July 19th of 1984 so… And I took a liking to St. Therese, think I took her as a “patron saint” ( knew about this living in Spain) when I bought a picture portrait of her when I was in seventh or eight grade, at a bus stop on the way to Las Fallas ( a festival) in Valencia, with a neighbor’s daughter. That’s all. I have chose Therese or Teresa as my confirmation name too. Will have to look it up one day smiles. Tanya

  • Helena Horwath

    Beautiful.

    Several years ago, the relics of St Therese visited England. I took my elderly and frail Mother to venerate them at a certain Cathedral. It was quite a long and challenging journey for her and took several days for her to recover afterwards, but we made it safely and spent quite some time with St Therese that afternoon. My Mother was quite taken with the Saint and asked me many questions.

    Two years later, my Mother died. She had lapsed from the Sacraments for many decades, but had come back to them in the last few years of her life. She had also had the consolation of the Last Rites before her death.

    I live at quite a distance from where my Mother lived and the chances of my being with her at her death were quite slim. However, God so arranged it that I, accompanied by her best friend, was with her at the end. It was St Therese’s Feast Day. What a blessing!

  • Thanks for this lovely article‚ Ms. Jenny. She is my other patron saint (the other being‚ St. Benedict of Nursia). But as a lapsed Catholic for almost a year now‚ I am ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten her Feast Day so freely considering she’s my patron saint whom I consider a best-friend in addition to the years I have immersed myself in her theology (even sharing these on my YT ministry). It was October 4 when I realised this whereby I thought to myself: “It seems I missed something but I just can’t figure out what.”…until I checked on my catalogue of Catholic feast days. In her autobiography‚ these are my most favourite parts: the Miraculous Smile to her by the Virgin Mary; her adventures with the young Sœur Geneviève de la Sainte Face; the trip to see Leo XIII; and her teachings on humility and self-abnegation. Though my YT account is not deactivated‚ it is no longer active because of my spiritual state. Pray for me St. Therese. And fellow devotees of her‚ if you may please also pray for me.

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