St. Therese of Lisieux was born on January 2, 1873 in Alencon, France. Her parents Louis and Zelie Guerin Martin are to be canonized by Pope Francis later this month. They had nine children, but only five survived to adulthood. The survivors were all girls and eventually every single one would enter into religious life. Therese did struggle early on with her health, but she became stronger as time went on. Therese and her sisters were greatly blessed in the pious home their parents kept. They lived simply, but in great devotion to Our Lord and Our Lady. Zelie died of breast cancer when Therese was four years old and it began the saddest years of her life. She became overly sensitive and cried easily. This would be her battle for ten years, when at fourteen, she found the grace and strength to overcome this oversensitivity and truly began to live her journey of spiritual freedom.
Louis Martin sacrificed and served his daughters in order to provide what they needed after their mother’s death, including spiritual and emotional support. Therese often went on picnics, fishing, walking, to visit the Blessed Sacrament, and on vacations with her father. He called her his “little queen” and while he doted on her, he did so without spoiling her. In turn, she greatly admired and loved her father. This relationship between Therese and Louis played a foundational role for her future in religious life.
Therese had desired to be a nun starting at the age of three. It became a certainty at the age of fourteen and she was convinced that it was time to enter the convent. It was difficult for Louis to give up all of his daughters to the convent, but he knew Therese’s vocation and while sad, he supported her decision. Her age was not an issue for the nuns, but she had to convince her uncle and the bishop that she was mature enough to enter into religious life. She had no answer by the time Louis took Celine, her sister, and her on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there on November 20, 1887 they had a papal audience. They were forbidden from speaking to the Holy Father, but Therese could not resist. She knelt before the holy father with tears streaming down her face and said: “Holy Father, I have a favor to ask you….In honor of your jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen.” The people in attendance were stunned and irritated by her outburst, but the Holy Father responded: “Well, my child, do what the superiors tell you!” St. Therese was not deterred. “Oh! Holy Father. If you say yes, everybody will agree!” He said, “Go, go, you will enter if God wills it.” She would have persisted, but a priest and guards had her removed. Such was the determination of Therese to enter the convent. She left Rome dejected, sure that she had failed in her mission. She did not know that her zeal had impressed many. While she experienced opposition, her dream became a reality, and at the age of fifteen she entered the Lisieux Carmel.
Religious life was exactly as Therese had expected and she transitioned easily into her vocation. She did discover rather quickly that religious life comes with certain difficulties, especially in how different personalities of the nuns can cause problems. The Prioress was a capable administrator, but had a terrible temper along with a variety of other vices that caused many problems in the Priory. Therese learned to accept the ill treatment she received from Mother Marie out of genuine love for her and obedience.
During this time, Therese’s father became ill. He suffered multiple strokes and became unstable. He could no longer live on his own and was placed in a mental institution for his own safety. This weighed heavily on Therese. In lucid moments he informed his doctor that this humiliation was necessary since he had never experienced one. He visited Therese in a wheelchair shortly before he died. As he left that visit he told his daughter that he would see her again in Heaven. He died in 1894. Their reunion would not be postponed for too long.
St. Therese developed a simple approach to the spiritual life that spoke of her devotion to Our Lord, as well as her understanding that every aspect of our lives, no matter how small, must be given up to God. As a mother, I find St. Therese’s “Little Way” attractive because my days are filled with messes, dishes, laundry, teaching my four year old, and sacrificing for my husband. In all honesty, I am still struggling to offer everything as a sacrifice and I have plenty of days that I grumble and complain. Therese’s approach is one that every single person can embrace and learn to live through discipline, perseverance, and prayer.
“The most trivial work, the least action when inspired by love, is often of greater merit than the most outstanding achievement. It is not their face value that God judges our deeds, even when they bear the stamp of apparent holiness, but solely on the measure of love we put into them.”
Spiritual Treasures from St. Therese of Lisieux, ed. by Cynthia Cavnar, page 72
Live Each Moment in Service to God
Throughout our day we are given many moments to offer in service to our families and as a sacrifice to God. In fact, members of the laity are called to offer their lives as sacrifice by virtue of the common priesthood (this differs from the hierarchical priesthood) of Christ that we entered to at Baptism. We participate in the priesthood of Christ when we offer sacrifices in our lives. We must use our moments well.
“We have only the short moments of our life to love Jesus, and the devil knows this well, and so he tries to consume our life with useless works.”
Spiritual Treasures, page 53
God Calls Each One of Us Differently
Catholics read the lives of the saints in order to learn how to live a life of holiness. The saints go before us and blaze a trail ahead of us. In studying their lives, however, we can experience a sense of fear, discouragement, or unworthiness in the face of their experiences. We feel like we will never measure up or we are terrified at the thought of certain supernatural experiences. Therese understood this well. She wanted to live simply in sacrifice to Jesus.
“I know there are some saints who spend their life in the practice of astonishing mortifications to expiate for their sins but what of it: ‘There are many mansions in the house of my heavenly Father’ (John 14:2), Jesus has said, and it is because of this that I follow the way he is tracing out for me.”
Spiritual Treasures, page 54
It is important for us to remember that God has called us to walk our unique path. We are not necessarily called to sleep on a stone floor, wear a hair shirt, and fast most days. As we study the lives of holy people, we need to keep that in mind so that we do not get discouraged.
Living in Charity
Living a life of sacrifice to others for the Glory of God comes with the difficult task of learning to love our neighbors, whether in our own families, parishes, or communities.
“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 seem them practice.”
Spiritual Treasures, page 74
How necessary is this for us to remember, especially in our own families! It is easy for us as we go throughout our days to focus on the faults of our spouse and our children. We can forget the progress people make in the spiritual life and how it may be miniscule or even unseen by us. The same is true for our neighbor, whether it be our brothers and sisters within the Mystical Body, or the people we come in contact with throughout the day. We are all weak. We all battle concupiscence. Our charity demands that we give people the benefit of the doubt and that we bear the faults of others patiently, as the bear ours.
The Greatness of Prayer
If we do not pray then we whither and our spiritual life become stagnant. I know this from personal experience. Prayer, as well as frequent reception of the Sacraments, is what will help us to overcome sin and to live our lives in service to God and others. St. Therese truly believed in the power of prayer.
“How great is the power of prayer. It’s like a queen’s having constant free access to the king and being able to obtain all that she asks….For me, prayer is an upward rising of the heart, it’s a simple glance toward heaven, it’s a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trials as much as in the midst of joys. In short, it’s something big, something great, something supernatural, that expands my heart and unites me to Jesus.”
Spiritual Treasures, page 145
I have really come to love St. Therese and her wisdom. She teaches me, a person of constant motion and little peace, how to live each day, each moment in service to God and the people around me. I find her “Little Way” to be the perfect fit for my vocation as a wife and mother. She teaches me that the smallest things I do become infinitely more important and of value when done with great love. She is a cherished friend and guide in my spiritual journey towards holiness. She died as she lived on September 30, 1897 at the age of twenty-four. We celebrate her feast today on October 1st. St. Therese, ora pro nobis.