There are many Catholics who struggle with St. Therese of Lisieux. They read her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, and cannot get through the “flowery” language or style, which was prevalent at the time. She is often reduced to being “overly nice”, “sentimental”, or a “sweet girl”, which—whether intended or not—is a superficial understanding of her life and does an incredible injustice to this Doctor of the Church.
St. Therese of Lisieux is a woman of profound depth who suffered tremendously for the salvation of others.
St. Therese’s teachings on the Little Way is meant to help souls reach eternal life through small sacrifices each day for love of God and love of others. This path is in contrast to those giant souls who are called by God to heroic deeds or grand missions. This does not mean, however, that the Little Way is easy. Far from it. It is a path paved with suffering.
St. Therese herself came to understand that her path to holiness would require great suffering:
Our Lord made me understand that the only true glory is that which lasts forever; and that to attain it there is no necessity to do brilliant deeds, but rather to hide from the eyes of others, and even from oneself, so that “the left hand knows not what the right hand does.” Then, as I reflected that I was born for great things, and sought the means to attain them, it was made known to me interiorly that my personal glory would never reveal itself before the eyes of men, but that it would consist in becoming a Saint.
This aspiration may very well appear rash, seeing how imperfect I was, and am, even now, after so many years of religious life; yet I still feel the same daring confidence that one day I shall become a great Saint. I am not trusting in my own merits, for I have none; but I trust in Him Who is Virtue and Holiness itself. It is He alone Who, pleased with my feeble efforts, will raise me to Himself, and, by clothing me with His merits, make me a Saint. At that time I did not realize that to become one it is necessary to suffer a great deal; but God soon disclosed this secret to me by means of the trials I have related.St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, 67.
Once St. Therese came to understand that she would have to suffer to become a great saint, her life was marked by interior and physical suffering and pain. She was a quiet victim soul offering all of her afflictions for the conversion of sinners and for priests. This is why it is to completely misunderstand her writings and her spirituality if one casts her aside as overly sentimental. She sees with the eyes of a child in the way that we are all called by Christ to see in order to enter the Kingdom of God, but she also sees what the path to holiness will cost her.
In order to get a clearer picture of how suffering in love was an indispensable part of her Little Way, we have to look at her final few months of life on earth, which can be found in the Epilogue to her autobiography. Her final months were spent as a victim of Divine Love. She offered herself to Christ as an oblation in order to console Him on the Cross.
Therefore, because she desired to attain “the loftiest height of Love,” the Divine Master led her thither by the rugged path of sorrow, and it was only on its bleak summit that she died a Victim of Love.The Story of a Soul, Epilogue, page 210
She offered her agonies repeatedly with a great love for sinners and a complete dedication to the priesthood. She understood the spiritual power of redemptive suffering. She answered Christ’s call to her from the Cross; eventually dying an agonizing death by tuberculosis at 24-years-old.
The Little Way is ultimately the Way of the Cross walked in each moment of the day united to Christ for the sake of others. Love always comes by the Way of the Cross and we can only be transfigured and partake in the Resurrection through the Cross. This requires a constant dying-to-self in small and ever greater areas of our lives as we progress on the path. St. Therese was led to bigger and bigger sacrifices as she progressed along the path towards the end of her life. All of these sacrifices were made through the grace of God and with great effort on her part.
In that close union with God, Therese acquired a remarkable mastery over self. All sweet virtues flourished in the garden other soul, but do not let us imagine that these wondrous flowers grew without effort on her part. “In this world there is no fruitfulness without suffering—either physical pain, secret sorrow, or trials known sometimes only to God.Ibid 212
St. Therese’s teachings draw us into the mystery of redemptive suffering and kenotic love. She shows us how our small sacrifices each day free us in order to be able to make even greater sacrifices as we progress along the path. Eventually, our sacrifices become a source of joy because they are inflamed by the Divine Love. We will come to embrace suffering in love since it leads us to union with Christ on the Cross. This is an indispensable part of the Little Way.
We must radically surrender with total dependence on Christ in our nothingness. This surrender in love and trust draws us to the supernatural heights of union with God in accordance with His will and designs for our individual lives. This surrender necessarily means giving ourselves over to the refining fire of suffering, which purges us so that we can truly love God and others as we ought to. St. Therese’s life personifies this truth. She fully embraced the call to suffer.
On another occasion someone remarked: “It is said that you have never suffered much.” Smiling, she pointed to a glass containing medicine of a bright red colour. “You see this little glass?” she said. “One would suppose that it contained a most delicious draught, whereas, in reality, it is more bitter than anything else I take. It is the image of my life. To others it has been all rose colour; they have thought that I continually drank of a most delicious wine; yet to me it has been full of bitterness. I say bitterness, and yet my life has not been a bitter one, for I have learned to find my joy and sweetness in all that is bitter.Ibid 219
I encourage those who struggle with St. Therese’s style to take a second or third look. It’s important to keep in mind that everything she wrote about and came to understand about God was hard earned by sacrifice and suffering through her intimate union with Him. She leads us on the Little Way to union with Christ on the Way of the Cross, where we too will be transfigured by the Divine Love. She is not a sentimental girl. She is a powerhouse who suffered greatly for love of God. May we too leave this earth uttering her final words: “Oh!…I love Him!…My God, I…love…Thee!”