My first introduction to the Saints came from my beautiful mother, Mary Agnes, when I was a five-year-old girl. She took my hand and asked me to sit on the chrome kitchen stool that had red vinyl on the top of it. She brought over to me a book called, “The Treasure Book.” She said that she wanted to teach me about the Saints in heaven, and especially about one lady whom she admired and loved. We looked at the book together and she came to the page that she wanted, as I awaited with excitement. My mother paged to “The Little Flower,” whose Feast Day we celebrate today, October 1st. I looked at all of the lovely pictures. My mother then read to me the Little Flower’s life story and told me something that I will always remember, and have remembered, all of my life. My mother said to never forget St. Therese’s “Little Way,” to do all things, no matter how small, with great love, and your actions will rise to heaven to Jesus, making Him very happy. My mother served as a wonderful example to me of the “Little Way” as I have been trying to model my life after it.
St. Therese was born on January 2, 1873, the youngest of five children, to Louis Martin, a watchmaker of Alencon and Azelie-Marie Guerin, a maker of point d’Alencon (lace and fabric). She enjoyed a very happy childhood, was highly intelligent and full of enthusiastic love of life. She enjoyed her sisters and loved to be in plays, thoroughly enjoying acting as Joan of Arc, whom she admired very much.
In 1877, Therese’s mother died and her father sold her business at Alencon and went to live at Lisieux, so that his daughters’ aunt, Madame Guerin, could help him with his children from time to time, even though Marie, Therese’s older sister, ran the household and Pauline, the eldest sister, made herself responsible for the religious upbringing of her sisters.
Pauline entered the Carmel at Lisieux and Therese began to be drawn to that same vocation. Therese went to the school run by the Benedictine nuns of Notre-Dame-du-Pre. When Therese was nearly fourteen, Marie joined Pauline in the Carmel. On Christmas Eve of that same year, Therese underwent an experience that she later referred to as her “conversion.” She said, “On that blessed night the sweet child Jesus, scarcely an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, He made me strong and brave; He put His own weapons into my hands so that I went on from strength to strength, beginning, if I may say so, ‘to run as a giant.’ “
During the next year, Therese told her father that she also wanted to enter Carmel, but because she was 14, the Carmelites and the Bishop of Bayeux refused to hear of her desires because she was too young. A few months later, being in Rome with her father, Therese visited with Pope Leo XIII, saying to the Pope, “In honor of your jubilee, allow me to enter Carmel at fifteen.” Pope Leo was impressed with Therese, but upheld her superiors’ decision and told her, “You shall enter if it be God’s will,” dismissing her with kindness. But at the end of the year, Biship Hugonin gave his permission to Therese, and she entered the Carmel at Lisieux, professing on September 8, 1890. A few days before she professed, she wrote this to Pauline, known as Mother Agnes-of-Jesus:
“Before setting out my Betrothed asked me which way and through what country I would travel. I replied that I had only one wish: to reach the height of the mountain of Love….Then our Savior took me by the hand and led me into a subterranean way, where it is neither hot nor cold, where the sun never shines, where neither rain nor wind find entrance: a tunnel where I see nothing but a half-veiled light, the brightness shining from the eyes of Jesus looking down….I wish at all costs to win the palm of St. Agnes. If it cannot be by blood it must be by love….”
One of the principal duties of a Carmelite nun is to pray for priests, which St. Therese did with great fervor and devotion, carrying out also the austere lifestyle of the Carmelite Order. In 1893, Therese, now 20, served to assist the novice mistress and was in fact the mistress in all but not in name. And in that capacity, she said:
“From afar it seems easy to do good to souls, to make them love God more, to mold them according to our own ideas and views. But coming closer we find, on the contrary, that to do good without God’s help is as impossible as to make the sun shine at night….What costs me most is being obliged to observe every fault and smallest imperfection and wage deadly war against them.” During this time with the novices under her care, inspired by the Word of God and inspired by the Gospel to place love at the center of everything, she discovered the “Little Way” of spiritual childhood and taught it to the novices.
Therese’s sister, Celine, cared for their Father who died in 1894. Thereafter, Celine also entered Carmel. In 1895, Therese wrote her first autobiographical manuscript, which she presented to Mother Agnes for her birthday on January 21, 1896. Several months later, Therese experienced a hemorrhage at the mouth. This happened at the same time Therese had planned to respond to help the Carmelites at Hanoi. But the last eighteen months of her life was a time of great trial, a time of horrible suffering and spiritual darkness. Therese said, ”I have never given the good God aught but love, and it is with love that He will repay. After my death I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my Heaven in doing good upon earth. My ‘Little Way’ is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.” While she was suffering, she continued to write another manuscript. Her sisters and other religious women collected her sayings.
On September 30, 1897, she said, “I am not dying, I am entering life….My God…, I love you!” At the age of 24, Therese died.
Her teaching and example of holiness was received by not only the Catholic Church and Catholics, but by other Christians and non-Christians. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 17, 1925, having proclaimed Therese Universal Patron of the Missions, alongside St. Francis Xavier, on December 14, 1927.
“On 24 August, at the close of the Eucharistic Celebration at the Twelfth World Youth Day in Paris, in the presence of hundreds of bishops and before an immense crowd of young people from the whole world, Pope John Paul II announced his intention to proclaim Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face a Doctor of the Universal Church on World Mission Sunday, 19 October 1997.”
Accordingly, this Little Flower serves as a Doctor of the Church with her “Little Way” to teach all men and women to love Our Lord and to give Him everything we have, to serve Him in our vocation, whatever it may be, and to do all things, no matter how small, with great love.
The Life of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Vatican website “Holy See”
One Hundred Saints, Bulfinch Press, Compilation Copyright @ 1993 By Little, Brown and Company, Inc.