Sister Thérèse Martin, O.C.D.
Thérèse of Lisieux: Mystic of the Ordinary
By Margaret Dorgan
Ordinary folk like you and me, must be greatly loved by God since there are so many of us, always have been, most likely always will be. Not that we have been turned out on a divine mass-production line: here are a million people for china, this million to Africa, that to Europe. No, within the very ordinariness, each one of us is extraordinarily unique. God has made you so that you're unrepeatable, irreplaceable. No disguise can cover up your fingerprints, and now a new technique tracks down your uniqueness through DNA. The more science discovers, the more it unlocks the wonder of the creative action that made you, that made me. We are ordinary-as ordinary as the sun rising and setting each day. And much less predictable.
At the beginning of her autobiography, St. Thérèse opens the Gospels and finds these words in Luke 3:13, "And going up a mountain, he called to him people of his own choosing and they came to him." Thérèse then goes on, "This is the mystery of my vocation, my whole life, and especially the mystery of the privileges Jesus showered upon my soul. He does not call those who are worthy, but those whom He pleases."1
Thérèse wonders why all of us don't receive an equal amount of grace-why some of us seem especially protected from birth; why others of us are converted after wasting our substance like the prodigal; why multitudes were never told the name of Jesus.
Thérèse's answer to the mystery of God's choice is as if she heard a divine echo of an exclamation she used when a child. In this episode, she wanted everything offered her by her older sister who had said, "Choose one." Thérèse replied, "I choose all."2 In her description of the graces given by God to human beings, she is really having God say the same thing: I choose all, she writes,
I understood how all the flowers He has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whitness of the Lily do not take away the perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. ...these must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God's glances...He created the child who knows only how to make his feeble cries heard;...the poor savage who has nothing but the natural law to guide him.3
She is telling us the divine love that creates uniquely continues to sustain and protect each unique creature. Thérèse explains, "Just as the sun shines simultaneously on the tall cedars and on each little flower as though it were alone on earth, so Our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no others like it" (Ibid.). To be ordinary, then, is to be unique and to be uniquely loved by God.
Return To Top
Most of us won't leave a record of our lives for others to pore over, to applaud or criticize. Thérèse Martin, a daughter of the French middle class who died at 24 in the year 1897, did leave us her remembrances. Autobiography is bound to give us a compressed account of anyone's joys and sorrows. Descriptions of suffering may cover several pages and the respite that follows take up a single sentence. We as readers can't experience the same movement of time that the person living it does.
I once picked up a diary I had written as a child and was amazed to discover how many exciting events had occurred - until I noticed the dates and realized months passed between them. I was recording only the exciting time - no dull days. I could call that diary MY Exciting Childhood, but it really wasn't, of course.
Thérèse's childhood wasn't exciting either - in fact, no part of her life was. All the excitement came after her death when her memoir became known to a few friends of Lisieux Carmel, then to friends of the friends until eventually everywhere in the world her Story of a Soul was being read.
Universal as the appeal of Thérèse has been, her message faces a major obstacle for modern readers. That obstacle is the language in which it is presented to us. French is a stylistic language; English is not. In English you can create your own style. You take hold of words and make them sound or sing with marvelous variety. The vocabulary of English is so rich because it draws on multiple sources and welcomes alien words. The grammar of English is relatively flexible so that in comparison with other languages, it is remarkably expressive. You can mold English sentences and paragraphs into a personal presentation that reflects in a singular way your particular individuality - not that most of us write that well in English, but it can be done, Joseph Conrad was born in Poland and grew up in Poland, but he became one of the greatest writers of English prose. It has been said that he considered French as a possible vehicle for his literary efforts. However, he recognized the impossibility of dealing with the demanding stylistic requirements of French for someone not brought up in France.
We who speak English laugh a bit at reports from France about the losing battle to keep English and especially American terms out of the language. Americanisms like "le drug store" and "teenager" infuriate the purists. When you write in French, you write according to a style; and to do it well, you must master its special fluidity and assonance. No mongrel phrases are acceptable. It is a purebred kind of tongue.
Thérèse has a style and it is not, even when done well, a particularly good one. The 19th century literary syntax of Catholic spiritual writing would win no prizes in linguistic competition. The epistolary style of young girls writing to each other from their bourgeois drawing rooms is even less impressive. What we have in Thérèse's style is a combination of both. Our American ears, used to straightforward - maybe even blunt - communication, can tingle uncomfortably with what sounds like gushing outpourings. We can't blame the translations. Therese's style is effusive because that is what she is used to. Readers have sometimes called it cloying, maudlin, embarrassingly burdened with diminutives and over affectionate phrases. Everybody and everything is "little" or "darling". Metaphors and figures of speech are woven into all descriptions. Thérèse is the great teacher of simplicity, yet we don't find this writing at all simple. She and Marcel Proust are contemporaries, but she has none of his mastery of French. It's not Proust's Rembrance of Things Past that we're reading but Thérèse Martin's remembrance ot things past. We have to work to attune our ears to the composition style of a day pupil at an abbey school. Her nun teachers gave her high marks for her efforts. We do not vibrate as they did to a middle-class eloquence that was her model for excellence.
Return To Top
In order to find the solid food of Thérèse's message, we have to move beyond the packaging. It would be even more profitable for us if we were to try to flow with her style, become more receptive to it on its own terms, let her similitudes and analogies speak their piece to us. If we dislike too much the threads she uses, we can miss the genius of her completed design. When we continually criticize her rhetoric and the artificial devices of the romantic period in which she wrote, we can miss the essential value of what she is pointing out to us.
Today we are privileged to have Thérèse's Story of a Soul just as she wrote it. The first editions were far otherwise. Thérèse had told her sister Pauline (Mother Agnes in Carmel) to make any changes she thought fit. Pauline accepted this carte blanche permission with a vigorous pen. She was the older sister who was used to correcting her baby sister's childhood papers. She was also in a religious community were censorship of all outgoing mail meant superiors would change and correct whatever correspondence they deemed unsuitable. The letter would be returned to the nun who wrote it for the necessary alterations.
The role of improving a manuscript , then, was easily assumed by Mother Agnes. Thousands of changes were made. Deletions and additions multiplied - sometimes just a few words, sometimes whole paragraphs and pages. Much of the down-to-earth humor was excised. Thérèse wrote about her childhood illness when "friends of the family came to visit me. It displeased me to see people seated around my bed LIKE A ROW OF ONIONS."4 Since the first edition of the autobiography appeared in 1898, the year after her death, the visitors thus identified as a row of onions would know whom she meant. Such an erasure is understandable. But the final number of modifications is overwhelming. Not that the essential Thérèse was lost in the process. Yet the full vigor of her teaching was put somewhat out of focus. The image presented by the first editions of the autobiography was similar to the touched-up photographs released by Lisieux Carmel. You look at them and you recognize Thérèse, but a prettified, improved Thérèse. The determined chin, for example, is softened.
Determination was a quality she needed for her short, intense life, which she once compared to a glass of medicine: beautiful to look at but bitter to swallow. Yet when we scrutinize her 24 years, we cannot help seeing a young French middle-class girl who in many ways lived a very privileged existence. Today we are almost overwhelmed by the scenes of suffering available through media coverage of tragedy. Human anguish is our daily fare. We don't see just the horrors of today but the horrors of yesterday too - of yesterdays like the Jewish holocaust and the Cambodian massacres. We gaze at African men, women, and children with skeleton-like bodies as famine sweeps through the Sahel. Every airplane crash, every serial killer apprehended, every earthquake delivers the sight of more victims. The homeless on city streets make their appeal. Sufferers from AIDS stare at us. The overload of pain can numb us.
And everyone knows agony in his or her own personal circle. A family member with cancer. Unemployment. Bankruptcy. A sibling or a child addicted to drugs.
Thérèse did lose her mother at and early age, but she didn't go through the problems of a child whose family is broken apart by divorce. Love and esteem surrounded Thérèse, even if her first years in Carmel provided their share of humiliations. But after all, she entered at the age of 15 and left a home where she had almost no responsibilities and had been coddled by a doting father and devoted sisters. As the youngest, she was treated, far longer than her siblings, like a baby. She must have been an awkward postulant without any domestic skills, not the most helpful addition to a convent with daily tasks to get through.
Return To Top
Near the end of Thérèse's life, the prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague, at first did not give her the medical care her sister, Mother Agnes, would have insisted upon. But Thérèse herself is partly responsible for understating the severity of her illness. Her own sisters judged the devoted monastery doctor as incompetent. His piety did not make up for his lack of skill. Mother Marie would not allow pain relievers, considering them incompatible with the heroism called for in the life of Carmel. This was not a sadistic decision on Mother Marie's part - she loved and appreciated Thérèse. Seven years later when she was dying of cancer, she would not take morphine.
Consumption was the scourge of Thérèse's age, comparable to what cancer is today. Ten months before Thérèse died, Lisieux Carmel lost a nun to tuberculosis. Her cousin, Sister Marie of the Eucharist, died of tuberculosis in 1905. American Carmels had their own high number of nuns, often very young, who died of tuberculosis in those years.
Looking at Thérèse and looking at other children of Adam and Eve, we see that just to be human is to be signed up for pain. We can't take the weight of personal anguish, set it on a scale, and determine relative degrees of torment. Autobiographies give us an inward look at what this particular man or woman endured and what it signified in that life. The wonder of Thérèse is not how much she suffered but how she suffered.
She writes, when she is only 16, to Celine:
Let us not believe we can love without suffering, without suffering much... Our poor nature is there! and it isn't there for nothing!...Our nature is our riches, our means of earning our bread!
Let us suffer the bitter pain, without courage!..And still we would like to suffer generously, grandly!...what an illusion!...We'd never want to fall?...What does it matter, my Jesus, if I fall at each moment; I see my weakness through this and this is a great gain for me...Sanctity does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, feeling them! It consists in suffering and suffering everything.5
Thérèse summarizing her life, says, "God has deigned to make me pass through many types of trials. I have suffered very much since I was on earth, but if in my childhood I suffered with sadness, it is no longer in this way that I suffer. It is with joy and peace."6 Always she personalizes her pain; it is never merely an agonizing experience she endures in isolation. She writes to Celine, "It is He [Jesus] who offers us at times the bitter chalice."7 Earlier she had written to Mother Agnes, "The route on which I am has no consolation for me, and nevertheless it brings me all consolations since Jesus is the one who chose it, and I want to console Him alone, alone!"8
The retreat before her profession is one of unmitigated aridity. She portrays it in a metaphor of darkness that is wholly related to Jesus. Whatever she goes through is an expression of His love leading her where it is best for her to travel. She writes about this retreat, "Then Jesus took me by the hand, and He made me enter a subterranean passage where it is neither cold nor hot, where the sun does not shine, and in which the rain or the wind do not visit." All these are negative images, images of what is not, but see how she softens the negativity. She describes, "a subterranean passage where I see nothing but a half-veiled light, the light which was diffused by the lowered eyes of my Fiance's Face!...
Return To Top
"My Fiance says nothing to me, and I say nothing to Him either, except that I love Him more than myself..."9 Such arid prayer can find no words except a cry of the heart like Thérèse's, "I love You more than myself."
The horror of suffering is not to be able to find meaning in it. Thérèse always extracts from agony the pure gold of significance. She sees it not only in terms of her own purification, but also as a means of working for the church. She knew an enclosed convent could shrink a nun's perspective into a petty concern for her own interests. She spoke once of the Carmelite whose way of life tends to make her continually fall back on herself.
Suffering can pull in our whole attention, immersing us in the torment to the exclusion of everything else. But even at 15, Thérèse could write to Celine from Carmel: "He [Jesus] is not far off; He is there, very close. He is looking at us, and He is begging this sorrow, this agony from us. He needs it for souls and for our soul...Alas, it does pain Him to give us sorrows to drink, but He knows this is the only means of preparing us to 'know Him as He knows Himself and to become God's ourselves'".10 Consistently, right up to the very end of her life, she translates all suffering into a person-to -person interaction with Jesus.
Some readers have criticized passages in Thérèse for romanticizing pain or providing a psycological diversion, We live in an age that, more than any other, is determined to avoid pain, to make the quickest possible exit from its grip, slight or great. The discoverers of the latest pain reliever have the whole world beating a path to their door. Techniques abound that try with varying results to relieve physical pain and fight depression. We have imaging; we have relaxation therapies, music therapies, drama therapies - all worthwhile, some very effective.
Any human attempt to deal with suffering is bound to have a psychological dimension to it. Thérèse would admit as much, but her approach to pain is also profoundly theological, and especially Christological. Only a Christian could understand what she is trying to say.
I've had Buddhist friends with no background in Christianity ask for Christian spiritual classics, but none of them have asked for Thérèse. Her words are drenched with Christian meaning. The Gospel accounts provide many of her metaphors. She moves instinctively to details of the Passion. If we were to try to cut away the Christ elements in Thérèse's message, we wouldn't have even a skeleton left. The very bones of her doctrine would be cast off. Nothing would remain. This is not true of some other great Christian classics.
Littleness, hiddenness, poverty, nothingness, powerlessness - these are the words that by predilection Thérèse uses to explain the Christ mystery at work in her life. And these same words describe her way to God. The diminutives are not to subtract but to enhance, not to lead to a dwarf or pigmy state of spiritual being but to show how all the smallnesses we ignore and pass over can be used for growth. The hidden, the inconspicuous, saves us from the empty flash and glitter of trying to be great, special in the eyes of others. We don't have to aim at being famous for 15 minutes, the amount of time Andy Warhol guaranteed to everybody. The littleness of Thérèse is for the sake of gathering in the particles of our life, to make sure nothing will be lost, not letting the fragments slip through our fingers like pearls dropped into the dust.
Nietzsche, who lived at the same time as Thérèse though he was born much earlier, is an apostle of power just as Thérèse is an apostle of powerlessness. Nietzsche said, "Where I found the living, there I found the will to power."11 Thérèse declared, "I have my weaknesses also, but I rejoice in them...It's so good to feel that one is weak and little."12
Nietzsche said, "It is for others that I wait...for those who are higher, stronger, more triumphant, and more cheerful, such as are built perpendicular in body and soul: laughing lions must come."13
Thérèse cries out, "O Jesus!...I feel that if You found a soul weaker and littler than mine, which is impossible, You would be pleased to grant it still greater favors...I beg You to cast Your Divine Glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg You to choose a legion of little Victims worthy of Your LOVE!"14
The paradox in Thérèse is the power of her powerlessness since it calls forth the might of God. The appeal of weakness is for divine strength to work in and through it. When we acknowledge our weakness, no longer demanding the right to be in control of our lives, divine power becomes infinitely available to us. Then we reach to the contemplative depths of our human nature where we become passively alert to the revelation of God. We develop the mystic gaze that sees God everywhere in everything.
Return To Top
It dosen't happen automatically. We won't discover an inward psychic switch that will make it happen. John of the Cross and Thérèse give us the same indispensable instruction. The contemplative depths are reached only through detachment.
Many of Thérèse's figures of speech, which so often gravitate to something miniature, almost negligible, are also metaphors of detachment. She reflects of the years before she entered Carmel, "I had offered myself,...to the Child Jesus as His little plaything. I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him."15 The vocabulary of toyland may sound charming (or sentimental if you dislike it) but it is stating stark spiritual realities. It's not a prayer to make to God unless one is willing to bear the consequences.
Thérèse ends the tale of the little ball by saying, "Jesus pierced His little plaything. He wanted to see what was inside it." Her final words are, "I never ceased hoping against all hope" (Ibid.) Detachment isn't possible without hope that what we let go is for the sake of something more valuable.
In a letter to her sister Marie, she wrote, "On this earth we must attach ourselves to nothing, not even the most innocent things, for they fail you at the moment when you are least expecting it. It is only what is eternal that can content us.16
Before Thérèse entered Carmel she seems to have understood already, as if in a preliminary sketch, what the asceticism of the Little Way entailed. She tells us, "Far from resembling beautiful souls who practiced every kind of mortification from their childhood, I had no attraction for this...My mortifications consisted in breaking my will,...in holding back a reply, in rendering little services without recognition, in not leaning my back against a support when seated."17
These examples may seem like trifles and Thérèse would agree, but in the accumulation of such trifles, nothing is omitted. She makes their totality clear. "It is necessary for me to meet abnegation and sacrifice in everything. We cannot accomplish any good while we indulge in self-seeking." Elsewhere she explained herself further. "True love is found only in complete self-forgetfulness, and it is only after we have detached ourselves from every creature that we find Jesus."18
Thérèse as demanding in these short sentences as John of the Cross when he describes in the Spiritual Canticle how the bride-soul must conduct herself. He portrays the soul as a turtledove. "She must advance with such love and solicitude as not to set the foot of her appetite on the green branch of any delight, or drink the clear water of any worldly honor and glory, nor should she desire the taste of the cool water of any creature's favor and protection, nor should she desire in any way to rest in anything,...but she should always sigh for solitude in all things until she reaches her Bridegroom."19 This is a more poetic expression of Thérèse's "May creatures be nothing for me and may I be nothing for them."20
The asceticism and detachment of the Little Way is not for the sake of toughening our moral fiber, giving us mastery over the petty irritations of life. It is not based on a stoicism of the will but on a theology of grace that sees a God of infinite mercy suffusing and permeating every aspect of my personal existence. This God interacts with me at every second, immanent in all that happens to me, undergirding all the choices I make. Thérèse expresses this loving accessibility of my God in three often - quoted words: Everything is grace.21
Everything? Really everything? This is the alchemical touch of Thérèse. Everything turns into blessedness. Nothing in my life - except resistance to God - nothing can preclude the possibility of making contact with God. The joys, the sorrows, the very mood I'm in, even as I make the effort to improve it, whatever burdens me opens me up for God. Whatever elates me lifts me to my God. All the so-called inconsequentials become of value. We who are weak, we who are puny, have one startling power - and that is the power to take hold of everything as grace, or to ignore it.
But if we recognize that everything is grace, couldn't that become obsessive? Couldn't it mean our attention is caught up in the trivial, the paltry - with the negligible taking on too much value? The answer is yes. That could happen. The Little Way doesn't mean you're making some kind of list of all the smallnesses in your life so you won't lose track of them. It doesn't mean details are the important part of living for God.
The Little Way is a journey of recognition, of seeing the divine more clearly in areas of my life where God has been obscured, hidden - in relationships with others especially. The sharp word, the callous rebuke, the impatient answer - all become of consequence - especially if they rise out of a habit. Habitual ways of dealing with our world always deserve our attention. They tell us about ourselves. They tell us where grace is being blocked or being welcomed.
Finding God in the ordinary - even the humdrum - dosn't mean we settle for the least common denominator, never aspiring for more than the average. In Thérèse, we see the opposite. Out of the ordinary she fashions her longings, her measureless desires - knowing an infinite God can make them come true. Any material can be used in the work of holiness since it is God's task. She writes,
I considered that I was born for glory and when I searched out the means of attaining it, [God] make me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint! This desire would certainly appear daring if one were to consider how weak and imperfect I was, and how, after seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect. I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great saint because I don't count on my merits, since I have none, but I trust in Him who is Virutue and Holiness. God alone, content with my weak efforts will raise me to Himself and make me a saint.22
It is God's work, but she makes it clear that her effort is part of the process. Notice her words, "God alone, content with my weak efforts." The Divine Artist crafts our experience. There is no stuff of our lives that can be too mediocre, too commonplace for God to shape it into holiness. But our efforts, our weak efforts, are necessary.
Return To Top
And we don't postpone making the effort. Thérèse's cousin, Marie Guerin, who was also one of her novices in Lisieux Carmel, said to her, "I promise you that I'll be a saint when you have left for heaven; at that moment, I'll put my whole heart into it." Thérèse answered, "Don't wait for that . Begin now...Believe me, don't wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint."23 Marie Guerin had the attitude of Augustine when he said, "Give me chastity, but not yet." So many of us say, "I'll strive for holiness tomorrow. Today is too soon." When Thérèse tells us that "at the age of three, I began to refuse God nothing He was asking from me,"24 she is informing us that she wasn't negotiating any delays in trying to be a saint. She might fail God in many ways, and her autobiography details her failings, but the basic will to be for God never faltered. She didn't ask for a vacation in striving for holiness. She didn't decide, "Well, I'll put my weak efforts" - "weak efforts" are the words she used - "I'll put my weak efforts on hold for a while. Then later I'll take up the task in earnest. Just now it's too much."
The "just now" is what Thérèse will not let us give up - except to God. The "just now" is the only part of time we can be sure of. The "just now" is irreplaceable. If we squander it, we can't get hold of some future moments to fill in the blank space where we wasted it. When Thérèse failed it wasn't based on not putting forth her weak efforts. Marie Guerin's promise, "I'll be a saint when you have left for heaven. At that moment I'll put my whole heart into it" - that promise was unacceptable to Thérèse. Actually, Marie Guerin did not have a long future to count on. She died eight years later at the age of 35.
The Little Way is a lowly path that anyone can travel. But you can't sign up for a future departure date when, like Marie Guerin, you'll "put your whole heart into it." The present moment is the moment of grace, the guaranteed opportunity to encounter the Lord. As we learn to cherish the present moment, we become more sensitive to all that it contains for us. Thérèse wrote, "I have frequently noticed that Jesus doesn't want me to lay up provisions; He nourishes me at each moment with a totally new food; I find it within me without my knowing how it is there. I believe it is Jesus Himself hidden in the depths of my poor little heart: He is giving me the grace of acting within me, making me think of all He desires me to do at the present moment."25
As creatures of time, we are directly related only to the immediate instant. We deal with the past and the future indirectly - from the vantage point of the instant we are experiencing. All that went before is over; all that is to come is not yet. Only the present truly is.
Thérèse remarked to Mother Agnes, "Someone told me I shall fear death. This could very well be true. There isn't anyone here more mistrustful of her feelings than I am. I know how weak I am. However, I want to rejoice in the feeling that God gives me at the present moment. There will always be time to suffer the opposite."26 In her last illness she said, "I'm suffering only for an instant. It's because we think of the past and the future that we become discouraged and fall into despair.27
Thérèse often testified to being happy. She expresses it in a very active way such as "I always find a way of being happy,"28 or "I'm always happy, for I always manage in the midst of the tempest to preserve interior peace."29 Part of her strategy for being always happy was to live in the present moment, discovering in it the wealth poured out by a divine giver.
Henry David Thoreau, who died 11 years before Thérèse was born, left us a famous passage in which he wrote, "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life...to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it..."30
Thérèse Martin wanted to "live deep" too, but she never doubted that life was sublime. She also knew its sublimity didn't reveal itself automatically. She describes herself at the age of 14; "All the great truths of religion, the mysteries of eternity, plunged my soul into a state of joy not of this earth. I experienced already what God reserved for those who love Him, ...and seeing the eternal rewards had no proportion to life's small sacrifices, I wanted to love, to love Jesus with a passion, giving Him a thousand proofs of my love while it was possible."31
Thérèse speaks of this year before her entrance into Carmel as a time when Jesus gave her "delicious and strong wine...to drink [that] make all things disappear."32 She goes on, "Because I was little and weak, [Jesus] lowered Himself to me, and He instructed me secretly in the things of His love. Ah! had the learned who spent their life in study come to me, undoubtedly they would have been astonished to see a child of fourteen understand...secrets all their knowledge cannot reveal because to possess them one has to be poor in spirit.."33
Thérèse many years later does not look back on this year of her adolescence with a smile as many of us do when we remember our teenage time. She evaluates as one who has experience in directing novices, and judges that at 14 she was spiritually advanced, that her goal in life was clear: "I wanted to love, to love Jesus with a passion, giving Him a thousand proofs of my love while it was possible."
A year before she died, her eldest sister Marie asked her for a souvenir of the retreat she was then making. Thérèse admits, "Jesus teaches me in secret; it is not by means of books, for I do not understand what I am reading." At this time in her life, she says, books were no help to her. Only the Gospels fed her, but she finally reached a desert where nothing she read was of any use. This retreat, like all her retreats in Carmel, was one of aridity. She wrote to Marie, "I understand so well that it is only love which makes us acceptable to God that this love is the only good I ambition. Jesus deigned to show me the road that leads to this Divine Furnace, and this road is the surrender of the little child...
"[Jesus] has no need of our works but only of our love... He finds few hearts who surrender to Him without reservations, who understand the real tenderness of His infinite love."34
Marie had sought from Thérèse an explanation of her little doctrine, as Marie called it. This letter of the last retreat summarizes it in pages ardent, impassioned, fiery with intensity. As so often in the autobiography, Therese is more at ease when using a long extended figure of speech in which she can refer to herself in the third person. Here especially we have to try to flow with her words. In a sense, we need to leap out of our own skin and beat with the throbbing of her heart. To judge these pages, among the most eloquent in spiritual literature, as simply awash in feeling would be to miss the heights and depths of a vigorous original theology. Emotion is certainly present but only as part of the whole being of Thérèse caught up in the passion of love that John of the Cross describes in the Dark Night: "The spirit...experiences an impassioned and intense love, because this spiritual inflaming engenders the passion of love. Since this love is infused, it is more passive than active and thus generates in the soul a strong passion of love.35
Return To Top
In her letter Thérèse admits to a kind of inebriation. She wants to share that wine with Marie, who is her sister and godmother. Now, as we read her words, we can choose to remain sober or like Marie, say to Thérèse, "You are possessed by God...absolutely possessed, just as the wicked are by the devil."36
Thérèse describes her longing to be every vocation in the church.
To be Your spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so... I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus...
...I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach Your Name...One mission alone would not be sufficient for me. I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously...I would be a missionary, not for a few years only but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages. But above all, O my beloved Savior, I would shed my blood for You...37
One martyrdom would not satisfy her; she would seek them all. But even every kind of martyrdom would not fulfill her desires. Seeing in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians a list of the various members who make up the church, Thérèse wanted to be every one of them; and yet this still did not content her. She continued reading and discovered her place. "I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this heart was BURNING WITH LOVE...
"...In the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out, "O Jesus, my Love...my vocation, at last I have found it...MY VOCATION IS LOVE!38
Later offering herself as a victim to God's Merciful Love, she says her weakness gives her the necessary boldness for such and act. She admits who she is, "I am but a poor little thing who would return to nothingness if Your divine glance did not give me life from one moment to the next.
"O Jesus, allow me in my boundless gratitude to say to You that Your love reaches unto folly...How can my confidence, then, have any limits? Why can't I tell all little souls how unspeakable is Your condescension?"39
When Thérèse speaks of littleness, she most assuredly means an attitude of the heart. But she also means something beyond that. Her littleness is more basic than a moral or religious disposition. It is an ontological reality.40 Our very being, as compared with the being of God, is littleness to the point of diminishing into nothingness. Thérèse goes this far in describing herself. When she speaks of her littleness, she often joins with it the words, "my nothingness" - my littleness and nothingness. She calls herself a little zero. The realization of her nothingness gives her joy and consolation, she assures us.
But her intense purification at the end of her life was an experience of standing on the edge of eternal nothingness, absolute nothingness, because the being of God seemed nonexistent. That Thérèse's purification should have taken this particular form is intrinsically appropriate. The action of God in purifying us is not random. It penetrates to the innermost substance of our psyche, where the ego is stripped and defenseless, where the self is pierced through and dies to rise again in God. The mystic dying is exquisitely fitted to each individual. Each dying is expressly tailored to the lineaments of each unique life. For Thérèse then: the horror of the abyss of nothingness - for one who had sung all her songs to the tune of littleness and nothingness before God.
She tells us. [Jesus] permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer anything but the cause of struggle and torment."41 She hears a mocking voice promising her a "death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness."42 Thérèse experiences what John of the Cross describes as the advanced purification of the spirit. He writes of "a painful disturbance involving many fears, imaginings, and struggles within...[One] suspects that he is lost and that his blessings are gone forever."43 John says, "Sometimes this experience is so vivid that it seems to the soul that it sees hell and perdition open before it. These are the ones who go down into hell alive...44
Thérèse takes hold of this experience of hanging over the abyss of nothingness - as she takes hold of every experience - and turns it into something positive. She makes her suffering a claim for unbelievers; her darkness will gain the light of faith for them. She understands that great as is the weight of her desolation, she can endure it. She says, "How sweet and merciful the Lord really is, for He did not send me this trial until the moment I was capable of bearing it. A little earelier I believe it would have plunged me into a state of discouragement."45 The God we reach for on the Little Way proportions everything according to our strength.
During Thérèse's last illness, Mother Agnes asked her, "You don't have any intuitions about the day of your death?" The answer was what any dying person could say. "Ah! Mother, intuitions! If you only knew the poverty I'm in. I know nothing except what you know; I understand nothing except through what I see and feel. But my soul, in spite of this darkness, is in an astonishing peace.'"46 She also said very simply, "Why should I be protected more than anyone else from the fear of death?"47
Thérèse does not give us a closed system, a finished treatise about the process for advancing spiritually. She doesn't construct a step-by-step ladder for reaching union with God. Like St. Francis of Assisi, her life is her message. That doesn't mean we imitate the particular circumstances of her life, assume her smile, and gather flowers to unpetal. That would be like the pathetic artificial impersonation of spiritual geniuses that many followers inflict on their memory after their deaths.
Thérèse had insights about God and living for God that move us far beyond the very obvious limitations of her own life. She took hold of these insights and worked them out magnificently in her personal situation - cramped and confined as it may seem to us today. She realized for herself and in her day-to-day living what was the essential dynamism of her inspired wisdom. We can't ask her to provide a detailed blueprint for our personal spiritual progress.
John of the Cross was her special mentor, who gave her and us a comprehensive system in which deep questions are raised and superbly answered. John wove the skeins of many spiritual sources together into a master design that lifted the contemplative tradition to a new peak of development.
Thérèse's spiritual doctrine does something different. She leaves us a personal vision that invites us to push back the horizon of our own lives to discover new possibilities. Her message is not a final word but rather a beginning word meant to open up new pathways to pursue. Thérèse unlocks possibilities not considered in the same light before. The old, the traditional, becomes fresh because of the manner in which she takes hold of it and energizes it within the limitations of her existence. She invites us to do the same.
She gives us a fire to warm the space of our own lives, to shine into the neglected corners. Or we can think if the Little Way as a seed to be planted within the human boundaries of our days and years. Out of that seed of vitality which is the Little Way, we bring forth something very different from what Thérèse did. Each one actualizes the Little Way according to a particular modality of living.
Her genius belongs to that special order of originality in which the first meaning is for the sake of uncovering more and more meaning. The power of the message moves beyond what the author envisioned. It has the potential to keep growing. The vitality of Thérèse's wisdom meets the dynamism of insights from other sources - sources she perhaps never knew. From that meeting, from the marriage of diverse but complementary insights, a fresh depth of understanding emerges.
To Pere Adolphe Roulland, a missionary who had asked for a spiritual sister, Thérèse, wrote,
I really count on not remaining inactive in heaven. My desire is to work still for the Church and for souls...If I am leaving the field of battle already, it is not with the selfish desire of taking my rest. The thought of eternal beatitude hardly thrills my heart...
what attracts me to the homeland of heaven is the Lord's call, the hope of loving Him finally as I have so much desired to love Him, and the thought that I shall be able to make Him loved by a multitude of souls who will bless Him eternally.48
As her death drew near, her blood sisters were allowed to be with her as much as possible. Mother Agnes kept a record of everything she judged worth writing down. It gives us a day-by-day account of what Thérèse said in conversations, her humor, and small anecdotes involving other sisters. Once she called to Mother Agnes, "Give ne a kiss, a kiss that makes noise; so that the lips go 'smack'."49
With her health deteriorating rapidly, Thérèse began to make some few prophetic statements. Regarding her manuscript, she observed, "There will be something in it for all tastes, except for those in extraordinary ways."50 Actually what Thérèse left is definitely helpful for such favored people since she teaches the same detachment from spiritual experience that John of the Cross does. We know she was granted the wound of love John describes - as well as flight of the spirit. She simply didn't bother to include an account of these graces in her manuscript.
Return To Top
The day after the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she pronounced the words, so often quoted, that defined her activity in heaven, "I feel especially that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making God loved as I love Him, of giving my little way to souls. If God answers my desires, my heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world. Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth."51
These words of Thérèse are a culmination of apostolic longing, a longing she gave expression to throughout her life, even from her childhood. If we walk with Thérèse through her autobiography, we can't be surprised to hear her speak with such intensity of continuing to work through eternity in order to make God more loved. Such a beatitude for Thérèse seems to fit perfectly the fabric of her earthly life.
She declared, "I can't rest as long as there are souls to be saved. But when the angel will have said: 'Time is no more!'...I'll be able to rejoice, because the number of the elect will be complete and because all will have entered into joy and repose."52
When Thérèse Martin died on September 30, 1897, very few mourners lamented her passing. One year later to the day, her memoirs were published in an edition financed by her Uncle Isidore. This was the spark that started the fire of devotion to the saint of the ordinary. Fifty years after her death, 865 known works about her had been printed in all the major and minor languages of the world.
She was once asked, "What name should we call you when we pray to you in heaven?" She replied, "You will call me little Thérèse."53
Return To Top
1. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1975), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 27.
3. Ibid., p. 14.
4. Ibid., p. 63.
5. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. I, 1877-1890, translated by John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1982), pp. 556-557 (April 26, 1889).
6. Story of a Soul, p. 210.
7. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. II, 1890-1897, translated by John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1988), p. 826 (October, 1893).
8. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. I, 1877-1890, p. 652 (during Thérèse retreat for Profession, 1890).
10. Ibid., p. 449-450, July 23, 1888.
11. Fredrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, selected and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1954), p. 226.
12. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, translated by John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1977), p. 73.
13. Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 395.
14. Story of a Soul, p. 200.
15. Ibid., p 136.
16. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. I, 1877-1890, p. 396 (Feb. 21, 1888).
17. Story of a Soul, p. 143.
18. Cited in Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Francois Jamart, translated by Walter van de Putte (New York: Alba House, 1961) p. 119.
19. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1964) Spiritual Canticle, St. 34, no 5, p. 542.
20. Story of a Soul, p. 275.
21. Her Last Conversations, p. 57.
22. Story of a Soul, p. 72.
23. Her Last Conversations, p. 253.
24. Ibid., pp. 251 & 281.
25. Story of a Soul, p. 165.
26. Her Last Conversations, p. 46.
27. Ibid., p. 155.
28. Story of a Soul, p. 173.
29. Her Last Conversations, p. 37.
30. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods, with illustrations from photographs and notes by Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919), p. 101.
31. Story of a Soul, p. 102.
32. Ibid., p. 103.
33. Ibid., p. 105.
34. Ibid., pp. 187-9.
35. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Dark Night, Bk II Ch. 11, no. 2, p. 353.
36. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. II, 1890-1897, p. 997 (September 17, 1896).
37. Story of a Soul, pp. 192-193.
38. Ibid., p. 194.
39. Ibid., pp. 190-200.
40. Wallace Stevens (born 6 years after Thérèse ), concluding his poem "The Snow Man," uses winter imagery to explore the mystery of being and nothingness.
"For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
The collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) pp. 9-10.
41. Story of a Soul, p. 211.
42. Ibid., p 213.
43. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Dark Night, Bk II, Ch. 9, no. 7, p. 348.
44. Ibid., Ch. 6, no. 6, p. 339.
45. Story of a Soul, p. 214.
46. Her Last Conversations, p. 199.
47. Ibid., p. 83.
48. Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Vol. II 1890-1897, p. 1141 (July 14, 1897).
49. Her Last Conversations, p. 187.
50. Ibid., p. 143.
51. Ibid., p. 102.
53. Ibid., p. 270.
Return To Top
Return To ARTICLES
Return To: HOMEPAGE