Theology of the heart- Life of the Saints

Patroness of the Missions and Doctor of the Church
Feast: October 1

St. Therese of Lisieux’s holiness is based on doing “little things with great love.” It is difficult to see the life of Therese Martin as common because she is now known as St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church. A young cloistered nun who lived in the late 1800's, she entered a Carmelite monastery at the young age of 15. Therese wrote the Story of a Soul while in the convent, an autobiography suggested by her mother superior. It has been translated into more than 50 languages. When she was canonized at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, more than 500,000 people were present. Therese is now the Patroness of Universal Missions, one of three women Doctor’s of the Church, and Patroness of France together with St. Joan of Arc. She is known for her doctrine of the “little way” to reach the heights of holiness - doing small things with great love for God and others. Love was her key to sanctity. She saw herself as weak and little. Unable to climb the ‘rough stairway’ of perfection, consisting of heroic deeds and great mortifications, she wanted a quick route, or an ‘elevator’ to take her to Heaven. This elevator, she said, would be the tender arms of Jesus.

Alençon (1873-1877)
St. Therese was born to a middle-class French family in Alencon. Her father, Luis Martin, was a watchmaker, and her mother Celia Guerin, was a lace maker who died of cancer when Therese was still very young. Both have been declared Venerable by the Catholic Church. The Martin’s had nine children, four of whom died in early childhood. Therese was born on January 2nd, 1873. At birth she stayed with a wet nurse, as her mother was unable to nurse her. A joyful and lively child, Therese’s life was blessed by the love of her parents and sisters. The youngest and last daughter of the family received a faith that was profound, generous and full of charity.

Everything went well until her mother died of breast cancer when Therese was only four years old. This was very difficult for Therese. She chose her older sister Pauline as her second mother.

Lisieux (1877-1888)
With five daughters to educate, Mr. Martin yielded to the petition of his brother-in-law to move to Los Buissonnets. Here Therese found warmth, but the five years she attended school were a difficult adjustment for her. She missed the intimacy of the family. The entrance of Pauline to the Carmel of Lisieux deeply affected Therese, as she would be losing, in a sense, her “second mother.” She was ten years old. This was very hard for her to deal with, and she soon became very sick with a nervous condition. Family members and the the nuns of Carmel prayed a lot for her. Therese’s sisters brought in a statue of the Blessed Mother into Therese’s room. Therese asked for the Blessed Mother’s intercession, and saw Mary smile at her. At this point she was instantly cured from her condition.

Growing up, Therese had a very sensitive nature and tears came easily for her, so much so that she states she was almost unbearable because of her extreme touchiness. She stated that in order to ‘grow up’ she would need a miracle. She experienced this deep conversion on Christmas day in 1886, when she was 14 years old. In France, there was a custom for children to leave their shoes by the hearth at Christmas, and then their parents would fill them with gifts. Returning home late from midnight Mass, her father was very tired. As she and Celine climbed the stairs to take off their hats, their father’s voice rose up from the parlor below. Standing over the shoes, he sighed, "Thank goodness this is the last year." Therese froze, and her sister looked at her helplessly. Celine knew that very soon Therese would be in tears over what her father had said. However, something incredible had happened for Therese. Jesus had come into her heart and done what she could not do herself. He had made her more sensitive to her father's feelings than her own. She swallowed her tears, walked slowly down the stairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father had said.

At 14 years old, Therese greatly desired to enter Carmel. She felt the certitude of a divine call. She wanted to enter Carmel not because of her sisters, but for Jesus alone. When the superior of the Carmelite convent refused to take Therese because she was so young, she and her father, who supported his daughter’s vocation, went to see the Bishop. The permission was not granted for Therese’s entrance at this time.

Grace opened her heart and she wanted to save the souls of poor sinners with Jesus on the Cross. She felt a thirst for souls grow within her. She felt that her vocation was to “love Jesus and make others love Him.” She heard of an unrepentant murderer name Pranzini, and she prayed and sacrificed for him, desirous of his complete conversion to Jesus. He was judged and condemned to death at the guillotine. A few moments before death, he asked for the crucifix and kissed it three times. Therese cried of joy when she read this in the newspaper, as her prayer had been answered. She called him her first child, and dedicated herself even more to praying for souls.
Her father and sister soon took her on a pilgrimage to Rome, which was a trip filled with many graces. During the pilgrimage she realized that even though priests have a “sublime vocation,” at the same time they are also weak human beings. She thought of the need to pray much for them because of this. Therese understood that her vocation not only was to pray for the conversion of great sinners, but also for priests.

While in Rome, Therese and her family went for an audience with the Pope. They had been forbidden to speak to him. Therese though had a great desire to speak with him. When they approached the Holy Father, she looked to Celine to see what she should do, and Celine whispered in reply, “Speak!” As soon as she got near the Holy Father, she begged him to allow her to her enter the Carmelite convent at the age of 15. He answered that she would enter if God willed it. She then had to be carried off by two of the guards. The Vicar General of the Carmelite monastery who was there saw her courageous act and was impressed. Soon Therese was admitted to the Carmelite convent at 15 years of age, April 9th, 1888.

The Carmel: A path of solitude  (1888-1897)
She was very happy to be for the first time in the Carmel, a “prisoner of love" with Jesus . . . . . and 24 sisters. She thought to herself with joy when she entered Carmel, “I am here forever and ever!” However, the happiness of being at the convent, so long desired, was also tinged with sorrow because of the failing health of her dear father. He suffered a series of strokes that left him affected not only physically but mentally. He soon had to be taken to an asylum for the insane. This was a deep sorrow for Therese. The reading of St. John of the Cross helped her. She aspired to love when she read his book, “The Living Flame of Love.” Later, her confessor encouraged her along this path of great confidence and love.

She knew as a Carmelite nun she would never be able to perform great deeds. "Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love." She took every chance to sacrifice, no matter how small it would seem. She ate everything she was given without complaining -- so that she was often given the worst leftovers. One time she was accused of breaking a vase when she was not at fault. Instead of arguing she sank to her knees and begged forgiveness. These little sacrifices cost her more than bigger ones, for these went unrecognized by others.

Therese continued to desire greater holiness in the life she led. She didn't want to just be good, she desired to be a great saint. She thought there must be a way for people living hidden, little lives like hers. "I have always wanted to become a saint. Unfortunately when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passers-by. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight.” The ‘little way’ that Therese was referring to was the way of spiritual childhood, that of absolute trust and surrender to God. She found consolation in the Scripture, “ Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18,3). The doctrine of the little way helped make one of the 33 doctors of the Church, only three of which are women.

Therese also wrote the Story of a Soul, an autobiography suggested by her mother superior. Originally, it was meant to be a memoir for her biological sisters that had joined her in Carmel. However, a year after her death, the Story of a Soul first appeared in limited printing in 1888. It has now been translated into more than 50 languages. In her autobiography, there are three manuscripts, written at different times: A, B, and C. Manuscript A describes her childhood, B describes the discovery of her vocation as love, and C is about her life in the convent, with a focus on her dark night and her struggle with temptations against faith.

On June 9, 1895, Therese composed a prayer to be a victim of God’s merciful love. Some chosen souls offer themselves to God as victim of Divine Justice, but Therese desired to be a victim of God’s love. This would constitute for her a way of life. Therese concluded by saying she wanted to renew this offering an infinite number of times.
Therese wanted to have all vocations, in addition to being a Carmelite, a bride of Christ, and a mother of souls. She wanted to do heroic deeds and even shed her blood so that Jesus may be loved by all. She had many desires: she wanted to love God as an apostle, martyr, priest, and missionary to all the world. She found joy in the passage of 1 Corinthians 12. Here she read that the Body of the Church has many members: hands, feet, etc., and that each member has its own place and purpose. She read in chapter 13 that all deeds, even the most perfect, have no value unless they have love, and that charity is the great way that leads securely to God. Therese understood that the church had a heart, and that this heart was burning with love. “I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act … I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING … THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!” Therese goes on to say that she has found her place - in the heart of Mother Church, she would be love. This discovery occurred in 1896. She refused to act from any other motive than love.

Concerned about sinners not knowing the merciful love of God, on Easter of 1896, she entered into a dark night combating her faith and hope. She was stricken by tuberculosis, weakening her health. She applied all her strength to teaching “her little way of spiritual childhood” to the five novices in her care. Then in 1896, she coughed up blood. She kept working without telling anyone until she became so sick a year later everyone knew it. Her pain was very great. She was living in union with Christ in Gethsemani and on His Cross. However, she tried to remain smiling and cheerful and succeeded so well that some sisters thought she was only pretending to be ill. By obedience she continued to write her memories and to “sing the mercies of the Lord.”

Shortly before her death in 1897, she wrote, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love Him, to teach souls my little way.” She added that she wished to spend her Heaven doing good on earth. At 24 years of age, Therese died of tuberculosis, “consumed by love.” A sister wrote down the last words of Therese near her bedside. She wrote: “. . . Therese pronounced very distinctly, while gazing at her crucifix: ‘Oh! I love Him!’ And a moment later: ‘My God, I love you!’ Soon after this, she died.

Therese was canonized in 1925. She is now known as the ‘little flower,’ and what brought her to Heaven was love. Therese is ultimately a reminder to all us who feel we are small and weak...that it is the little things that keep God's kingdom growing.

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