The Overlooked Power of the Maid of Lisieux: St. Therese, Doctor of the Church
A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in Facebook chat with some highly intelligent, very well educated Catholic men. It remains a mystery to me as to how I included, since I was not even remotely qualified to participate in the discussion. I imagine this is why I cannot recall what the conversation was about. However, what I do remember about the conversation was when subject of St. Therese of Lisieux came up, I immediately perked up. I made a comment that I really liked her – and then one of the men dropped a condescending bomb “Yeah, well I guess middle class teenage girls need a saint too.”
I found the comment amusing, considering that St. Therese is a Doctor of the Church – and the last time I checked, the Church does not make a habit of giving this honor to bumbling idiots. Not to mention the fact that intellectuals such St. John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Dorothy Day were greatly influenced by her writing.
Now granted, St. Therese did not translate the Bible into Latin, nor did she write the Summa Theologica (both great and noble endeavors). She did not found a new order, work as a missionary, or technically die a martyr’s death. What she did do write a simple account of her short life, sharing her path to holiness which she described as “the little way”.
To be fair to my Facebook friends, I believe what they were trying to communicate is that the problem is, not so much St. Therese herself, but the tendency among her admirers to sentimentalize her. We’ve all seen it. The pretty young lady with the flowers. How sweet! This caricature, of course, does a great disservice to her – as her “little way” is not for the faint at heart, as her great struggle at the end of her life proves. To trust in God, even amidst our suffering, is one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life. And yet, she was a young woman and there is something inexplicably beautiful about her story.
St. Therese had a single minded focus in life – from a very early age, she wanted to be a saint. And not only a saint – a great Saint! Since childhood, she identified strongly with the life of St. Joan of Arc – a simple girl with a great mission. Therese wanted to love God as much as He could be loved, and she wanted Him to use her as a conduit to lead others to Him. Her heart burned with passion for God, for she knew intimately His love and mercy. She was a young woman on fire and wanted to be all things for God – a martyr, a missionary, a Doctor of the Church! She trusted that God would not place these desires in her heart unless He planned to make them come to fruition. And yet, she was acutely aware of her own limitations. When she looked to the great saints of the Church, she felt very small in comparison. She saw them as great eagles soaring through the sky, and she as a little bird flapping its wings. However, she did not let that deter her.
She found great consolation in the writings of St. John of the Cross, especially when he said “One obtains from God as much as one hopes for”.
When she entered the Carmelite order at the age of 15, she spent time trying to discern how God could use what little she had to offer for His great purpose. What was her mission? Her vocation?
She says in her Story of a Soul that she tried to read the great works of theology, but did not understand them. So, she turned to the Scriptures instead. She had a great love for the Scriptures – and her meditation on them led to the common practice today of Lectio Divina. The Scriptures opened up for her a wealth of spiritual insights that led to a confidence and boldness in faith.
In Proverbs (9:4) she found:
“Whoever, is VERY LITTLE let him come to me”
And in Isaiah (66: 13, 12):
“As a mother caresses her baby, so I will comfort you; I will carry you at my breast and rock you in my lap.”
As she read these passages, she wrote in her autobiography The Story of a Soul:
“Ah! Never had such tender, melodious words come to rejoice in my soul; the elevator that would lift me up to Heaven is your arms, O Jesus! To reach perfection, I do not need to grow up. On the contrary, I need to stay little, to become more and more little, O my God, you have surpassed my expectations, and I wish to sing of your mercies.”
She realized that God would meet her right where she was. He would use her “littleness”, her humility, to manifest His Glory.
She then turned to St. Paul, specifically 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12:
“Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the member described by Saint Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all… I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES… IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! Then, 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! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place. In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized”
Yes, she had found her vocation. She would be love, hidden within the heart of the Church. “What matters in life”, she wrote, “is not great deeds, but great love”.
It cannot be underestimated how revolutionary this thought was at the time, especially for St. Therese herself. The French society in which she grew up was still influenced by the Jansenism heresy, which believed that one had to merit heaven. It was this idea that had caused St. Therese a problem with scruples as a child. She gradually came to understand that the easiest, most sure-fire way to enter Heaven was to abandon oneself to God as a child entrusts himself to his father – a spiritual childhood. God is not interested in the grandeur of our actions, as much as the love in which we do them. Should we fail due to our weaknesses, He is there to offer us His mercy, should we so desire it. The brilliance in this theology is not such much in its complexity but in its simplicity. We are called to love and trust in the mercy of God. It is that simple. This is the path to holiness that we are all called to – from the rich to the poor, the young and the old, consecrated and layperson, men and women. It is accessible to all.
Armed with her new found courage in faith, St. Therese spent her time in the convent living her “little way”. The Carmelites are not the place for the faint of heart. They are the prayer warriors of the Church. It is a cloistered community, lived mostly in silence and under obedience, with daily chores, prayers, and times of recreation. St. Therese had to deal with a couple of cranky nuns who treated her poorly, yet she would see this as an opportunity to love. She would deliberately sit next to the sour nuns during recreation (apparently they never got the memo from St. Teresa of Avila about being joyful) and offered cheerfulness and charity in return. I know this seems small, one of those things we usually gloss over, perhaps something we even roll our eyes at – and yet the devil is usually in the details. She used every occasion she could, from doing simple chores, to praying for missionary priests, as a demand to love. She knew well that nothing goes unnoticed by God, especially our desire to love Him.
Speaking of St. Teresa of Avila, part of the constitution she had written for her reform of the Carmel order was for the sisters to partake in the celebration of the feast days to assure them that the rigors of the seclusion, the austerities of the penances and fastings were freely lived in a joyful atmosphere. Now, no one rose to the occasion of these celebrations with more gusto than St. Therese. The one thing that has always struck me about her writings is her confidence – confidence in her mission – to share with others the insights given to her by the Holy Spirit about her “little way”. She does this not only in her popular Story of a Soul, but also in her poetry (greatly influenced by St. John of the Cross) and dramas. During her time in the convent, she wrote eight plays, which she also acted in and directed. These plays were written and performed for the sole enjoyment of the nuns in the convent. Are they on par with the great contemporary artists of her day like Oscar Wilde? Of course not – but it doesn’t matter. Two plays, in particular, deal with her childhood hero St. Joan of Arc. By the late-nineteenth century, there was a renewed interest in St. Joan of Arc, and St. Therese got caught up in the excitement. The first of these plays, The Mission of Joan of Arc, was actually performed the week Pope Leo XIII declared her “venerable” in January of 1894. St. Therese, of course, had the starring role – and it is the first time, I believe, where a saint was played a saint. In any case, in this play, we see a lot of St. Therese herself and the development of her theology. St. Joan is portrayed as a simple young woman called to a grand mission. Initially, she is a “weak and timid child”, drawn to solitude, but soon her fear turns to obedience, and it is with humility and confidence that she accepts her vocation. A rare photo was taken of St. Therese to commemorate the production.
The second play about St. Joan of Arc, The Triumph of Humility, was written in 1896, the year St. Therese contracted tuberculosis. Shortly after her Lenten fast in 1896, she started coughing up blood, and thus began her dark night of the soul. This dark night became even more bitter when she learned that she had been accepted to become a missionary in Vietnam – something that she had longed to do ever since her correspondence with a missionary priest in the country. However, her illness prevented her from going. St. Therese does not go into much detail about the last eighteen months of her life, but we know she felt the absence of God. Although she never wavered in her belief in God, she began to question whether or not heaven existed. She feared that life here on earth would be the end of her existence. She developed a strong empathy for atheists.
During this time, a controversy was brewing in France. A hoax was perpetrated by a man named Leo Taxil. Taxil had written a book of pornography called The Secret Lives of Pope Pius IX. Accused of libel, he changed his tune and soon “claimed” to be a changed man. He feigned a very public conversion and announced his intention to repair the damage he had done. He wrote a series of volumes about “eyewitness accounts” of people who had engaged in Satanism, one of whom was a woman named Diana Vaughn. He claimed Diana Vaughn had been redeemed with the assistance of Joan of Arc, at whose name demons took flight. Then, as Diana Vaughn, he published a book called Eucharistic Novena, a collection of prayers which were praised by Pope Leo XIII. Therese, as well as most Catholics in France, were completely taken in by the conversion story. Therese was especially impressed that it had taken place through the intercession of Joan of Arc.
Her play, The Triumph of Humility, was inspired by this conversion story, showing that the greatest weapon to defeat Satan was humility.
In April of 1897, Taxil held a well-orchestrated press conference in Paris to say the whole thing was a farce, there was no “Diana Vaughn”, he made the whole thing up, and thanked the clergy for giving publicity to his hoax. This media circus began with a photo of St. Joan of Arc in chains – and it was none other than the photo taken of St. Therese. It is unclear how the image of the photo came into Taxil’s possession. However, the newspaper Le Normand described how Taxil had used the photo to make fun of devotion to Joan of Arc.[i]
Needless to say, St. Therese was deeply wounded and humiliated by the event – not only because she had been taken in by the fraud, but it was her image that people were jeering at that night. This only added to the suffering she was already enduring – her struggle of faith and the physical agony of her illness.
During her last days, when all seemed lost, all she had to hold on to was love and trust. Her physical suffering was so unbearable that she confided to one of the sisters that it was good idea that there be no poison near an atheist, for they would surely commit suicide. Yet, she held on to her Beloved. She identified more than ever with the suffering of Her Spouse. He too felt humiliated, suffered a physical agony so intense that He cried out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” This was the only comfort she had.
When she died on September 30, 1897, her last words were “My God, I love you!”.
What is remarkable about her story is that God did fulfill her holy desire. He was faithful. But God ways are not our ways. First and foremost, she longed to be a great saint. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925. She longed to be a martyr – and there is no doubt in my mind that she suffered a martyr’s death. She longed to be a missionary. When she was canonized, she was proclaimed the Patron of Missionaries along with St. Francis Xavier. She also longed to be a Doctor of Church, an honor given to her by St. John Paul II in 1997.
And why? Why was she made a Doctor of the Church? Because in the complicated modern world we live in, St. Therese reminds us of this very important truth:
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Mt 18:3-4.
Shortly before her death, St. Therese said “My mission – to make God loved – will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses”.
Her mission endures to this day.
She once said “What is He reserving for us in heaven, if here below His love dispenses surprises so delightful?”
St. Therese is also the Patron of France, along with St. Joan of Arc.
[i][i] The Poetry of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Translated by Donald Kinney, O.C.D., ICS Publications, 1995
This article, The Overlooked Power of the Maid of Lisieux: St. Therese, Doctor of the Church is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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