by Matthew Fulton
Honestly, I never understood what the big deal was about Thérèse of Lisieux, the little saint who has captured the hearts of millions of Catholics.
What was it about her that drew people to her, and to holiness?
My initial encounter with Thérèse did not go very far. I began reading a little about her spirituality, her love of Christ and intense desire to give everything she had to Him. I remember thinking, that’s great and all, but there are so many others who live the same way.
Why was she a saint, one declared a Doctor of the Church by St. John Paul II?
There had to be something more to her story. Deciding to give her another chance in my heart, I got her prayer card and set out to learn as much as I could. I asked her to pray for my path, for a way to relate to a person with whom, on the surface, I had nothing in common.
Well, the Lord certainly delivered. I learned that Thérèse’s status as one of the Church’s great saints relies on the relatability I was missing. It relies on profound simplicity, and most of all, it relies on the acceptance of Jesus into every corner of our lives, and complete abandonment of our own wants and desires. Needless to say, I got a little fired up about her. There is still so much we can learn from her. Today is Oct. 1st, Thérèse’s feast day. I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on her life and how we may grow a little closer to Christ through her guidance. St. Thérèse, pray for us!
“Desire to be unknown and counted as nothing…”
Exalted nothingness. St. Thérèse’s oxymoronic spiritual goal derived from the writings of St. John of the Cross:
“To reach satisfaction in everything, desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possession of everything, desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.”
Most people with an attachment to St. Thérèse are familiar with what is called her “little way.” In humility, she realized she could never match the heroic levels of many saints. She would reach heaven carried by the arms of Jesus rather than climbing the stairs with her own feet. Her faith and works, all of it came through Him:
“When I act as charity bids, I have this feeling that it is Jesus who is acting in me; the closer my union with him, the greater my love…”
Thérèse truly lived through the Gospel. She diminished herself so much that her words and actions brimmed with the Holy Spirit, overtaking every single aspect of her life. She made it a point to pray for purity of heart, so that every action she took could be consecrated to God. As she says herself, “The smallest act of pure Love is of more value than all other works together.” In fact, Thérèse believed that the smallest acts, the ones God alone knew of, were the greatest of all. How often do we do nice things for others because we’ll gain from it as well, through recognition, praise or otherwise? Thérèse reminds us to do the mundane simply out of a love for others and for God. Revel in the silence and anonymity. Sometimes being praised by man makes us feel good, but isn’t being lifted by Jesus a much greater reward?
“The world’s thy ship and not thy home…”
In the constant motion of today’s world, there is so much that we miss. I am as guilty as anyone: walking around campus with my head down, earbuds in, trying to get from one place to another. Imagine all we could enjoy if we simply took a second to appreciate God’s creation around us. St. Thérèse had a keen sense of awareness. Every thought she had and action she took was scrutinized at the end of the day. Extend your examination of conscience to include the world around you!
Think of how aware you are of your body and soul when you receive the Eucharist, or when you spend time with the Lord in adoration. What if we took that level of awareness and could translate it to all our waking moments? Imagine the good we could do, the amount of love we could share. We just have to learn to see God in all things. Thérèse understood this from a young age. She knew that it was impossible to love God if He was ignored in the things He made.
Everything in Thérèse’s life was an opportunity. An opportunity to deny herself for the love of Christ, a chance to share in His life. And all these opportunities were simply stepping stones on the path to heaven. Thérèse wanted nothing more than to get to heaven, to be with her Savior. She wanted the same for her family; when she was young she even wished her parents dead so that they might go to heaven right away. While I do not recommend telling your parents you want them to die, Thérèse’s innocent statement tells us a lot about her heart. She wanted what is best for those she loves.
Be childlike! Bring your loved ones along for your journey and don’t ever forget about them. Thérèse remembered her sister Celine’s first communion, a day that she said was “one of the most beautiful of my life.” Happiness is always around us, even when we’re going through a rough time ourselves. But we’re all members of Christ’s body, and so we must realize that the joy of another is our joy as well. Don’t get jealous. Be humble, patient, and live within the joy around you.
“Christ didn’t come down from the cross…”
So how do we accomplish that? How do we experience joy during the toughest moments of our lives? Thérèse only lived to be 24, and her life was scarred by constant suffering. She did not live with her parents for the first year and a half of her life, her mother died of cancer when Thérèse was four, and her sister and best friend Pauline abandoned her for the Carmel a few years later. Then, at the end of her life, tuberculosis ravaged both her body and soul. The crippling disease caused her so much pain that it caused her to question her faith in a period she called the darkest of her life.
But here’s the thing: Thérèse embraced all her struggles with an incredible resilience. She welcomed her deathbed with more faith and love of Christ than she ever had. Better than anything else, she understood Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and what it meant for us. Thérèse had made it a point to be Christlike in every other aspect of life, and to her there was no more noble ideal than suffering as Christ suffered.
To Thérèse, every challenge she faced was another opportunity from God. It was a chance to love, unconditionally, as Jesus loves. So, for us, we need to embrace the daily challenges that come our way. God doesn’t give them to us as punishment or because He thinks we deserve it. Instead, the tough days should bring us closer to Him. Seek out difficulty. Challenge yourself and live outside of comfort, because otherwise how can we grow?
Thérèse would spend time with the sisters of Carmel that were most unpleasant to be around for this exact reason. It’s easy to love the ones you care for. Much harder is to love the ones you don’t. Life is filled with all kinds of difficulties. When we face them, don’t shrink away! Give thanks to God for the opportunity and tackle them head on.
As his body withered near the end of his pontificate, onlookers asked St. John Paul II whether he should step down for his own sake. He responded, rather simply, “Christ didn’t come down from the cross.” Like our Savior, John Paul and Thérèse bore their crosses and didn’t put them down.
And neither should we.
The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Kathryn Harrison
John Paul the Great, Peggy Noonan
Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross.