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St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Demand of Love

September 30, 2021


This piece on St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute, which focused on the Catholic sensibility of Bishop Barron. Learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.

Since about the thirteenth century, when Guy of Vergy, Bishop of Autun, created a coat of arms as a means of ecclesial identification, a newly appointed Catholic bishop is tasked with designing his own heraldry using images that speak to his personal story of upbringing, proclaim his guiding principle (or motto), and give witness to what or who has greatly impacted his spiritual understanding. 

No one who has perceived St. Thomas Aquinas’ profound influence on Bishop Robert Barron could be surprised to learn that his Coat of Arms declares, in gloriously bold calligraphy, NON NISI TE DOMINE—“Nothing But You, Lord”—the response Aquinas gave when a voice from the crucifix asked him what reward he would choose for his great, obedient service to Christ.  

There are other heraldic images that stand out, including a Fleur de Lys framed by angel’s wings and set in a sea of blue, all referencing the Mother of God, who delivered her fiat to an angelic messenger and was later assumed into heaven. There are also stirring symbols referencing the bishop’s time in France and depicting the Word on Fire—the Word literally aflame, but grounded by the Chi Rho, thus proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.

There is an elegance to the whole of Bishop Barron’s heraldry, particularly in the rather subtle and delicate depiction of his devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Just below the pilgrim’s hat that graces every prelate’s coat of arms in the Latin Rite of Roman Catholicism, there is an episcopal cross rendered as gold and featuring a deep red cabochon ruby set in a circular pattern meant to suggest the rose window of a church—a tribute to the “Little Flower,” Thérèse, who famously promised in her autobiography The Story of a Soul, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”

In episode 8 of the CATHOLICISM series, Barron confesses that he did not always find inspiration in this girlish young Carmelite who entered her cloister at age fifteen and, having never again stepped outside of it, died there at the age of twenty-four. Like many others, his first encounter with Thérèse had him thinking less “Doctor of the Church” and more “overly sentimental” or “emotionally overwrought.” It was only when he took up studies at the Institut Catholique de Paris that he began to reconsider the saint. Barron had noticed that intellectuals he respected as valuable teachers, from Dorothy Day to Hans Urs von Balthasar, referenced and praised this young woman he had dismissed. In Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity, Balthasar saw the Little Flower not as some petite bourgeois, but as a straightforward warrior, comparing her passion to John the Baptizer’s and her spirit to Elias: 

Thérèse is a warrior even though her battles are fought for love by means of love, for peace by means of peace. The Little Flower’s warlike qualities simply bring out new aspects of her action in the midst of contemplation. And, just as no action can be more effective than that contemplation by which she inspires all forms of action in the Church, similarly no battle can be fiercer and more final than the battle of love which she conducts with the sword of the Spirit.

Encouraged to reengage with Thérèse by his great mentor, Fr. Michel Corbin, SJ, Barron found himself deeply moved and impressed by how, in a moment of preternatural, surprisingly mature spiritual insight after the midnight Mass of Christmas—a moment the bishop calls an invasion of grace—Thérèse stopped herself from falling apart over an overheard remark and instead made a conscious choice to “allow Christ to come to birth in her” by cooperating with grace. It was an instance of conversion that delivered to Thérèse a fully internalized understanding that Jesus must become all that would inform every part of her life. 

As Barron studied, Thérèse emerged from her pages as someone humble enough to admit she was not a spiritual athlete on the level of those great Carmelites St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, yet sly enough (and charming enough) to acknowledge that in her little way—a way of surrendering herself, arms up to Christ—“I get higher, because I am lifted up, like a child.” 

Thérèse also showed Bishop Barron “a great poetic imagination,” particularly when she noted that while those great saints might be towering trees of Christian spiritual insight, she was herself a mere little flower, not noteworthy but as be-graced in the shared and generous light of the Lord as any of them—merely closer to the ground.

Like Balthasar, Barron began to see Thérèse as she was: no mewling sentimentalist but a rather tough cookie who, because humility is truth, understood who she was in the sight of God and worked within that grace.

A theology of spiritual childhood, as Barron encountered it in Thérèse, contained a depth of fundamental truth that belongs, in fact, “right at the heart” of Christian faith and practice. Thérèse’s “little way”—particularly when she was experiencing physical and spiritual suffering toward the end of her life—was a “transfigured prudence,” Barron remarks. It was “prudence elevated and transfigured by the radicality of Christ’s love.”

One of the markers of the Little Flower’s prudence was the sort of simple pragmatic directness that came to define her “little way”: a willingness to, in every moment, in every situation, ask the central question of surrender—What is the demand of love?—and then choose for it.

It is the question that is at the heart of Thérèse’s teaching, the simple but profound action of taking every circumstance before us, in every wakeful hour, and choosing love. And it is, as Barron points out, what makes her spiritual path one anyone can travel, whether a mother dealing with a tired and cranky child, or a frustrated worker about to enter one more meeting that actually keeps her work from getting done, or a teenager facing social pressure or confronting a troubled friend. Given Bishop Barron’s own evangelical missionary outlook—which is all about proclaiming the Word to the world as it is and the persons placed before us in any given circumstance—it is not surprising that he eventually developed a devotion to Thérèse, taking her for a personal patron and also naming her as one of patrons of the Word on Fire mission. She is a patron to whom he frequently turns in times of need, saying, “The more you ask of her, the more she gives, is my experience. The more you rely on her, the more responsive she is.”

Choosing love in any given moment requires a consciousness of Christ as being continually before one’s eyes, and a conscientiousness of service-as-love for the sake of being united to the vast ocean of mercy that helps to heal and sustain the world. 

As part of a missional mindset, it sounds simple; in practice, it is challenging and takes a lifetime to master. For Barronian evangelists, the little Carmelite who never left her Carmel has handed us a great tool:  a “little way” that focuses us on small opportunities to love, and helps us to effectively evangelize—without becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of need before us—by surrendering it all to God.