Today the Church celebrates the witness of a cloistered, Carmelite nun who became one of the most powerful and influential women in the history of the Church: St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Born in the year 1873, Thérèse Martin would enter the Carmelite community at the age of fifteen in the year 1888. For those who are unfamiliar with the Carmelite way of life, it is a life of austerity and utter simplicity through which by living in the most radical way—vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—one cultivates detachment from worldly desires so as to serve Christ alone. (While many Christians choose to live as “weekend warriors” in terms of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus, a faithful Carmelite is an Olympic athlete.)
Thérèse’s entry into this radical form of religious life essentially meant that she would disappear entirely (and literally) into the mission of the Church.
After eighteen months of physical decline caused by tuberculosis, a decline that was accompanied by a crucible of spiritual desolation, Thérèse died into the year 1897. She was twenty-four years old.
Death should have extinguished any memory of Thérèse Martin, but within a few years she was renowned throughout the world. By 1925 she would be canonized a saint. In the year 1997 she was declared by Pope John Paul II to be a Doctor of the Church, which means that her perspective on the nature of the Christian life is considered to be authoritative and esteemed, a privileged reference point for disciples seeking to advance and grow in faith, hope, and love.
The cause of St. Thérèse’s renown was the publication of her journal in the year 1898. Thérèse began this journal at the advice of her superiors in religious life in the year 1895, and it witnesses to her relationship with Christ, a relationship that began and intensified at a very early age and matured in the Carmelite community of Lisieux.
Within the personal narrative of the journal is a proposal in regards to the Christian way of life, one which Thérèse insists is about “simplicity without pretense,” a way she describes as “confidence and love,” in which one’s fidelity to Christ is manifested in accepting and fulfilling the demand of love in the immediacy of life’s circumstances. Thérèse summarized this disposition as “doing the least things with great love.”
It is in this low key, mostly unnoticed and unappreciated death to self that sanctity most often happens. Heroism in terms of the Christian life is to be appreciated and emulated, but unless the aspiration towards the great ideals of the Gospel is accompanied by love, our efforts cannot accomplish their divinely ordained purpose: to make us saints.
Thus, the real crucible in which holiness happens will take place in the immediacy of our lives, in loving those who present themselves to us without hesitation or complaint, and in giving to those who offer us little or nothing in return.
St. Thérèse’s “little way” has deep resonance for disciples of the Lord Jesus and the accessibility of her witness as presented in The Story of a Soul made her a spiritual friend to thousands and thousands. Stories of her intercession in matters great and small are plentiful. No saint, other than perhaps St. Francis of Assisi, is as well known. Devotees of her spiritual way include such diverse figures as Dorothy Day and Edith Piaf, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton, Henri Bergson and Jean Vanier, Bishop Barron and Pope Francis.
The providence of God assigned St. Thérèse of Liseux to obscurity in her earthly life, and the same providence made her one of the Church’s most renowned heavenly friends and intercessors.
Pope Benedict XVI said of St. Thérèse, “Trust and love illumined the whole of her journey to holiness and enabled her to guide others to Christ along the same way.” May St. Thérèse intercede for us and teach us trust and love, so that we might find her and follow her along the little way.