Little Flower: The Story of a Soul
Today is the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (St. Theresa of the Child Jesus), who died in 1897 of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 24 after living nine years as a Carmelite nun. Affectionately known as the Little Flower, St. Thérèse wrote, under obedience to two prioresses, her spiritual autobiography. In this account, called The Story of a Soul, she also outlined the key to her sanctity, known as the little way.
Outwardly, Thérèse lived a very ordinary Carmelite life, but she was so aware of her own weaknesses and had such great confidence in God that her genuine humility and spiritual depth were highly valued by her superiors, who frequently put her in charge of the spiritual formation of novices. For Thérèse the way to holiness was not great and noble deeds but the fulfillment of the smallest duties with great love and complete reliance upon God. In addition to desiring the lowest place in all things and fulfilling all the duties of her state in life, Thérèse offered many penances for the conversion of sinners, especially during her final illness and the dark night of the soul she suffered at that time.
Shortly before she died, Thérèse insisted that she would continue her zeal for souls after death: “I will pass my heaven in doing good on earth.”
As her autobiography circulated, Thérèse’s spirituality immediately resonated with ordinary Catholics, who seemed to find her little way perfectly suited to every walk of life, no matter how humble. She quickly attracted the attention of the Holy See, and was beatified in 1923 and canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, just 28 years after her death. Two years later she was named Patroness of the Missions, because she sacrificed much for the success of missionary efforts, even though she could not be a missionary herself. Catholics consider her the patron saint of Russia, and Pope Pius XII named her co-patroness of France along with Joan of Arc in 1944. Pope John Paul II named her a doctor of the Church—the third woman after St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila—in 1997.
Many take to St. Thérèse immediately, but she is harder for men to approach than women because of the style of The Story of a Soul. The text opens with the emotional effusiveness of a young girl and only gradually reveals the strength and depth of a mature saint. For readers who respond negatively (as I did) to this style, sticking with it is well worth the spiritual effort. In any case, successive popes have vigorously recommended the little way as a key to achieving sanctity in the modern world. It is not, perhaps, that it was less applicable before, but it does provide a spiritual constant amid the bewildering array of opportunities which present themselves to us moderns, who are typically not channeled into broad traditional classes or ways of life based on birth.
Thérèse clearly came from good stock. Her parents were beatified as a couple by Pope Benedict in 2008. All five of her sisters entered religion and may well have attained notable holiness. Her sister Leonie, the only one who did not become a Carmelite (she ended as a Visitation nun), was a serious devotée of Thérèse’s spiritual method.
One of the little things that endears Thérèse to us, I am quite sure, is the fact that she lived in the age of photography, and so we have delightful photographs of her as a girl. When one combines those images with her fierce spiritual determination, it confirms in a particularly charming way the incredible power of her trust in God. Those who do not yet know the Little Flower would be wise not to permit too much more time go by before allowing themselves to be touched and influenced by the translucent piety of this great saint. Through trust in God, all of us can do little things with great love.
Note: The Institute for Carmelite Studies does such a superbe job of editing and publishing works by Carmelites, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, that I always recommend borrowing or purchasing their editions of these works:
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