Who is this Little Flower, St. Therese, who our founding parishioners sought to identify with and dedicate themselves to?
As one studies her life, one is stuck by both her ordinariness, as well as her extraordinariness. Born January 2 1873 in the Normandy region of France, Therese lived a comfortable middle-class life with four older sisters and parents, who both were successful in business: her father was a watchmaker and jeweller, her mother had a lace making business. Therese was so sickly at birth that at first no one expected her to live. But she grew to be the darling of the family; a bright, lively child with big blue eyes and blond curls. And she was a little spoiled. Her mother, in a letter to a friend, once wrote: “Therese is incredibly stubborn. When she has said no, nothing will change her mind. One could put her in the cellar for a whole day.” Commenting on her childhood, Therese wrote, “With tendencies like these, had I not been brought up by such wonderful parents, I am quite sure I should have gone from bad to worse and probably ended up by losing my soul. But Jesus was watching over His little bride and drew good even out of her faults, for as they were corrected very early, they helped her to grow more and more perfect.”
Therese was truly fortunate to grow up in a family that was very prayerful and generous. They supported the church, gave to the poor, and went out of their way to help others. When they would encounter poor people, little Therese was often handed coins and sent to give them alms. On their frequent walks they would often visit churches and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Therese learned about God by praying and studying the catechism at home, as well as at the convent school. After their mother died, Therese’s older sisters helped teach her about God and helped prepare her for the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion.
Therese was deeply appreciative of Jesus’ gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist. Reflecting on her First Communion, she wrote, “How lovely it was, that first kiss of Jesus in my heart – it was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved and said, ‘I love You and give myself to You forever.’
Jesus asked for nothing. He claimed no sacrifice. Long before that He and little Therese had and seen and understood one another well, but on that day it was more than a meeting – it was a complete fusion. We were no longer two, for Therese disappeared like a drop of water lost in a mighty ocean. Jesus alone remained – the Master and the King.”
Describing the day after her First Communion, she wrote, “There seemed to be a veil of melancholy over the day that followed My dresses, lovely as they were, and my presents – these could never fill my heart. Jesus alone could do that, and I longed for the wonderful moment when He would come a second time.”
From a young age Therese had a special relationship with God. From the age of nine, she desired to enter the convent. Therese longed to give herself totally to God as a nun, and at the young age of 15 she received special permission from the Bishop to enter the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux. The Carmelite nuns led an austere and regimented life of hard work, prayer, and fasting and other acts of penance. Some wondered whether this young girl from a comfortable home could stand the cold and rustic monastery, where her room would have few furnishings and no heat in the winter. Sr. Therese had grown up in a house that had servants, but in the monastery she was expected to scrub floors, clean the dining room, and wash clothes.
The other nuns noticed that Sr. Therese did her jobs well. Beyond that, many of them did not see much special about the young nun. But that, in itself, was the very thing that was so special about Sr. Therese. She shows us that we do not have to do great or extraordinary things to become a saint. Sr. Therese had a humble and trusting love of God despite her own weaknesses. For instance, when she and the other nuns were gathered in the chapel for prayer, she sometimes fell asleep. While falling asleep during prayer time embarrassed Sr. Therese, she did not think that it mattered much to God. To her, God was a loving Father. Just as parents love their children as much when they are asleep as when they are awake, Sr. Therese was confident that God loved her even when she fell asleep in chapel. About prayer she once wrote, “I do not have the courage to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books. There are so many of them and it really gives me a headache and each prayer is more beautiful than the others I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose I do like children who do not know how to read. I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me.”
St. Therese just could not do enough for God. She wrote, “To be Your Spouse, my Jesus, to be a Carmelite… surely this should be enough? Yet I feel the call of more vocations still; I want to be a warrior, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr – there is no heroic deed I do not wish to perform. I feel as daring as a crusader, ready to die for the Church upon the battlefield.” Frustrated at her seeming inability to do great things for God, Therese went on to write, “These desires became a real martyrdom for me, and so one day, hoping to find alleviation, I opened… (St. Paul’s) First Letter to the Corinthians, where he says we cannot all be apostles, prophets and doctors and Church is made up of a number of different members. … The Apostle goes on to explain that the most perfect gifts are worth nothing without love, and this more excellent way of going to God is (love). … (Love) gave me the key to my vocation. I saw that if the Church was a body made up of different members, the most essential and most important one of all would not be lacking; I saw that the Church must have a heart, that this heart must be on fire with love. I saw that it was love alone which moved her other members… I saw that all vocations are summed up in love and that love is all in all, embracing every time and place because it is eternal. In a transport of ecstatic joy, I cried ‘Jesus, my Love, I have at last found my vocation; it is love! I have found my place in the Church’s heart…’”
But Sr. Therese asked herself the question: “Love proves itself by deeds, and how shall I prove mine?” She had already come to the conclusion that “Striking deeds are forbidden me. I cannot preach the Gospel; I cannot shed my blood…” In contrast, Sr. Therese recognized “I can prove my love by scattering flowers, that is to say, by never letting slip a single little sacrifice, a single glance, a single word; by making profit of the very smallest actions, by doing them all for love.” Recognizing that “a love that does not prove itself in action is not enough,” Sr. Therese learned to bring her everyday actions to God. She wrote: “My mortification consisted in checking my self-will, keeping back an impatient word, doing little things for those around me without their knowing and countless things like that.” This became her “little way” of showing God her love. She wrote, “It is not enough for me to give to all who ask: I must go beyond their desires and show myself veryhonored and only too glad to offer my services.” Sr. Therese recognized that “Our Lord’s love shines out just as much through a little soul who yields completely through His Grace as it does through the greatest.”
When Sr. Therese was 23 years old she contracted tuberculosis. She wrote, “Ever since I was very young, I have been convinced that the little flower would be gathered in the springtime of her life; now I am guided by self-abandonment alone and need no other compass, no longer knowing how to ask for anything with eagerness except that God may do His will completely in my soul.” As she was dying she became convinced that God’s full purpose for her would begin after she died: “I feel that my mission is soon to begin, to make others love God as I do, to teach others my ‘little way.’ I will spend my heaven in doing good upon the earth.” “I have given nothing but love to God and He will repay with love. After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.” Sr. Therese was only 24 years old when she died on September 30, 1897. In her short life, she helped us to understand that you do not have to do great things to become a saint. It is possible to become a saint by loving God and doing little things well. In the final moments of her life she gazed at the image of Jesus on her crucifix and said “Oh! I love Him!” St. Therese’s final words were “My God, I love you.”
The example of St. Therese, the Little Flower, should serve as a challenge to all of us as we live our lives as Catholic Christians. She exemplifies discipleship in how she totally gave herself to God and submitted her will to His will. She exemplifies stewardship in how she sought to make every thought and every action an act of loving service to God.
‘Our Lord needs from us neither great deeds
Neither intelligence nor talents. He cherishes simplicity.’