There is an amazing photograph of St. Thérèse of Lisieux wearing armor, dressed as St. Joan of Arc. It was no more than a costume for a little drama in the convent, but it now stands as a portrait not only of Thérèse the Little Flower, but also of Thérèse the Little Warrior.
She might have been a little flower, but if so, she was a steel magnolia.
Too many read her Story of a Soul and come away only with the sweet sentimentality of mid-19th-century French spirituality. Despite the little flowers, the starry nights and the lisping tributes to her “heavenly Papa,” there is also a soul on fire, a chevalier of the Spirit and a knight of Christ the King. With the heart of a gladiator, Thérèse says on her cruel deathbed, “When I think I’m dying in bed, I would want to die in an arena!”
She longs to be a Christian soldier, marching on to war. She wrote that she wanted to “die in a battlefield, arms in hand. … I would not fear going to war. With what joy, for example, at the time of the Crusades, I would have gone to combat heretics. Yes! I would not have been afraid to be shot; I would not have feared the fire!”
She was so brave and resolute that those who knew her said, “Under a suave and gracious aspect, [she] revealed at every instant, in her actions, a strong character and a manly soul.” Pope Pius XI said she was “a manly soul.” Her battle was for holiness and against Satan. With great vigor she cried out, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!”
Out of her love for Christ, Thérèse said, “In spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls, as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostles. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your Name and to plant your glorious cross on infidel soil. But … one mission alone would not be sufficient for me; I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles.”
She said on the day of her death, Sept. 30, 1897, “I believe I have been granted all my desires.”
In the marvelous ways of providence, the little Carmelite did become a missionary. Her relics have been taken to every continent in the world; and wherever they appear, thousands flock to venerate them. Souls are saved. Confessions are heard. Sins are forgiven. Heretics are converted. Hearts are melted. Her wish to be a missionary was fulfilled after her death.
She said she would spend her heaven doing good on earth, and her wish to be a warrior was also fulfilled. She once had a prophetic dream: “I went to sleep for a few moments during prayer. I dreamt there were not enough soldiers for a war against the Prussians. You [Mother Agnes] said: ‘We need to send Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus.’ I answered that I agreed, but that I would prefer to fight at a holy war. But, finally, I went all the same.”
The First World War broke out just 17 years after her death. There were some 40 recorded apparitions of Thérèse to soldiers on the battlefield. She appeared holding a cross or sometimes a sword. The soldiers reported that they saw her, spoke to her — and she to them. She helped them with temptations, calmed their fears and protected and converted them.
The stories were recorded and published in 1920, just before her canonization. The Laudem Gloriae blog records how the French soldiers called her “my little sister of the trenches,” “my war patroness,” “the shield of soldiers,” “the angel of battles” and “my dear little Captain.”
A soldier wrote, “In fact, that gentle Saint will be the great heroine of this war.” Another commented, “I think of her when the cannon thunders with great roar.”
More astoundingly, the men of the French military named artillery pieces and planes after Sister Thérèse. Whole regiments were consecrated to her, and witnesses said relics of the saint miraculously stopped rifle bullets like real shields, saving the lives of the soldiers who carried them.
In our modern world, where warfare is total and Christians seem wary of war, Thérèse reminds us that we are all engaged in a fight to the death. Our adversary — the devil — stalks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). St. Peter reminds us to, therefore, be alert and awake — never letting down our guard; and if we need a patroness in battle, a guide and guard, we can rejoice that in a world of massive military might it is a fearless little child who takes our hand and wins our hearts and leads us to victory.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of St. Benedict and St. Thérèse — The Little Rule and the Little Way. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.