This originally appeared in our Sept. 27, 2009, issue.
In Providence, R.I., the four children of Renee Brissette are regular kids, says their mom. Like other children, they might have a squabble. But when school started this year and 7-year-old John Paul came home sad because it was the first time he didn’t go to the same school with the rest of the family, his sister and brothers jumped into action.
Eleven-year-old Francis brought out the stash of snacks and treats he had hidden for himself and handed them to his little brother. He knew this was exactly the sort of thing St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the “Little Flower,” lived and taught with her “Little Way.”
“What matters in life is not great deeds but great love,” wrote St. Thérèse, who strove to make herself childlike in the arms of God.
Although Thérèse Martin entered the Carmelite convent at age 15 as Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face — and lived hidden to the world until she died in 1897 at just 24 years old — she was elevated to sainthood by 1925 and declared a doctor of the church by John Paul II in 1997.
Her Oct. 1 feast is a good reminder to rediscover her journal, now known around the world as Story of a Soul, and find new inspiration to emulate her Little Way.
Carmelite Father John F. Russell, a St. Thérèse scholar, professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University, and author of the forthcoming book Lent: A Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Christus Publications), describes how the Little Flower’s burning desire was to become a saint, even though she realized she did not have great gifts.
“Basically she meant to say she could only do little things — ‘I can’t do the great gestures of mortification but simply the little things.’ Littleness was part of her self-awareness,” explains Father Russell. “She says, ‘I can always provide a smile to someone, a word of affirmation, a helping hand.’”
Thérèse wanted a way that was short and direct, the priest continues. As a consequence, the Little Way is simply living in the presence of God each day, using every moment to give glory and honor to God.
He’s quick to add that Thérèse wasn’t focused on accruing merits for herself or focusing on the acts themselves. “The key word for her in terms of spirituality,” says Father Russell, “is not performance, but relationship — a relationship not out of duty but of love. If you truly love Jesus Christ, why keep track of the gifts you give him?”
The essential element that helps understand the Little Way is this: She was totally centered on Christ every moment of her life, doing all she did out of love for God.
The Little Way, he concludes, shows that everyone — even individuals who don’t have extraordinary talents and abilities — can live a life that utterly delights God.
Because of the simplicity of her spirituality, Thérèse found endless opportunities for spiritual growth in day-to-day life.
“She called all her sacrifices her ‘little nothings’ and offered them for the salvation of souls,” explains Sister Grace, curator of the Little Flower’s museum at St. Theresa Shrine in Nasonville, R.I. (“Theresa” was the common American spelling of her name in the early 20th century.)
Sister Grace offers a wealth of examples. In the laundry, one sister kept splashing Thérèse’s face with dirty, hot water, but Thérèse never reacted. At recreation, she preferred to sit with her three blood sisters, also Carmelites, but instead would spend the time with nuns who were difficult or dull. She offered these sacrifices for the salvation of souls.
That’s not to say her life was all labor and no levity. To entertain the sisters, Thérèse wrote and performed in plays. “In a family you have the same opportunity the sisters had in the convent,” says Sister Grace. “To think of others is another little way of bringing more joy and peace into the family.”
She cites an example: The monastery sisters never knew what foods were Thérèse’s favorites. No matter what they served her, Thérèse ate with a smile — even when the fare was a clearly unpalatable dish. Similarly, says Sister Grace, mothers can spend lots of time and effort cooking a dinner that doesn’t turn out quite right, but the family can eat it uncomplainingly and cheerfully.
In Cranston, R.I., Dawn Cousineau sees the influence of St. Thérèse in the lives of her five children, ages 11 to 15. “Every day is a sacrifice to God,” Cousineau teaches. “Throughout your day,” she tells her children, “you will be presented with little crosses, from chores to reading that book for school that’s challenging, to getting along with others. Go that extra mile, sacrifice for love of God, for the holy souls in purgatory, for a person who has cancer or a priest who is suffering.”
When one daughter had a conflict with another girl, Cousineau told her to pray and offer little sacrifices for her — the Little Way — and to ask for St. Thérèse’s intercession. Today, she reports, the girls do lots of things together.
Father Russell points out that the Martin family showed how vital it is to create an environment of love. That love can be built up and demonstrated by the way the family members treat each other. And who knows? It may even produce a canonized doctor of the church.
“But for family life to deepen and blossom, part of the challenge is to overcome our own selfishness,” the priest adds. Thérèse said we have to overcome our natural self-focus and learn how to empty ourselves for others, just as Christ did for us, he points out. “Thérèse says you can’t have good family life without good sacrifices.”
Brissette started her children early on thinking about others and what they can do for people with small, simple acts of love and kindness.
“In school they try to make an extra effort to reach out to the outcast student,” she says, “even if they take some ridicule from friends.”
Cousineau agrees. “Thérèse’s whole life and sufferings are so united to God,” she says, “and that’s what I’m trying to teach my children. It’s aligning our wills with God.”
Following St. Thérèse’s Little Way can make anyone, child or adult, more Christ-centered.
“My mission — to make God loved — will begin after my death,” Thérèse wrote. “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.”
But that’s another story — the sequel to the Little Way.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is
based in Trumbull, Connecticut.