I always look forward to October: The feast days of many of my favorite saints seems to be grouped together this month, including St. Thérèse of Lisieux on Oct. 1.
St. Thérèse was born Thérèse Martin. The French Carmelite nun was more commonly known as the “Little Flower of Jesus.”
Her spirituality was known as the “Little Way,” and she always had a preference for hidden sacrifice, which she believed could convert souls. She described this in her popular autobiography,Story of a Soul: “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.”
In her spiritual treatise, she explains that it was unnecessary to accomplish heroic acts in order to attain holiness and to express love of God: “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
Throughout her life, St. Thérèse suffered from debilitating illness, but despite her frailty and the pain, she never complained. She also never complained when her fellow nuns were mean or rude to her. Probably more devastating to her were several prolonged periods of aridity, also known as “spiritual darkness,” when it seemed that her connection to God was completely absent.
In April 1896, Thérèse began to develop tuberculosis. She died 18 months later on Sept. 30, 1897, at age 24. In the midst of her illness, she wrote a letter to her friend Father Bellier. “I am not dying,” she told him. “I am entering life.”
Pope Pius XI beatified Thérèse on April 29, 1923, and canonized her on May 17, 1925, a mere 28 years after her death. On Oct. 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II named her one of the 33 doctors of the universal Church, one of only three women (the others being Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena). Thérèse’s patronage includes aviators, bodily pains, people suffering from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, florists, gardeners, loss of parents, as well as orphans and missionaries. Most people, Catholic and otherwise, can always spot St. Thérèse: She is usually depicted carrying a bouquet of flowers.
Within two years of her beatification, Bishop Thomas-Paul-Henri Lemonnier of Bayeux and Lisieux wanted a basilica dedicated to her in Lisieux. Pope Pius XI was a supporter of the project, as he placed his pontificate under Thérèse’s protection.
Construction on the basilica started in 1929 and took 25 years to complete. (Construction stopped during World War II. Although two-thirds of Lisieux was destroyed by air raids during the war, the basilica had little damage.) The basilica was consecrated on July 11, 1954.
Located on a hill at the edge of Lisieux, the basilica is in the Neo-Byzantine style, also known as Roman-Byzantine. The cruciform building is topped by a magnificent dome. The church is based on Paris’ Sacred Heart Basilica.
The church contains 18 minor altars offered by different nations that contributed money for the construction.
I stepped into the church’s cool interior to find the entire church flooded with golden light. The church was relatively crowded, but it was quiet and peaceful — very much what it must have been like to be in Thérèse’s presence.
You can see joy in the faces and hearts of those who come here to worship God and honor the Little Flower. As Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.”
I took my seat waiting for Mass to begin, taking in the sanctuary. After Lourdes, this basilica is France’s second-largest pilgrimage site and attracts more than 2 million pilgrims and tourists each year. The church seats 4,000 people. Pope John Paul II visited on June 2, 1980.
After Mass, I found St. Thérèse’s crypt, which was finished in 1932. Most of the crypt’s interior is covered with mosaics: Thérèse’s baptism, first holy Communion, miraculous healing, commitment to religious life, and death. Beyond the crypt is a chapel, built in 2000, meant for silent prayer.
The tombs of Blessed Louis Martin and Blessed Marie-Azélie Martin, Thérèse’s parents, were located on the Way of the Cross behind the church until 2008. Their remains were then disinterred as part of their beatification process. In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the couple venerable, and Pope Benedict XVI beatified them on Oct. 19, 2008.
Oddly, St. Thérèse is a patron of missions. Although she never left the convent, she had a great desire to be a missionary and prayed for missions. As she wrote in her autobiography: “I have the vocation of an apostle. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your name and to plant your glorious cross on infidel soil. But oh, my beloved, one mission would not be enough for me; I would want to preach the Gospel on all five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages.”
Astronaut Col. Ron Garan, inspired by his devotion to St. Thérèse, approached the Carmelite community of New Caney, Texas, and asked them for the saint’s relics to take with him on his 2008 Discovery shuttle mission. Garan released her relics into Earth’s obit during his mission. At 17,057 miles an hour for two years, to this date, her relics have traveled nearly 300 million miles — a slight bit more than what Thérèse had expected to travel during her short life. Garan plans to bring more relics with him on his next mission to the International Space Station in 2011.
It’s hard to fathom the impact this French nun has had upon the world. She was a Carmelite for only nine years but has had a lasting influence on those who knew her personally and those who came to know her though her writings. The magnificent Basilica of St. Thérèse remains a testimony to God’s Little Flower.
Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York City.
Planning Your Visit
The Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux website
France has an excellent train system that is navigable without understanding a single word of French. Hotels of various ratings dot Lisieux.