I have to admit that I spend a great amount of time reading theology, both for pleasure and for my ministry here in the seminary. And, I have to admit that when it comes to certain theologians, I can go on a “spree,” reading everything that I can get my hands on to learn more about their thought and how they relate to the faith, and, perhaps more importantly, to learn how they can assist me as a priest help the people whom I am blessed to serve come to know the faith even more.
Some of the theologians I have read this year have really helped me come to know my faith and theology more, like Tracey Rowland in her excellent texts, Ratzinger’s Faith(2008) and Catholic Theology(2017). And some others, — well, not so much. However, as many theologians I have read this year, there is only one theologian to whose thought I keep returning, as I relate to it so much.
The great female Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, is, I believe, a theologian for the ages. A priest I know was furious that the Little Flower was made a Doctor of the Church in 1998 by Saint John Paul II. He said that her complete dogmatic theological corpus could fit on the back of a postage stamp, and indeed, he is correct. She is not a systematic theologian, but she is nonetheless a great theologian, one who seeks to deepen her relationship and ours with the Lord.
Thérèse Martin was a young woman born to a couple, Louis and Zelie Martin, who themselves were later canonized as saints. Feeling the call to religious life, she wanted to enter the Carmel at Lisieux, but was too young to do so. Appealing directly to Pope Leo XIII with whom she had an audience while on pilgrimage in Rome, she was permitted to do so at the age of 15.
Thérèse’s time at the Carmel was not without challenges (she struggled with spiritual dryness and desolation and wanted to go to the missions, but poor health prevented her from doing so), but she sought to grow in the way of perfection. Through her way of life and through her own writings, collected as The Story of a Soul, Saint Thérèse is a shining example of one who is not and never would have dared to consider herself a systematic theologian but who is truly a Doctor of the Church. Her “Little Way” has taught more people about the Catholic faith than most complex academic thinkers. She found and lived her faith in the Lord Jesus and her wisdom is every bit as profound as any academic theologian. This young Carmelite nun writes in her autobiography:
I understand and I know from experience that: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ Jesus has no need of books or teachers to instruct souls; He teaches without the noise of words. Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each moment; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do. I find just when I need them certain lights that I had not seen until then, and it isn't most frequently during my hours of prayer that these are most abundant but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.
Even though she never left her Carmel, her true spiritual and pastoral theology is profound. Read her experience and wisdom, even as a young lady, in her growth in humility and charity:
Another time I was working in the laundry, and the Sister opposite, while washing handkerchiefs, repeatedly splashed me with dirty water. My first impulse was to draw back and wipe my face, to show the offender I should be glad if she would behave more quietly; but the next minute I thought how foolish it was to refuse the treasures God offered me so generously, and I refrained from betraying my annoyance. On the contrary, I made such efforts to welcome the shower of dirty water, that at the end of half an hour I had taken quite a fancy to this novel kind of aspersion, and I resolved to come as often as I could to the happy spot where such treasures were freely bestowed.
The “Little Flower,” as she was known, died at the age of 24 in 1897, and soon after, a devotion to her grew in France that spread quickly throughout the world. Thérèse was soon after canonized in 1925 and was made the Universal Co-Patron of the Missions in 1927. In the booklet for her declaration as a Doctor of the Church by Saint John Paul II, the Vatican declared:
On the occasion of the centenary of her death, many Episcopal Conferences have asked the Pope to declare her a Doctor of the Church, in view of the soundness of her spiritual wisdom inspired by the Gospel, the originality of her theological intuitions filled with sublime teaching, and the universal acceptance of her spiritual message, which has been welcomed throughout the world and spread by the translation of her works into over fifty languages.”
Not bad for a 24-year Carmelite nun — to stand alongside of such theological masters like Gregory the Great, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas! The Little Flower is a profound Doctor of the Church, a teacher par excellence. I encourage you this summer to spend some time reading, picking up the work of one of the most profound theologians of the ages, the Little Flower.