St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, Pray for Us!

The Little Flower’s words are gentle but her spirit is fierce as she proclaims the truth about how beloved by God we are

St. Thérèse at age 13
St. Thérèse at age 13 (photo: Pixabay/CC0 and Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

I must admit, I have never held a deep devotion to St. Thérèse of Liseux. I have friends who have named children after her and others who planned important occasions to coincide with her feast day, but something has always restrained me from wholeheartedly loving the “Little Flower.”

Objectively, I understand her magnetism. Her life was a tragically short but piercingly beautiful tribute to Christ. Her little way provided a method of sanctifying each moment, offering every action for the glory of our Creator, a method that can be used by laity and religious alike. She models a path to sainthood that does not rely on a gruesome martyrdom, but rather on a daily surrender, accepting each of life’s sufferings as a gift.

But, even with all this, practically speaking, I never looked to St. Thérèse as a friend. As a child she was highly sensitive, reserved and prone to scruples, with a piety that nearly defies belief. I can claim none of these traits.

Reading of her utter euphoria and tears of joy upon the occasion of her First Communion, I squirmed in self-conscious discomfort, remembering how I spent much of my First Communion morning admiring my veil and white dress.

St. Thérèse’s little way may be accessible, but the saint herself I found to be the opposite. So, while I have prayed for her intercession, she has remained to me unapproachable in her sweet gentility, a saint to venerate, but hard to truly love. 

Yet, as her feast day approached this year, I opened her spiritual autobiography “The Story of a Soul” once more, determined to form a kinship with this holy woman. St. Thérèse’s sheer adoration of Our Lord leaps off the page. Her joy in her vocation nearly masks the fact that she is writing while she nears death. Her writing is indeed sweet and filled with a girlish charm. This writing may have been commissioned by her superiors, but it is at its heart a letter to her beloved, with whom she will soon be fully reunited.

But while I expected the brief episodes of sentimentality, I did not foresee her audacity. Scattered among the pages of spiritual wisdom — and really it is no shock that this woman would be named a Doctor of the Church — and gentle humility, there is a bold and steely determination to defend lost souls and win them back for her King. 

She writes of her triumph when Pranzini, a notorious criminal for whose salvation she had been praying incessantly, stopped just moments before his execution and thrice kissed a Crucifix held out to him by a priest:

“I had wanted to give [sinners] His Precious Blood to drink to wash their sins away, and here was my ‘first-born’ pressing his lips to His Wounds. What a wonderful answer! After this my desire to save souls grew day by day. Our Lord seemed to be whispering to me ‘Give Me to drink’ (John 4:7) … and so, hoping to quench His thirst, I poured out His Blood on souls and offered them to Him, refreshed by this dew of Calvary, exchanging love for love.” (56). 

On the day of her Profession, as she pronounced her vows, the Little Flower boldly bombarded Heaven with her requests for souls:

“I asked for so many graces. I felt I really was a queen, and I took advantage of my title to get all the favors I could from the King. ... I did not forget anyone. I wanted all the sinners in the world to be coveted that day, and Purgatory emptied of every single captive.” (98). 

Even while suffering a period of desolation, St. Thérèse remained singularly focused on filling the throne room of Heaven:

“Whenever I find myself faced with the prospect of an attack by my enemy, I am most courageous; I turn my back on him, without so much as looking at him, and run to Jesus. … I tell Him I am quite happy that the eyes of my soul should be blind, while I am on earth, to the heavenly wonders in store for me, so long as He will open the eyes of the unbelieving souls for all eternity.” 

St. Thérèse’s boldness is striking because it reveals her utter surety of her place as a cherished child of God, even in a time of spiritual aridity.  This knowledge frees her. She does not fear to ask large things of God because she knows he will give her the greatest she can imagine. She knows she may become a saint, not because of her merits, but because God created her to spend eternity with him, if only she will let him.

“He did not wait for me to love Him with a great love ... but made me see that He had loved me first, with an infinite providence, so that now I may love Him in return even unto folly.” (47). 

Years of prayer and surrender stripped St. Thérèse of the hardness of heart that would have us believe we could never be the recipients of such great love. 

How different might our world look if more people recognized this great truth? If people know how truly, deeply, and unconditionally they were loved, and how all those around them are loved, I can only imagine how that would change the calculus of their decisions.

How different might I act if instead of measuring myself against another’s piety, and childishly deeming that person “not relatable” to soothe my own pride, I simply trusted that I was loved before I could form any action for myself? How much of the pain in our Fallen world is because we have forgotten to whom we belong and how beloved we are?

St. Thérèse’s “Story of a Soul” reminds us. Her words are gentle but her spirit is fierce as she proclaims this truth. She is a woman on a mission: To love Christ completely and to love his children so she may bring as many as possible home to him. A mission in which we are all called to participate.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us!