St. Thérèse of Lisieux Was Destined to Be a Teacher of Souls

The Little Flower — God’s ‘little rascal’ — achieved great sanctity within the short span of her life

Céline Martin (l) and Thérèse Martin pose for a portrait in 1881 in Lisieux, France
Céline Martin (l) and Thérèse Martin pose for a portrait in 1881 in Lisieux, France (photo: Mme. Besnier / Public Domain)

Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face was 20 years old when she began to write down family memories in a notebook that would later include a description of her inner life in Carmel until her death four years later.

With humor, she described herself after her infancy as a “4-year-old little Rascal,” then immediately recounted a curious dream she had at the same age.

She wrote, “I dreamed one night I went to take a walk alone in the garden. When I reached the foot of the steps leading to the garden and which have to be climbed to get into it, I stopped, seized with fright.”

There, Thérèse beheld “two frightful little devils” wearing flatirons on their feet and dancing on top of a barrel of lime as they cast fiery glances at her. They seemed to be more afraid of Thérèse than she was of them, so they ran and hid in the laundry nearby. Seeing their lack of bravery, Thérèse followed to see what they were doing and peered through the window. But upon sight of her, the devils began running around like madmen, she said, “trying to hide from my gaze.”

As she pondered the dream later in life, Thérèse never supposed anything extraordinary about it. But she was, however, convinced that God had permitted her to remember it to prove, she said, “that a soul in the state of grace has nothing to fear from demons who are cowards, capable of fleeing before the gaze of a little child!”

This “gaze of a little child” before the “Father of mercy” (2 Corinthians 1:3) became Thérèse’s life-long strength and prayerful disposition. This year, on Jan. 2, the Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of her birth.

As with the dream from her childhood, the occasion affords an opportunity to look back on Thérèse’s childhood and celebrate how from birth she was guided by God toward the fulfillment of her mission to one day teach millions of souls her unique doctrine known as “the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood.” She is now a Doctor of the Church — appropriately, the youngest in history.

One of the greatest insights gleaned by Thérèse from childhood was as a toddler while playing with her sister, Céline, and the two were approached by their sister, Léonie.

She wrote, “One day, Léonie, thinking she was too big to be playing any longer with dolls, came to us with a basket filled with dresses and pretty pieces for making others; her doll was resting on top.” Holding out the basket to them, Léonie said, “Here, choose; I'm giving you all this.” Céline reached with one hand and pulled out a ball of wool.

But after thinking for a moment, Thérèse reached with both hands, and declared, “I choose all!” and took the whole basket. Since Céline and Léonie both had lots of toys, those that witnessed the scene made no complaint about what otherwise may have appeared Thérèse’s overly excessive grab. 

Knowing this, she explained the inspiration she later received. “This little incident of my childhood is a summary of my whole life; later, when perfection was set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self.”

She also understood there are many degrees of perfection, and that each soul is free to respond to the advances of the Lord and to do little or much. In other words, to choose from among the many sacrifices the Lord is asking of us. The moment Thérèse realized this, with the same exuberance as when she took hold of the brimming basketful, she cried out, “My God, ‘I choose all!’ I don’t want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for you. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will. So take it, for ‘I choose all’ that you will!"

It is not unimaginable to think that due to her extreme sensitivity Thérèse could not have offered this prayer of generosity if not for the special intervention of Mary, who reached down to her in childhood during a series of painful losses and gave her hope, beginning at age 4, when her beloved mother died.

She wrote, “All the details of my mother’s illness are still present to me, and I recall especially the last weeks she spent on earth.”

She remembered kissing her mother for the last time, and then gazing upon her lifeless figure in the coffin. Her mother had always been of a small frame, Thérèse said, but now she appeared to be “large and dismal.”

Thérèse became timid, withdrawn, and burst into tears at the slightest “look” from others. She suffered another great loss when her oldest sister, Pauline, left home to enter Carmel, then collapsed in tears each time she visited her at the monastery.

At age 10, Thérèse fell into a mysterious illness that left doctors without hope for a cure as she lay in bed, delirious and suffering hallucinations.

It was on the last day of a Novena of Masses being offered on her behalf that Thérèse received a gift of mercy. That afternoon, Marie, Thérèse’s sister, was out in the garden and heard her crying out, “Mama, Mama,” and rushed to her side where she knelt before a statue of Our Lady of Victories placed at the foot of Thérèse’s bed and prayed for grace. Thérèse then described the next remarkable moment:

Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse had also turned toward the Mother of Heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden, the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never have I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.

Filled with the assurance of Mary’s love and maternal presence with her, Thérèse’s demeanor changed, radiating peace, and Marie cried out, “Thérèse is cured!”

This victory of grace would lead to others. For soon after, Marie also left home to follow her vocation to Carmel, but this time Thérèse accepted the loss as coming from the loving hands of Mary to whom, since her healing, she had entrusted her life to “as a child throwing itself into the arms of its mother.”

Five years later, with even greater fortitude, she accepted and offered the sacrifice of leaving her father to follow her own vocation in Carmel. Arriving at the monastery, she bade farewell, watching as tears rolled down her father’s cheeks, then turned and entered the cloister where she was welcomed by her Carmelite sisters.

She wrote, “My desires were at last accomplished; my soul experienced a peace so sweet, so deep, it would be impossible to express it.” This peace, she explained, remained unchanged for the rest of her life, even, she added, “in the midst of the greatest trials."

From birth, God’s “little rascal” was destined to achieve sanctity within the short span of her life. But the fullness of her destiny was to reveal itself as she poured out her desire in prayer:

O Jesus! Why can’t I tell all little souls how unspeakable is your condescension? I feel that if you found a soul weaker and littler than mine, which is impossible, you would be pleased to grant it still greater favors, provided it abandoned itself with total confidence to your infinite mercy. But why do I desire to communicate your secrets of love, O Jesus, for was it not you alone who taught them to me, and can you not reveal them to others? Yes, I know it, and I beg you to do it. I beg you to cast your divine glance upon a great number of little souls. I beg you to choose a legion of little victims worthy of your LOVE!

Truly, your prayer was answered, Thérèse. And we, your legion of “little” devotees and students are very grateful. Happy anniversary!