How Sacred Scripture Influenced St. Thérèse’s ‘Little Way’
Biblical insights for the faithful from the beloved saint.
St. Thérèse is often remembered as a young Carmelite nun in France and as someone who sometimes sends roses to those who ask for her prayers. As beloved as she is, she did not start a new order, she wasn’t a missionary, and she had no renowned visions. This Little Flower did not build a hospital, school or orphanage, nor did she start a new religious order. She lived a quiet and rather obscure life — and died at the young age of 24 in a cloistered convent. So, besides the blessed roses, what is at the heart of the Little Flower’s sanctity?
A Hidden Life
After a somewhat sheltered childhood, Thérèse felt an overpowering tug to become a Carmelite nun as a teenager; at the age of 15, with her beloved Papa, she walked the quarter of a mile from her home to be received into the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. At some point as a cloistered nun, she expressed an interest in becoming a missionary; she deeply desired to join in the work of teaching souls about God, but her health was already too frail. She would remain at the convent until her death.
Little did Thérèse know that she would become a missionary — just not in the traditional sense. During her nine years as a Carmelite, young Thérèse spent rich time in profound prayer and deep contemplation, where she absorbed many divine insights. Many of these special gifts of understanding were written down by Thérèse — two manuscripts by order of the prioress, another as requested by her sister Marie. After her death, these compositions ended up in print — and the result was astonishing! Initially considered somewhat of a souvenir for the family and as something to share with other Carmelite communities after her death, the essays found their way into the hands of friends and relatives — and requests were made for more copies, then more copies, and then more. Through these three manuscripts put together, Thérèse became a rather-accidental missionary who reached all corners of the Earth — just as she had so desired.
“I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages” (Story of a Soul, Manuscript B).
These high-in-demand essays, compiled together created Story of a Soul — a quite unplanned autobiography of St. Thérèse.
Story of a Soul offers strong glimpses into the development of one of her special gifts — known as her “Little Way.” In shedding light on her Little Way, Thérèse included an impressive array of biblical passages supporting her unique understanding of how smallness can be just as appreciated by God as greatness.
For example, Thérèse recalls a time when she was 13, soon to be 14, and she had a mystical experience that suddenly and profoundly transformed this oversensitive adolescent into a person with an overwhelming desire to save souls.
The transforming event occurred near the end of 1886 — a year and a half before she entered the Carmelites — but it set the course that would guide her the rest of her life as a contemplative. Returning home from Christmas midnight Mass with the family, her overtired, elderly father wearily expressed relief that, because his youngest daughter — Thérèse — had surely outgrown such childish things, it was to be the last year to celebrate the Christmas tradition of shoes filled with goodies — a custom Thérèse loved. Normally, a remark like this would have triggered Thérèse into a gush of tears. However, while upstairs putting her hat away in her room, she had an experience that abruptly transformed her heart: She doesn’t offer great elaboration on the experience — but she shares that the change in her was dramatic. Her young soul matured tremendously in one moment, and despite her youth, Thérèse had a sudden grasp of heavenly inspiration.
Her Little Way began to take root. She called this experience the “Grace of Christmas” and shares in Story of a Soul its great impact on her attitude, of a sudden growing up — beyond her years, even. She knew she had been graced in a special way and compared it to a fruit being carefully ripened before its time by a gardener. She connected this thought to a verse from Matthew’s Gospel:
“At that time Jesus said in reply, ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike’” (Matthew 11:25).
In the middle portion of Story of a Soul (sometimes called “Manuscript B”), which is written as a letter, Thérèse really underscores her Little Way. Within this letter, Thérèse makes several biblical references that accentuate her simple means of reaching God. At one point in the letter she presents four passages in a row, including: “For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy, but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test” (Wisdom 6:6; Vulgate-Wisdom 6:7), and “You shall nurse, carried in her arms, cradled upon her knees; as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:12b-13a).
In one intriguing portion of Manuscript B, Thérèse calls herself a “little bird” for a few paragraphs, rather that her more frequent “little flower.” She brings attention to a mighty eagle representing the great saints and angels and describes herself as a little bird in comparison. She then presents Deuteronomy 32:11: “As an eagle incites its nestlings, hovering over its young, so he spread his wings, took them, bore them upon his pinions.”
Thérèse expresses full confidence that God would accept her limitations, her young age, her lack of notable achievements, her inability to offer grand gestures — and simply offers him her full love and devotion. And she feels secure, that, despite her small, weak, “little bird” status, God will swoop her up and keep her safe within his wings.
The third section of Story of a Soul (Manuscript C) was written mere months before her death, and she folds in even more illustrations and evidence for her Little Way.
For example, Thérèse reminisces an almost comical event from when she had been serving as sacristan. She needed to return the communion grating keys to the prioress, Mother Marie, who was ill and sleeping. Another sister came along, saw Thérèse about to open the door and feared that the prioress would awaken, so pressed to do the job for Thérèse. But Thérèse really wanted to fulfill the duty herself and felt confident that she could without waking the ailing prioress. A monastery-level commotion ensued as the two Carmelite nuns tried to quietly open the door, and — of course — Mother Marie awoke. The “helpful” nun promptly began to explain the embarrassing situation with an account that made her appear righteous. The Little Flower was about to offer her own version of the noisy event, but somehow knew it was the wrong path to take. So she left. She simply let the “helpful” sister continue on in her explanation. The experience helped Thérèse understand that getting the last word, winning an argument, or appearing the most grand, was not what mattered; that a quiet letting go and humbly giving it to God would make it all work out just fine. She connects this funny event with a brief reference to a passage in 2 Corinthians: “About this person I will boast, but about myself I will not boast, except about my weaknesses” (12:5).
A Tug on the Thread
Of course there are many more examples that Thérèse threads throughout her writings — and it’s interesting to tug on that thread to take a closer look.
God showed her in her youth how age or accomplishment don’t directly influence the maturity of a soul: that someone young could understand things that an older person might not; that living simply and obscurely can be perfectly pleasing to God; that doing God’s will with love is what matters. This understanding was carried into and then accentuated during her years in the monastery. Thankfully, with her writings preserved, we can all explore and contemplate this beautiful Little Way to heaven via the Bible.
Theresa Doyle-Nelson writes from Pipe Creek, Texas.
A Little Way Devotional
Perhaps you would like to explore the development of St. Thérèse’s Little Way further. Each Bible passage below was referred to by St. Thérèse in Story of a Soul and helped her to shape her Little Way. Consider doing some Bible journaling with theses passages by reading them and keeping a small journal to record your thoughts and reflections — how the words make you feel about a “Little Way” to sainthood. You can do one passage a day, creating a two-week devotional, or study a few each day; whatever works best for you. If you’re really inspired, get a copy of Story of a Soul and read Thérèse’s narratives relevant to each Little Way Bible passage. The page numbers listed correspond with the ever-popular John Clarke, O.C.D. English translation of Story of a Soul. Note: St. Thérèse’s verses were taken from a Vulgate edition of the Bible, so, the Psalm and Wisdom verses are numbered slightly differently. NABRE numbering is presented with Vulgate numbering displayed in parentheses.
Story of a Soul, pp. 105, 151, 209
Story of a Soul, p. 113
Story of a Soul, p. 133
Story of a Soul, pp. 188, 208
Wisdom 6:6a (Vulgate-Wisdom 6:7a)
Story of a Soul, p. 188
Story of a Soul, p. 188
Story of a Soul, pp. 188, 208
1 Corinthians 12:29, 31
Story of a Soul, pp. 193, 194
Story of a Soul, p. 200
Psalm 71:17 (Vulgate-Psalm 70:17)
Story of a Soul, p. 208
Psalm 119:141 (Vulgate-Psalm 118:141)
Story of a Soul, p. 209
Psalm 119:100 (Vulgate-Psalm 118:100)
Story of a Soul, p. 209
2 Corinthians 12:5
Story of a Soul, p. 224
Story of a Soul, p. 247
St. Thérèse and the Bible
By reading Story of a Soul, you might assume that Thérèse had a well-thumbed Bible full of highlights, folded corners and notes scribbled on the side, for she makes well over 100 biblical references! The amazing fact is that she never owned a Bible, and she never even had access to a full Bible! This Little Flower collected together her wide array of verses from an assortment of sources: her breviary, various devotions, hymns, the Divine Office, etc. Her sister Céline copied chunks of the Old Testament down in a notebook and brought it to Thérèse at Carmel. While in the convent, she somehow acquired a copy of the Gospels, which she treasured with great love. Although the Bible has many more verses that would also support Thérèse’s Little Way, her collection of numerous biblical passages pulled together from her limited resources is impressive indeed.
Martin, Thérèse. Story of a Soul. Third edition of translation by John Clarke, O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washington, D.C., 1996. You can buy the book from EWTN Religious Catalogue here.
New American Bible, Revised Edition, The. Wichita, Kansas: Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2011.
- Carmel de Lisieux, Souer Camille, Archive Office ([email protected]). 2006.
- Clarke, John, O.C.D., ed., St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1977.
- John Paul II Cultural Center
- Martin, Céline, My Sister Saint Thérèse, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, 1951/1997.
- Martin, Thérèse, Story of a Soul, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1972 edition.