“Mystic, comic, everything! She can make you weep with devotion and just as easily split your sides with laughter.” So wrote Sister Marie of the Angels, novice mistress at the Lisieux Carmelite cloister in 1893, describing the buoyant, twenty-year-old Thérèse Martin. Thérèse had come to the Carmel at age fifteen, with “a head full of mischief” and a burning zeal to please God. More than once her clumsiness earned her a rebuke from her superiors about how she swept the cloister. But one day, Pope Pius X would call this pure, simple girl “the greatest saint of modern times.” As her novice mistress then noted, Thérèse had “hiding within her a wisdom, a perfection.” It would, in time, mark her for sainthood.
A century has passed since the twenty-four-year-old nun died in the remote Normandy cloister, virtually unknown. But since that day she has been credited with hundreds of astounding works for God — bringing cures to the dying, rescuing men on battlefields, appearing in mission lands where conversions have increased dramatically. Today, millions love St. Thérèse of Lisieux, not only for her wisdom, but for her unwavering passion to serve God, both in life and in death. How did so brief a life yield such a prodigious legacy? St. Thérèse’s story of love and self-sacrifice has its beginnings in memorable childhood, as the treasured youngest sister in a large and loving Norman family.
“My earliest recollections are of tender caresses and smiles,” she wrote. “I was always cherished with the most loving care. . . .” She was the ninth child of Louis and Zélie Martin, extraordinarily gifted parents “more worthy of Heaven than of earth,” as Thérèse put it, because they loved God, each other, and their children at the very heights of charity. Thérèse’s birth was awaited eagerly by her mother, who had lost four children before her to death when they were infants or toddlers. “I was born to be a mother!” Zélie once wrote.
Thérèse also experienced the cherishing of a “foster” mother, Rose Taille, who saved the baby with the milk of her breasts for fifteen months when her own mother could not feed her. Rose nourished the baby with smiles and love, trundling her in a hay-filled wheelbarrow into the fields and tying Thérèse “onto the back of a placid cow” at milking time. When Thérèse was four-and-a-half, Zélie died of breast cancer. The second oldest of her five daughters, sixteen-year-old Pauline, took over the mothering of Thérèse as seventeen-year-old Marie occupied herself with eight-year-old Céline. Pauline nurtured Thérèse, who affectionately would call her big sister “little Mother.” Thérèse would always have an intimate, loving relationship with Pauline, who “sowed joy all her life” and proved worthy of Zélie’s dying words to her: “I know you’ll become a nun and a saint.” When Pauline entered the Lisieux Carmelite cloister, Thérèse’s godmother, Marie, a generous-hearted young woman, took over mothering Thérèse. Marie cared for Thérèse for the rest of her childhood, until she, too, became a Carmelite. Thérèse later wrote that she knew all about “the depths of tenderness in more than one mother’s heart.” And not only had she known four outstanding mothers; she had a saintly, loving aunt-by-marriage, Céline Guerin, who participated so closely in Thérèse’s upbringing that Thérèse, in later letters, frequently called herself Céline’s “daughter.” Thérèse also had a tender relationship with her father. Like Zélie, Louis firmly demanded good behavior but gave his five daughters plenty of love and attention. At sixteen, Thérèse wrote to Louis, “The longer I live, my dearest Father, the more I love you. . . . When I think of you, I naturally think of God, for I cannot believe it possible to find anyone holier than you.” Thérèse’s assessment of her father was accurate. Both of her parents, as well as her sister Léonie, are candidates for beatification. Thérèse’s early environment was so drenched in wholesome spirituality that she could readily grasp God as Love, Truth, and Mercy. Her upbringing made Thérèse Martin a person who loved generously, rejoiced in intimacy, practiced great self-discipline, and was capable of honesty and humor about herself and others. Her response to the things of God went higher and deeper than that of most souls. Even as a child she was concerned over the apparent injustice that some in Heaven have more glory than others. Pauline comforted her by filling a small and a large glass. “See, they both have all they can hold.”
In spite of her many advantages, Thérèse began to know suffering at an early age. Zélie’s death caused her youngest child’s ebullient personality to wither into timidity and oversensitiveness for years. Pauline’s departure for Carmel weakened Thérèse’s immune system and opened the door to a sort of breakdown and mysterious illness: the ten-year-old almost dieduntil a vision of Mary cured her instantaneously. When Thérèse herself entered Carmel at the age of fifteen, she suffered having to leave Louis and her sister closest in age, Céline, whom she called “the sweet echo of my soul.” Later, when Céline told her father that she too — the last of his five daughters at home — wished to enter the cloister, he acquiesced, but, his daughters later believed, his sense of loss may have played a part in a series of strokes that affected him mentally. In his confusion, he began running away and, one day, waved a gun, thinking he needed to protect his family. Thérèse was aware that criticism was being directed at the Martin girls for “abandoning their father.” She also suffered deeply for his “humiliation” when Louis was confined to an insane asylum until he became docile enough to return safely to home care.
Other sources of anxiety were Léonie, the family’s “problem child,” who three times tried to become a nun and failed, and Céline, who, while putting off entering into Carmel in order to care for their father, attracted admirers that Thérèse feared might jeopardize her vocation. Less visible were Thérèse’s interior struggles to follow Jesus, with whom she had her most important relationship. Even a loving person like Thérèse has plenty of ego that must die to make room for God.
Thérèse studied the Gospels ceaselessly. She loved them so much, she wore a portion against her heart at all times.1 She concluded that, to love as Christ called her to, she had to give up ownership of not just her time, talent, and the direction of her life, but small things, such as paintbrushes, her ideas, and even certain witticisms. To follow Christ, she felt she must not complain about being given old, dried-up food that was often her reward for not complaining, no matter what she was served. She had to “not rush” to get a place by the fire at recreation, even though, being intensely sensitive to cold, she was frozen through. She would eventually contract the tuberculosis that killed her. And to answer God’s call to put Him first and love all in Him, she had to live in the same cloister with her beloved sisters, Marie, Pauline, and later Céline, maintaining the bonds of love, yet not the ease and the ardor of those bonds. That would defeat the purpose of becoming a contemplative nun. To love as Jesus loves, she often avoided her sisters, and instead, willingly put herself at the service of those unlovable nuns everyone else avoided. She did this so successfully that a nun who irritated Thérèse almost beyond bearing asked her sincerely, “Sister Thérèse, why are you so attracted to me?”, and her sister Marie reproached her for seeming to care more for this nun than for Marie. Marie understood only later why Thérèse offered her no explanation, and responded only with a hearty laugh.
Given spiritual charge of a group of novices, Thérèse made certain not to dominate them with her own personality. Instead she approached them from “above the human level,” relying totally on much prayer and truthfulness regarding their souls. She was equally willing to calmly “play the heavy” or to abase herself, whichever would benefit the novice in question. In these many ways Thérèse swept her soul clean of ego, that God might be her all in all and Christ, not Thérèse, might live and reign in her. This difficult path to sanctity she humbly called her “little way of spiritual childhood.” Based on what she had learned from Zélie, Rose, Louis, and her sisters, she knew she was serving a tender, loving God, who longs for our happiness, and who, far from punishing us for our faults, weaknesses, or even sins, clasps even the most prodigal of us to His heart as soon as we turn to Him regretting whatever we have done. Thérèse believed that the way to God’s heart is to “gather flowers of love and sacrifice” by doing small, ego-killing good deeds for love of Him, not trusting in our spiritual accomplishments, but, like a child, living with complete confidence in Him to provide, through His Son’s infinite merits, the graces and virtues we need to gain Heaven.
By the age of twenty-four, as she lay dying, Thérèse could laugh in perfect humility and say to her sisters, “You know you’re taking care of a little saint,” crediting her sanctity to “[Him] who is mighty, who has done great things for me.” Her intense desire, which she believed God would not leave unfulfilled, was not simply to become a saint, but to go to “the homeland,” as she called Heaven, and go on working till the end of time “to make God loved by a multitude of souls.” That Thérèse is a contemporary of our generation may be hard to imagine, but if her lifespan had matched that of two of her natural sisters, she would have died in the 1960s. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul (pieced together from a memoir written at Pauline’s request, a second memoir asked for by Prioress Marie de Gonzague, and a letter requested by Marie), has appeared in almost every language and has sold millions of copies. Her story made such an impact and generated so much interest, that, in the first twenty-eight years following her death, the twenty nuns at Thérèse’s Lisieux Carmelite cloister sent out thirty million pictures of her in answer to requests from all over the world.
Thirty years after her death, the pope named her copatron saint of the missions and missionaries. Having promised, “I will come down,” referring to the work she would do on earth after her death, Thérèse was seen repeatedly in mission lands, where annual conversions increased astoundingly from the year she died. The book Messengers: After-Death Appearances of Saints and Mystics, written (by this author) after work in the Lisieux Carmel archives, contains references to or complete details of nearly a hundred of Thérèse’s visits to the world to do the work of God. They are only a sampling.
In her life and in her death, God has used Thérèse’s wisdom to open many souls to Him. Much of that wisdom is contained in these pages. As you read this book, may Thérèse draw you closer to His love and light!
Art for this post on St. Thérèse: Cover and featured image used with permission.