Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (January 2, 1873–September 30, 1897)

Saint Thérèse is one of the thirty-six saints who are Doctors of the Church. The Doctors of the Church are renowned for their holiness and also for their important teachings. Using the doctor metaphor, we can say that in a sense each Doctor of the Church gives us a “prescription” for spiritual growth. Saint Thérèse’s particular prescription for holiness can teach us how to keep love at the center of everything.

Thérèse was born to Saints Louis and Zélie Martin. The youngest of five girls, her childhood was in many ways idyllic, but also touched by profound suffering. In 1877, when she was four, Thérèse’s mother died. Greatly impacted, she became sensitive and overly attached to her older sister Pauline who then entered the Carmelite monastery. The bereft Thérèse fell seriously ill until, miraculously, she was healed after having a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On Christmas Eve 1886, Thérèse experienced another miracle of a deep healing of her extreme sensitivity. Soon after, she felt drawn to religious life, but she was too young to enter.

Thérèse’s desire to become a Carmelite was finally granted when she was fifteen years old. She professed her vows in 1890 and took the name Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and the Holy Face. Her time in Carmel was not always easy, but Thérèse showed quiet heroism in simple ways. In a time when much emphasis was put on individual effort in the spiritual life, Thérèse pioneered a spirituality of trust in God’s mercy that she called “the little way.” On Holy Thursday night, 1896, Thérèse felt a stream of blood rise to her lips. The stained handkerchief she examined the next morning confirmed her in joy: her Divine Spouse would be coming to take her to heaven soon. Thérèse died of tuberculosis the next year, after a time of deep spiritual darkness that she endured by relying on her trust in God. In 1997 Saint John Paul II declared Thérèse to be a doctor of the Church.

Saint Thérèse’s prescription: Take the “little way” to heaven.

Thérèse is famous for her “little way” of spiritual childhood. She often meditated on this saying of Jesus that took deep root in her heart: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). For Thérèse, love was at the center of everything. Doing little things with great love is the easiest way to reach great holiness. She said that her way of reaching God is all about confidence and love. She had a very positive image of God, whom she saw as full of merciful love. She was blessed to have had a beautiful loving relationship with her father, who was a kind and gentle man. Those who have had a difficult relationship with their father may find it harder to follow Thérèse’s little way. They might struggle to have a positive, trusting relationship with God, but God’s grace can overcome all barriers. God will give them the grace to realize his love.

Thérèse took advantage of every opportunity to show her love for God. She offered up the smallest things, such as when one of the other nuns kept splashing her with dirty water while they were doing laundry. But she endured great suffering in other ways. During her final illness as she battled tuberculosis she also experienced a profound spiritual darkness. She was tempted to atheism and to think that heaven was not real. That was a huge trial but God allowed it so that she would become even holier and help to save more souls.

As we follow Thérèse’s way to holiness, we too can offer everything to God—big sufferings and small ones, whatever comes into our life. God calls us to holiness too, and Saint Thérèse will intercede for us on our own journey to God.

Some practical things to do:

  • Get a copy of Saint Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, and read it.
  • Form the habit of offering up small trials and inconveniences to Jesus as a token of your love for him and ask for the conversion of someone you know who is away from the Church.
  • Make a novena in honor of Saint Thérèse for some special intention you have. Don’t be surprised if by the end of the novena someone gives you a rose!

Prayer

Saint Thérèse, you led a cloistered life in a hidden way. But your heart expanded to embrace the entire world. Pray for us that we too may gain graces for others by offering to Jesus small actions with great love. Help us to see everything that happens in our lives as part of God’s providential plan for us.

Feast: October 1
Patron: Missionaries, France, Russia, florists, gardeners, loss of parents, tuberculosis

Excerpt from Story of a Soul

“In the heart of the Church I will be love.”

The answer was clear, but it did not satisfy my desires, it did not give me peace…. Without being discouraged I continued my reading, and this phrase comforted me: “Earnestly desire the more perfect gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And the Apostle explains how all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love… that charity is the excellent way that leads surely to God. At last I had found rest…. Considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all… Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”

Excerpt from writings of Saint Thérèse. Click here for entire selection.

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

Image Credit: Celine Martin (Sor Genoveva de la Santa Faz), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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