Saint Therese of Lisieux

Who was St. Thérèse?

Born in Alençon, France on January 2, 1873, Thérèse Martin was the youngest of nine children, four of whom died in childhood. Her father Louis was a watchmaker and her mother Zélie ran a small lace-making business. The Martin family was a very happy one and her childhood was in many ways idyllic. Sadly tragedy struck when her mother developed breast cancer and died on August 28, 1877. After her death the family moved to Lisieux.

Thérèse took to heart the deep spirituality she experienced in her home. From an early age prayer and friendship with God were very important to her. Her father was exceptionally loving and this helped her to have a deep trusting relationship with God, her Heavenly Father.
However there was another side to her life. Her mother’s death had quite a traumatic effect. Thérèse asked her sister Pauline to be a mother to her. When Pauline became a Carmelite nun it was if she had lost a second mother. The two losses led to several bouts of illness which seemed to result more from her emotional state than any physical cause. She tells of a remarkable conversion of spirit on Christmas Eve 1884, which healed her childhood immaturity and led to a very strong calling to become a Carmelite nun.

Thérèse considered herself stubborn but this often expressed itself in great determination, particularly in the way she followed her call. When the prioress of the Carmelites refused to take her because she was so young, the formerly shy girl went to the bishop. When the bishop did not give permission she decided to go to the Pope. In the course of an audience with Pope Leo XIII during a pilgrimage to Rome she begged him to let her enter. While the Pope’s words: “If is God’s will, you will enter” initially saddened her she gradually become aware of their importance. She wanted to do God’s will at all costs.

Thérèse’s determination and spirit of prayer on that trip made an impression on the Bishop’s Vicar. On April 9, 1888 Therese was admitted to the Carmelite convent. Convent life was not easy, with very basic accommodation and little heat to counter the cold winters. Not all of the community warmed to her. Thérèse embraced her new life with enthusiasm and generosity. Living at close quarters with others made many demands on her but she tried to accept them with patience and love.

Thérèse loved Scripture and especially the Gospels. She carried a small book of the Gospels near her heart at all times. In the Gospels she came to know Jesus and discovered what she describes as her “Little Way” of spiritual childhood - a way of confidence and trust and of total surrender to God's Merciful Love. In St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians Thérèse found her vocation: to be love at the heart of the Church.

Thérèse loved nature. As a child she remembered a visit to the beach at Deauville and the impact the waves had on her. She loved flowers. It is not surprising that she uses flowers to describe the kingdom of God. She sees herself as one of the small flowers and hence is often referred to as “The Little Flower.”

Suffering seemed a constant part of Thérèse’s life. For her it was a way of imitating Jesus in his love for his Father and for all of humanity. One of the greatest traumas in Thérèse’s life was her father’s illness. A series of strokes lead to hallucinations and he had to live in a mental institution. She also experienced several periods of inner darkness. There was a particularly intense one in the eighteen months before she died, during which her faith was tested to the limit and she found it hard to believe in any spiritual reality. However a deep inner peace sustained her. In the latter part of her life she also suffered from poor health and developed tuberculosis. Her last months were extremely painful but she accepted the pain in a spirit of love. She died on September 30, 1897 at the age of twenty four.

She wrote an account of her life, which she described as the “Story of a Soul.” Published shortly after she died it has proved remarkably popular with people of many different faith traditions and has been translated into over fifty languages. Her dream was to spend her heaven doing good on earth, to let fall from heaven a shower of roses. That dream has been fulfilled. She was canonized in 1925. She has been proclaimed a Patroness of the Missions and in 1997 was declared a Doctor of the Church.