As the youngest child of the family, Therese was showered with love from the time of her birth, but she also knew suffering on many levels from her earliest years. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was only four years old. Her older sisters became surrogate mothers to the precocious child who related later in life that she experienced deep episodes of communion with God when she was still quite young.
Periods of grave illness – severe headaches, high fevers, and depression included – occurred intermittently throughout her growing-up years. A stay at boarding school became the source of daily anxiety when Therese was taunted for not fitting in with her classmates. Her innate intelligence led to good grades in her classes, yet she suffered nonetheless, in time returning home for private tutoring.
As her teenage years approached, Therese experienced a strong desire to follow in the footsteps of her beloved sisters by entering the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux. It did not come easily, but at the uncommonly young age of 15, Therese saw her dream fulfilled. She spent the remaining nine years of her life in the cloister, in the company of three of her blood sisters and the other members of their small community, developing and refining the spirituality which always will be associated with her name – the Little Way.
Therese’s world-renowned autobiography, Story of a Soul, relates her desire to climb to spiritual heights. Recognizing her inability to do so on her own power, she writes: “I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection … The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more.”
Father Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, explains: “… the elevator is the mercy of Jesus. It’s the mercy of Jesus in action, the compassion of Jesus reaching out to lift up the lowly … If you truly live the Little Way – if you recognize the darkness of your littleness, keep trying to grow in holiness, and trust in the Lord’s promise of mercy – then you will become a saint. It’s that simple. And if you’re very little and your trust is great, then you may even become a great saint” (33 Days to Merciful Love).
This striving toward sainthood is the essence of the Little Way of Saint Therese. While deeply profound in a spiritual sense, it is nonetheless extremely simple conceptually. Its basis is trust, confidence, and love – pure, unadulterated love for God played out in the normal activities of our daily life. Doing the simple, distasteful, mundane – yes, even boring – tasks in a spirit of love for God and for those whom we serve; that is the heart and soul of the Little Way.
Therese modeled this spirituality by the way she lived her life in the cloister; by performing menial tasks cheerfully, finding ways to cajole a crotchety nun, denying herself even the simple pleasure of recreation time with her blood sisters. Every day, she found numerous opportunities to perform small acts of kindness for the glory of God; or to make seemingly minor sacrifices which, given the bare-bones nature of life in the cloister, could be construed as great indeed.
At first glance, Story of a Soul appears to be merely a collection of reminiscences composed by a simple Carmelite nun writing only in obedience to her superiors. It’s true that in its early chapters, Therese recounts many details of her early life in the devout family into which she was born. As the perceptive reader soon learns, however, these experiences were critical in laying the groundwork for the intensely profound spirituality which emerges as the work continues.
Therese continues to speak to us today. She urges us to center our lives on God, to include Him in every element of our daily routine, to find ways to express our love for Him through each of our dealings with others. Admittedly, this can be a tall order at times. It is then that we can remind ourselves to remain little and to reach up to Jesus, fully confident that He will lift us up with His arms of mercy.
Therese’s death from tuberculosis at age 24 ended a lengthy period of physical agony and spiritual trial. The sheltered nun who suffered so, and strove so mightily for humility, is renowned as a great saint and a Doctor of the Church.
Commenting on Therese’s famous promise to “spend my heaven doing good on earth,” Archbishop (now Venerable) Fulton Sheen wrote: “I can’t imagine any other saint ever having said, ‘When I get to heaven, I’m not going to rest, I’m going to work,’ but she has said it. Therefore, I have great confidence in her. Put her to work! Don’t let her rest!” (St. Therese: A Treasured Love Story).
One way we can “put her to work” is by reciting the simple, beautiful Novena Rose Prayer:
O Little Therese of the Child Jesus, please pick for me a rose from the heavenly gardens and send it to me as a message of love. O Little Flower of Jesus, ask God today to grant the favors I now place with confidence in your hands … (Mention specific requests) … Saint Therese, help me to always believe as you did, in God’s great love for me, so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day. Amen.
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