May 7, 2004
vol. 15, no. 128

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus

"The Petal of Perfection"

    The thirty-third Doctor in this chronological series on the Doctors of the Church was not only the youngest, but the most recent. She was raised to the altars faster than practically any saint in the annals of Church history. Little known until after her death, her miraculous intercession has become widely known worldwide and on the centennial of her death millions flocked to see her traveling relics as they were ceremoniously taken to every continent. This October a film depicting her short but ever fruitful life will debut in theaters on the heels of the phenomenal success of 'The Passion of The Christ', marking the third straight year of a blockbuster Catholic film; the first being J.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings - Return of the King'. Who is this saint who has stirred up so much fervor and love, who is known as the patron saint of foreign missions even though she never set foot outside of Europe? It is none other than the Little Flower of Jesus - the "Petal of Perfection" Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

    The youngest of nine children, Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin was born of loving parents Louiis Martin Guerin and Zelie-Marie on January 2, 1973 in the village of Alençon in Normandy, France. The Martins were a loving, Christian family who had their share of crosses and trials, losing four children at an early age to illness, the very same hereditary illness that would someday take St. Thérèse's life. The Martins regarded their children as gifts from God, Heaven's priceless treasures to cherish and to teach and Zelie-Marie consecrated each child to God before they were born. As Benziger's Lives of the Saints puts it, "Thérèse was the last flower of this blessed stem, which gave four Sisters to the Carmel of Lisieux, still another to the Visitation of Caen."

    When Thérèse was only four years old, her mother Zelie-Marie succumbed to cancer. It was left to her two older sisters to take up their mother's duties and they did so diligently, continuing the education of little Thérèse.

    From childhood Thérèse had always manifested a tender piety which at times clashed with her naturally lively temperament. Still too young to understand, her mother's death affected her greatly. Five years after her mother passed away, God sent a trial into her life with an illness the medical experts could not diagnose. Frail from birth, the doctors' prognosis was that what Thérèse had was incurable. That made what happened in 1883 at the age of ten all the more miraculous. It was the Blessed Virgin Mary who, because of the fervent prayers of Thérèse's desperate, but consoling and loving sisters, answered their plea and interceded for them before her Divine Son. Thérèse was completely healed miraculously, confounding her doctors. Thérèse knew the moment of her healing for the statue of Our Lady moved and smiled at her.

    It was then that Thérèse realized she had a vocation. Whether it was the impertinence of youth or teen angst, Thérèse prayed to be admitted earlier than were the regulations saying so much as "God, grant me patience and I want it right now." for she wanted to follow in a few of her sister's footsteps who had entered the Carmel Monastery in Lisieux. Being only in her early teens she sought the Bishop's permission for an exception and he flatly denied her. Still determined and persistent as ever, she took a trip to Rome where she was able to fanagle her way into see His Holiness Pope Leo XIII during a group papal audience. She felt surely he'd grant the exception because of her zeal and willingness to obey.

    That, as it turned out, was the great test for her for because what she heard from Pope Leo was not what she expected. Rather than saying yes to her request, for he was rather taken aback by her forwardness, he gently told her "Whatever your bishop advises, you follow, my child." This news from such a powerful Pontiff forced the young Thérèse to bite her lip for she thought surely the Pope would allow the exception. When he did not, she was saddened but still determined that when she was old enough she would pursue her goal. Fortunately for Thérèse prayer and maturity on her part allowed for her to enter earlier than normal yet it was still a test of obedience for her.

    Upon entering four months after her 15th birthday, Marie was given the religious name of Sister Theresa of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face. Her joy was overwhelming and she said then and continued until her last day to say, "I no longer have any desire but to love Jesus even to folly."

    Realizing the power of prayer, she defined her path to Heaven as the "Little Way" consisting totally of love for God and others for His sake. This led to a total trust in the Almighty. Five years later while only 20-years old she was named Mistress of Novices for the Carmelites.

    The Lives of the Saints points out that she adopted flowers as the symbol of her love for her Divine Spouse and offered all her little daily sacrifices and works as rose petals at the feet of Jesus. Divine Providence gave to the world the autobiography of this true Saint, whose little way of spiritual childhood was described in her own words in her Story of a Soul. She could not offer God the macerations of the great soldiers of God, only her desires to love Him as they had loved Him, and to serve Him in every way possible, not only as a cloistered nun, but as a missionary, a priest, a hero of the faith, a martyr. She chose “all” in spirit, for her beloved Lord. Later she would be named patroness of missions. Her spirituality does not imply only sweetness and light, however; this loving child of God passed by a tunnel of desolate spiritual darkness, yet never ceased to smile at Him, wanting to serve Him, if it were possible, without His even knowing it.

    Were it not for Thérèse, perhaps no one would ever have benefited from the literary spiritual treasures she left for posterity. When she was diagnosed in 1896 at age 23 with the dreaded tuberculosis, Mother Agnes of Jesus, Thérèse's oldest blood sister Pauline who was the Prioress, strongly recommended Thérèse write down her memoirs to help others.

    This she did and after her death this work, entitled The Story of a Soul, was widely circulated. In it, she so beautifully emphasized her doctrine on the "little way" of spiritual childhood stressing that she wanted to save souls to help priests save souls by prayer, sacrifice, and suffering. If only the hierarchy today were dedicated just one-tenth of the degree she was, the Novus Ordo would never have seen the light of day!

    Thérèse's "little way" means loving and trusting in God as a child, held in His loving arms as she writes,

    "From the age of three, I never refused our good God anything. I have never given him anything but love. I just want to love God. I want to do hard things for Him. I want to pray for priests and for sinners. I want to shine like a little candle before His altar."

    She exemplified two of the greatest virtues, humility and total dependence on the Will of God. She even prayed that God would hear her prayer and save so many souls by offering herself in total reparation, including letting God give away any graces she would earn to any soul who needed it. As she lay dying in the convent in 1897, she pressed her precious crucifix to her heart and peering Heavenward replied, "I love Him! My God, I love You!" Shortly afterwards the tuberculosis took its toll and Thérèse died on September 30, 1897 at only 24.

    True to her promise to Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart three and a half months before she died, that she would let fall from Heaven a "shower of roses," she became known far and wide as the "Little Flower" with many miracles of intercession attributed to her throughout the world. It was so stunning and fruitful that in 1925 Pope Pius XI canonized her with his Papal Bull Vehementer exultamus hodie proclaiming, "St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus is the greatest saint of modern times."

    In 1944, at the height of World War II when France was being pummelled by German howitzers, Pope Pius XII proclaimed her patroness of France along with Saint Joan of Arc. French aviators and soldiers took up the battle cry encouraged by her intercession and many attribute the fall of Germany to storming Heaven. Thérèse also shares a title with Saint Francis Xavier as patroness of Foreign Missions. Though Thérèse never had the opportunity to set step outside of Europe, she had a longing to go to a Carmelite mission in Hanoi, Vietnam in the late 19th Century. On September 19th of 1996, Pope John Paul II officially proclaimed St. a Doctor of the Church, making her the third female saint to be so honored with his decree Divini Amoris Scientia.

    To those who wonder how someone who only lived 24 years could be declared a Doctor of the Church, consider the simiplicity of the wisdom which she wrote in her autobiography in which she used imagery and analogies in parable form to illustrate the "little way" of love and sanctity and the harmony of God's nature for the supernatural.

    O Jesus, Your little bird is happy to be weak and little. What would become of it if it were big? Never would it have the boldness to appear in Your presence, to fall asleep in front of You. Yes, this is still one of the weaknesses of the little bird: when it wants to fix its gaze upon the Divine Sun, and when the clouds prevent it from seeing a single ray of that Sun, in spite of itself, its little eyes close, its little head is hidden beneath its wing, and the poor little thing falls asleep, believing all the time that it is fixing its gaze upon its Dear Star. When it awakens, it doesn’t feel desolate; its little heart is at peace and it begins once again its work of love. It calls upon the angels and saints who rise like eagles before the consuming Fire, and since this is the object of the little bird’s desire the eagles take pity on it, protecting and defending it, and putting to flight at the same time the vultures who want to devour it. These vultures are the demons whom the little bird doesn’t fear, for it is not destined to be their prey but the prey of the Eagle whom it contemplates in the center of the Sun of Love. Story of a Soul

    Her title of the "Little Flower of Jesus" bears much credibility when we read from the same book,

    Jesus set the book of nature before me and I saw that all the flowers He has created are lovely. The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realized that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wildflowers to make the meadows gay.

    It is just the same in the world of souls - which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but He has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be. Jesus, help me to simplify my life by learning what You want me to be - and becoming that person.

    Those who get easily distracted can take solace in the fact so did Thérèse as she shared in the same book regarding the practice of charity,

    The practice of charity, as I have said, dear Mother Agnes, was not always so sweet for me, and to prove it to you I am going to recount certain little struggles which will certainly make you smile. For a long time at evening meditation, I was placed in front of a Sister who had a strange habit and I think many lights because she rarely used a book during meditation. This is what I noticed: as soon as this Sister arrived, she began making a strange little noise which resembled the noise one would make when rubbing two shells, one against the other. I was the only one to notice it because I had extremely sensitive hearing (too much so at times). Mother, it would be impossible for me to tell you how much this little noise wearied me. I had a great desire to turn my head and stare at the culprit who was very certainly unaware of her "click." This would be the only way of enlightening her. However, in the bottom of my heart I felt it was much better to suffer this out of love for God and not to cause the Sister any pain. I remained calm, therefore, and tried to unite myself to God and to forget the little noise. Everything was useless. I felt the perspiration inundate me, and I was obliged simply to make a prayer of doing it without annoyance and with peace and joy, at least in the interior of my soul. I tried to love the little noise which was so displeasing; instead of trying not to hear it (impossible), I paid close attention so as to hear it well, as though it were a delightful concert, and my prayer (which was not the Prayer of Quiet) was spent in offering this concert to Jesus.

    While she strove for perfection, she was far from perfect and was scrupulous in her own examination of conscience as she shared in her autobiography on her missionary zeal:

    Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of Saint Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the first epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

    I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: "Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will not show you the way which surpasses all others." For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.

    Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

    To those who think being a saint is a breeze or takes an extraordinary person, one could learn so much from this ordinary person who did everything she could in an extraordinary way, just as she admitted in her book Story of a Soul:

    Really, I am far from being a saint, and what I have just said is proof of this; instead of rejoicing, for example, at my aridity, I should attribute it to my little fervor and lack of fidelity; I should be desolate for having slept (for seven years) during my hours of prayer and my thanksgivings after Holy Communion; well, I am not desolate. I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake; I remember, too, that when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep. Finally, I remember that: "The Lord knows our weakness, that He is mindful that we are but dust and ashes."
It is this admission, this humility that God is not finished with us that there is still much work to do that spurs us onward in our path toward holiness as we take many lessons from this holy saint of Lisieux who, besides her books, wrote several dozen poems and canticles to Jesus. As the years grow her patronage has increased to include Patron Saint of those who have lost parents, patron saint of those with illness, especially tuberculosis and uncurable diseases, patron saint of the conversion of Russia even though she preceded Our Lady's visit and request in 1917 for the very same thing with the conversion of Russia.

    In conclusion, few saints have aroused so much admiration and enthusiasm immediately after their death than this holy Carmelite who would be the first to express her surprise and shock that she was made a saint, let alone a Doctor of the Church. What refreshing humility which we pray we can all acquire as we learn and grow in grace in emulating the virtues of St. Thérèse and all the other 32 holy Doctors of the Church in this series.

    Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Dictionary of Saints, John J. Delaney (Doubleday); Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894; Saints of the Roman Calendar, Enzo Lodi).

For the chronological list of the Doctors of the Church to date, see Archives.

      Doctors of the Church Series