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St. Therese of Lisieux
The story is told that when Therese Martin was a little child, while she and her father were returning one Sunday from church, Therese looked up to the heavens and saw the constellation, “Orion”’ which appeared to her as a letter “T”, the initial of her name. She told her father that this symbolized her childish words were fulfilled, for the rise of this bright new star in the firmament of the Church has been as astounding phenomenon in our time. She is a modern saint, a saint of the common people, and one whose life is well-known.
The life unfortunately, has been somewhat glamorized in certain aspects, so that only recently do we have a true picture of this young Carmelite nun who has so captured that world’s interest. Therese Martin, popularly known s the “Little Flower”, has been so smothered with pious little sayings, and pink roses, that she emerges for many people as a frail, unrealistic sort of person, who knew nothing of the world and its problems.
Therese Martin was born at Alencon, France, on January 2, 1873, the daughter of Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin. She was the last of nine children, of which five girls survived. Her father, who had worked in the army of Napoleon, was a watchmaker by trade. Her mother was gentle woman, who, like her husband, had vision of the religious life before they met and were married. The Martins were of the comfortable middle-class group, or the bourgeois class of French provincial society, and they had a very intimate and happy family life. Therese’s mother was very adept in the art of making lace, an occupation which augmented considerably their family income, eventually allowed Mr. Martin to retire from everyday employment.
Therese’s mother died when she was just four and a half years of age. This drew her even closer to her father for whom she fostered a very close affection. Her father purchased a fine house at Lisieux, a site chosen because her mother’s brother and his wife live there. For the next ten years or s, Therese Martin ducted by the Benedictine nuns, and cared for by her father, her devoted sisters, and her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Madame Guerin.
From her childhood, Therese had wished to become a saint, and her pious father did everything to encourage her by his understanding, his love, and his own good example. For instance, she was her father’s pet and could have easily been spoiled. She could also have been vain, for her father and sisters told her so character that could have hindered her holiness if she had been generous. In her writings, she herself tells us also that as a child she was inclined to be stubborn. She certainly might have become a thoroughly spoiled child and a very conceited young woman.
When Therese was bout fourteen, her eldest sister entered the Carmelite convent. When another sister followed her example a short time afterwards, it was only natural that the young Therese should become obsessed with the idea of doing the same. Her father was understandably upset about the losing his favorite child, and was not sympathetic when Therese encountered opposition from the Prioress at the Carmel and the local Bishop because of her age. The young girl however was determined, and while she was on a pilgrimage to Rome, she had the boldness to appeal to the Holy Father himself, Pope Leo XIII. Finally, after her persistent entreaties, she on her case and was told that when she completed her fifteenth year, she could enter the Carmelite Novitiate at Lisieux. That memorable day was on April 9, 1888.
Life at Carmel was a rigorous routine. It was rigid schedule of prayer, meditation and work that left little time for recreation, or any private enterprise. The young Therese was assigned to various tasks over a period of time. She worked at a succession of duties, in the refectory, in the sacristy, and in the linen room, and she was once assigned as door-keeper or portress. In February, 1893, she was made assistant to the Mistress of Novices. During all these years she never lost sight of the purpose of her life, which she had announced before she took her vows: “I have come to Carmel to save souls and to pray for priests.”
During her whole stay in the secluded convent, Sister Therese was unobtrusively developing her “little way to sanctity”. Outwardly she seemed like everyone else, but inwardly she was moulding herself into a great saint. Although the Carmelite rule is severe enough and destined as a means of sanctification for its adherents, Sister Therese not only followed that the rule by formal observance but by joyful obedience as well. In her little way, she took every thing that happened to her and offered it to God, as child would do, offering at the same time whatever happiness or suffering accompanied it.
She endured the hardships of the Rule and inflicted on herself unnoticeable practices of penance. Through all her ascetic life, Sister Therese remained a human and humorous person. She was mischievous and had a gift for mimicry, which made her very popular at recreation. If she could not attend recreation for some reason the other nuns remarked that there would be no laughs that day.
On April 3, 1896, the young Carmelite began to cough up blood and it became apparent that she hade tuberculosis. Therese insisted, however, in following the regular routine until she was no longer able. She was confined to bed and suffered a long and painful illness. She was nothing more than a skeleton when God called her to Himself on September 30, 1897 at the age of twenty-four years and nine months.
Shortly before her death, her own sisters would ask her questions, realizing her unusual sanctity. They asked if she feared eternal punishment. Therese would reply: “Little children are not damned.” She was heard to say, prior to her death: “I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth”, and it was not pride that prompted her to voice such a statement. It was self-assurance, inspired by the Divine. At another time she said: “God will have to do whatever I want in Heaven, because I have never followed my own will on earth.”
In modern art, Therese of Lisieux is a picture holding a crucifix covered with roses, and some artists have depicted her sending a shower of roses from Heaven. This representation is probably occasioned by an incident that occurred shortly before her death. One of the nuns strewed the petals of a rose over the crucifix beside her bed. Then she spoke prophetically and said: “Keep those petals carefully, sister and don’t lose any of them. Later on they will be useful to you in making people happy.” A short time after, one of those petals was instrumental in curing person with cancer.
St. Therese had an undying love for the missions, and she wrote constantly to two missionary priests whom she called her brothers, expressing her fervent desire to join them in their great work. She had an interesting statement which might be called here “spiritual statistics”: “Zero, by itself has no value, but put alongside one, it becomes very potent, always provided it is put on the proper side, after and not before.”
On May 17, 1925, Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face was canonized a saint of the Roman Church. She was named Patroness of he Missions, and again on May 3, 1944, the late Pope Pius XII added new honor by proclaiming her the secondary Patron of France.
St. Therese is a typical saint for the modern world. She did not suffer any martyrdom, but she showed us how to take the ordinary things and the constant trials of everyday life as means for sanctity. Hewer was hidden life, as was the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary at Nazareth. This is the life that most of us lead, performing the thousand microscopic acts which nobody notices.
There is no great need for expostulating on the theology of St. Therese, and simple way to her sanctity. The lesson the method is evident from a brief reading of her life, and her emphasis on the importance of little things. Take for example a given day in our life. When we rise in the morning, do we say our morning prayers? Are we kind or gruff to our families at breakfast? If we live in the same house with in- laws and we might dislike their meaner or disagree with their opinions, do we argue with them at every conceivable moment of the day or do we, imitating Therese, go out of our way to placate them, and turn the other check, offering this trial to God. If we have a severe headache, do we groan to everybody, or do we simply go about our business at home or at work, offering this slight indisposition to the One Who suffered so much or us? These, and a myriad of other little acts, known to God alone, are what Therese was talking about. Each day can be different, and the beauty of this method is the variety can be the spice of our spiritual life.
Let us be encouraged by what Pope Benedict XV said: “There is a call to all the faithful of every nation, no matter what be their age, sex, or state in life, to enter wholeheartedly in to the Little Way which led Sister Therese to the summit of heroic virtue.”