In 1890, at the age of 15, Thérèse Martin professed her solemn vows in the Carmelite Order. On that day she carried on her heart a letter to Jesus in which she had written:
‘Let me be forgotten like Your little grain of sand, Jesus. May your will be done in me perfectly, and may I arrive at the place You have prepared for me.’
As a young child in France, Thérèse wanted to perform heroic deeds and upon entering the convent she initially hoped to embrace some missionary service in Vietnam. These lofty dreams had to be part of her real goal: to do the will of Jesus.
The somewhat unremarkable convent life of Sister Thérèse, her three years intense suffering and early death at 24 years, might have been the last many people would have heard of her. But a commissioned text, her autobiography called Story of a Soul, revealed to the world her simple steps along the road to sanctity. This story quickly became an international bestseller and Sister Thérèse of Lisieux was soon to be called the ‘greatest saint of modern times.’
In a mere 28 years after her death, she was canonized, and though she never left her convent, she was named the Patron of Mission; and though only narrating one small text, was pronounced in 1997 a Doctor of the Church.
How did St Thérèse of Lisieux inspire so many Catholic believers so quickly? Her key spiritual qualities were disarmingly simple: act always in the presence and love of God.
In convent life the energetic teenage Sister Thérèse endured some slight reproaches from the older sisters and yet she always forgave them, moreover, from her heart. She saw petty putdowns as simple barriers to endure in order to share in God’s holiness.
In the final chapters of her autobiography, while dying of tuberculosis, Sister Thérèse reflected upon her life, and the various acts of charity God inspired her to perform, maintaining that she never did anything on her own. All her life was one of abandonment to God’s merciful love.
During her three-year illness, she continued to believe and pray. With difficulties in breathing, coughing, pains in the chest and swollen limbs Sister Thérèse would say: ‘What would become of me if God did not give me courage?’
At her moment of death, she said, ‘Any glory that I have will be a gratuitous gift from God and will not belong to me. Finally, she clearly saw a trajectory of her life with God and prayer for others continuing in heaven.
Her classic quote on her deathbed looks to her role as an intercessor for others: ’After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven in doing good on earth.’ The life of St Thérèse of Lisieux, first published a year after her death, continues to inspire Christians around the world.
Pope Francis wrote recently in Gaudete et Exsultate, Chapter 4, that there are five spiritual constants to the concept of Christian holiness. The holy person perseveres in life, has a joyful disposition and sense of humour. The holy amongst us embark upon bold plans, they share life within the community and they are constant in prayer. p.112-157
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux certainly exemplified these elements of holiness her short life. Her story is a primer on how to live the Gospel today and, amidst the complexity and confusion of contemporary life, a simple faith in God can guide your steps.
The request by young Thérèse to enter the Carmelite convent was initially refused for she, according to canon law, was too young. Instead of dismissing her desire and telling her to wait a few years, her father totally supported her request and arranged for them to journey to Rome to petition the Pope. What amazing faith he displayed in her life quest!
Louis Martin lived up to his family teaching that any situation could be turned into a moment of holiness. His daughter’s desire to enter the ‘Carmel’ was granted a few months after this papal visit. He is an example of parents supporting the zealous endeavours of their children.
Louis Martin and Marie-Zelie Guerin married in 1858 and had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Each of their five surviving daughters entered religious life. They were canonised in 2015 during the ‘World Meeting of Families’, which promoted the family as the key social unit for nurturing faith.
At the time of their canonisation Pope Francis described the couple as ‘evangelists... who opened their door’ to those in need in a period in which ‘a certain bourgeoisie ethic was contemptuous of the poor’. They ‘practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters.’
Earlier this year, relics of Saint Thérèse and those of her parents, Saint Louis and Saint Zelie Martin, visited Melbourne at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew. These relics remind us that it is in the struggle of ordinary life that this family has been recognised as saints, not in grand or extraordinary deeds. Our mission is the ‘little way’ of daily self-sacrificial love as St Thérèse’s life reminds us.
Melbourne Catholic11 February 2021