St. Thérèse, the little flower of Lisieux.
We love when old postcards lead us on adventures to new Normandy places, but sometimes it is nice to pick up a picture of somewhere familiar.
A familiar view
This card was found in an old wooden box at a street brocante on a showery April day. Its smudges of colour instantly proclaim the crypt of the Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Possibly the most beautiful crypt ever built.
For a young girl
Decorated with mosaic flowers, it is easy to see the crypt was designed with a young girl in mind. The girl was Thérèse Martin and like the fresh colours of the mosaic, the memory of her remarkable, short life will never fade.
For Thérèse, who entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux age 15 in 1888, was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 17 1925. Had she lived she would have been 52 years old when she was declared a Saint. Tragically Thérèse died age just 24 on 30 September 1897, after years of struggle with tuberculosis.
What could a young girl have done to reach such an exalted state? Did she perform a miracle? Did she see angels in Lisieux? Well sort of and more of that soon.
An ordinary child
First a proper introduction to a little Normandy girl called Thérèse who was not extraordinary and certainly showed no early signs of sainthood.
Thérèse Martin was born in 1873 to a father who wanted to be a monk and a mother who wanted to be a saint. This devout couple had promised themselves purely to god, until confession revealed their celibacy and the priest insisted they pursue a marriage as God intended. 9 children followed, just 5 girls survived, Thérèse was the youngest.
At first placed with a wetnurse in the country for her health, the little girl who returned to the family at 15 months old was adored and cosseted by her family, but was not surprisingly rather needy and insecure.
“I hear the baby calling me Mama! as she goes down the stairs. On every step, she calls out Mama! and if I don’t respond every time, she remains there without going either forward or back.” Madame Martin to Pauline, November 21, 1875
Tragedy for the tyrant
Thérèse became a rather precocious but generally happy child until a terrible tragedy. Her mother became ill with breast cancer. Poor Thérèse, just 4 ½, witnessed her mother’s painful decline and following her death, was a changed, sad little girl.
Thérèse’s well meaning sisters indulged her but their efforts combined with Thérèse’s sensitivity just created a small tyrant. She expected to get her own way and was completely unable to control her emotions, crying and rolling on the floor at the smallest concern. Her father’s name for her was ‘petite reine’, ‘little queen’ and not entirely in admiration. She found school impossible, the feeling was mutual.
The further loss of her sister Pauline to the Carmelite convent a few years later was a bitter blow Thérèse was completely unprepared for. Shortly afterwards she became very unwell and was not expected to survive.
A minor miracle
Family and friends crowded around her bed. Her sisters prayed to the statue of the Virgin Mary reverently placed on the bedroom wall. Then as Thérèse stared at the statue Mary smiled at her and instantly she began to feel better.
Now this miracle had nothing to do with Thérèse’s later sainthood, in fact she tried to keep it a secret, but being very young she could not and people started to badger her with questions. The moment had felt private and Thérèse would share no further information. In retaliation it was suggested she had made the whole story up.
More sisters left for convents and Thérèse, left with her father and one sister, continued her reign of domestic terror. If her behaviour was questioned, she cried, she screamed, she shouted. A lot.
A moment of clarity
Like her sisters Thérèse wanted to become a nun but without self control it would be impossible. Her emotions continued to rule her and her family until age 14 on Christmas day an odd thing happened. She stopped thinking only about herself.
A small Christmas day ritual at the time was to fill children’s shoes with presents from the child Jesus.
Her sister Celine, unwilling or unable to let Thérèse grow up, had filled her shoes with gifts. When they arrived back from church, not knowing himself overheard their father said ‘Thank goodness that’s the last time we shall have this kind of thing!”.
And in that moment Thérèse saw herself with compete clarity. Her immaturity, her childish demands, her self centred nature. But she did not cry. Much to Celine’s shock she was completely calm, later thanking Jesus for entering her heart at that moment to be sensitive to her father’s feelings rather than her own.
After a minute of thought Thérèse rushed down the stairs and made a show of exclaiming at the gifts. But not as a child, as a young woman to please a father she loved who she would treat very differently from this moment on.
Within the year Thérèse had entered the Carmelite convent at Lisiuex.
How to become a nun
It was not an easy transition. First Thérèse had to impress the Superior. She did not. Thérèse went to the Bishop. He resisted her entreaties. She was devastated but still determined. To distract her the family travelled to Rome where they received the privilege of an audience with the Pope.
Thérèse, faltering in her desire to be a controlled young adult, begged the Pope so insistently to be allowed to join the convent she had to be removed by two guards. This time her outburst had a positive effect. The Vicar General was impressed and Thérèse Martin was admitted to the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux on
on 9 April 1888.
She took the name Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. For a pampered bourgeoisie child the restricted routine and occasional politics of the convent was hard.
She was broken hearted when her father became ill and she was unable to visit him. The experience so difficult that she later said that although she prayed she felt “Jesus wasn’t doing much to keep the conversation going.”
A thousand tiny sacrifices
To survive, Thérèse could have used her sister’s position to aid her own. She could have tried to play the political games to her advantage but she did not. Instead she chose an extraordinarily level of humility, to prove her love for God.
Her life as a novice was very restricted but it offered one surprising opportunity. She later said “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
And those small sacrifices were surprisingly many.
She was friendly to nuns she did not like (or did not like her). She never complained about her food, so was often given the nastiest leftovers. When accused of breaking a vase she had not touched, she apologised and asked for forgiveness. It was a daily challenge to her nature and a compete secret from the other nuns. She was never rewarded for her humility.
But she did win her sisters gratitude. When her sister Pauline was elected prioress she asked that Thérèse to remain a novice, to allay the fears of others concerned the Martin sisters were taking over the small convent. Thérèse would always have to ask permission for everything she did. She agreed.
And then she became terribly, agonisingly ill.
How to become a Saint
“I have always wanted to become a saint. Unfortunately when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passers-by” – Sister Thérèse.
In 1896 Sister Thérèse first coughed up blood. She hid her illness so effectively that when she could no longer carry on her duties she was not entirely believed. What followed were months of pain. Her agony was so bad that she said without the love of God she would have willingly taken her own life.
Pauline could only pray and think to distract her sister a little. She asked Thérèse to write about her life and during her last weeks of life she wrote ‘Story of a Soul’. The story of her childhood, her love of God and her belief that “what matters in life is not great deeds, but great love.”
She died on September 30, 1897, at the age of 24. Her last words were the story of her life: “My God, I love You!”. One nun commented that there was nothing to say about Sister Thérèse.
Pauline did not agree.
The sensation of the ‘Little Way’
She read the autobiography, she made some minor amendments then had it printed and sent to 2000 convents. Her sister’s words created a sensation.
Thérèse’s ‘little way’ of faith in Jesus and of daily sacrifice rather than great deeds spoke to the hearts of the nuns. Her words were shared beyond the convents and the impact of the ‘little way’ was like a tidal wave across the Catholic community, and beyond.
Second only to St Francis in popularity, Sainte Thérèse is the saint for those looking to find holiness in ordinary lives. Thérèse, the little flower of Lisieux, in the face of what she saw as her littleness and nothingness trusted in God and through her many people across the world continue to do so today.
And that is how Sister Thérèse became a Saint.