40 Days, 40 Graces: Day Thirty-Seven

by Mark Gordon

Grace Thirty-Seven: St. Thérèse and the “Little Way”

Yesterday’s meditation was on the subject of humility. Humility, it was noted, is the necessary antecedent to a thorough examination of conscience, which is itself the prerequisite for genuine confession and reconciliation. Today, I write about a woman who made humility a deliberate way of life and in so doing became one of the most popular saints of the past hundred years and one of only thirty-three saints who has been honored with the title “Doctor of the Church.” In her pursuit of “The Little Way,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux would up counted alongside such giants of Christian history as Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila!

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in Saint-Blaise, Alençon, France, on the second day of January, 1873, to a jeweler and lacemaker. She was a sickly but happy child, the youngest of five surviving girls. Thérèse’s mother died when she was four and the family moved to the town of Lisieux to live with her uncle and aunt. At 13, she had a vision of the Child Jesus and experienced what she called a complete conversion in an instant. A year later, at 14, she requested permission to enter the Carmelite order, following in the steps of two of her older sisters. In 1888, at 15, she became a Carmelite postulant, then a novice, and eventually making her final profession as Thérèse of the Child Jesus with the specific mission to pray for priests.

Throughout her time in Carmel, Thérèse made a practice of praying for and serving her fellow nuns. In fact, she deliberately sought out sisters whose personalities she found difficult or even repellent and put herself at their disposal. In pursuit of interior poverty, she even refused promotion beyond the designation “novice,” since by remaining a perpetual novice she would never be elected to any position of importance within the cloister, and would instead have to ask permission for everything from the other, fully-received sisters. She sought out the lowest place in the pecking order, in imitation of Christ, who likewise chose the “downward” path: “The foxes have their lairs, the birds of heaven their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Thérèse did all this not in an attempt to perfect herself – she was in fact convinced that God was not offended in the least by her faults – but in order to strip herself of herself, and thereby gain union with God. There is a peculiar kind of self-absorption in the person who is constantly taking inventory of their failures and “working” on getting better. Thérèse wanted none of it. She wanted to recede from view entirely. She was small and insignificant, and that’s the way she wanted it, writing: “May creatures be nothing for me, and may I be nothing for them, but may You, Jesus, be everything! … Let nobody be occupied with me, let me be looked upon as one to be trampled underfoot. … May Your will be done in me perfectly.” The littleness of Thérèse was her joy, her obscurity the very source of her hope. As she wrote, “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.” 

On Good Friday in 1896, Thérèse went to bed and was almost immediately stricken by a severe, wet cough. The next morning she found blood on her handkercheif, a sure sign of the then-fatal disease of tuberculosis. She would battle the disease – largely from bed – for  the next 18 months. Her suffering during this time was horrific, but she used the slow descent into death to continue her mission of prayer and service, and even wrote her spiritual autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” which has become a popular classic. (Incidentally, as befits her devotion to self-abnegation, Thérèse at first refused to write about herself, but finally relented under orders from her Mother Superior.) Thérèse died on September 30, 1897, at the age of 24. It is reported that in her final hours she said, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.” Her last words were, “My God, I love you!”  Thérèse was canonized in 1924 by Pope Piux XI, and in 1944 she was named the co-patroness – along with St. Joan of Arc – of France by Pope Piux XII. She was recognized as a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

According to accepted chronologies of Holy Week, the Wednesday before our Lord’s Passion is something of a mystery. It is a hidden day. On Sunday he rode triumphally into Jerusalem. On Monday he cursed the fig tree and chased the moneychangers from the Temple. On Tuesday, Jesus denounced the Scribes and Pharisees; preached the Olivet Discourse, which prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, the signs of his coming, and the end of the world; gave us the Seven Parables ( The fig tree, the time like in Noah’s time, the two men in the field and the two women grinding wheat, the master of the house and the thief, the faithful and evil servants, the ten virgins, and the talents); and preached the Final Judgment.

But on Wednesday, it appears that he remained at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem. He had a quiet, hidden day, no doubt in prayer. There would be no more public appearances for Jesus until he stood on the portico of Pilate’s House, an object of horror and ridicule. It is fitting that on the Wednesday of Holy Week we recall a saint, Thérèse, whose whole life was given over to hiddenness, to humility, to the Lord who now rests quietly in preparation for the storm that is about to arrive and is his destiny.

“We adore you O Christ and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”