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Women of Prayer and Justice – Session 2: Therese of Lusieux (1873-1897)

Prepared by Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN

Therese of Lisieux
Icon by Robert Lentz

“My Vocation is Love!”

We begin this session of the retreat by becoming aware of both the simplicity of St. Therese and of her message of great love.Like all of us, St. Therese of Liseiux lived her vocation through the tasks of daily life–and did it all with love.

Let us reflect with St. Therese on what she says about her life of love and trust in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. In her rather exuberant style she writes: “I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES . . . IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love . . . my vocation, at last I have found it . . . . MY VOCATION IS LOVE!” (Clarke 1976, p. 194)

Amazingly, Therese wrote these words only months before her agonizing death from tuberculosis at the age of 24!

You probably don’t think about love in such emphatic terms, but pause a moment, take a breath, and ask yourself if indeed love isn’t everything. Pray that you will become more and more aware of God’s love for you and your love for God and neighbor.

Two spiritual figures written about in the press in recent years are the Dalai Lama and St. Therese of Lisieux. They have a similar message for all who search for meaning in life. By their lives and their words, they show us that we must be alert to life in all of its meaning, be conscious of the divine and the human in and around us, and be contemplative in reflecting on life. Meanwhile they show us by example what it means to be simple and to value the ordinary, the every day, in the midst of deep spiritual reality.

In spring 2001, the Dalai Lama visited Minneapolis where he made a deep impression on those who saw him or read about him. Since he escaped from Tibet in the 1940s because of Chinese oppression, he has lived a quiet contemplative life in India while at the same time being visible in the press in order to keep the cause of freedom for Tibet alive.

St. Therese of Lisieux was featured in the news in 1997 when she was proclaimed a doctor of the church. Her deep but simple spirituality has had profound effect on Christians and others during the century since her birth in 1897. She lived the love of the gospel by living life every day with deep consciousness of God in her heart, of amazing awareness of herself and her need of God, and of her alertness to people and their needs. Deep consciousness characterizes both the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan monk, and Therese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun.

Therese died in 1897, the year Dorothy Day was born. Dorothy had great devotion to her because of her simplicity and ordinariness coupled with her great trust and profound love. Dorothy published a biography of her, Therese, in 1960.

Therese is one of most astonishing figures of the 20th century whom we are still learning to understand, especially since the Vatican Council II which was so influenced by her doctrine of grace. Her message, which she has shared with the modern world through her writing, is deeply based in the gospel. It is because her spiritual message is so strong that she was named a doctor of the church.

Therese has always had a reputation for great sanctity, the holiness of what she called “the little way”–the little way of children whom, she said, confide in God with “bold trust.”

The darling of her middle-class family, Therese entered the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux in northern France at the age 15. Why did Pope John Paul II, on the hundredth anniversary of her death in 1897, name her a doctor of the church? Because of her awareness of God which she nourished through her love of the gospels and through her prayer.

Contemporary theologians recognize her life, detailed in her Story of a Soul, as the best theology of grace that has ever been written–and lived. She came to her understanding of all this through her own experience of God. She had confidence and trust in God’s love. She never formally studied theology, but she lived it in a profound and holy way.

Theologians today credit Therese with having prepared Christians for the spirituality needed for today’s complex world. Her spirituality shows all of us the way to God through the ordinary and the everyday. Her spirituality is as simple and profound as this: God is a loving God, and our response is love.

Therese invites us to faith in that love. She can teach us that praying can lead us to simplify our lifestyle in a complex world. Her way of praying grew intuitively from her great desire to love and trust God. For her, prayer could be a simple lifting of her heart to God. Therese prayed in her own way, not comparing herself to others or worrying about what they thought.

Do you believe that the insights and awareness you receive during your everyday circumstances come from God? For today and tomorrow let your prayer be simply the desire to love God more completely. Let your breathing be a symbol of God’s life in you.

Pope John Paul II’s proclamation of St. Therese of Lisieux as a doctor of the church means that she is a saint recognized not only for her holiness but also as an orthodox and valuable teacher for the whole Christian world. In recognizing Therese as a doctor of the Church, the pope said: “Her little way of spirituality was nothing other than a fresh and refreshing presentation of God’s love for all people and [God’s] call for everyone to be holy.” He also noted that:

“She helped heal souls of the rigors and fears of the Jansenist doctrine, [prevalent in the France of her day] which was more inclined to underline the justice [and strictness] of God than his divine mercy.”

Therese is the most recent of the 33 Doctors named by the Church over the centuries, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other great saint-theologians. She is only the third woman to be proclaimed a doctor. The two others, St. Teresa of Avila (Carmelite) and St. Catherine of Siena (third order Dominican), were named doctors in 1970.

Like her sister Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila, Therese called herself “a daughter of the church” because she believed that she had a role to play in the Body of Christ, the church. Her role was to be love. She respected the tradition of the church but this does not mean that she suppressed her own individuality nor her personal insights into Christian experience.

She went beyond the religious and cultural limitations of her time by stressing God’s mercy more than God’s justice. For many in her day, and still today, both men and women picture God as a judge, legalistically keeping track of every misdeed. Not so Therese, who was overwhelmed by an awareness of God’s love! Throughout her short life she was nourished on the gospel with its account of how God loves every person. With her emphasis on God as a loving God, she placed holiness firmly within the reach of all of us, ordinary baptized Christians.

How has your image of God changed over the years? What is your image of God at this point in your life? Reflect for a few moments on this image.

Therese’s little way of love caught on because it presented the kind of response to God possible for every Christian. She saw and lived the fundamental unity between love of God and love of neighbor.

Because of her writings (her Story of a Soul and her many letters) we know a great deal about Therese’s complete life. She was the last of nine children born to Zelie and Louis Martin. Although four died in childhood, the Martins had a very happy home, surrounding one another with love. Of the five living sisters all became religious; three of her sisters, Marie, Pauline, and Celine were members of the Carmel convent with her.

Therese’s writings are her mission today. She is in the long line of women who dared write poetry, memoir, letters, and theology. Among these, of course, are Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Dorothy Day, to name some of the most prominent, all of whom are the focus of this retreat on women mystics.

Therese’s autobiography was a book destined for literary and spiritual immortality. Therese had told her sister Pauline, the prioress of the Carmelite convent, that her message in Story was to encourage “little souls” to love and serve God in a spirit of simplicity and confidence. Therese was a gifted writer even if not a literary genius like Teresa of Avila. She speaks directly to readers in a voice all her own, a voice of great intensity.

Reflect on how you can or do love and serve God in a spirit of simplicity and trust. Therese thought of the words of the father of the prodigal son as if they were words of God addressed to herself: “All I have is yours.” Pray these words in your heart, knowing that God speaks them to you. Ask God for what you need to be fully able to love.

Therese of Jesus was canonized a saint of the church on May 17, 1925 by Pius XI. What is amazing is that her four sisters lived to celebrate her canonization.

Many biographies have been written about her over the years. The one I remember from my childhood was Little Saint Therese which impressed me greatly. I wanted to be just like her!

Among the hundreds of books about her that have been written, a dozen new ones appeared after 1997 when she was proclaimed a doctor of the church. Her letters and Her Last Conversations have also been published.

Look for her Story of a Soul, as well as one of the recent biographies in a library or bookstore.

She is often quoted as saying that she wanted to spend her heaven doing good upon earth. Therefore in 1927 Pius XI named her co-patron, along with St. Francis Xavier, of foreign missions. She had also received from Pope Pius X the unofficial title of “greatest saint of our times.” Along with St. Francis of Assisi she is probably the most popular saint since the beginning of Christianity.

Therese is not the one-dimensional somewhat sentimental “little flower” that she has been called (although in her writings she called herself a little flower planted in a garden by Jesus). She loved her family’s garden, and she saw herself as part of the flower imagery she used in writing about herself and other members of her family. She loved nature and liked to use images from nature, especially birds and flowers.

Therese often saw herself as the simple common daisy–although she is remembered also for this statement: “My mission–to make God loved–will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.” She always connected flowers with God’s love. Reflect on the garden that is your spiritual life. What flower speaks to you of God’s love?

Therese had great integrity and authenticity. Authenticity was central to her understanding of the spiritual journey. While she had great respect for her parents and her superiors, she never had an subservient relationship with anyone. God and her innate sense of self were her only authority. She was the author of her own distinctive vision of life. She respected her own experience of the word of God. Hers is a story of struggle to grow, to be self-transcendent.

It is interesting that she has been claimed by Catholic feminists. Several times in Story she spoke of her desire to be priest and wrote that during her trip to Rome she found that women would be excommunicated if they entered certain holy places. She wrote:“Ah! Poor women, how they are misunderstood! . . . In heaven, [God] will show that [God’s] thoughts are not men’s thoughts, for then the last will be first.” She recognized that women were sometimes considered to be second-class citizens. Pope John Paul II, when he proclaimed her a doctor of the church, said that she showed “the feminine genius of understanding hidden truth.”

A strong-willed, determined, and self-confident woman, she had a great consistency of purpose and commitment. She was forthright in her speech and could clearly illuminate the ways of faith in ordinary and everyday life. She had a wonderful sense of humor and regaled her sisters with stories and plays. Nothing separates her or distinguishes her teaching from that of gospel.

All of us can take comfort in her simple thoughts on prayer. She was intensely devoted to Mary but she admitted having trouble meditating on the mysteries of the rosary. In formal meditations she tells us she always used a book, especially the gospels where she constantly discovered in them “new lights and hidden and mysterious meanings.” She often fell asleep while praying and remembered that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake. Reciting vocal prayers gave her a headache. In her prayer she said very simply to God whatever she wished to say, without composing beautiful sentences.

“For me,” she wrote, “prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trials as well as joy; finally, it is something great and supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”

She dreamed of serving God in a variety of ways (for example, as a priest or missionary) In her longing for many vocations she said, “I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and Doctors.” But then she realized that holiness consists not in great achievements but in great love. She is now a doctor of the church because of that very love.

No wonder that Dorothy Day was so fond of her. Therese respected the work of those who bring the gospel to the inner city and to the third world. Therese, who wanted to be a foreign missionary, came to realize that she could carry out that ministry through her commitment to being faithful to her contemplative Carmelite vocation. She wrote, “I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your Name; one mission alone would not be enough for me.” But she remained faithfully in her small convent world, not realizing that her mission of love and trust would have such world-wide influence.

When we think of Therese, we are aware of her simplicity of heart. She prayed with love and trust. What might she teach you about living–and praying–with love and trust?

Now look back to the Introduction to this retreat on Women Mystics. How do you see St. Therese of Lisieux as a mystic responding “ as fully as possible to God’s call to holiness”? How do you see yourself also as responding as fully as possible to God’s call to holiness? Say with Therese: “My vocation is love.”

Click to go to the next Women of Prayer and Justice retreat:

Teresa of Avila

Session 1: Dorothy Day
Session 2: Therese of Lisieux
Session 3: Teresa of Avila
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena
Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich
Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen