Question: "Who was Thérèse of Lisieux?"
Answer: Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) is venerated today by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a Doctor of the Church. She is also known as “The Little Flower” or “The Little Flower of Jesus.” Her feast day is October 1 or 3, depending on which calendar is followed. The Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is said to be the second largest pilgrimage site in France, after Lourdes. She is considered one of the most popular Catholic saints, well-regarded even shortly after her death, largely due to the impact of her autobiographical manuscripts. Thérèse is also known for her simple and practical approach to the spiritual life.
Thérèse of Lisieux was born in 1873. At age fifteen, she became a Carmelite nun in Lisieux in the Normandy region of France. Nine years later, she died from tuberculosis. She was beatified in 1923 by Pope Pius XI and canonized by the same pope in 1925. In 1927 she was named co-patron of missions with Francis Xavier, and in 1944 as co-patron of France with Joan of Arc. In 1997 she was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II, at that time the youngest person and the third woman to be proclaimed a Doctor.
Thérèse of Lisieux came from a religious family. Her parents, Louis Martin and Marie-Azelie Guerin (called Zelie), were devout Catholics who had both wanted to enter monastic life but were unable to do so. Of their nine children, five girls survived past childhood, and each became a nun. Thérèse had been a lively child but, after her mother’s death, became sensitive and withdrawn. In later years she developed nervous tremors and also seems to have suffered from scrupulosity.
On Christmas Eve, at nearly fourteen years of age, in a moment of tears caused by a remark made by her father, Thérèse suddenly regained composure. She felt in that moment that Jesus had overcome her prior struggles to manage her own emotions. She referred to this as her “complete conversion.” She said that charity entered her heart, and she felt the joy of being self-forgetful and a desire to make others happy.
Thérèse wanted to enter the Lisieux Carmelite Convent at the age of nine, when her first sister entered. However, she was turned away due to her young age. In May 1887, at the age of fourteen, Thérèse spoke with her father about entering the convent before Christmas as a way of celebrating the anniversary of her conversion. Her father picked a small flower, with its root intact, and gave it to her with an explanation of God’s care for it and preservation of it. Thérèse wrote that she felt as if she were hearing her own story—the flower was a symbol of herself, “destined to live in another soil.” This seems to be the source of Thérèse’s nickname “The Little Flower.” In April 1888 Thérèse was allowed to enter the convent.
By September 1894, three of Thérèse’s sisters and her cousin were in the Carmel. But Thérèse attempted to keep distance from her sisters, not wanting to live a family life in the monastery. Thérèse immersed herself in the monastic lifestyle, wanting to follow the rules and customs and stating she was not surprised by any sacrifice the religious life required. Thérèse referred to herself as a grain of sand and wanted to become littler in order to be more easily moved by love.
When she entered the Carmelite Order, Thérèse was given the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus, which had been promised to her at the age of nine when she had first desired to enter. Thérèse requested a second name—Thérèse of the Holy Face. Contemplation of the image of Jesus’ disfigured face had been particularly meaningful to Thérèse during her novitiate.
In 1893, Thérèse’s older sister became prioress of the Carmel, and Thérèse became largely responsible for guiding the novices. Thérèse was able to clarify Catholic doctrine to others and had a knack for using helpful illustrations to do so. For the rest of her life, Thérèse remained closely associated with the novices to whom she was giving guidance. Thérèse was also a “spiritual sister” to two missionary priests.
In Catholicism, Thérèse is known for “the little way of spiritual childhood.” She did not coin the phrase herself; rather, her sister Pauline used the phrase to describe Thérèse’s way. Recognizing her own insignificance and the limitations of her efforts to live a saintly life of unfailing love, Thérèse saw that it was in her “littleness” that she needed to ask for God’s help. Rather than attempt heroic deeds, she sought to prove her love by doing small actions and making sacrifices overlooked by others.
Thérèse wrote The Story of a Soul, her autobiographical spiritual memoir, at the behest of two of her sisters. The work consists of three different manuscripts, written at different times and for different audiences, compiled and edited by Thérèse’s sister Pauline. Pauline also added a portion about Thérèse’s last months of life and some of Thérèse’s poetry and selections from her correspondence. The Story of a Soul was published a year after Thérèse’s death. It was initially intended for the Carmelite nuns and other religious personalities; however, it became quite popular with the general population.
Thérèse’s concept that we can demonstrate great love in small ways is biblically sound. However, her promotion of Catholic doctrine and her practice of asceticism are unbiblical. In examining the lives of any of the Catholic saints, we must remember that the very concept of sainthood, as taught in Catholicism, is unbiblical. Thérèse of Lisieux was merely a human and should not be followed, fêted, worshiped, or prayed to.