Thérèse of Lisieux
Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97), French Carmelite. Also called "Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face" and the "Little Flower," Thérèse was born in Alençon, France. Her parents, having each had aspirations for monastic life, began married life in holy celibacy until a priest convinced them otherwise; thus, it is easy to imagine Thérèse's home life was one of intense Catholic piety. Her mother died when Thérèse was only four. She was left to the care of her eldest sister, Pauline, who five years later left her to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. When two other sisters entered monastic life, Thérèse desired to follow them to Lisieux, but she was still too young. Following a conversion experience on Christmas Day 1888, at the age of fifteen an idealistic Thérèse entered Lisieux.
Thérèse drank deeply from the well of contemplative writings of another Carmelite, John of the Cross. Thérèse also began to realize that though great deeds were not possible in cloistered life, she could offer small deeds of sacrificial love to Jesus. She sought to perform these acts of kindness in secret. In one case, she was falsely accused of breaking a vase-and instead of trying to clear her name, she knelt in contrition. In another case, Thérèse was so loving toward an irritable sister that the latter asked Thérèse why she liked her so much. Thérèse wrote, "I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new." It was this "little way" that would become Thérèse's spiritual legacy. Although she very much wanted to be a priest, when she asked God for the meaning of her vocation, Thérèse was given the answer that love was her vocation. Others saw this depth in Thérèse. Her sister, Pauline, now the prioress, directed Thérèse to write her spiritual autobiography.
In 1896 Thérèse continued to write her story in spite of serious illness. The last chapters reveal a maturing young woman struggling in the journey to her own death. She experienced the "dark night" of the soul, an impasse of doubt and emptiness. This she described as a bird flying toward the sun, who, encountering a terrible storm, sees only clouds around it and yet continues on in hope, "gazing at the Invisible Light which remains hidden from its faith." In her dying, she felt deeply Christ's prayer for his disciples in John 17, as she let go of the souls for whom she had regularly interceded. Thérèse died on September 30, 1897, leaving behind a stirring account hardly conceivable from one so young. Story of a Soul became popular among Catholic laity and continues to be a standard, readable testimony to the life of faith. Within twenty years of her death, Thérèse was canonized. Her wisdom has been so esteemed that she was declared a Doctor of the Church (an authoritative teacher) in 1998.
[Excerpted with permission from the entry on Thérèse of Lisieux by Stephanie A. Ford, from The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe. Copyright © 2003 by Upper Room Books®. All rights reserved.]
Image is photograph of Saint Thérèse at age 15, before entering the Carmelite order. Source: Wikipedia.