On September 30, 1897, a 24-year-old Carmelite nun died of tuberculosis at her monastery in Lisieux, France. At the beginning of her journey as a vowed religious, Marie Martin chose for herself the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. To the world she is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or simply “The Little Flower.”
This daughter of the only married couple to be canonized on the same day – by Pope Francis on October 18, 2015 – was, by the world’s standards, not worthy of much, if any, attention, yet she is one of the most well-known and loved saints of the Catholic Church. From Pope St. Pius X’s statement that she was “the greatest saint of modern times” to Pope St. John Paul II’s proclamation of her as a Doctor of the Church on World Mission Sunday in 1997 she has been universally heralded as a model for all in the modern, and now post-modern, world.
How can this be?
How can a person who barely reached adulthood, who lived in a cloistered fortress from the age of 15 onward, and who never accomplished anything that might bring about worldly praise, become so famous and so admired?
Well, since God has a history of choosing the least among us to be His most important instruments of truth, goodness, and beauty in this fallen world, it does seem to make quite a bit of sense.
At the request of her religious superior Mother Agnes, who also happened to be her older sister Pauline, she began writing her memoir, known to millions today as The Story of a Soul. It was hoped that this work would aid in the spiritual lives of other Carmelite sisters, but as copies made their way into the outside world the reputation of this brief text grew. Soon the whole world, or so it seemed, was aware of this obscure nun and her Little Way of attaining union with God’s merciful love. Those who follow her Little Way attempt to live out her statement that we should “miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
Therese suffered greatly in this life, and her approach to that suffering was bathed in her childlike love of Jesus. On the morning of Good Friday in 1896 she awoke to a handkerchief full of blood caused by her advancing tuberculosis. Her response to the realization that she was beginning her own journey to Calvary gives insight to the success of The Little Way: “Ah! My soul was filled with a great consolation; I was interiorly persuaded that Jesus, on the anniversary of His own death, wanted to have me hear His first call!”
Who among us looks at life (and death) this way? Who talks like this? Who finds the “great consolation” of the Cross of Christ rather than what we might call the “great desolation”?
St. Thérèse is patroness of a wide range of professions and vocations – like missionaries and florists – but also of those who suffer from tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. In our time of worldwide concern for those who have been stricken by and, in some cases, have died from COVID-19, would it not be fitting to invoke her help with this medical issue as well?
Her strength in the face of a terminal illness, her trust in the love and mercy of Jesus, and her total abandonment to the will of God seem the exact opposite of a “little way,” yet they epitomize the approach of one who is not satisfied with being a mere admirer of Jesus and His Cross – she desired to follow Him to Calvary, to be another Christ.
When serious medical issues impose themselves on our lives, those who love us make sure that we get to the proper medical personnel for help. In those, and all, times it is also important for us to visit and spend time with a different sort of doctor: a Doctor of the Church, like St. Thérèse. Her prescription – The Little Way – has a time-tested track record of success and has absolutely no adverse side effects.