From obscurity as a young, idealistic Carmelite, Thérèse of Lisieux has emerged as one of the best-loved saints. Her simplicity attracts us because she puts holiness within our reach.
Thérèse was the daughter of Louis and Zélie Martin. When she was four years old, her pleasant childhood was interrupted by Zélie’s untimely death. Then Thérèse’s older sister, Pauline, took responsibility for raising her in the faith. In 1882, Pauline entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, igniting a desire in Thérèse to do the same. Thérèse’s fourteenth year was pivotal. Her sister, Mary, joined Pauline at the convent. And at Christmas, the young saint had an experience she described as her “conversion.” Later, in A Story of a Soul, her autobiography, Thérèse described it as a release from depression and oversensitivity: “Jesus flooded the darkness of my soul with torrents of light. I got back for good the strength of soul lost when I was four and a half. Love filled my heart, I forgot myself, and henceforth I was happy.” In spite of Thérèse’s youth, the next year the bishop allowed her to become a Carmelite at Lisieux.
From childhood Thérèse aspired to become a missionary and a martyr. It soon became clear to her, however, that neither option was open to a cloistered nun. So she sought the Holy Spirit and searched the Scripture for another way to excel:
We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs. And I am determined to find an elevator to carry me to Jesus, for I was too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in Holy Scripture some idea of what this lift I wanted would be, and I read, “Whoever is a little one, let him come to me” (see Luke 8:16). I also wanted to know how God would deal with a “little one,” so I searched and found: “You shall be carried in her arms and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her son. . . .” (Isaiah 66:12–13 NAB) It is your arms, Jesus, which are the elevator to carry me to heaven. So there is no need for me to grow up. In fact: just the opposite: I must become less and less.
In 1897, Thérèse thought her dream of becoming a missionary was about to come true. The Carmelites at Hanoi in Indochina, now Vietnam, had invited her to join them. But on the early morning of Good Friday she began to hemorrhage from the mouth. She had contracted tuberculosis, which tortured her for several months before it took her life on September 30, 1897.
Image credit: Therese of Lisieux by unknown artist, 19th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia.