By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
This is the second article about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and deals with her later life, death, and subsequent influence throughout the Catholic world. (See The Wanderer, July 10, 2014, p. 3B for part one.)
After a delay of eight months because of her youth, Thérèse was able to make her religious profession in September 1890, aged 17. During the retreat before this event she underwent a period of spiritual desolation, but afterward regained her inner peace.
Meanwhile, in 1889, her father suffered a stroke, and had to spend time in a private sanatorium. From this point on, Thérèse further deepened her inner life, expressing it outwardly in small acts and kindnesses, while accepting any criticisms and unpleasantness directed at her. She also focused more and more on the Gospels, as her spirituality became simpler but more profound. But to most of her fellow sisters, there seemed to be nothing outwardly remarkable about her.
In February 1893, Thérèse’s sister, Pauline, became prioress of the Lisieux Carmel, and made Thérèse assistant to the new novice mistress. As it happened most of the work of guiding the new novices fell to Thérèse and she displayed a rare talent for this.
Her father died in July 1894, and this allowed Céline to also enter the Lisieux Carmel. She brought her camera to the house and this is the reason why we have so many fine photographs of St. Thérèse. At the end of that year, as her sisters saw her health declining they asked to her write about her childhood.
In June 1895, Thérèse wrote an Act of Oblation, which she and Céline read out before a statue of our Lady. From this point on her health steadily declined as the tuberculosis from which she suffered took its toll. At the end of Lent in 1896 she coughed up blood, and saw this as a sign that God would soon be calling her to Himself. But it was to be more than a year before she actually died, and that was to be a period of progressively worse sufferings as the disease took hold.
In June 1897, her sister Pauline, now Mother Agnes of Jesus, asked Thérèse to write a further memoir focusing more on her religious life. Her sufferings, meanwhile, increased steadily, and as the end approached, she said, “I would never have believed it was possible to suffer so much, never, never!” She died at the age of only 24 on September 30, 1897, her last words being, “My God, I love you!”
Her autobiography, which included selections from some of her poems and letters, was published after her death, with 2,000 copies being printed. This work stimulated interest in her life and gradually pilgrims began to visit her grave, as the first miracles due to her intercession were reported.
The local bishop initiated her cause for canonization in 1910, and this taken up by Rome, under Pope Pius X. His Successor, Pope Benedict XV, waived the requirement for the usual 50-year delay between death and beatification due to the tremendous devotion to Thérèse that was already being displayed among Catholics.
She was beatified in April 1923, by Pope Pius XI, and canonized by him in St. Peter’s Square, in May 1925, before a huge crowd. He also named her a patroness of the missions, and later on, in 1944, during Pope Pius XII’s pontificate, she was named co-patroness of France with Joan of Arc.
Since then devotion to her has continued to grow around the world, and in October 1997, Pope John Paul II, on the basis of the depth and profundity of the teaching upon which her Little Way is based, declared her a doctor of the Church.
The major shrine dedicated to St. Thérèse is the large basilica built in her honor in Lisieux. Work on it began in 1929, with the enthusiastic support of Pope Pius XI. It was solemnly blessed by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, in July 1937, and finally consecrated in 1951.
A good number of organizations devoted to spreading the message of St. Thérèse, or under her patronage, exist in the Church, and there are also religious orders dedicated to her. A sign of the continuing extraordinary interest which St. Thérèse generates can be seen in the way that her relics have toured the world in recent years.
Thérèse’s spirituality has a number of striking characteristics, the most obvious being that unlike many of the great saints of the past, she lived a life without great outward asceticism. Similarly, she did not follow any of the traditional methods of meditation, but focused rather on simplicity and closeness to Christ.
In addition, unlike the great saints of old, St. Thérèse was not usually the recipient of any astounding spiritual favors: Rather in her spiritual life, she focused on profound contemplation, on seeking the gift of wisdom, on humility, and on her Little Way of love.
In this she immersed herself completely in the idea that she was a child of the Heavenly Father, a child totally dependent on Him for everything. She knew that little children do not try to do great things, but rather are content to do small acts for their parents, but acts done with great love. One of her sayings was: “What matters in life is not great deeds, but great love.”
St. Thérèse also focused on the importance of humility, the virtue which makes us recognize our need for God’s grace. She offered up many little acts of love to God, all the incidents, problems, and difficulties of her life, no matter how small, and we know that she took her self-offering to the point of heroic virtue and sanctity.
The necessity of becoming like a little child in our relationship with God was strongly put by Jesus, after the disciples had asked Him who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. In response, He called a little child to Him and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Thérèse, although she was not a child, possessed a childlike spirit, and her Little Way has also been described as a way of spiritual childhood, one which focuses on the simplicity and abandonment characteristic of a child who trusts his parents.
Regarding suffering, Thérèse made this rather disconcerting statement: “Sanctity lies not in saying beautiful things, or even in thinking them, or feeling them; it lies in truly being willing to suffer.” As we have seen, Thérèse had much to suffer toward the end of her life, but abandoned herself completely to God saying: “I thank you, O my God, for all the graces you have bestowed on me, and particularly for having made me pass through the crucible of suffering.”
Shortly before she died she said: “Ah! to suffer in my soul, yes, I can suffer much.” So while her sufferings were extremely painful, she accepted this pain in a spirit of love.
Ultimately, though, we have to remember that the way of Thérèse is a way of love and devotion, and that this love was the driving force of her life, expressed in a spirit of total abandonment to the will of God.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk.)