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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower

September 30, 2014 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

As you drive into Lisieux, France, from Caen on highway D613, you can see clearly the Basilica of Lisieux — it dominates the landscape rising high above the hills and other buildings. A little to the north is the cathedral where Therese received her sacraments and where her family dedicated an altar. A little farther north is the quaint home where she grew up. A two-story building with two outbuildings and a lovely garden, it boasts a replica of the bench with Therese and her father sitting together, in memory of the moment her father gave her permission to join the Carmelites.
During the mid-19th century in the village of Alençon, there were two pious youths, Louis and Zélie, both of whom came from military families and both of whom sought to enter the religious life, but did not stay. Once married, they agreed to live a life of celibacy to honor God, but their pastor told them this went against the purpose of marriage. They would go on to raise a family of nine children, and suffered many tragedies. Of the seven girls and two boys, Zélie lost four of them in three years: the two baby boys, the five-year-old girl, and the six-and-a-half-week-old baby girl.
After losing four children, Zélie was numb with sorrow when her ninth child, Marie Francoise Therese Martin, was born on January 2, 1873. Therese was a sickly and weak baby, so her mother feared for her life. It was not long before Therese recovered and became a robust and tan toddler, full of love and laughter.
As a child, Therese was very needy, requiring a lot of attention. Her insecurity became even worse when her mother died, when Therese was only four years old. Louis sold Zélie’s thriving lace-making business and moved the family to Lisieux. The rest of the family began to pamper Therese and shower her with love and attention.
The family frequently went to Mass at the Cathedral of St. Pierre in the heart of Lisieux. Therese went to Confession for the first time in 1879. On the Feast of Pentecost 1883, she was miraculously cured by the intercession of Our Lady of Victory, claiming our Lady smiled at her. However, when pressed by the nuns at her sisters’ monastery, she lost confidence and became a recluse.
In May 1884, having been properly prepared by the Benedictine nuns, Therese received her First Holy Communion and then Confirmation on June 14, 1884. She begged to be able to join her two older sisters at the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, but the bishop refused because of her young age.
On Christmas Eve, she described her sudden maturity as a result of God’s work: “God worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant.” Subsequently, she stopped being so self-centered and sought to do all that would please the Child Jesus. She now understood the joy that comes with the practice of selflessness instead of selfishness.
This also marked the beginning of serious spiritual reading. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis became her spiritual sustenance, teaching her to die to the world and to live for Christ; to seek wisdom rather than knowledge; and to accept all that God sends. She read the book intently, meditating on it, and seeking to put into practice the lessons learned.
At the young age of 14, she sat with her father in their garden on a low bench. Now at the age of 63, he had had a stroke, and rested frequently as he recovered. This dear moment is memorialized by a white monument of Therese leaning toward her father in the exact spot of their discussion. It was May 1887, and Therese explained to her father how she wanted to celebrate the anniversary of her conversion by entering the Carmelites by Christmas.
He agreed to her request, but she still had to get the permission of the bishop who told her she could only join if she received the Pope’s permission.
That November, Therese’s father took her and Céline on a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the priestly jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. After visiting many other cities, the family finally made it to Rome where they were received by the Holy Father. Little Therese knelt at his feet and begged his permission to join the Carmelite monastery as soon as she returned home. The Pope demurred, telling her that if it was God’s will it would happen.
The bishop of Bayeux finally gave Therese permission to go into the Carmelite home. On April 9, 1888 she became a Carmelite postulant at the age of 15. Therese knew what to expect upon entering the monastery, knowing of the special peace, but also aware of the trials and hardships that would come. She strove to keep a distance from her sisters and cousin so that she could focus on the rule of the Carmelites and her relationship with God.
This upset her sisters, but she responded with, “I did not come to Carmel to be with my sisters; on the contrary, I saw clearly that their presence would cost me dear, for I was determined not to give way to nature.”
In May 1888, she made her general Confession, recalling all of her sins. She continued in the life of a postulant, suffering with concern for her father whose health continued to deteriorate both physically and mentally. Soon he was put in an asylum where he languished for three more years before his death.
She received her share of ridicule because of her limited skill at both work and sewing. She also struggled with accepting the personality defects of herself and of the other nuns. Through it all her contemplation of the Holy Name and the Holy Face of Jesus nourished her.
She lived in the monastery for ten years before she contracted tuberculosis, receiving her last Holy Communion on August 19, 1897. She took her final breath on September 20. During her final days she exclaimed, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer anymore, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
Therese was buried on October 4. She was declared a saint by Pope Pius XI on May 17, 1925 and declared a doctor of the Church by Pope St. John Paul II on World Mission Day, October 19, 1997. Her feast day is celebrated October 1.
Therese is admired by Catholics around the world, of all ages. There are many books about St. Therese and her family, as well as a wealth of material on the Internet, worthy of the time it takes to read them. Especially recommended is her autobiography, The Story of a Soul.
Dear St. Therese, shower us with roses that we may learn to love the Child Jesus as you did and embrace cheerfully all crosses that our Lord chooses to send us. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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