Hidden behind the walls of the Carmelite convent she entered at age fifteen, St. Therese was struck down by tuberculosis in her early twenties. There was nothing remarkable about the young nun, nothing to suggest that she would become one of the most beloved of all the saints. And yet, her “little way,” characterized by the twin virtues of obedience and simplicity, touched so many people that Rome opened her cause for canonization only seventeen years after her death. She was canonized in 1925, proclaimed the universal patron of missions in 1927, and Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Marie Frances Therese Martin was born in Alencon, France to a devout Catholic couple with eight other children, only five of whom survived to adulthood. Therese’s idyllic childhood was cut short at the tender age of four when her mother died. Big sister Pauline raised little Therese in the faith until 1882, when Pauline and another sister Marie entered the Discalced Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Their example made young Therese yearn for religious life herself. On a visit to Rome in November 1887, she and a group of pilgrims were granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII. At that audience, Therese asked permission from the Holy Father to enter the Carmelite convent at the age of fifteen.
When her postulancy was completed, Therese ventured outside her cloister one last time, where she received her habit. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, she writes: “I had always wished that on the day I received the habit, nature would be adorned in white just like me.” That January day, the weather was so mild, snow seemed unlikely. However, upon returning to the cloister, says Therese, “…the first thing that struck my eye was the statue of ‘the little Jesus’ smiling at me from the midst of flowers and lights. Immediately afterwards my glance was drawn to the snow: the monastery garden was white like me! What thoughtfulness on the part of Jesus! Anticipating the desires of his fiancée, He gave her snow. Snow! What mortal bridegroom, no matter how powerful he may be, could make snow fall from heaven to charm his beloved?”
The “Little Flower,” as she came to be called, did not aspire to doing great works, or attaining public acclaim. Rather, she followed the way of perfection outlined by the founder of her order, St. Teresa of Avila. As Therese explained to her sisters: “Great deeds are forbidden me. I cannot preach the gospel nor shed my blood — but what does it matter? My brothers toil instead of me and I, a little child, keep close by the throne of God and I love for those who fight. Love proves itself by deeds. I will scatter flowers, perfuming the Divine Throne, and I’ll sweetly sing my hymn of love. These flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least of actions for love.”
She taught this simple way to the novices entrusted in her care, and so ministered to her missionary “brothers” whom she followed in her heart with love and prayers. From the first time she coughed up blood until her death three months later, she continued to draw ever more closely into the heart of her Beloved Spouse, seeking to become less and less, that she might fly like a bird to her heavenly home.
When her body was exhumed in 1910, the palm St. Therese held in her hand was still green, and from her final resting place came the sweet “odor of sanctity,” the inexplicable aroma of violets. This humble sister had vowed, “My mission, to make God loved, will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” And as she predicted, the miracles attributed to her circle the globe, causing her to be named the patroness of missions. Her little way that continues to inspire those who desire to love God, as she did, in simple obedience.
Faith in Action
How can I emulate the “little way” in my own life?
This is an excerpt from the Women of Grace® Foundational Study Guide, “Full of Grace: Women and the Abundant Life”