The Triumph of the Lowly – St. Thérèse of Lisieux and The Little Way
Not too long after Pope John Paul II named St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church in 1997, I overheard someone commenting to one of her friends that a specialist in the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila, was upset by his action. This specialist was very clear about the reasons that Teresa of Avila had received that honor, based on her years of spiritual growth, her reformation of the Carmelite order, and her writings. By contrast, Thérèse of Lisieux, in her short 24 years, had really not contributed anything of substance, certainly not enough to merit such a grand title as Doctor of the Church, a status shared by only 32 other people. Only two other women, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) were Doctors of the Church. They had only received this recognition in 1970. (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, in 1967, ventured that women were unlikely to receive this honor because it is linked to the teaching office of the church,”which is limited to males.”)
Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) became Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face when she took her vows at the Carmelite convent in Lisieux in Normandy, France in 1888. I have been a fan of hers since I was in second grade. I read a children’s biography, Saint Thérèse and the Roses. It was really too hard for me to read easily, but I plowed my way through it and fell in love with her. I returned to the story many times as I grew up and continued to find her attractive. In fact, I chose her as my Confirmation patroness at age 13, long before she was so grand.
When Randy and I were newly-weds, we went to Guadalajara, Mexico to meet his cousins on his father’s side of the family. Randy’s aunt, Tía Dorotea, gave me a copy of Thérèse’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, in Spanish. Thérèse was also Tía Dorotea’s favorite saint and I learned that in Mexico she is sometimes known as Santa Teresita (St. Little Teresa). I have thought of her as Teresita since that time.
However, I was in graduate school and then had young children and a business to operate with Randy, and I never found time to read my precious gift.
I’d like to say that I have now found and read it, but that would not be true. I know it is in our house somewhere, but like the beads for repairing my favorite moccasins, it is hiding in our resident Black Hole. I’m confident that it will someday escape and I plan to read it with a smile when it does, as I remember Tía Dorotea fondly.
So, I found myself wondering, what was it that made her as important in the life and history of the Church as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena? I found the answer recently while shopping for a birthday gift at my favorite bookstore. On the shelf was a small book by Patrick Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love.
In this little book, Bishop Ahern offers a brief biography of Thérèse of Lisieux and an explanation of the general spiritual ambience of the late 19th Century. He then presents a series of letters written by Maurice Bellière to Thérèse of Lisieux and her responses. Maurice Bellière was a seminarian who had written to the Prioress of Carmel in Lisieux requesting that a Sister be chosen to pray especially for his vocation and with whom he could correspond. Thérèse’s sister Pauline was prioress at the time and she chose Thérèse to be the one who would respond to him.
Thérèse was passing through the last 18 months of her life, dying of tuberculosis. She was holding on by sheer force of will to her belief in God and her trust that her life of faith had not been that of a fool. It was a time of deep spiritual darkness for her, yet she offered sound advice, great encouragement and deep love to Maurice in her letters.
I couldn’t send the book to its new owner until I read it all myself! And through this book, I came to understand the great gift my Teresita gave to the Church, a path out of the darkness of Jansenism back into the light of trust in a loving God.
During the late 19th Century, an heretical approach to spirituality called Jansenism was still widely influential in popular spirituality, especially in France. The fundamental idea of Jansenism, which began in the mid-1600s, was that humans are not able to resisting any deep longing of the soul or any pleasure, whether towards good or evil. The only hope of salvation rested on God’s intervention in a person’s life, steering the person directly to choose the good. This understanding denied the existence and role of free will as a foundation of the relationship between God and humans. It was a system of predestination in which no one could have any certainty that he or she had been chosen (predestined) for salvation.
As a result, it tended to be a spirituality leading to uncompromising firmness or rigidity regarding beliefs and stern, strict religious practices. There was no role allowed for the heart or for feelings in worship. The infallibility of Church teachings was denied. Humans were seen as inherently bad and unworthy of God’s love or forgiveness. Frequent reception of Communion was discouraged because people are so unworthy to receive such a great gift.
Jansenism persisted for the next several centuries, especially in France. It was formally outlawed in 1712, but many Jansenist ideas and practices continued. St. Pius X, who had read Thérèse’s autobiography, was elected Pope in 1903. He tried to counter Jansenism by lowering the age for First Communion to 7 and by encouraging frequent Communion. Yet even into the mid-20th century when I was a girl, the remnants of Jansenism popped up in popular spirituality and even in the pulpit.
The “Little Way” of Thérèse of Lisieux, again opened the door to the Good News of Jesus, that God is a loving Father (a Parent) to us. While it is true that we are weak and we sin all too easily and frequently, God’s Love still reaches out to us and forgives.
The essence of the Little Way is the idea that most of us are not called to heroic degrees of self giving and sacrifice in our lives. Most of us are not called to leadership roles in the community. Few are called to celibacy. Even fewer are called to the heroic witness of martyrdom. But all of us are called to holiness (sainthood).
In her own words, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
Teresita understood, as did the great St. Teresa of Avila, that God is found even in the cooking pots of the kitchen — in the daily routines of cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening and praying of her community.
Bishop Ahern notes that her greatest fear in facing death was that death might truly be the end of everything. That her life might go out like an extinguished candle and all have been in vain. Her second greatest fear was the death by suffocation that tuberculosis often causes. However, when the time came, she simply stopped breathing, with a smile of peaceful delight on her face, and moved into her new life, all fear and doubt obviously left behind her. Her final words were, “My God, I love you.”
John Paul II, in Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love), the decree that gave Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin the title, Doctor of the Church, noted that she gave us a foundation for spirituality that was innocent, open, hopeful, and trusting. Church authorities also noted that Thérèse was ahead of her time. Thérèse stressed the importance of reading Scripture and using it as a basis for prayer and meditation. She promoted the importance of studying the Scriptures in their original languages. These views would set theology and spirituality on a whole new course when they were advocated in 1943 by Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit).
Thérèse Martin’s little book and her Little Way also influenced Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council. Her autobiography influenced most of the movers and shakers of the early 20th Century in the Church and those insights shine through the Council documents and reforms.
Thank you, Bishop Ahern for your wonderful little book.