St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Genius or Neurotic?

Thérèse of Lisieux, photograph, ca 1888-1896.
Thérèse of Lisieux, photograph, ca 1888-1896.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face was born in France on January 2, 1873 and entered the Carmelite order in Lisieux at the early age of fifteen after pleading her case to Pope Leo XIII. Nine years later she died of tuberculosis on September 30, 1897 at the young age of twenty-four. A mere seventeen years later, Pope Pius X started the process for her canonization with his successor, Pope Benedict XV, waiving the required fifty years waiting period between the death and beatification. This unprecedented decision allowed St. Thérèse to be officially beatified by Pope Pius XI on April 29, 1923. Two years later on May 17, 1925, twenty-eight years after her death, St. Thérèse was sainted by Pope Pius XI with her four older sisters in attendance.  Pope Pius XII continued the process started by his predecessors by decreed St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus a co-patron of France with St. Joan of Arc in 1944. Last but not least, Pope John Paul II named St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church on October 19, 1997, an honor given to only three other women and thirty-two men throughout history.

So what did St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face do that made three different popes modify the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, a traditionally slow to act organization, in order for her to be sainted? What was so special about her short life that made yet another pope declare her the patron saint of France along with St. Joan of Arc, the famous warrior? What advances to theology did St. Thérèse bring to the church that made a fifth pope declare her a Doctor of the Church, an honor shared with the likes of St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas?

The answer to these questions is contained in the one book written by St. Thérèse, The Story of a Soul. One might think that this book, published a year after her death, might be a theological treatise akin to St. Thomas Aquinas ‘ Summa Theologica. Or perhaps it was a book on spirituality like The Inner Castle written by St. Thérèse’s namesake and follow Carmelite nun and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Ávila. However, St. Thérèse’s book does not fall into these categories as it was a simple autobiography about her life. Unlike St. Augustine’s Confessions which tells of Augustine’s journey through the darkness of sin towards Jesus, St. Thérèse’s autobiography tells a story of a young girl who passionately pursed God from an early age.  As Pope Pius X told a priest who ask about St. Thérèse, “What is most extraordinary about this soul is precisely her extreme simplicity.”

story of a soulIn reading St. Thérèse’s autobiography, one can be forgiven for thinking that she is overly introspective and narcissistic. Throughout her book she relates small and seemingly inconsequential details about her life. Things like crying about losing a sugar ring she was going to give to her sister or receiving rewards from her father for her marks at the end of each school year.  While technically part of her life, these stories seemed to carry a sense of pride and narcissism.  However the more I read the more I realized that rather than been prideful, St. Thérèse was being overly honest and transparent. While she didn’t go through a ton of outward trials and pains (i.e. she had a good family upbringing, loving parents and sisters, etc.), she had a deep sense of spiritually and self-reflection that caused her to feel pain at every little mistake or selfish act. Her autobiography brings out this self-reflection with a sense of humanity as she learns how to be aware of the work of Jesus within her spirit and soul.

This journey of self-awareness and allowing Jesus to change her can be seen through two instances with St. Thérèse’s life. The first instance comes from year that followed her first communion when she was eleven years old. During this time she was plagued with scruples and would tell her sister Marie all “the extravagant thoughts that [she] had about her” [St. Thérèse, 88]. While this confession would bring confront to St. Thérèse, it would hurt Marie in that she had to listen to all the negative things St. Thérèse thought about her and others. The self-reflection and awareness was there, but so was the pride. The humanity that comes through the Spirit of God was yet to polish the burs off the rough stone of St. Thérèse’s life.

The second instance comes years later after St. Thérèse had entered cloistered community of the Carmelites. One of the nuns there did not get along with St. Thérèse, causing her to write that she had the “talent of displeasing me  in everything: her manners, her words, her character seemed to me to be very displeasing” [St. Thérèse, 250]. Rather than doing the same thing she had done earlier in her live, St. Thérèse set about doing “for this Sister what [she] would have done for the person that [she] love the most” [St. Thérèse, 250]. This change of heart is quite remarkable seeing how it happened during St. Thérèse’s teenage years when most members of humanity are typically self-focused. Yet, St. Thérèse passion for Jesus caused her to love and serve the person who annoyed her the most as if she was loving and serving Jesus himself. Gone was the pride and sense of having to confess her thoughts to the one she was thinking about, regardless of what they felt. Rather Jesus, “who makes sweet what is the most bitter,” transformed her heart and changed her behavior [St. Thérèse, 251].

Having one’s heart and behavior changed by Jesus isn’t really new or novel as billions of people across history have experienced this change. No, the unique thing about St. Thérèse is her youth. Typically the young are marginalized and ignored by the older members of the human race. They are told to be quiet, learn their lessons and wait until that magical day when they come of age and join the ranks of the mature. St. Thérèse’s autobiography challenged this conventional view by showing that children are capable of understanding the truths of Jesus at an early age. Furthermore, her story tells us that children, teenagers and young adults can also walk out these truths in their daily lives; sometimes even putting to shame those who have walked with Jesus for longer chronologically.

41-jesus-blesses-the-children-detailThe tenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark tells of time when the twelve apostles allowed the traditional view of children to cloud their minds. Thinking that Jesus was too important and too busy to be concerned about the little ones, they rebuked the parents who dared to bring their children into the presence of the mighty teacher. Jesus, far from being pleased with the apostles actions, became indignant and told them to let the children come to him under hindered (Mark 10:13-16). St. Matthew records a similar story where Jesus tells them that unless they changed and “become like little children” they would “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Sadly the church at large has spiritualized the words of Jesus and instead followed the example of the apostles in rebuking the little ones.  Rather than encouraging them to pursue God as St. Thérèse did when only fifteen, we, the body of Christ, marginalized the children and youth, placing them in separate rooms where they won’t bother us. Luckily current missiological research is challenging this view with researching showing that “almost two-thirds of the people who give their lives to Christ do so before the age of eighteen” [Stafford, 7].  Furthermore, researchers are also telling us that there is only a twenty-three percent chance that a person will choose to follow Jesus after the age of twenty-one.

In other words, we, the people of Jesus, need the example and model of St. Thérèse now than ever before.  We need to hear the stories of people passionately pursuing Jesus from an early age. We need to hear the stories of teenagers so recklessly in love with Jesus that they hound everyone in authority above them to let them pursue their dreams just as St. Thérèse hounded her bishops and Pope Leo XIII to let her join the Carmelite order. Will these youth make mistakes? Undoubtedly! This is why they need us, the older members of the body of Christ, to guide and direct them just like the Carmelite Prioress guided St. Thérèse on her journey.  As Pope Pius XI said in his homily at the Canonization of St. Thérèse:

“Therefore we nurse the hope today of seeing springing up in the souls of the faithful of Christ a burning desire of leading a life of spiritual childhood. That spirit consists in thinking and acting, under the influence of virtue, as a child feels and acts in the natural order. Little children are not blinded by sin, or disturbed by the passions, and they enjoy in peace the possession of their innocence. Guiltless of malice or pretense, they speak and act as they think, so that they show themselves as they really are. Thus Thérèse appeared more angelic than human in her practice of truth and justice, endowed as she was with the simplicity of a child. The Maid of Lisieux had ever in memory the invitation and the promises of her Spouse: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.” (Prov. 9:4) “You shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you; as one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.” (Is. 64:12-13)” 

Bibliography

Catholic Tradition.  St. Therese. http://www.catholictradition.org/Lisieux/lisieux.htm [accessed August 22, 2015]

EWTN Global Catholic Network. Canonization of St. Thérèse. http://www.ewtn.com/therese/readings/ readng2.htm [accessed August 22, 2015]

Stafford, Wess. 2007. Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matter Most. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux. 2010. The Story of a Soul. Trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press.

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