Generations of Catholics
have admired this young saint, called her the "Little Flower", and found in her short life more inspiration for own lives
than in volumes by theologians.
Yet Therese died when
she was 24, after having lived as cloistered Carmelite for less than ten years. She never went on missions, never founded
a religious order, never performed great works. The only book of hers, published after her death, was an brief edited version
of her journal called "Story of a Soul." (Collections of her letters and restored versions of her journals have been published
recently.) But within 28 years of her death, the public demand was so great that she was canonized.
Over the years, some
modern Catholics have turned away from her because they associate her with over- sentimentalized piety and yet the message
she has for us is still as compelling and simple as it was almost a century ago.
Therese was born in
France in 1873, the pampered daughter of a mother who had wanted to be a saint and a father who had wanted to be monk. The
two had gotten married but determined they would be celibate until a priest told them that was not how God wanted a marriage
to work! They must have followed his advice very well because they had nine children. The five children who lived were all
daughters who were close all their lives.
Tragedy and loss came
quickly to Therese when her mother died of breast cancer when she was four and a half years old. Her sixteen year old sister
Pauline became her second mother -- which made the second loss even worse when Pauline entered the Carmelite convent five
years later. A few months later, Therese became so ill with a fever that people thought she was dying.
The worst part of
it for Therese was all the people sitting around her bed staring at her like, she said, "a string of onions." When Therese
saw her sisters praying to statue of Mary in her room, Therese also prayed. She saw Mary smile at her and suddenly she was
cured. She tried to keep the grace of the cure secret but people found out and badgered her with questions about what Mary
was wearing, what she looked like. When she refused to give in to their curiosity, they passed the story that she had made
the whole thing up.
it, by the time she was eleven years old she had developed the habit of mental prayer. She would find a place between her
bed and the wall and in that solitude think about God, life, eternity.
When her other sisters,
Marie and Leonie, left to join religious orders (the Carmelites and Poor Clares, respectively), Therese was left alone with
her last sister Celine and her father. Therese tells us that she wanted to be good but that she had an odd way of going about.
This spoiled little Queen of her father's wouldn't do housework. She thought if she made the beds she was doing a great favor!
Every time Therese
even imagined that someone was criticizing her or didn't appreciate her, she burst into tears. Then she would cry because
she had cried! Any inner wall she built to contain her wild emotions crumpled immediately before the tiniest comment.
Therese wanted to
enter the Carmelite convent to join Pauline and Marie but how could she convince others that she could handle the rigors of
Carmelite life, if she couldn't handle her own emotional outbursts? She had prayed that Jesus would help her but there was
no sign of an answer.
On Christmas day in
1886, the fourteen-year-old hurried home from church. In France, young children left their shoes by the hearth at Christmas,
and then parents would fill them with gifts. By fourteen, most children outgrew this custom. But her sister Celine didn't
want Therese to grow up. So they continued to leave presents in "baby" Therese's shoes.
As she and Celine
climbed the stairs to take off their hats, their father's voice rose up from the parlor below. Standing over the shoes, he
sighed, "Thank goodness that's the last time we shall have this kind of thing!"
Therese froze, and
her sister looked at her helplessly. Celine knew that in a few minutes Therese would be in tears over what her father had
But the tantrum never
came. Something incredible had happened to Therese. Jesus had come into her heart and done what she could not do herself.
He had made her more sensitive to her father's feelings than her own.
She swallowed her
tears, walked slowly down the stairs, and exclaimed over the gifts in the shoes, as if she had never heard a word her father
said. The following year she entered the convent. In her autobiography she referred to this Christmas as her "conversion."
Therese be known as
the Little Flower but she had a will of steel. When the superior of the Carmelite convent refused to take Therese because
she was so young, the formerly shy little girl went to the bishop. When the bishop also said no, she decided to go over his
head, as well.
Her father and sister
took her on a pilgrimage to Rome to try to get her mind off this crazy idea. Therese loved it. It was the one time when being
little worked to her advantage! Because she was young and small she could run everywhere, touch relics and tombs without being
yelled at. Finally they went for an audience with the Pope. They had been forbidden to speak to him but that didn't stop Therese.
As soon as she got near him, she begged that he let her enter the Carmelite convent. She had to be carried out by two of the
But the Vicar General
who had seen her courage was impressed and soon Therese was admitted to the Carmelite convent that her sisters Pauline and
Marie had already joined. Her romantic ideas of convent life and suffering soon met up with reality in a way she had never
expected. Her father suffered a series of strokes that left him affected not only physically but mentally. When he began hallucinating
and grabbed for a gun as if going into battle, he was taken to an asylum for the insane. Horrified, Therese learned of the
humiliation of the father she adored and admired and of the gossip and pity of their so-called friends. As a cloistered nun
she couldn't even visit her father.
This began a horrible
time of suffering when she experienced such dryness in prayer that she stated "Jesus isn't doing much to keep the conversation
going." She was so grief-stricken that she often fell asleep in prayer. She consoled herself by saying that mothers loved
children when they lie asleep in their arms so that God must love her when she slept during prayer.