I have read a few books about saints. But I always find myself going back to the Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux over and over again.
What is it about St. Thérèse ? What can a young cloistered Carmelite nun teach us about life here in the outside world? How can lay people even relate to her personal struggles?
Fondly known as the Little Flower, she entered the convent at the age of 15, upon much deliberation and eventually, approval, from the Mother Superior and other people who are in authority as well. Prior to that, during her family’s visit and pilgrimage to Rome, she even begged Pope Leo XIII – to everyone’s surprise and horror – to allow her to enter the convent even though she was not of age. But the wise pope, prompted her to obey authority and then answered, “If it is God’s Will, then you will enter.” She died at the age of 24, by which time, you would think she had not seized much from life to gain maturity and wisdom. Unknowingly by many at first, she had in fact gained that level of sanctity that would touch even more lives after her death. It is not surprising that she has been named as one of the Doctors of the Church.
Her reflections are a treasure chest of wisdom from which we can discover lights not just to give clarity about God but to move our spirit towards taking small but concrete and practical steps towards holiness. This saint describes it her “little way”. I guess what draws many towards this modern saint is that she gives us, sinners, fresh hope through her seemingly ordinary acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. These little acts then transform into extraordinary as she performed them with great love for Jesus and others. In her writing, one would see how she achieved perfection through diligent practice even in little and mundane tasks of each day or as random as picking up something that has fallen on the floor.
Perhaps, it is because pride is my foremost struggle that I am naturally gravitated to the humility of St. Thérèse. Her childlike confidence and faith is like a deep well from which we can draw water to refresh us and quench our spiritual thirst.
I have listed some of the many “little ways” of the Little Flower, which, I believe are helpful in guiding us in our spiritual life. We can take these as a supplement to Scripture reading and meditation practically on any random day!
The manuscript of the Story of a Soul which have inspired many worldwide through the years was not originally the idea of St. Thérèse. While chatting with her older sister Pauline who was then Reverend Mother Agnes of Jesus and her eldest sister Marie (also a Carmelite nun), she fondly shared her early childhood recollections. Her two sisters found these so fascinating that apparently, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Marie said she should put them into writing and asked Pauline to order Thérèse to do so. Being the Mother Prioress at that time, Pauline indeed obliged her to write her childhood memories. Imagine that Thérèse only did this by virtue of obedience (which is very important among the religious) and which she took quite seriously, so she did as she was told though she did not understand initially for what use this can be. She believed that simple obedience is what pleases Jesus most. And let us note that this manuscript was handwritten by her during the time that she was already ill. And she had to write it outside of her daily tasks and responsibilities and even in the midst of distractions when she was already staying in the infirmary. But even so, she showed detachment by not bothering to ask the Mother Superior, Pauline if she had already read it to satisfy her curiosity or to know her reaction about it. In fact, she mentioned in her writing that she would not be bothered if this was burned right before her eyes.
Love and devotion to Mary and Joseph
Before beginning this task of writing this manuscript, Thérèse asked the Heaven’s Queen (in her own words), to guide her hand and write only what pleases our Lady. Even during her younger years when she was afflicted by a serious illness, it was the smile of the statue of our Lady of Victory in her room, which she saw come alive, (while her sisters fervently begged for Her intercession) that miraculously and instantly healed her. Years later, when she had been assigned to the novices, she would always seek the help of our Lady in how she should deal with the novices and what she must say. And often, the novices were surprised as to how is it that St. Thérèse seemed to have all the answers, as if she could read their souls. She also humbly admitted having difficulty concentrating on the mysteries during the rosary and how frustrated she was. But she knew Mary, being our Mother, would understand and see her good intentions and efforts. She claimed our Mother never failed to come to her aid when she asked for her help. She also had devotion to our Lady’s spouse, St. Joseph, the Protector of virgins and always asked for his intercession and guidance.
Perfection in doing God’s Will and in being what He wills us to be
Thérèse often wondered why some souls have been blessed to be guided by God until sanctity and why others die without knowing God exists. At the same time, she wondered why some saints like St. Paul and St. Augustine, who had greatly offended Him had become great saints. With all these thoughts, Jesus explained to her this mystery that all souls, like flowers, are created beautiful. Whatever the level of spirituality of a soul is, he is capable of achieving perfection if he does the Will of God. Not everything that we dream for ourselves is according to His Will even if it is good. For instance, both Thérèse’s parents initially sought the religious life but were rejected. Apparently, it was not the Will of God for them. And they, being docile to the direction of the Holy Spirit, allowed themselves to be guided accordingly. When they got married, they lived for 10 months as a brother and sister but after being advised by a confessor, they had nine children, 4 of whom died and 5 all entered the convent, the youngest, Thérèse who was to become a great saint and doctor of the Church. Can we imagine if her parents, Louis and Zelie (who are also canonized saints) insisted in pursuing their own will, good as it may seem then? Louis and Zelie reminds me of Mary and Joseph who, initially, wanted to offer their whole lives to God and not get married but chose to do the Will of God. They, however, pursued to live like a brother and sister and maintain their virginity because that was God’s Will for them. Throughout her writing, St. Thérèse said that as she grew up, she did what God desires for her – or that rather, God has made her desire what He wills for her. The Little Flower teaches us that we can not achieve perfection apart from God’s Will. And let us admit, God’s Will is often undesirable and difficult to comprehend, but it does give us peace.
Detachment from creatures
Inasmuch as Thérèse loves her family very much, detachment was something that she has acquired eventually, even early on. As a child, she had a close friend who went on vacation but when this girl came back, she made our saint feel that she was no longer interested in their friendship. Thérèse then realized how fickle and unreliable a creature’s love is. Aside from this, her mother died when she was only 4 and Pauline, whom she considered her second mother, eventually had to leave her and enter Carmel. God allowed her to experience the loneliness of being left by loved ones even at a young age.
I used to think that becoming a nun is the easiest thing in the world and it seems like a favorable option for someone who wants to escape the difficulties of the world. But after reading the accounts of St. Thérèse and St. Faustina, I figured I was totally mistaken. Becoming a nun does not mean a person immediately changes her natural character. Each one has her own temperament, upbringing, etc that can pose as a challenge for anyone who wishes to join the religious life. Coming from a close-knit family, it was quite so natural for Therese to always seek to talk and spend time with her biological sisters in the same convent. But during recreation time where she could freely talk to her sisters, she would do the opposite. Instead, she would seek the sister whom she disliked the most and would show her most affectionate smile and gestures towards this person! And if this sister needed her service, she would give it to her with all of her love as if she was doing it to Jesus Himself.
Detachment from material and spiritual goods
Though Carmelite nuns had a vow of poverty, people still have a tendency to be attached to things. Imagine all these nuns from various families having to live under one roof and adjust to each other’s differences as I mentioned earlier. I used to wonder why Thérèse would often refer to her room or cell as our cell. I read on the footnotes that nuns do not own things anymore and that things are considered a sort of shared property. It irritated our saint when she had to look for a paintbrush, a pin or needle which she often used and was not returned or was taken without permission. But eventually, she realized that this, indeed, is an opportunity to practice this vow of poverty, of not owning anything, and having the humility to borrow from someone if she is in need. Considering that she had been used to a comfortable lifestyle prior to entering Carmel, she had embraced this life and had accustomed herself to whatever food is served on her plate.
She also added that this practice of virtue can be done not only on earthly things but even on spiritual thoughts or inspirations. If, for instance, she had an inspiration from God and shared it privately to a sister and then that sister later on shared it to the group as if it was her own, the Little Flower said that one should not be offended. For every good thing comes from God and she does not own even these beautiful thoughts. It would be so easy for us to point out, “Hey, that’s my idea!”
Patience and Grace under Pressure
One time, when she was still a young nun, she volunteered to take care of an invalid old nun who was quite irritable and difficult to please. But she took care of her with all patience, always doing every little thing with love and with a smile. Thérèse noted that this really cost her much suffering. The old nun would even comment that she could not help her well because she was too young. But eventually, she won the trust of this old woman.
During the time when Thérèse was assigned to handle the novices, one of them wondered what makes her tick and tried to test her patience. This novice knew that her mistress was quite busy at that time but she deliberately sought for her help and caused her a lot of trouble to tire her and see how far her patience would go. But the saint attended to her in all patience and graciousness in spite of it all. In the end, she felt guilty and confessed to Thérèse her true intentions and asked for her forgiveness.
Love or Charity
I used to think of charity only in terms of giving to the poor or the needy. But just as there are corporal works of mercy, there are also spiritual works of mercy, both of which are acts of love or charity. This saint, who grew up in a family that has practiced this virtue, looked upon her parents and sisters with such love, fondness and admiration. One time, during a pilgrimage to Europe with her father and sister, a person said something unkind towards her father, but her father did not respond in the same manner. This did not surprise Thérèse because she had never witnessed him say anything uncharitable towards anyone. This made an impression on her and she herself was able to practice this virtue towards her sisters in the convent. It is all but natural to be gravitated towards this or that person but St. Thérèse would try to act in charity towards a person. One time she could not concentrate during meditation because the sister behind her was making noise that really irritated her. But rather than glaring at her and possibly offend this sister, she welcomed the opportunity to suffer.
When she saw the faults of another sister, she would immediately try to recall the virtues of this person and would try to give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe, she had the best of intentions. She had experienced the same thing, with her good intentions being mistaken for something else. So she made a resolution to be lenient with other sisters so that God would be lenient and more forgiving with her own faults. As with the novices under her care and responsibility, she dealt with them more severely as needed to ensure they would not be led astray.
This is one of my favorite pieces of advice from St. Thérèse. Whenever I need it, I would go back and retrieve this from her ‘treasure chest’ time and again. The first time I read this, I knew it was a gold mine. I would pretend to be one of the novices who sought her advice.
One of the novices was downcast because her virtues were not yet solid enough for her to surmount a particular temptation. It seemed that she would exert effort but always in the danger of falling to this temptation. But the Little Flower told her that if she cannot yet surmount, then pass beneath. She said that in doing so, she will just get a little splashed by the rain but be dried later on by the love of God. She related an experience when she was a little girl when a horse was blocking the entry to the garden or gate and the adults could not get it to move away. Being little, she was able to pass beneath the horse without any difficulty. This, according to her, is the advantage of being little. That being said, again she emphasized the advantage of humility or the humble submission of even our own weaknesses to the Lord.
Making Use of Every Little Suffering
Like other saints, St. Thérèse always made use of her sufferings. She was not among those who would often complain about her tasks and what have you. But this did not mean that she did not get irritated with others as well at the beginning. But rather, that gradually, through prayer and much love, she was able to endure sufferings, as she did not want them to get wasted. Even when she was already ill, she accepted everything with patience and offered it for love of God and for the salvation of poor sinners. She also offered sacrifices for missionary priests that they may be able to endure their struggles and not grow weary. What made quite an impression on me was that the sufferings she offered were what one would consider so random and unimportant that it was so easy to ignore and pass up such an opportunity. One was an interesting letter that was read to the community of sisters. The saint was eager to read this letter so one of the novices gave her the letter (Thérèse was bedridden at that time). After such time, she asked Thérèse what she thought of the letter but she said that she did not read it because Jesus asked her to offer this sacrifice. It is quite common for us to be curious about things or about gaining information especially with everything within reach, with a little tap on our smart phone or on the computer. And we often give in to this little pleasure of satisfying our curiosity even for unnecessary things once in a while. What missed opportunities!
Not Giving Much Weight to People’s Opinions
When she was still a young novice, while talking to the Mother Superior, another sister came in and told her how good she looked and how fitted she was to be a Carmelite. Just when she was already pleased with herself, another sister came in and told her the exact opposite. Since then she did not give much weight to people’s opinions, understanding that these are not reliable, that what matters is what God thinks, Who sees what is truly in the hearts of men, Who sees people as they truly are.
Correction as an Act of Compassion
When she first entered the convent, she was reprimanded by the Mother Prioress, her own beloved sister Pauline about not being able to perform her task of cleaning the place well. And this was done in front of the rest of the sisters. But the young Thérèse did not harbor ill feelings. Instead, she mentioned how grateful she was for the discipline that Pauline had given her, for this molded her to become the Carmelite that she ought to be.
When the Prioress eventually gave her the responsibility to shepherd novices, Thérèse would not back down in correcting a novice when she was wrong. It did not matter to Thérèse if the novices liked her or not. But she experienced difficulty in doing so and would not have been able to do so with her own strength. She had to unite herself with Jesus to be able to carry on this task of taking care of souls and guiding them towards the path that Jesus wants for them. She admitted in her writing that she would rather be the one to be corrected than to be the one to reproach them for their faults, but this, she had to do bravely for love and compassion for her sisters. There were times when she had to discern how to deal with them, when she would need to admit her mistakes to let them know she understood them because she herself experienced them and at times when she had to be severe with them in order to enlighten them.
Childlike Confidence in the Mercy of God
Rather than the Pharisee, Thérèse could relate more with repentant sinners, the likes of the publican, Mary Magdalene and the thief who stole paradise, so to speak. She likened herself to a little child who intends to climb the stairs but keeps on falling down and yet continues to raise her foot. And God, seeing her continuous efforts, will soon come down, lift her up and carry her. She does not imply that it is enough to will or desire something and not act but rather, to exert effort in doing so even though the desired result is not yet achieved. We can say that the story of this saint is an example of the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” In her writing, she would recount her younger days when she was impatient and needed much reminders from her parents, her older sisters and even her househelp. Based on the letters of her mother, St. Zelie Martin, she was concerned with Thérèse because of her pride even at a very young age. Though seemingly intelligent, her character was quite different from those of her older sisters. Thérèse truthfully admitted that had she not been properly guided and disciplined by her saintly parents and sisters, she would have lost her way. I guess what is truly inspiring about her story was witnessing (through this autobiography) how she had transformed and matured spiritually. I do not know with you, but this gives me so much hope.
The Power of Prayer Over Words
St. Thérèse had great trust in the power of prayer. She wrote, “One could call it a Queen who has at each instant free access to the King and who is able to obtain whatever she asks.” She added that there are so many beautiful prayers and cannot recite them all. But often, she would humbly and simply tell God what she wished to say and knew that He undersood. For her, “prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” As a child, unlike many her age, Thérèse was already often engaged in mental prayer even when she did not know then that it was, in fact, something called mental prayer. This did not mean, however, that she did not pray the devotional prayers with the other sisters as she should. She loved these prayers as well but humbly admitted having difficulty in concentrating on the mysteries of the rosary (I am sure many of us can relate!) in spite of her great love for our Lady. Here, we witness how very much human our little saint was. In dealing with the novices, she claimed that prayer is more powerful than words. For at times, she did not have the right words to enlighten them and praying for them always served its purpose.
We are What We Read
As a child, the Little Flower played a lot with her sibling Celine, as mentioned in her early recollections. But she also spent a lot of time reading. According to her writing, she had visible angels who would guide her as to what to read. Throughout her manuscript, she would often quote from the Gospels and at times, from the Old Testament. She also mentioned The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis and other books of saints. And though she humbly admitted that she did not immediately acquire all the virtues that she wanted to possess early on, she eventually succeeded despite her imperfections, giving us hope for our seemingly fruitless efforts! We have to carry on, so to speak, just carry on. But first, as St. Paul says, we must fill our thoughts with what is true, good, pure and honorable.
Everything is Grace
Being gravely ill, there were times when Thérèse could not receive Communion which she loved. But she had surrendered so much to the Will of God that she saw the Holy Hand of God in everything He allowed or did not allow to happen. Whether God permitted her to receive the Sacraments or not, inasmuch as she desired, everything, for her, is grace.
But our saint also experienced impatience towards a sister who was taking care of her but she humbly accepted being corrected. She was happy to be reminded that she is very much in need of God’s Mercy and that without Him, she can do nothing. Though she had practiced little sufferings throughout most of her life, her pain and suffering, as her death drew near, had become great indeed. She claimed it is grace to have faith for without it, she would have caused death on herself to stop her suffering.
What can be said about this saint? Oh, there is just too much to be said about her. There is more to add but I am afraid I will never be able to finish this post and will end up not being able to post it at all. Writing this has given me time again to pause and reflect deeply on the life of St. Thérèse, how she practiced holiness in ordinary little things that at the hour of great pain, she was not disqualified from the race, as St. Paul implied (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Her little ways of practicing the virtues of faith, hope and charity were all worth it. Her spiritual discipline and dependence on God for grace had been sufficient as she went through intense physical suffering caused by her illness and aggravated by this ‘dark night of the soul’.
Who can fathom the wisdom she acquired by humbly submitting herself to God like a little child? That she thought of herself little was what caused her to be a great saint. Indeed, what a beautiful little soul that shines the love of Jesus! May we draw inspiration and example from our little saint, that we too, may be drawn closer to Jesus.
To God be the glory!
St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (1996). Story of a soul: The autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Clarke, J., Trans.). (3rd Edition). ICS Publications.