Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 9

Statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux
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In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. This was a startling decision. Perhaps since Saint John Paul II made many startling decisions during his pontificate—such as suddenly adding five mysteries to the rosary—it is easy to fail to notice how unusual this decision really was.

Other Doctors of the Church include Saints Thomas Aquinas, Jerome of Stridon, and Augustine of Hippo, brilliant thinkers who were also amazingly prolific and whose works could fill entire bookshelves. Therese of Lisieux’s writings, on the other hand, include only three short autobiographical documents and personal letters (although there are quite a few of those).

Other Doctors of the Church were noted as founders. Saint Anselm of Canterbury is generally considered the founder of a philosophical school called Scholasticism. Saint Bonaventure is often called the second founder of the Franciscan order because he codified the order’s rules after the death of Saint Francis. Even Therese’s namesake, Saint Teresa of Avila, was the founder of the order of Discalced Carmelites along with (another Doctor) Saint John of the Cross.

Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were popes before they were acknowledged, posthumously, as Doctors of the Church. Therese only visited the pope, on one occasion, where she caused a minor scandal by breaking protocol and asking the pope to intervene with her bishop and allow her to enter the Carmelites at a young age.

Some Doctors experienced powerful visions, such as Saints Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen. But not Therese. Some Doctors faced personal danger because of their orthodox explanations of the faith, such as Saints John Damascene and John Chrysostom. But not Therese.

So perhaps we should turn to Pope John Paul II himself to understand the reasons behind this seemingly unusual decision. While his apostolic letter explains in detail why he, as pope, decided to acknowledge Saint Therese as a Doctor of the Church, he summarizes this action in a sentence found in no. 6 of the document.

Thérèse of the Child Jesus left us writings that deservedly qualify her as a teacher of the spiritual life. 

May we all take the time to learn from this great spiritual teacher, Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Saint Therese, teach me about the spiritual life so that I too can become a saint.

Note: I have heard that early English translations of The Story of a Soul included a lot of flowery, “prettified” language. I have never seen a translation like that, but translations by Clarke and Beevers are excellent. The Institute of Carmelite Studies publishes all of her works.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 8

Early French version of Saint Therese’s autobiography
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During Therese’s time as a Carmelite nun, she was ordered by her superiors to write her spiritual autobiography on three occasions. One of those superiors was her older sister, Pauline, who was also a Carmelite nun. Pauline knew her younger sister was not only holy but also gifted at explaining spiritual matters, and she obviously thought that Therese’s thoughts about God’s presence in her life would be worth reading. After Saint Therese’s death in 1897, Pauline, under obedience to her own superior at the time, edited the three writings to make them appear to be one document.

Clearly Therese came from a gifted family because her sister Pauline’s edits helped make it easier for readers to absorb what Therese had to say. Therese’s sister Celine brought a camera with her when she too entered the Carmelites and took photographs of Therese, which were later published and helped promote devotion to her saintly sister.

Devotion to Saint Therese outside of France began in Poland and Ireland, but it quickly spread all over the world. Her autobiography has since been translated into dozens of languages, and multiple English translations are available. Devotees of Saint Therese, inspired by The Story of a Soul, include popes (Francis and John Paul I), saints (Teresa of Calcutta, Pio of Pietrelcina, and Giuseppe Moscati), writers, philosophers, and even a convicted and repentant murderer (Jacques Fesch), proving that the “little way” of holiness that she describes in her writings has the power to touch hearts and minds all over the world. Because we are all “little souls” in God’s sight, just like Therese.

Saint Therese, teach me about your “little way” of holiness.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 7

Saint Therese of Lisieux
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Every human being has the experience of illness or injury from time to time, some of us more often than others. Whether it’s life-threatening or not, being sick forces us to do many things we don’t want to do and stop doing many things that we do want to do.

Saint Therese recognized that she had tuberculosis, an infectious disease which was terminal at the time, when she was only twenty-three years old. She spent the last year of her life growing sicker and weaker, with no hope of recovery. Though she had dreamed of becoming a missionary when she was younger, she could only pray for missionaries now. Though she had served her monastery as novice mistress before, now she had to lie in bed and patiently accept medical treatments. Even breathing became difficult for her.

On a deeper level, she was also spiritually tempted. The exhaustion caused by her medical condition also commonly causes depression, and Therese, who had had such a deep prayer life and joyful sense of God’s presence, found herself tempted by despairing thoughts and questions about God’s very existence. In her autobiography, she describes these dark temptations, but her example also shows that temptations are not only not sinful, but can be great opportunities to grow in faith. Even when her prayer life and physical life had become very dark and lonely, Therese of Lisieux continued to trust in God and remind herself of His goodness and care for her.

Saint Therese, remind me of God’s love for me when I suffer from poor health or temptations.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 6

Saint Therese of Lisieux
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In one of the most memorable passages of Saint Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she describes a challenge she faced frequently after she had entered the Carmelite monastery.

As the youngest member of the community, she was told to care for one of the oldest members of the community. The elderly sister needed assistance walking to the refectory (dining room) every evening before dinner. This older sister criticized Therese from the beginning to the end of every trip to the refectory. Therese was told she was walking too fast, then too slow, then being too careless, and so forth.

If you have ever had the experience of having to deal with a crabby person who needs help, you know how frustrating, infuriating, and emotionally draining it can be to face such a situation every single day, with no end in sight. But by God’s grace, Therese conquered that temptation. And she shows us how to do the same.

First, Therese never named the elderly sister and never said a single unkind word about her even while she describes her experience. She never let that evil snake called gossip enter her heart or her words.

Second, Therese related a moment of grace she experienced while walking the sister down the hall one evening. She could hear the sounds of a party from a nearby house and was struck by the difference between the elegant event next door and the mundane, apparently tedious activity she was engaged in. And rather than being jealous or bitter, she was overwhelmed with gratitude to God for allowing her to be exactly where she was. Because she was exactly where God wanted her to be.

Saint Therese, help me to know the peace that comes from being
exactly where God wants me to be.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 5

Saint Therese as a novice, playing the part of Saint Joan of Arc
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In the photo above, Saint Therese is shown in costume portraying the great French saint, Joan of Arc. Therese was a member of the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux at the time, and she not only starred as the great Saint Joan but wrote the play herself.

Saint Joan, the “Maid of Orleans”, was criticized for many things during her lifetime. Joan wore men’s clothes while leading the French army; though an unmarried woman, she lived among soldiers; she claimed to hear voices (of saints) who told her to lead the war against the English. While many complained about her failure to follow contemporary customs for Frenchwomen, the charge that Joan was a witch was the one that finally stuck. When captured, Joan was subjected to a trial that was clearly biased against her, and she was unsurprisingly condemned. It was clearly an unjust accusation, but Joan of Arc bore it like a saint.

Therese’s experience of unjust treatment were far less dramatic but are still very instructive for us because they are so utterly ordinary.

Therese was a very intelligent girl and also very sensitive due to the loss of her mother. Because of her intelligence, she was promoted to study with older girls, but the bullying she endured ultimately led her family to homeschool her. When Therese entered the Carmelite monastery, two of her older sisters were already professed nuns there, which caused resentment among some of the nuns, who expected Therese to think she would get special favors because of her blood relationship. For example, on one occasion, Therese was ordered by her superior to take a message to one of her older sisters. When she arrived at her sister’s door, another nun berated her and accused her of seeking special privileges to see her sister. Therese recognized that anything she said would be interpreted wrongly, so she said nothing. She accepted the correction—for something she hadn’t done wrong—and meekly returned to her duties, without complaint.

Although there is a world of difference between being burned at the stake and keeping your mouth shut when someone unjustly criticizes you, the latter is the sort of temptation every Christian could face any day of the week. Try it today, and see if you are up to Saint Therese’s level of holiness yet.

Saint Therese, show me how to accept criticism from others with charity.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 4

Saint Therese as a teenager
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The late Father Benedict Groeschel was a Catholic priest, author, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and a psychologist. He once commented that Saint Therese of Lisieux was “spiritually precocious”, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up his professional assessment of her character.

When Therese was at that delicate age of adolescence when she wanted to be treated like an adult but didn’t quite want to give up the charming things of childhood yet, an important event happened one Christmas Eve. Her father made the sort of comment that parents make all the time, wishing out loud that his baby (Therese) would finally grow up so that the childish gifts of Christmas could be set aside. (Truth be told, he was probably just tired, as happens to all of us as we get older, of staying up for a party after a late Mass.) Therese overheard his comment, and rather than having a typical teenage tantrum (breaking into tears, storming to her room in anger, or sulking for a week), she smiled. That is, she embraced the grace that the Lord gave her to sacrifice her sensitivity, put a smile on her face, and deal charitably with her family for the rest of the evening. She later called that her “conversion”, and her family was surely thankful that she no longer broke into tears at the drop of a hat. If you think this was a small grace, think of Saint Therese at your next Christmas party with extended family and see if everyone weathers the event with as much charity as did Saint Therese.

Another sign of Therese’s spiritual precocity occurred only a few years later. She discerned that God was calling her to religious life as a Carmelite nun though she was only fourteen years old. In the photo above, you can see her teenage attempt to show her seriousness about this; she put her hair up to appear older than she really was. How many fourteen-year-olds could make that decision, explain it convincingly to a bishop, and then break papal protocol by respectfully imploring the pope himself for help when brought before him during a trip to Italy? Only a spiritually precocious one.

Saint Therese, teach me how to be childlike, rather than childish.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 3

Saint Therese of Lisieux as a little girl
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Therese Martin was blessed to grow up in a loving family which practiced its faith regularly and lived a middle class life in France. Surely it was a comfortable, pain-free childhood that led her to become such a saintly young woman, right?

Wrong. Therese’s family, like every family, knew tragedy first-hand.

Four of the nine Martin children died very young. Two sons died before reaching their first birthdays. One daughter lived only a few months, and another daughter died at the age of five. One can only imagine how painful each loss was for Louis and Zelie, Therese’s parents.

Therese’s mother Zelie died of breast cancer when Zelie was only forty-five years old. Although Therese was only four years old at the time, she remembered her mother’s passing so vividly that she was able to describe seeing her mother’s coffin in her autobiography. All the daughters were devastated at the loss of their mother, but Therese, as the youngest, was particularly affected and became a very sensitive child for many years.

Near the end of his life, Louis suffered strokes as well as some sort of mental breakdown. The five Martin sisters suffered great pain and grief at the sight of their beloved father being physically and mentally incapacitated.

Yet all of these sufferings, like every cross we choose to bear in union with our suffering Lord, bore spiritual fruit. In her autobiography, Therese describes praying for help from her little brothers and sisters who had already passed on to Heaven. They gave her hope when she too was facing her final illness. Although Therese lost her mother when she was very young, one of her older sisters became her second mother, caring for her with great tenderness and care. Zelie’s devout faith not only lived on in Therese’s memory but in the actions of the older sisters who raised her. Although watching a parent’s decline is always heartbreaking, all of the Martin sisters were comforted by the fact that Louis had recognized his oncoming illness and told them he was offering his suffering for others—before he lost his ability to communicate that fact during his final years.

Saint Therese, show me how to bear spiritual fruit in my suffering.

Saint Therese of Lisieux: Day 2

Saints Zelie and Louis Martin
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When Louis Joseph Aloys Stanislaus Martin married Azelie-Marie Guerin in 1858 in Alencon, France, family and friends would probably not have been surprised to learn that both would someday become canonized saints. Both husband and wife were devout in the practice of their Catholic faith and had seriously considered religious life. According to some sources, Louis was rejected by a monastery because of his inability to learn ecclesiastical Latin, and Zelie (as everyone called her) was turned down by a convent because of her persistent headaches and other medical problems. After being turned away from religious vocations, both supported themselves and became successful in their careers for a time—Zelie as a lacemaker and Louis as a watchmaker—until they happened to meet one day on a bridge. Three months later, they married.

But initially they were such a pious couple, so intent on holiness, that they intended to live their married lives as brother and sister. Fortunately for us, the desire for children and an encouraging priest led them to change their minds. During their marriage, God blessed them with nine children, whom they raised in a devout, middle class home. Louis gave his children loving nicknames; Zelie wrote to her sister about how much she adored her children and loved being a mother. In the end, all five of their surviving daughters entered religious life, and one of them is currently a candidate for sainthood. Their youngest daughter, Marie Francoise-Therese, has already been known as Saint Therese of Lisieux since her canonization in 1925.

Louis and Zelie Martin deserve to be known as Saints Louis and Zelie, independent of the holiness of their daughter. They taught their children to trust in God and love Him—in the sorrows as well as the joys of family life.

Saint Therese, help me to lead the members of my family to greater trust in God.

Saint Therese of Lisieux and Novenas

Saint Therese of Lisieux
From Wikimedia Commons, Celine Martin (Sor Genoveva de la Santa Faz) / CC0

In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that the members of the early Church—particularly Saint Peter and the other apostles along with the Blessed Mother—spent the nine days between Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven and the day of Pentecost devoted to one specific activity: prayer.

Catholics have been praying novenas ever since. You can find some excellent examples of novenas at or in books like this one. Typically, novenas start before the saint’s feast day and conclude on the feast date itself. But if you’ve never prayed a novena to Saint Therese of Lisieux before or didn’t just conclude one, her feast day, October 1, is a great day to start.

Why are Catholics so devoted to such a seemingly insignificant Carmelite nun? Why does a woman who never preached a sermon (like Saint John Chrysostom), never traveled to foreign lands as a missionary (like Saint Francis Xavier), never wrote a theological treatise (like Saint Thomas Aquinas), and never spent her lifetime serving the poor (like Saint Teresa of Calcutta) have more statues of herself in Catholic churches than perhaps all of the above combined? Why is it so easy to love Saint Therese?

That is the question we will answer each day for nine days, in different ways.

It is easy to summarize the brief life of Saint Therese. She was born into a pious home in 1873 in France. Her mother died when she was very young, and her father and four older sisters raised her lovingly in their middle class home. She heard God call her to religious life when she was fourteen years old, and she was allowed to enter a Carmelite monastery as a postulant when she was only fifteen. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, leaving behind only her letters to family and friends, along with her autobiography.

After her death, her sisters, who had been deeply moved by their younger sister and her writings, edited and circulated her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This book, originally only circulated to a small audience, literally swept the globe. Almost overnight, she became one of the most popular Catholic saints in the world, with her autobiography translated into multiple languages. Twenty years after her death, the impact of Therese’s little book had spread to the pope himself, who opened the process of canonization for the nun who had apparently done nothing “important”. Except to show how easy it is to become holy if you are as humble as she was.

Saint Therese of Lisieux, help me learn how to be humble.