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SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX

Virgin and Doctor of the Church, c.1873-1897

 The quiet figure of a Carmelite nun, a girl in her twenties shivering in her cell, is, from a public relations viewpoint, unnews-worthy and, by poetic standards, unheroic. But the girl has, in the space of a few years, gained a worldwide popularity that the greatest saints have seldom equaled and rarely surpassed.

Outwardly her life was so much like that of any other nun that, when she lay dying, she overheard two nuns saying that they wondered what Reverend Mother would find to say about her in her obituary notice. (Picture)

 It might be said, if one understands the world rightly, that she became a saint by being ordinary. She herself describes her method of the spiritual life as the "Little Way." Her name, of course, is Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face - the Little Flower, as she is affectionately called.

 Her "Little Way" had three great points - so great that, in their effects, the little Carmelite becomes a giant of the spirit. The first point, though comforting, should not be misconstrued. That is, that sanctity does not have to be a spectacular surrender - spectacular as used in the way the world understands it. The second point, and perhaps the core of her plan, is to maintain a relationship with God like that of a small child. Childish? Not at all. A shrewd calculation, really. Sanctity is not something to gamble on. Therese had read the words: "Let the little children come to me, . . . for of such is the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:16). The third point of her program is one that has frequently been overlooked by many students of her life; it is her devotion to the Holy Face, the essence of which was an attempt to draw close to the suffering of her Beloved and to see in all forms of suffering His own. With serene confidence she offers her spiritual teaching to all who will listen: "Holiness is not found in such and such a practice; it consists in a disposition of heart that makes us humble and little in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness, and confident - even boldly so - of His fatherly goodness."

 Therese's home life in Lisieux (Picture) resembles in some ways the suburban life of our own time, and perhaps some of her appeal lies in the fact that ordinary people see in her a living proof that even the most ordinary things of life can be the raw material of great holiness. Therese was the youngest of nine children born to Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin. (Picture) Two brothers and two sisters died in infancy, and four of her sisters became nuns.

 Therese was a young woman of great courage for whom the conquest of self and the road to heaven were anything but easy tasks. Therese had to struggle for virtue every inch of the way. In her autobiography, which she wrote at the command of her superior, she admits that she was inclined from her childhood to be self-willed to the point of stubbornness. At school, her rapid progress in her studies set her apart from her classmates, and the unpopularity she suffered as a result wounded her deeply.

 When their older sister Leonie offered a doll and some playthings to Celine and Therese, Celine chose some silk braid, but Therese said, "I'll have the lot!" Later she wrote, "My whole life can be summed up in this little incident. Later . . . I cried out, 'My God, I choose all! I don't want to be a saint by halves.' "

 When she wanted to enter Carmel at the age of fourteen, both the Carmelite authorities and the bishop of Bayeux regarded her as too young and refused their permission. On a pilgrimage to Rome with her father a few months later, at a public audience with Pope Leo XIII, she boldly broke the rule of silence and begged him, "In honor of your jubilee, allow me to enter Carmel at fifteen." Impressed by the girl's ardor, but respecting the decision of her immediate superiors, the Holy Father said, "You shall enter if it is God's will . " Apparently, God favored the impulsive little girl, for on April 9, 1888, Therese Martin was permitted to join her two older sisters at the convent at Lisieux, when she was fifteen. Two years later she was professed as a Carmelite nun.

 In the convent, her vocation was put to a severe test. If she was seen in a free moment taking a breath of air, an audible remark would be made by another sister as to how skillful the young girl was at wasting time. If she performed a task slightly less than efficiently, barbed remarks were made about "this child's uselessness." Not only did Therese bear these "pinpricks," as she called them, but she strove assiduously to live the Carmelite rule in every detail. If the bell called her to duty when she was writing, she would break off in the middle of a word. With silent patience and kindness she waited on an old nun who found fault with everything she did. Every small irritation and every rebuff was made use of - offered to God as if it were a flower. In addition to this quiet heroism, she under-went a great deal of physical suffering from tuberculosis and the cold dampness of the convent.

 Perhaps the most severe test of her endurance occurred when her father's mind gave way following two paralytic attacks and he had to be removed to a private asylum, where he remained for three years. But "the three years of my father's martyrdom," wrote Saint Therese, "seem to me the dearest and most fruitful of my life. I would not exchange them for the most sublime ecstasies."

 At various times in her life, Therese had wanted to be a martyr or to be sent to mission lands, Indeed, she almost responded to the appeal of the Carmelites at Hanoi in Indochina (now Vietnam), who wished to have her, but her health took a turn for the worse, and the last eighteen months of her life were a time of bodily suffering and spiritual trials. She died September 30, 1897. (Picture)

 It is a paradox of divine providence that this cloistered nun should have been named by the Holy See co-patron, with Saint Francis Xavier, of the foreign missions. Yet it is not strange when one considers that her prayers were almost exclusively for priests, especially missionaries, that a great many missionaries invoke her aid, and that in so honoring her the Church wishes to teach us that prayer, not traveling, is the chief missionary task. Therese was also named patroness of France with Saint Joan of Arc, who was canonized in 1920, just five years prior to her own canonization.

 

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