Her family was the context in which St. Thérèse of Lisieux began to discover her “Little Way” of holiness for which she’s so well known. From an early age, this daughter of saints, who would go on to be a saint herself, learned to accept all as grace and providence, and to rely solely on God’s will to find her peace. St. Thérèse teaches us that holiness is found in doing little things consistently and with great love.
Thérèse was born the ninth child of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin on Jan. 2, 1873, in Alençon, France. Louis would lose his wife to breast cancer four years later, and his brother-in-law helped arrange for the widower’s family to move north to Lisieux.
During her childhood, Thérèse was considered weak and unusual. At the age of 9, she became so sick that it appeared the end was near. Her father even requested Masses at Our Lady of Victories Church in Paris, and her family kept vigil at her bedside. As three sisters were leading prayers of intercession to the Blessed Mother in front of the family’s statue of her, Thérèse experienced a miracle: The statue began to smile at her. She was healed.
Thérèse and her four older sisters (her other four siblings did not survive infancy), discovered God’s call to the religious life. And Thérèse was quite insistent upon doing God’s will as soon as possible, despite the many difficulties she encountered on that path.
Refused entry to the Carmelite convent in Lisieux because of her young age, Thérèse seemingly could not contain the zeal with which her soul desired total union with Christ. She even used a meeting with Pope Leo XIII during a pilgrimage to Rome as an opportunity to seek his assistance. The pope replied “Well, my child, do what the superiors decide … You will enter if it is God’s will.” The local bishop later gave his consent for her to enter the Lisieux Carmel when she was 15.
Life in the Carmel of Lisieux was taxing for Thérèse. Living with the other nuns was not always easy. She was maligned and mistreated. But it was there that Thérèse found her “Little Way.” Entering the convent with a desire for spiritual greatness, her attitude slowly changed, writing in her diary: “I applied myself especially to practice little virtues, not having the facility to perform great ones.”
Thérèse explained the “Little Way” more: “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.” Among the names she’s known by today is “the Little Flower.”
Finding blood in her handkerchief, she experienced “joy,” and awaited death as the final act in her complete union with Christ. Dying from tuberculosis, she taught of suffering’s purpose: “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
Thérèse experienced intense physical suffering and offered it all to the Lord, in union with his to the end — uttering as she breathed her last, “My God, I love you!” She died on Sept. 30, 1897.
The simplicity and practical approach to the spiritual life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux make her among the most popular saints in the Church, and the universality of her message reached a pinnacle in 1997 when Pope St. John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church.
Her feast day is Oct. 1.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic.