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The Life of St. Therese of Lisieux:

DM 101: Week 35

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 17, 2006)
As far as "externals" are concerned, there was nothing very remarkable about Therese Martin. She grew up in a middle-class family in the Province of Normandy, France. Her mother died when she was four, her father and her four older sisters were very devout Catholics, and all five sisters ultimately entered the religious life. Therese herself entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux at the age of 15. She wrote only one book, under obedience to her religious superiors, in three instalments, which together form her autobiography, entitled The Story of a Soul. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.

Nevertheless, despite this seemingly unremarkable life, it is probably true that no single person had more profound and lasting impact upon the spirituality of Catholics in the 20th century than Sr. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face: St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. This is not because she experienced much in the way of extraordinary mystical phenomena (visions, locutions, miracles, etc.). In fact, the only really striking extraordinary supernatural event in her life occurred when she was very young. At about the age of ten she contracted a dangerous fever, and it looked for a while as if she might not pull through. She tells the story herself in her autobiography. She was in a delirium, and called out "Mamma, Mamma!" Two of her older sisters, Marie and Celine, were so distressed by her condition that they knelt down beside her bed, turned toward a little statue of our Lady in her room and prayed for her. Therese finishes the story in her autobiography as follows:

Finding no help on earth, poor little Therese had also turned toward the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden, the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was "the ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin." At that instant, all pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy. Ah! I thought, the Blessed Virgin smiled at me, how happy I am, but never will I tell anyone for my happiness would then disappear. Without any effort I then lowered my eyes, and I saw Marie who was looking down at me lovingly; she seemed moved, and appeared to surmise the favor the Blessed Virgin had given me. Ah! It was really to her touching prayers that I owe the grace of the Queen of Heaven's smile. Seeing my gaze fixed on the Blessed Virgin, Marie cried out: "Therese is cured!" Yes, the little flower was going to be born again to life, and the luminous Ray that had warmed her again was not to stop its favors; the Ray did not act all at once, but sweetly and gently it raised the little flower and strengthened her in such a way that five years later she was expanding on the fertile mountain of Carmel.

Some months later, on the day of her first Communion, Therese led all the children in the consecration of their lives to Mary:

In the afternoon, it was I who made the Act of Consecration to the Blessed Virgin. It was only right that I speak in the name of my companions to my Mother in heaven, I who had been deprived at such an early age of my earthly Mother. I put all my heart into speaking to her, into consecrating myself to her as a child throwing itself into the arms of its mother, asking her to watch over her. It seems to me the blessed Virgin must have looked upon her little flower and smiled at her, for wasn't it she who cured her with a visible smile? Had she not placed in the heart of her little flower her Jesus, the Flower of the Fields and the Lily of the valleys (Canticle of Canticles, 2:1)?

Therese enriched her spiritual life with meditations on Holy Scripture, especially on the Gospels. She began to deeply appreciate that the images that we find in everyday life can be expressive symbols of divine and supernatural truths. For example, Therese saw herself like a little ship on the sea, plying its way toward the safe harbor of heaven:

In the evening at that moment when the sun seems to bathe itself in the immensity of the waves, leaving a luminous trail behind, I went and sat down on the huge rock with Pauline. Then I recalled the touching story of the "Golden Trail." I contemplated that luminous trail for a long time. It was to me the image of God's grace shedding its light across the path the little white-sailed vessel had to travel. And near Pauline, I made the resolution never to wander far away from the glance of Jesus in order to travel peacefully toward the eternal shore!

Another time, when she was on retreat, and she was in the midst of spiritual desolation, she interpreted our Lord's seeming absence as similar to the time in the New Testament when Jesus was fast asleep in the boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. In effect, her soul was like that boat, tossed about by the waves, and Jesus was just sleeping in the midst of it. Since He is always present, even when he seems asleep and absent, Therese resolved not to wake Him up with her needless worries and anxieties!

(Continued next week on St. Therese of Lisieux's spirituality of Divine Mercy. Quotes from her autobiography are taken from The Story of a Soul, third edition, Washington, D.C., Institute of Carmelite Studies publications, 1996).