Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The "Little Flower" -- Saint Therese of Lisieux

When I was in the midst of great physical pain a few years ago, I read a little book by an obscure young Frenchwoman who wrote her story in obedience only, not of her own choice. The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux had quite an impact on my faith and on the way I perceived my physical suffering.

St. Therese died at age 24 and suffered quite terribly from pain during her long illnesses. She was asked, then ordered, to write her story, and this little book has never been out of print since its publications over 110 years ago. Therese's simply joy in living despite physical suffering, her humility of manner, her devout faith and exemplary prayer life all inspired me to look on my own pain as less of a burden and as more of a gift -- perhaps not a gift to me but a gift to someone. I clung to her example as she pointed me to Christ, the only One Who brings peace in pain, tranquility of mind and spirit in suffering, and trust despite failure of body and dreams.

The following is from the Saint-of-the-Day e-mail from

"I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul." These are the words of Theresa of the Child Jesus, a Carmelite nun called the "Little Flower," who lived a cloistered life of obscurity in the convent of Lisieux, France. [In French-speaking areas, she is known as Thérèse of Lisieux.] And her preference for hidden sacrifice did indeed convert souls. Few saints of God are more popular than this young nun. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is read and loved throughout the world. Thérèse Martin entered the convent at the age of 15 and died in 1897 at the age of 24.

Life in a Carmelite convent is indeed uneventful and consists mainly of prayer and hard domestic work. But Thérèse possessed that holy insight that redeems the time, however dull that time may be. She saw in quiet suffering redemptive suffering, suffering that was indeed her apostolate. Thérèse said she came to the Carmel convent "to save souls and pray for priests." And shortly before she died, she wrote: "I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth."

[On October 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church, the third woman to be so recognized in light of her holiness and the influence of her teaching on spirituality in the Church.]

Thérèse has much to teach our age of the image, the appearance, the "sell." We have become a dangerously self-conscious people, painfully aware of the need to be fulfilled, yet knowing we are not. Thérèse, like so many saints, sought to serve others, to do something outside herself, to forget herself in quiet acts of love. She is one of the great examples of the gospel paradox that we gain our life by losing it, and that the seed that falls to the ground must die in order to live (see John 12).

Preoccupation with self separates modern men and women from God, from their fellow human beings and ultimately from themselves. We must relearn to forget ourselves, to contemplate a God who draws us out of ourselves and to serve others as the ultimate expression of selfhood. These are the insights of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and they are more valid today than ever.

All her life St. Thérèse suffered from illness. As a young girl she underwent a three-month malady characterized by violent crises, extended delirium and prolonged fainting spells. Afterwards she was ever frail and yet she worked hard in the laundry and refectory of the convent. Psychologically, she endured prolonged periods of darkness when the light of faith seemed all but extinguished. The last year of her life she slowly wasted away from tuberculosis. And yet shortly before her death on September 30 she murmured, "I would not suffer less."

Truly she was a valiant woman who did not whimper about her illnesses and anxieties. Here was a person who saw the power of love, that divine alchemy which can change everything, including weakness and illness, into service and redemptive power for others. Is it any wonder that she is patroness of the missions? Who else but those who embrace suffering with their love really convert the world?

Amen and amen!


Deborah said...

Hi Susanne,
I found your blog through a Google search and am enjoying reading it. I grew up Catholic and was an Evangelical for 15 years. Five years ago my husband and I returned to the Catholic church and have found so much joy in the liturgical experience. Most Sundays we visit a Carmelite Monastery where they have a prayer time with cloistered nuns singing behind a grate, it's so beautiful. St Therese is one of my favorite saints. She really understood redemptive suffering in her short little life on earth. Have you read much about the Catholic Theology of Suffering?

Susanne Barrett said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Deborah. The Catholic Theology of Suffering has been such a blessing to me with my own physical struggles -- so much more helpful than the evangelical outlook that either you aren't praying hard enough/don't have enough faith or you've sinned. Not much help at all. But the Catholic view has helped me to embrace His gift of suffering and handle it well (most of the time).

Thanks again for commenting. I really appreciate it. :)


Deborah said...

Wow! I was hoping so after reading about some of your physical struggles. Have you read JP II's encyclical on redemptive suffering? It's so inspiring to think that when we unite our sufferings to Christ's, they can be salvific! This teaching alone changed my life.


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