Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Strong Virgin

(As published in 1953)

The co-patron of all the Catholic missions in the world is not another daring and tireless priest who journeyed to remote lands to bring the Faith to the pagans, nor some intrepid and fiery missioner who blazed the deserts with the story of the Gospel and then ended his life in a prolonged and glorious martyrdom. The saint to whom the Pope has entrusted the protection and patronage of the missions, along with Saint Francis Xavier, is a French nun named Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, who, if she had not died when she did, at the age of twenty-four, could be even now a consecrated cloistered religious, eighty years of age, still living the life of a Carmelite nun at Lisieux in France.

And how does this young contemplative qualify as the patroness of all missions? What can a Carmelite nun, living in silences and a cell, have known of the fatigues, the dangers, the thousand kinds of courage that the zealous missionary knows?

For an answer, here are some of her own words: “O Jesus . . . I feel called to be a warrior, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr. I would like to accomplish all the most heroic deeds. I feel in me the courage of a crusader. I would like to die on a battlefield in defense of the Church. I would enlighten souls, like the prophets and the doctors. I would travel the whole world over to preach Thy name and plant on infidel soil Thy glorious Cross, O my Beloved. But one mission alone would not satisfy my longings. I would like at the same time to be announcing the Gospel in all parts of the world, even in the most distant islands. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but, were it possible, from the beginning of the world until the consummation of time.

“Ah! Above all I would like to be a martyr. Martyrdom! There is the dream of my childhood! The dream has grown together with me in my little cell in Carmel. But there too is another folly; for I do not desire only one kind of torment. I need them all to satisfy me!

“Like Thee, my adorable Spouse, I would be scourged and crucified. I would be flayed like Saint Bartholomew. Like Saint John, I would be plunged into boiling oil. I desire, like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, in order to become a bread worthy of God. With Saint Agnes and Saint Cecilia, I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner. Like Joan of Arc, at the stake I would murmur the name of Jesus!”

Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, best known as the Little Flower of Jesus, was called Marie Françoise Thérèse when she was born to Louis and Zélie Martin at Alençon, France, in January of 1873. Little Thérèse was the last of nine children, four of whom died when very young, and the rest of whom, in answer to their parents’ prayers, entered religious life.

In the midst of reflections about her early years, Saint Thérèse has written, “Oh, how many souls might attain to great sanctity if they were wisely guided from their childhood!” From her own account of childhood in the Martin household, we may conclude that she herself had wise guidance. The whole family went every morning to Mass. All nine children were especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. M. and Mme. Martin gave to each of their children Mary’s name. They were unusually holy parents and they had offered their lives to God from their youth. M. Martin was such a model of devotion in his prayers to Our Blessed Lady that Saint Thérèse said of him, “Kneeling beside my father, I realized how the saints pray.”

When she was four and one-half years old, Saint Thérèse’s mother died. And when she reached the age of nine, her eldest sister, Pauline, the one who had taken her mother’s place, left her, and became the first of the Martin sisters to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. It was her father, even more so after this, who was her closest friend. In that leisure, which his modest wealth allowed him, the two of them were inseparable companions. Saint Thérèse’s recollections of her father, and her childhood with him, are full of walks in garden places, and talks about holy things. Their biggest adventure together was their trip to Rome.

For years, little Thérèse had dreamed of entering Carmel when she was fifteen, but the priests and the local Canon would not hear of such a thing. The only alternative was to see the Pope himself. In the company of her father, and numbers of other pilgrims, she did get to see the Pope (at that time, Leo XIII), but the clear instruction to all pilgrims had been that they must not speak to the Holy Father. But with that holy courage, which knows no respect for persons when God’s interests are involved, Saint Thérèse knelt before the Pope, and asked his permission to enter Carmel in her fifteenth year.

She got no definite promise from His Holiness, and returned to France deeply disappointed. In the following spring, however, about three months after her fifteenth birthday, Saint Thérèse, despite almost violent opposition, was permitted to join the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. By this time, two of her sisters were in this same community, but even they were not to realize what a constant martyrdom of hidden suffering Saint Thérèse had begged Jesus to grant her in her life at Carmel. Each new trial, interior or exterior, was the precursor of still another one, and always it was, “I cannot be downcast, since in everything that happens to me I see the loving hand of Jesus.” Referring in her beautiful autobiography to her sufferings of soul and body at Carmel, she wrote, “Many pages [of this hidden martyrdom] will never be read on earth.”

“Ah, well I know that the whole world will love me.” These words were spoken by Saint Thérèse nine years after her entrance in Carmel – and two months before her death there. They were a fitting final prophecy for one who could say of herself that from the age of three she had, out of love for Him, refused Jesus nothing.

It would seem that the love, which Saint Thérèse prophesied for herself after death, has had fulfillment. On May 17, 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death, Pope Pius XI canonized her and set aside October 3rd as her annual feast day, when every priest in the world would say Mass in her honor. At Lisieux, there has been erected a huge and costly basilica dedicated to her. In practically every Catholic Church her statue is to be found – a regal stone figure clothed in a Carmelite habit, with roses and a Crucifix in her arms. Chapels and churches of the Little Flower of Jesus extend from Alaska to the southernmost mission territories. All the little Thérèses and Teresas of the past two generations have come from our baptismal fonts bearing her name.

It would appear that the world now knows and loves Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. The truth is, rather, that the world has been informed about, and loves certain aspects of Saint Thérèse.

The world has come to love what it has imagined to be the “easy” method proposed by the Little Flower. It has read that she once said, “It is hard enough to humble ourselves, to bear patiently our imperfections. There lies true sanctity for us.” The world reads this and is unaware, for the most part, that this represents the beautiful “little way” of Saint Thérèse as she would encourage us in our interior lives, but that as she looks outward to the world, which was ransomed by the Precious Blood of her beloved Jesus, that she would have us possess, in our exterior lives, some of the spirit which made her say of herself that she was called to be a “warrior, and an apostle, and a martyr.”

Despite all the statues and the pictures and the churches and novenas, Saint Thérèse’s prophecy that the whole world would love her is not yet fully realized. It is necessary that the whole world should know her as the crusader that she is! All of her aspirations to battle the infidels and die for the Faith were in the spirit of Christendom’s greatest crusaders – men like the King of France, Saint Louis IX, who once wrote to the Mohammedan ruler of Egypt, “The soldiers who march under my standards cover the plains, and my cavalry is no less redoubtable. You have but one method by which to avoid the tempest that threatens you. Receive priests who will teach you the Christian religion. Embrace it, and adore the Cross; otherwise I will pursue you everywhere . . .”

It was in the spirit of Saint Louis IX that Saint Thérèse exclaimed during her last illness, “How happy I would have been to fight at the time of the Crusades, or later on, to fight against the heretics. Be assured that I should not have been afraid of the fire! Oh, is it possible that I must die in bed!”

From her cell in Carmel, Saint Thérèse offered herself to Jesus in a martyrdom of love for the salvation of souls. Like all the saints, Thérèse knew that Our Lord meant it when He said that the way to Heaven is narrow and “few there are that find it.” (Matthew 7:14.) And like her holy Carmelite mother and patroness, Saint Teresa of Avila, she would deplore the great numbers of the lost souls, describing them as “falling into Hell like snowflakes.”

Because she knew that the salvation of souls of even the most remote pagans depends on the ministrations of a priest, she took as one of her patrons the martyred missionary, Blessed Théophane Vénard; she offered her prayers and sacrifices for priests in the mission lands; and she lamented the weakness and apostasy of priests who were displeasing to Our Lord. “Alas! How many bad priests there are, and priests who are not holy enough!” wrote Thérèse. And as a counsel to the young missionary whom she addressed as her brother, she wrote, “Far more by suffering and by persecution than by eloquent discourse does Jesus wish to build up His Kingdom.”

The last words that Saint Thérèse wrote were these: “O Mary, were I Queen of Heaven and you Thérèse, I should wish to be Thérèse that I might see you Queen of Heaven!” And the last words that she spoke on earth – on September 30, 1897, at seven o’clock in the evening – were addressed to her Crucifix. “Oh, I love Him! … My God… I love Thee.”

Now that Saint Thérèse is with the Queen of Heaven and with the Jesus of her Crucifix, she still has things to say to Them. For before she died she said, “The good God will do everything I wish in Heaven, because I have never followed my own will on earth.” The spirit behind this utterance is part of the reason why the Holy Father put her in charge of interceding for all the missions in the world. But the apostle behind this utterance is the full reason. Because an apostle, a martyred and triumphant one, is most assuredly what the Little Flower of Jesus is.