Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, popularly known as the Little Flower, died in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. Had she lived to be ninety, as two of her blood sisters did, she would have died in 1963. She is, therefore, in a sense, our contemporary. As Pope John Paul II said when he named her a Doctor of the Church in 1997, she offers us a contemporary understanding of love, the essence of the gospel.
But what exactly can we learn from Thérèse? She seems so far removed from the challenges and struggles we face today. After all, she spent her last nine years in a cloistered convent in France. Not to mention that she is often presented as a sentimental and even syrupy saint who lived in undisturbed, peaceful piety.
It may come as a surprise, then, that one of Thérèse’s most significant teachings has to do with how to handle the more troubling feelings and emotions that we are all too familiar with—anger, hostility, and melancholy, for example, as well as the desire for attention and recognition. What’s more, these teachings are not abstract musings. Her writings brim with examples of how she noticed her feelings, explored them, and profited from them.
Over time, Thérèse discovered that human feelings and emotions—including those that upset us the most—can really be blessings in disguise. She found that if she approached them in the right spirit, they could even become stepping-stones to holiness. Her example shows us the way.
Feelings and Failure. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, paints a realistic picture of the unruly feelings and traits that she had to deal with. One was stubbornness. Another was the unhealthy need for approval that she began to demonstrate around the age of four, after her mother died. Thérèse became fixated on pleasing her father and four older sisters, all of whom loved her as the baby of the family. She was hypersensitive, as well, “really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness.”
And yet, very early on, Thérèse had fallen in love with Jesus. She wanted to follow him, correct her faults, and be a saint. She sensed that she was not really free inside, and she wanted to have greater control over her actions and emotions—“not being their slave but their mistress.”
For ten years, Thérèse applied her formidable willpower to this goal of perfection through self-improvement. In the end, however, she had to admit that she was getting nowhere. She was still self-centered and tossed about by feelings that she could not manage. By her willful striving, she was only doing violence to who she really was.
The “Night of Light.” The turning point came when Thérèse gave up trying to make herself the saint she wanted to be and instead allowed God to make her the saint she was created to be. It happened on Christmas morning 1886, just days before her fourteenth birthday.
On the outside, it looked like a trivial event: Thérèse overheard her father remark impatiently that he would be glad when she outgrew a certain childish Christmas custom. Normally, this mild criticism would have reduced her to tears. Instead, she was suddenly empowered to take charge of her feelings and to join the family celebration with true calmness and joy.
Thérèse called this a “night of light,” when she received a new inner strength and confidence that God would make up for her weakness. He would help her put aside self-preoccupation and self-violence and make love her aim in her relationships with other people.
Thérèse discovered that this work of transformation does not require our “work.” Jesus needs only our “good will”—our “willingness”—to cooperate with him and let him transform us. And so, never again did she use brute effort to subdue her emotions. Rather, in a spirit of freedom and trusting submission to God, she worked with her feelings, doing what God asked of her. When she failed, she accepted the feelings that came along with her failure, and just continued on.
As she learned this way of dealing with unruly emotions, Thérèse developed three interrelated strategies to help her: She persevered in prayer; she brought every feeling into the light of faith; and she refused to allow her feelings to make her see other people as enemies.
Persevering Prayer. As a cloistered nun, Thérèse faithfully recited prayers, used prayer books, and prayed in common with her Carmelite sisters. For her, though, prayer was essentially a matter of being available to a loving God in the ordinary experiences of daily life. To help sustain this availability, she often said short prayers, exploring her feelings with God as soon as she became aware of them. As a beloved child would speak with her parent, she spoke to the Lord about her joys and pains, her successes and failures. As she once put it:
I do not . . . search out beautiful prayers in books. There are so many . . . it really gives me a headache! . . . I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, . . . and he always understands me.
Heart-to-heart conversation with the Lord was Thérèse’s primary way of working with her difficult feelings. She asked him for help, expressed her gratitude, and persevered in prayer—even during those times when she felt distressed because God seemed absent. No matter what the situation—even when she was tempted to get upset after falling asleep in prayer—Thérèse brought her difficult feelings to Jesus, offering him her very weakness.
Into the Light. As Thérèse developed the habit of sharing every feeling with God, she became more convinced that no matter how she felt, she was still in God’s loving embrace. This security enabled her to face even her greatest weaknesses without getting defensive.
Gradually, Thérèse came to see that her feelings revealed a truth about her temperament and immediate expectations. For example, because she had been pampered as a child, she was unprepared to take up the common housekeeping tasks assigned her when she entered Carmel at fifteen. She was also unprepared for the criticism she received—she had expected the nuns to appreciate her. Thérèse’s feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and hurt reflected an obvious reality: She was indeed inadequate to the task at hand, and her expectations of the nuns had been unrealistic.
But these feelings didn’t tell Thérèse the whole truth. The whole truth was that God loved her no matter how upset she felt: He didn’t reject her because of her inadequacies.
Years later, Thérèse experienced success in counseling younger nuns. Though delighted, she knew that pleasant feelings were not the whole truth either. Instead of congratulating herself, she thanked God for the Spirit’s work in her, the real source of her success.
Thérèse’s faults and failings displeased her, of course, but she had learned that there was only one way to deal with them. As she once advised her sister: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be . . . [for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter.”
Thérèse’s resolve to bring every feeling to Christ was put to the test during her final days. Ravaged by tuberculosis, plagued by dark feelings that heaven did not exist and that only nothingness awaited her, she experienced frightening temptations to suicide.
Compounding these dreadful feelings was her sense of isolation from her sisters. Thérèse refrained from sharing her distress with them because she feared that she might blaspheme and cause scandal. And so, during this critical time of physical pain and emotional anguish, she was supported only by her willingness to bring her agonizing feelings into the light of faith. That made all the difference.
Make No Enemies. Thérèse worked with her difficult feelings as best she could, bringing them to God for healing. In the process, she began to understand the meaning of charity and to cultivate a deeper love for her Carmelite sisters. Still, even after nearly nine years in the convent, Thérèse discovered that she could feel hostility toward them as well.
Spontaneous feelings of animosity welled up in her when one sister inadvertently splashed dirty laundry water on her; another nun was hard to take because she constantly made repugnant noises during prayers. Small matters on the outside, but big feelings for her on the inside!
Thérèse meditated on Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27). “No doubt,” she said wryly, “we don’t have any enemies in Carmel.” Then she added with disarming honesty, “but there are feelings.” She saw the connection between her feelings and “the enemy.” She knew this was the label she placed on any nun who aroused strong negative feelings within her. In this sense, she recognized that it was her expectations and emotions that were making enemies, not the sisters themselves.
True, jealousy and resentment of Thérèse made some of the nuns treat her like their enemy. But she did not want to fuel her own spontaneous feelings of hostility, lose her inner freedom, and make them her enemies.
Hostile feelings came without Thérèse’s consent. But putting Jesus’ command into practice meant, at least, not cultivating or acting on them. And so, Thérèse tried her best not to entertain or justify them.
For instance, she described one sister as “displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me.” Thérèse simply smiled at her when she could, but sometimes, all she could do was leave: “I used to run away like a deserter whenever my struggles became too violent.” It wasn’t the height of charity, but it was the most honest and charitable thing she could do. She was simply loving her “enemy” and herself the best she could.
Weak but Willing. Essentially, Thérèse’s way of working with her feelings was to bring them to God, who might or might not give her the grace to overcome a fault. Getting rid of her faults was God’s business; willingly surrendering to God was her business.
In her own experiences from childhood to maturity, Thérèse made a significant discovery. She learned that her troubling, distressing feelings—especially feelings of harshness or violence toward herself or others—would block her ability to love. By praying patiently, by bearing her emotional weakness serenely, and by refusing to cultivate any such feelings, she helps us glimpse what a contemporary understanding of love might look like.
In her own way, Thérèse discovered the same truth that St. Paul expressed: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Now she invites each of us to experience it for ourselves.
Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, is a lecturer, spiritual director, and counselor at the international renewal center of the Christian Brothers near Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is author of Everything Is Grace: The Life and Way of Thérèse of Lisieux (paperback, 336 pp.), which is available from The Word Among Us Press at 1-800-775-9673.