St. Thérèse of Lisieux was only twenty-four years old when she died on September 30, 1897, and yet she has become a Doctor of the Church and one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church. She has captured the imagination of countless people concerned with religion and spirituality by having achieved great wisdom without academic degrees and for having attained great holiness without living a life of extraordinary spiritual experiences.
Thérèse did this during the era of the nineteenth century when it was presumed that martyrdom was required to be recognized for sanctity in the Catholic Church or, if not martyrdom, then an extraordinary life of personal and spiritual gifts. That might mean great learning, skills of preaching, exceptional piety, notable ascetical practices, uncommon prayer experiences, spiritual visions or ecstasies, and even, perhaps, some status in the hierarchy, success in missionary work, or achievements in founding a religious community.
Thérèse experienced none of these. However, the gift that she did have, and which she gave to the Church, was to attain sanctity by living a simple, unremarkable life, responding to the demands of her day-to-day duties, attempting to do what God was asking of her at each moment, surrendering herself into God’s providence acting in peace, justice, and love.
The gift of her life and teaching has helped ordinary people know that there is an “ordinary sanctity”—a life of faith and love focused on God’s presence in the usual experiences of life. She has “democratized” holiness, making it clear that holiness is within the reach of anyone willing to do God’s will in love at each successive moment as life unfolds. Not everyone will be canonized a saint, certainly—not even a recognized saint; but everyone is called to holiness, and everyone can become a saint.
Born on January 2, 1873, Thérèse was the youngest of five girls in a very fervent, rather well-to-do Catholic family living in Normandy, France. Thérèse entered the religious Carmelite community in Lisieux at the age of fifteen…. Within the cloistered convent, Thérèse lived the remaining nine years of her life with the twenty-six or so of her companion religious, all engaged in the prayer, the devotional activities, and the usual domestic duties of community life. Because of her sensitivities, excessive at times, Thérèse suffered much during her life in her interactions with others, in the aridity of her prayer, and with her own inner struggles. She also bore especially intense physical and emotional suffering during the last eighteen months of her life as she endured with great patience and without pain suppressants the ravages of tuberculosis.
Thérèse’s prayerful reflections on her life experiences, and in particular on her interactions with the sisters of the community, formed an important foundation for her holiness. It was mostly from her own experiences that she learned the wisdom of the science of love and formulated her teaching. She was canonized a saint in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, twenty-seven years after her death—the most rapid canonization under the current procedures.
Her holiness consisted of a deep interior life of faith, centered on God and expressed in prayer and responding to God’s will through inconspicuous acts of charity toward others. Although not recognized as exceptionally saintly by many of the equally devout religious women with whom she lived, Thérèse, who identified herself among the “little ones” of God’s kingdom, came to be greatly appreciated as a very humble, wise, patient, and loving sister. Her holiness and wisdom were acknowledged by the community when she was given, at only twenty years of age, the responsibility of helping to mentor the newer candidates in the spiritual life of the convent.
She was not gifted with any unusual human or spiritual accomplishments, and after her death her memory, like the memory of almost all holy people, would have simply vanished into the recesses of history. She has been saved from sure oblivion only by her writings and by the miracles attributed to her intercession that began very shortly after her death.
Thérèse had only composed her autobiography near the end of her life at the request of her superiors, and she expected that they alone would read it. After her death, however, the superiors first distributed the manuscript to the other French Carmelite communities as a kind of obituary. It was published more widely later that year as Story of a Soul—a book that has since gone through ninety or so editions and has been translated into more than sixty languages. Still in print, the book continues to this day to be a religious best seller.
In her writings, she had promised to spend her heaven doing good on earth. Many who learned of her life were attracted to her spirituality and were touched by her promise of help. They prayed to her for favors, and many of their requests were answered. Through her intercession miracles began to happen, and miracles small and grand continue to this day….
Those who have come to know Thérèse have embraced her as the “little saint” of the little way—the saint of the “ordinary whom they are able to imitate.” Her devotees understand that her greatness consists in her willingness to walk the path of faith and love in the daily responsibilities of life—the same path that they, too, are trying to walk in their own lives. She was a person who understood and lived the Gospel message of peace and charity in a way that is not beyond them. They especially appreciate the simplicity, wisdom, and love with which she engaged her lifelong struggles with her own natural flaws and spiritual weaknesses—struggles that they, too, experience in their own lives. And they fully agree with Pope Pius XI that she is “the greatest saint of modern times”.
Pope John Paul II proclaimed St Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church in October 1997, the year of the hundredth anniversary of her death. In granting Thérèse this distinction, the pope was responding to some sixty years of requests from the hierarchy and theologians from around the world who, within ten years of her canonization, had begun petitioning that she be made a doctor.
The title “Doctor of the Church” is equivalent to the designation “official teacher of the Church” but does not strictly depend on academic credentials or theological achievements. Rather, the title proclaims the holiness of Thérèse, but particularly testifies to the depth and orthodoxy of her wisdom and also to the universal appreciation given to her message. … “A particular radiance of doctrine shines forth from her writings which, as if by a charism of the Holy Spirit, grasp the very heart of the message of Revelation in a fresh and original vision, presenting a teaching of eminent quality….With her distinctive doctrine and unmistakable style, Thérèse appears as an authentic teacher of faith and the Christian life. In her writings, as in the sayings of the Holy Fathers, is found that life-giving presence of Catholic tradition.”
Saint Thérèse is a great gift to those seeking peace and love today, since she herself is the spiritual director who can help ordinary people realize more fully the union with God that constitutes authentic sanctity.
—excerpted from Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love, by Joseph Schmidt, The Word Among Us Press, 2012.