“My God! I love you!” – Last words of St. Therese of Lisieux
On September 30, 1897, Therese Martin, Sr. Therese of the Child Jesus, quitted her 24-year-old body and entered into eternity. The “Little Flower,” (a name she called herself which became emblematic of her relationship with the great gardener, God) was the ninth child born to Louis and Zelie Martin. After a painful battle against tuberculosis, Therese followed four of her siblings and both of her parents into the eternal arms of Jesus. The remaining four Martin sisters (who were also Carmelite nuns and therefore Therese’s natural and religious sisters) submitted Therese’s writings to the convent chaplain so that the process of her canonization could begin. In 1925, she was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her the third female Doctor of the Church. There is hardly a Western Catholic alive who does not know the name of St. Therese and at least some details of her life. In the Catholic tradition, she is one of our most powerful and beloved examples of Christian witness.
Under the direction of her mother superior (and her natural sister, Pauline), Therese wrote three letters detailing the story of her conversion, the story of her soul, and the story of her life inside of Carmel. These three letters (written to different family members, at different times, and in different lengths) were written by Therese (in obedience to her superiors) because many suspected that she would be a candidate for canonization after death and these testimonials would aid in that process. A truly obedient little sister and Carmelite sister, Therese gave her sister Pauline permission to edit the letters as necessary. Upon Therese’s death, her sisters trimmed, edited, and reworked some of Therese’s writing. While the original documents and the edited documents say substantially the same things, they are adjusted for different audiences. The edited version of her writing was published and is widely read under the title The Story of a Soul.
“It would certainly have been impossible to publish Therese’s manuscript word for word at the time… in a period when so much importance was attached to perfect correctness of style and scrupulous respect for literary conventions, to publish the rough notes of a young and unknown nun would have meant making oneself ridiculous as well as betraying the author… Mother Agnes in fact rewrote Therese’s autobiography… There is no doubt that the content remains substantially the same, so does the basis of the doctrine, but the form differs to the extent that the temperament of Mother Agnes differed from that of Therese.” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)
In 1952, Fr. François de Sainte Marie, a Carmelite priest, undertook the work of compiling a facsimile of the original writings of St. Therese. The French Carmelites asked Msgr. Ronald Knox to translate that French document into English. “One delightful trait runs throughout, namely a delicious vein of humour making her most vividly human, and who could better interpret the humour of Saint Therese than Monsignor Knox?” (Foreword)
Like many “good” Catholics, I first approached St. Therese in The Story of A Soul. Unlike so many of my friends, I was completely turned off by the writings of this giant of Catholic culture. I found her writing to be saccharine sweet and disconnected from my reality. I presumed that I was simply not called to love her.
When my reading buddy and I finished Creed In Slow Motion, we wanted more Knox to read. We loved the friendly and humorous voice in which he writes. We had been watching Bishop Barron and Word On Fire’s Catholicism series, and I really wanted to know why a theologian I so deeply respect was so smitten with St. Therese, when I could not approach her. On a whim, we agreed to read Knox’s translation of St. Therese’s autobiography. We were richly rewarded. Therese is anything but saccharine and her writing is powerful. Knox gave me a Therese who had meat on her bones and fire in her belly. She was loving and delightful, but she was also prideful and utterly human. Thanks to Knox, I believe that I have made a new friend in the “Little Flower.”
St. Therese was born very frail and her mother despaired of her maturing to full bloom. St. Zelie Martin had already buried four of her nine children and wrote to a friend, “I have no hope of saving her. The poor little thing suffers horribly…. It breaks your heart to see her.” Mercifully, Zelie was wrong. Therese had an iron will and an inherent passion to live. This strong will was rooted in a fierce pride. As a small child, Therese was delightful, but also stubborn. As Therese tells us, she had a very happy early childhood. When her mother died, however, Therese turned inward, becoming extremely sensitive and irritable. Her older sisters were loving and became surrogate mothers to her.
“The extraordinarily wide circulation of The Story of a Soul, which has become part of the patrimony of the Church, may tend to make the reader forget that its original character was that of an intimate family document. Witnesses at the Canonization Process stressed this point…” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)
This autobiography is interesting because it was never intended for publication. Therese desired only to make a full confession of her life, her conversion, her struggles against sin, and her desire to serve the Lord. In her humility and honesty, we get a gorgeous theology which has become central to modern Catholic thought. Therese studied the lives of the great saints like St. Teresa of Avila and became discouraged. She bemoaned that she could never do great things for Jesus like Catherine of Siena or Joan of Arc did. The more she grew in holiness, the more she understood that God plants flowers of many varieties in His garden. While she could not be a strong and perfect rose, she could be a little flower that loved Jesus in small but complete ways. She writes of a childlike prayer life and notes that while her prayers may never be great, they will have to be good enough because Jesus said that children would inherit the kingdom of God. The “Little Flower” even jokes that while the Grand Teresa could approach our Lord and look up to Him, she the Little Flower would ultimately get closer to Jesus because her smallness would beckon Him to stoop and pick her up.
Thanks to this translation, her story is filled with warmth, humor, humility, and friendliness. As I read of her days in the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux, I was inspired to study her “little ways” more carefully. Her small sacrifices were often far harder to make than great sacrifices would have been, because they were done in secret. Her example is particularly powerful to me in this season of life.