One of the first Catholics books I ever read was Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux, commonly known as St. Therese the Little Flower. At that time, I wasn’t able to finish it. It seemed too saccharine and sentimental to me. Having read the lives of St. Anthony the Great and some of the other Desert Fathers, the story of St. Therese wasn’t masculine enough for me. As a matter of fact, it was rather girly.
The years went by, but St. Therese was never far from my mind. Before I converted to Catholicism, I bought a little rosary in honor of St. Therese. I recited it every day for several weeks. At the end, God gave me a sign that I was supposed to go up to the parish priest and ask him to be received into the Church. Unmistakably, the church was decorated with red roses which are St. Therese’s special sign of intercession.
Over the years, I have read many different books about St. Therese. However, there was always something that put me off about her. I’m not sure what it was or why I didn’t get as much out of books about her as I thought I should. Perhaps, I simply was not ready to read her writings because I wasn’t spiritually prepared for the encounter that I would have with her.
A few days ago, I chanced upon a post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker in which he wrote about his own encounter with St. Therese. Inspired by this, I pulled out a book that I had bought several years ago called My Sister St. Therese. It is a memoir by Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face, St. Therese’s older sister, and contains many stories and quotations from her life as a Carmelite nun.
In reading this rather short book, I suddenly realized that all of those holy cards which depict St. Therese as angelically sweet are dead wrong about the kind of person she was. While she was a sweet person, she was also somebody who realized in the depths of her heart what it meant to bring souls to Christ and how to suffer for them. There are numerous stories about the way in which she swallowed her medicine during her final illness or the fact that she used old postcards and scraps of paper to write her poems because she thought of these things as sacrifices for souls.
There is also another dimension about St. Therese’s spirituality that also struck me. As I have said numerous times before on this blog, one of my favorite themes to write about is Divine Providence. In the writings of St. Therese, this theme can be found in numerous places. As a matter of fact, her Way of Spiritual Childhood is nothing more than the complete abandonment of one’s self to Divine Providence as an act of selfless oblation and the willingness to do everything for the love of Jesus.
In reading St Therese’s letters and other writings, I am often struck by the depth of her thoughts and ideas. Although she died at the age of twenty four, she had developed well beyond her years. Even if her language is at times sentimental and girly, this is nothing more than a reflection on the time and place in which she spent most of her short life.
It seems to me that all of us should try to reassess St. Therese and try to forget the image on so many statues and holy cards. Although these images are truthful to some extent, they only tell half of the story. The real St. Therese, the Carmelite mystic and the doctor of the Little Way, is someone whom we should really get to know well.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!
St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!