Certain great writers have been named “Doctors of the Church” because the doctrines they proclaimed conform to revealed truths and shed new light on the mysteries of faith. Many men have been given this title, but, only three women have received it: Sts. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and, on October 19th, 1997, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus (The Little Flower of Jesus), whose feast we celebrate on October 3rd in Nigeria.
Although she died at 24, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus is beloved by millions worldwide as a ‘spiritual master’ of the Church. Announcing her new title, Pope John Paul II observed that Therese (as Theresa is fondly called) “is the youngest of all the Doctors of the Church, but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound, that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters.” “The way she took to reach this ideal of life is not that of the great undertakings reserved for the few, but on the contrary, a way within everyone’s reach, the ‘little way’, a path of trust and total self-abandonment to the Lord’s grace,” the Pope continued.
St. Therese has become known throughout the world for her “little way.” As she herself said, “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, not even at their difficulty, but at the love at which we do them.” She used the most humble, hidden and ordinary actions of daily life as the way of perfecting her spiritual life. Therese was born in January 2nd, 1873, in Alencon, France, to the devout, middle-class family of Louis Martin, a watchmaker, and Zelic Martin, a lacemaker. The youngest of nine children, she was particularly treasured because four of her siblings had died young. When Therese was 4, her mother died of breast cancer leaving her in the care of her sister, Pauline. Pauline entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, when Therese was about 10, leaving her feeling abandoned once again.
Therese’s first communion at 11 was a highlight of her life. She called it “kiss of love”. But, when her sister Marie also entered the Carmel, Therese, was convinced that life on earth was a time of suffering and separations. She focused increasingly on her inner life. Soon, she was convinced that she, like her sisters, had a vocation to the Carmelite Order. However, the Rule of Carmel permitted those 16 and older to enter by special dispensation, but her bishop refused admittance until she was 21. In any case, she was only 15.
Therese’s father arranged a pilgrimage to Rome that included an audience with Pope Leo XIII. Here, Therese requested thus, “Most Holy Father …. permit me to enter the Carmel at the age of 15.” The Pope to1d her to follow normal procedures, saying, “Go… You will enter if God wills it”.
At Easter time in 1888, she joined her sisters at the Lisieux convent. For the next nine years, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (the religious name she took as a Carmelite) lived an uneventful life. She did laundry, prayed, attended Mass, participated in recreation and lived exactly as other Carmelites. In April 1896, Therese began coughing blood, which was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. Her health deteriorated. By June 1897, she was in a wheelchair, finishing her spiritual biography, written at the urging of her sister Pauline and the prioress.
By July, she was haemorrhaging badly and by August, she could not receive Communion because of constant vomiting. “If I did not simply suffer from one moment to another, it would be impossible for me to be patient; but I look only at the present moment, forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future”. St. Therese said, “When we yield to discouragement or despair, it is usually because we give too much thought to the past and to the future.”
On September 30th, 1897, after enduring hours of choking, Therese confessed her love for God; “Oh, I love Him. My God … I love You,” and she died at 24. At Therese’s canonization ceremony, only 27 years after her death, all four Martin sisters joined more than 60,000 others in recognizing the eternal sanctity of the Little Flower. St. Therese teaches us to turn our disappointment into prayer and sacrifice. We are encouraged by her that, “Often when I cry to heaven for help, it is when I feel most abandoned. But then, I turn to God and His saints and thank them nevertheless.” Therese accepted the most worn habit and the least appetizing food without comment or complaint. No matter our state in life, we should always find ways to exercise patience and charity. May we use Therese as our example of using little things to great perfection.
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