Today we celebrate the feast of St. Theresa of Lisieux, a French Carmelite who lived from 1863 to 1897, dying of tuberculosis. On the occasion her death, her community, as was the custom among Carmelites, sent a brief history of her life around to the other convents. In her case, they augmented that history with an autobiography she had written in obedience to her mother superior. That summery of her life, that she called “The Story of a Soul,” somehow got out to a world that has embraced her as its “Little Flower.”
It’s over sixty years since I read the story of her soul, but let me mention a few items I recall. Her mother’s death when Theresa was four, along with her own bouts of sickness and scruples, left her a weak little girl until she was thirteen.
A highlight in those years had been her careful training for her first confession. So, on the big day she felt she was kneeling next to God to whom she could unburden her heart. That had her stunning the priest by bursting out with, “Oh, I love you!”
The weakness of her nature was replaced by a great staunchness on Christmas Eve when she was thirteen. As little girls would do, she had put out her shoe for St. Nicolas. Then, she overheard her father asking her sister, “How long will Theresa go on being a child?” Rather than being cast down by those words, Theresa used them as a means for instantly becoming mature.
Seventy years before her time the French priest Robert de Lamenais had composed a beautiful French translation of “The Imitation of Christ.” With that as her constant friend, Theresa forged on to spiritual strength. At fifteen she followed two of her sisters into the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux, where she was later joined by a fourth sister who had been carrying for their father.
As nuns reaching for sanctity, the Carmelite sisters had all chosen one or another of the Church’s great saints as models, but Theresa found her own way. Often troubled by weeks and years when God didn’t seem to be there for her, Theresa began seeing herself as a pretty little ball that the Child Jesus at time played with lovingly, while often deserting it in a corner for long spells. That made her Theresa of the Child Jesus
With her tuberculosis severely weakening her, Theresa was at first pleased by comments about her looking well; but then, on being greeted by an equal number of comments on how poorly she looked; she decided against letting the comments of others alter the way she felt in God’s presence.
The pains in her final weeks were unbelievably harsh on her, but toward the end, she made them into sweet calls from her Jesus, and she longed for more of them.