In 1997 Carmelites and many others marked the centenary of the death of St. Therese of Lisieux, called by many the Little Flower ( September 30, 1997 ). What draws people to this woman, this saint of the Church? Her story as told in her autobiography, THE STORY OF A SOUL, is engaging.
born to love
She reveals so honestly her struggles in life and how she forged a meaning, a commitment that made a difference. She lost her mother when she was only four and a half. Her older sister Pauline took over the role of mother but she departed from the family home to join the Carmel of Lisieux when Therese was only nine and a half. She missed her terribly and suffered a period of extreme anxiety and depression.
Therese had a hard time fitting into elementary school because some kids picked on her and she found it hard to relate to many of them. But she was bright and capable and had a great love for history and religion. She recognized that her early life experiences made her very self-centered and overly sensitive. She believed that Jesus Christ alone helped her to overcome this selfishness. When she received communion at the Christmas midnight mass of 1886 in her parish church in Lisieux, she experienced a mysterious renewal. I felt charity enter my soul. No longer would she walk around with a weepy and self-pitying disposition. The fact is that she did change her behavior and quickly developed a new sense of direction, one centered on love. She wanted to become a Carmelite in the Carmel of Lisieux. Already she had two sisters living in the Lisieux monastery. One might think that she was just following her sisters, but St. Therese makes it quite clear in her autobiography that she desired to enter Carmel on her own terms: to give her love to Jesus Christ and to those with whom she would live in the Carmelite community and also to pray for sinners and for priests. She had no illusions about the monastic life being demanding. She sought the permission of Pope Leo XIII to enter the Carmel at age fifteen while on a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome. The Pope told her to listen to the leadership of the local church of Bayeux-Lisieux. After some hesitation, the local Bishop granted her wish but not with a great deal of conviction about her maturity. The truth is that no one really knew her outside her own family and her cousins, the Guerins. Few were aware of the deep religious faith conviction that motivated her desire to give her life totally to God.
Her sense of commitment led her to a profound experience of the love of god and of neighbor. She never had an easy life, but she did live with a great sense of peace and joy. What made such joy possible? Fundamentally, she found that love could only be captivating when a person trusts completely in a loving God. That trust has to be stated every day in the way we pray and live out the responsibilities and demands of our lives. She found the power of love in her relationship to Jesus Christ.
Fr. John F. Russell, O.Carm.
Seton Hall University