A Popular Saint
Undoubtedly, St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most popular saints today. And there are very good reasons for that. One reason, of course, is that many people have benefited from her intercession. Some of these answered prayers have been true miracles. In most cases, they have been less spectacular answers to prayer but still wonderful because Thérèse 's intercession has drawn the recipients of the answers closer to God.
Another reason that Thérèse is popular is because she is a very approachable person. There is something about her that makes her very easy to relate to by the average person. It is very interesting because she only lived to the age of 25, and for the last nine years of her life, she was a cloistered Carmelite nun.
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Extraordinary in the Ordinary
There is something about her that has this beautiful ordinary sense. Not ordinary in the sense that many of her fellow nuns considered her. In fact, as Thérèse was dying, some sisters mused out loud what exactly would be written about Thérèse after her death. They could not think of anything that would be included in the usual write-up that was circulated among the Carmelite monasteries upon the death of a nun.
No, Thérèse is ordinary in that most extraordinary sense. She lived her life of faith in the ordinary warp and woof of her day-to-day living. She embodies that idea that each of us is called to be a saint right where we are. We simply need to do God's will. And if there is one thing that Thérèse wanted to do, it was to do God's will.
You might recall how she discerned that she, like her older two sisters, was called to be a Carmelite nun. However, she wanted to become a nun starting as early as the age of 14. Not surprisingly, she was told that she was too young. However, once, she became convinced that it was God's will, she faithfully pursued her vocation. She recognized it was the will of God, and she was determined to do it.
And, indeed, she became a nun at the young age of fifteen. Think about that for just a moment. How many of us know young people that would be prepared to enter the religious life at the age of 15? It shows that God was with her and she was a mature young woman.
Also, do not get me wrong. Thérèse is also very extraordinary. She wrote wonderful plays and poetry, and she was a very good artist. Her autobiography which was written at the request of her older sister is a spiritual masterpiece. In fact, because of that work she has been declared a Doctor of the Church.
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However, what she shares in the Story of the Soul is that each of is called to holiness in the ordinariness of our lives. We are to pour ourselves completely into the lives that God has given us.
For example, instead of seeking extraordinary sacrifices, she points out to us that we can make sacrifices of our every day irritations. The oft-cited example from her own words is her giving to God her minor irritation at being splashed with wash water by a sister who was a bit too zealous in her efforts to clean. It seems a nothing, but that is what is she is able to give to God at that moment. Thérèse can offer to God her work at washing and her not reacting to being splashed with dirty water by a fellow nun who is somewhat oblivious. How many such offerings could you and I make each day?
Another part of holiness for Thérèse is living out God's will. She felt she was called to become a Carmelite. Then when she became a Carmelite, she lived out God's will by being obedient to the Rule of the order. She wrote,
"When any break the rule, this is not a reason to justify ourselves. Each must act as if the perfection of the Order depended on her personal conduct."
For all of us, it is similar. Doing God's will is fulfilling the duties of our callings. Married men and women should be good husbands and wives. Parents should be good parents. Children should be good children. Religious should be good religious. And priests should be good priests.
What is interesting about this ordinary pursuit of holiness is that it opens us up to the extraordinary. By doing God's will and striving to cooperate with God's grace in the circumstances we encounter each day, we become open to God's extraordinary intervention in our lives.
Looking back on our lives, we can recognize those times when God acted in a way that altered our lives. The coincidence was no coincidence, it was God acting in our life in an extraordinary way. However, it is often our faithfulness in the ordinary moments that prepared us to receive the extraordinary.
The same was true for Thérèse . She had her own miracles. One of those she called the Christmas miracle. It happened when she 13 years of age.
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The Christmas Miracle
When Thérèse was very young, she had a will of iron which, at times, exasperated her parents. Her mother, Zelie Martin wrote in a letter;
"As for [Therese], one cannot tell how she will turn out, she is so young and heedless … her stubbornness is almost unconquerable. When she has said no, nothing will make her change; one could leave her all day in the cellar without getting her to say yes. She would sooner sleep there."
Sadly, her mother died when she was three and half years of age. Naturally, this was very difficult for young Thérèse . She withdrew into herself and maintained that stubbornness.
It showed up in different ways including a clinging to her childishness and being oversensitive which often resulted in tears over perceived slights and denials.
Thérèse recalls the story that when she was thirteen years of age, she still struggled with her childishness.
The family had come home after midnight mass. As usual, the children's shoes had been left by the fireplace and filled with presents. Thérèse fully expected to open the gifts which had always been enjoyable to her father because of the excitement and surprise she expressed when opening the gifts. This in turn pleased her because she was pleased to see her father happy.
However, as she was ascending the steps to take off her hat before coming down to open the gifts, she heard her father say, "Thérèse ought to have outgrown all this sort of thing, and I hope this will be the last time."
This hurt Thérèse very much to hear him say that. Her sister Céline who knew how prone Thérèse was to react with sobbing to a comment like this suggested that Thérèse not go downstairs to open the gifts as she would be too upset and burst into tears. And indeed she probably would have.
However, Thérèse believes that she experienced a healing as Jesus intervened and gave her the grace to master her emotions. Instead of being upset, she ran down the stairs and joyfully opened her gifts with nary a sign that she was upset by what had been said. Rather, her father who had been cross became excited and joined in Thérèse 's joy in opening her gifts. Her sister Céline was utterly shocked at how Thérèse acted and even more surprised at how she had not acted.
Thérèse called this her Christmas miracle because she firmly believed that Jesus had given her the strength of will to overcome her natural inclination to be upset and instead to act in a loving and joyful way.
And, it was not just for the moment. Instead, it was a genuine conversion. In fact, it was a turning point for Thérèse in giving up her childish and stubborn ways. Instead, she was given the grace to respond rather than to react. Thérèse no longer was oversensitive, and she was able to refine the gift of a strong will to channel it for doing God's will. And, she did use that gift to accomplish His will. Within two years, Thérèse would enter the Carmelite order at the age of fifteen.
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Learn More About St. Thérèse of Lisieux
If you would like to learn more about St. Thérèse, here are some books I would recommend to get you started. Click on the book image or the link for more information about the book.
Story of a Soul
There is no better place to start than with St. Thérèse's autobiography, Story of a Soul. Asked by her sister Marie, who was also a Carmelite nun, to write about her spiritual practices, Thérèse wrote down her thoughts with the little free time she had. The result was three manuscripts that are a spiritual masterpiece.
Everything is Grace
The book is intended to provide the reader with an introduction to St. Thérèse's life and spirituality and to provide deeper insights into way of holiness for those who already familiar with her.