This work covers the life of Marie-Françoise- Thérèse Martin (a.k.a. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux or the Little Flower) from her teenaged years until her death at age twenty-four from tuberculosis, with some aftermath. Also included are appendixes that contain an updated version of a lecture that I have presented on Thérèse to different audiences, which includes selected quotes from Church documents relating to Thérèse’s canonization and being made a Doctor of the Church, and a reference guide for works on her that may or may not have inspired some of the scenes that I have written into this story.
Thérèse lived in Lisieux in France’s lower Normandy in the late 1800’s. She was a woman who intended never to be known and, viewed only on the surface, should never have been known, and yet is a Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church, who is known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike—or so I have read. Sadly, at least on a personal level, I find myself encountering people who have never heard of her, and if they have, then their knowledge is only superficial, since they have not gone beyond the stereotypical floweriness often attributed to her, and so are unable to see just how valuable knowing her life can be in finding meaning in one’s own life.
She is also known, thanks to Pope Pius XI who canonized her, as the Greatest Saint of Modern Times. According to Pope John Paul II, her autobiography, Story of a Soul, and other works pertaining to her have had a profound positive impact not only on the Catholic Church but also on Protestants and non-Christians. In other words, there seems to be something for everyone, regardless of background, when it comes to Thérèse.
Why is this so? How does a girl who enters a cloistered convent (meaning she was willingly cut o from the outside world) at the age of fifteen and ends up dying at twenty four, totally unknown to the world, and barely known by many of the religious sisters with whom she lived, end up being canonized a saint just over two decades later, and, on top of that, declared a Doctor of the Church?
It all started with what would seem like chance circumstance and simple obedience. e circumstance was that Thérèse had older biological sisters who lived in the convent with her and the act of obedience was for her to write about her life and her relationship with God, something she never would have done if she had not been told to by her superiors in the convent.
The work, which came to be known as The Story of a Soul, was never intended to be published. It was merely going to be a memento for her convent and especially her biological family living within its walls. Yet it became one of the most beloved works of literature in the world.
In my opinion, the attribute that has drawn so many to love Thérèse over the many years, since her death in 1897, is her bold confidence which she began tapping into at an early age. This confidence is not to be confused with arrogance, and it does not mean she always felt certain about what she was doing, or that she never suffered. She knew it was not going to be easy to be allowed to enter a Carmelite monastery at age fifteen, and the task of appealing to certain people to bring this about, such as Pope Leo XIII, must have seemed daunting. After entering, while still a teenager, her community was hit by a flu epidemic, and she was one of the few left standing who had to attend to all of the sick. She was also tasked, at an earlier than normal age, with aiding in the instruction of incoming novices. Thérèse saw these things through faithfully, though they seemed bigger than her.
Her confidence really shined, ironically, when she was hit with tuberculosis in 1896, which, eighteen months later, brought about her death. The disease caused tremendous physical suffering. In the midst of that she also experienced a sense of abandonment. Everything she grew up believing in suddenly felt like a lie. To summarize that, she was not only experiencing outer physical suffering, but also internal emotional and spiritual suffering. Yet the confidence she held onto caused many in her community to not even believe she was sick, much less experiencing spiritual darkness.
Thérèse’s confidence also clung to a belief that any suffering that we experience, no matter how apparently trivial or devastating, can be used for good. It is a confidence that has touched many people and helped them to find a sense of meaning and direction in their lives that they might not have otherwise known.