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St. Therese of Lisieux
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Two years before her death, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face wrote to her aunt, Isidore Guerin: I love to read the lives of the saints very much. The account of their heroic deeds inflames my courage and spurs me on to imitate them. I must admit, however, that I have envied, at times, the happy lot of relatives who had the good fortune to live in their company and enjoy their holy conversation (July 20, 1895).
Two years after her death, the Autobiography (Story of a Soul) she was ordered to write by her Carmelite superiors was published. By the time of her canonization in 1925, over a million copies of the French edition had been sold and translations are now available in all the major languages of the world.
Thus the enjoyment that St. Therese found in reading the lives of the saints has been shared by millions of readers of her own life story.
Importance of St.Therese
Something of a record was set in the speed with which the Church moved in raising St. Therese to the honors of the altar. Her practice of virtue was declared heroic by Pope Benedict XV in 1921. The miracles worked through her intercession were approved two years later by Pope Pius XI, who beatified her in 1923 and canonized her in 1925.
As we read through the pontifical documents issued by these two pontiffs, we find one predominant theme they stress: Therese of Lisieux practiced the virtues of spiritual childhood. How important, then, is she among so many saintly persons in modern times? She is very important as a model of childlike reliance on the goodness of God.
This was admirably expressed by Benedict XV in the allocution when he gave Therese the title of Venerable.
It is our special desire that the secret of her sanctity may be disclosed to all our children ... The more the knowledge of this new heroine is spread abroad, the greater will be the number of imitators giving glory to God by the practice of the virtues of spiritual childhood.
As we reread the papal documents on Therese's virtues, certain features stand out. They may correctly be called the distinctive qualities of spiritual childhood, which the faithful are recommended to imitate. Thus spiritual childhood
If we look still closer at St.Therese's importance for our times, it becomes even more clear as we see the virus of pride infecting so many people in our day. As the popes are at pains to explain, whatever else the modern world needs, it is a rediscovery of the meaning of Christ's teaching about becoming like little children. He could not have been more solemn than when He warned us, "Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). This injunction was always necessary but it is crucial today when human achievements in the material world have intoxicated millions with self-conceit and widespread oblivion of God.
Unlike the great Catholic books of history, the Autobiography of St.Therese of Lisieux hardly has a historical setting that occasioned its publication or shaped its composition. Its author lived only twenty-four years, and nine of those were spent in the obscurity of a Carmelite cloister.
Yet there is a deep sense in which we can speak of the historical circumstances in which the book was written. Two French writers, who were contemporaries of St.Therese, give us some insight into the devastating ideas that began to plague Christianity in her day. Ernest Renan, the ex-seminarian of Brittany, repudiated the divinity of Christ, portrayed Him as a charming Galilean preacher, and denied that He had ever worked any miracles. Alfred Loisy, a priest from Lorraine, denied that Christ ever founded a Church or instituted any of the sacraments.
No contrast could be more startling than to compare, for example, Renan's Life of Jesus or Loisy's Gospel and the Church, with the Autobiography of St. Therese. She is writing in a spirit of deep faith, especially faith in the Divinity of Christ, Time and again she speaks to Jesus, as "My God"; whereas Renan and Loisy abandoned the faith they once had, and then studiously contradicted what they had formerly believed.
What should be emphasized, however, is that St.Therese's faith was severely tested. An essential part of her sanctity, therefore, was her courageous profession of faith in spite of the serious temptations against the faith that God allowed her to experience.
The latest publication of Therese's sayings reveals this side of her life which many commentators have overlooked. She was not only plagued with trials about the faith, but she saw the sufferings that God sent her as a providential means of obtaining or restoring faith for unbelievers. "I offer up," she confided to her superior, "these very great pains to obtain the light of faith for poor unbelievers, for all those who separate themselves from the Church's beliefs."
Keeping this in mind will give an entirely new dimension to St.Therese's practice of spiritual childhood. She was an extraordinarily gifted person, with a penetrating intellect. Yet she believed and grew in the faith almost because her faith was so sorely tried by the Lord.
Our Spiritual Focus
From the library of literature on the Little Flower, there are five chapters in her autobiography that give us the core of her spirituality.
This year is the centennial of the death of St. Therese of Lisieux. It comes almost on the eve of the twenty-first century. We can safely say that never before in Christian history has there been more need for an unhappy world, intoxicated with self-love, to learn from her that the only true happiness comes from surrendering one's heart to the Heart of God.
Father Hardon, S.J. is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.
Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica
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