‘LITTLE Thérèse,” was her answer, when asked how she wanted to be called, for “I am a very little soul who can only offer very little things to God.”
Childhood and heaven are two inseparable words for her.
“I have put my desire to grow up for I feel incapable of earning my livelihood, which is eternal life…. My only care has been to gather flowers of love and sacrifices, and offer them to God for His good pleasure,” quotes Mary Fabyan Windeatt in The Little Flower, The Story of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
A spiritual child of Saint John of the Cross, Saint Therese adhered to his motto that “love is repaid by love alone.”
To Fr. Maurice Bathelemy Balliere, an aspiring missionary priest entrusted by the Mother Prioress for Therese to pray for, she wrote: “I cannot fear a God who became so little. He is only love and mercy.”
The word “little” is repeated 1,981 in the writings of Saint Thérèse. It encompasses her fundamental attitude on what man’s response ought to be in response to God’s love who made himself “little for man, a child wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
The Martins, a family of faith and piety
SAINT Thérèse was born on January 2, 1873, to Louis Joseph Aloysius Stanislau Martin and Zélie Marie Guerin. Louis wanted to be a monk in Saint Bernard Seminary, but was rejected because he did not know Latin.
Zelie wanted to be a nun at Saint Vincent de Paul. A deeply religious woman, with overflowing love for the sick and the poor, was not accepted in Saint Vincent de Paul. The superior bluntly told her “religious life is not the will of God for her.”
John Beevers in Saint Thérèse, The Little Flower: The Making af a Saint, quoted Zelie’s reaction: “Lord, since I am not worthy to be your bride, I shall marry. I beseech you give me many children and let them all be consecrated to you.”
Louie at 35 and Zélie at 26 were married in Notre Dame Cathedral France. On January 2, 1873, Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin, the youngest among nine children, was born. Only five of their children lived to adulthood and became nuns, four Carmelites and one Visitandine.
Treated as the darling of the family, she was a lively and happy child. When Thérèse was four, Zélie died and the family settled in Lisieux, with Pauline as the little mother.
Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face, her eldest sister, narrates in My Sister Saint Thérèse that as a child, Thérèse read the lives of saints.
On how the readings inspired her, Thérèse wrote: “They intensified my yearning after the good and the beautiful, guided and enraptured the years of my youth…caught a glimpse of the ideal of sanctity.”
In school teachers and classmates considered her “odd, meticulously faithful even” to details of rules.
In her autobiography, she considered the years spent in school “the saddest in my life.”
She had her first communion on May 8, 1884, and confirmation on June 14. Her total openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to spiritual teachers, was the beginning of her mystical life and the grace of fortitude to suffer.
On Christmas Eve of 1886 she had a mystic vision of the Child Jesus.
‘My call is love’
SAINT Thérèse of Lisieux, the Patron of Foreign Missions, never traveled beyond Altencon, except for a journey to Rome on November 4, 1887, with her father and sister Celine to beg permission from the Holy Father, Leo XIII, to enter religious life immediately. She applied for acceptance to Carmel in Lisieux in the summer of 1882. She was nine years old. The French Catholic Paper recounts what the pope said in Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison: His Holiness encouraged her “to be patient, pray very much, seek counsel from God and her conscience. This caused the young girl to break down into sobs.”
On December 2, 1887, she sent the bishop a note, saying: “It is through you that Jesus is going to carry out his promise.”
On New Year’s Day of 1888 she was informed she had been accepted, but it was on April 9, 1889, that she finally entered Carmel because of her age and frail health.
She was welcomed by Marie and Pauline, her older sisters, now Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart and Sister Agnes of Jesus.
She welcomed the silence, simplicity and poverty, chants and prayer life, and was convinced her vocation is to be a Carmelite until death.
To be a saint like Saint Teresa of Ávila, she performed all ordinary daily tasks assigned her in extraordinary ways. She was even reprimanded by Father Blino, who exclaimed: “What pride and presumption! Confine yourself to the correction of your faults; see that you offend the good God no more; make some little progress each day, and moderate your rash desires.”
Living a life of simplicity and humility, she also desired to be a martyr. Aware that in evangelization, prayer and action are complementary, if she cannot offer her life for the growth of the church and salvation of souls, it must be by love.
In her spiritual biography, The History of a Soul, she wrote: “O Jesus at last I have found my place in the church: my call is love.”
She received her holy habit on January 10, 1889, a week after her 16 birthday and on September 24, 1890, the black veil to complete the act of religious profession.
She took the name “Thérèse of the Child Jesus,” a name she desired when she was 9 years old.
In Thérèse Martin: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Rosemary Haughton wrote that she added “and of the Holy Face” to her religious name because she loved Jesus as a baby and the countenance of Jesus during his passion. It was a face streaked with blood from a crown of thorns, bruised and swollen from soldiers’ blows, covered with sweat and dust. This is the mystic vision she saw on Christmas Day of 1886 and significantly imprinted in her mind and soul.
Although her health had never been very good since she entered Carmel, she lived a life of total abandonment and accepted the assignment Mistress of Novices at age 20.
“Tall and strong with the appearance of a child…hiding within her a wisdom, a perfection, a perspicacity of a 50 year old…Little innocent thing, to whom one would give God without confession….but full of mischief to play on anyone she pleases, make you weep with devotion and just as easily split your sides with laughter,” was how Saint Thérèse was described by her subprioress when she was 20 years old.
ON April 4, 1896, she coughed blood, but downplayed her sufferings.
The community was accustomed to her coughing spells, sorethroat, fevers and off-and-on fatigue since she never complained of anything.
Her journal reflected her paschal sufferings: “I have come to Carmel to save souls and more especially to pray for priests, I prefer sacrifice to all ecstasies.”
On May 18, 1897, she was relieved of all her duties and later confined to the infirmary, her emaciated body reduced to a pitiable state.
She confided to her sister Pauline, “If you only know what frightful thoughts obsess me,” and asked her not to leave poisonous medicine within her reach.
Going through “the dark night of her soul,” Rev. Pere Godefrey Madelaine, the community confessor, counseled her to copy the Credo and wear it over her heart.She did, and wrote it in her own blood, “stared straight into the eyes of atheism, her astute intelligence recognized the force of its arguments and simply confronted them with a fierce unyielding faith,” was how Patrick Ahern described how she battled with neurosis in Maurice and Thérèse, the inspiring letters between her and a struggling young priest.
Sufferings did not affect her amiable cheerfulness to brighten the spirit of the community of sisters who were aware of her impending death. When the Divine thief comes to “fetch me put the candle in my hand, but not the candlestick, please. It is too ugly,” she said with a jest.
And, when a box of artificial lilies were delivered for her bier she exclaimed, “at last they are really for me.” On September 12 her feet were swollen. So great was her weakness and pain, and she began to cry.
In Thérèse of Lisieux, Patricia O’Connor, who wrote an exhaustive narration of her paschal sufferings, quoted Dr. De Corniere, who cannot understand how she continues to live. “Her face hasn’t changed, in spite of her great sufferings. I’ve never seen that in others before.”
On September 30 all the sisters were summoned to her bedside and were allowed to stay for two hours, watching, praying, waiting.
Thérèse, still alert, shocked the prioress: “Mother! Isn’t this agony,” and Mother Gonsaga said, “yes.”
Thérèse looked at the crucifix and said, “I love you.” And the infirmary bell rung, which made the sisters go back to the room and knelt.
At 7:20 p.m. of September 30, 1897, Thérèse lifted her head, her eyes fixed above, amazed and happy and gave a last breath.
She was declared saint on May 17, 1925, by Pope Pius XI with all her four sisters in attendance.
Pope Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times.”
Like Saint Teresa of Avila, also a Carmelite nun, Saint Thérèse was declared Doctor of the Church.
Her feast day is October 1.
Santiago is a former regional director of the Department of Education-National Capital Region. She is currently a faculty member of Mater Redemptoris College in Laguna.