One of the great blessings of surgery has been time to read; as a result, I’ve now finished three books that lay on my nightstand, long overdue. The first was the the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul. The Little Flower had been much on my mind and had shown up time and again in my prayers and study this past winter, so much so that I decided she must be trying to tell me something. I found her biography in our parish lending library, and finished in late last week.
Autobiographies, especially those that weren’t expressly written for publication, can be challenging to read, and this is no exception. St. Therese is writing out of obedience, fulfilling requests of three different prioresses to record the memories of her life. Her style is emotional, sentimental, somewhat meandering, and acutely self-aware — in fact, she acknowledges throughout the book, with good humor, that she has drifted far from the main point, but that she is writing because she was asked to, and if her work is found lacking and destroyed, it will be of no great loss to her.
It does not take long to realize this is the story of an exceptional soul from an exceptional family. From her earliest days in 19th-century France, the Martin family’s life revolved around their Catholic faith, prayer, and the sacraments. The first thing that struck me (and I believe this was one thing the little saint wished to tell me) was that in her childhood, preparation for receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist for the first time was the most important and most exciting thing that could happen. She understood the mystery of the Real Presence early on and longed for the sacrament with her whole being; her entire family — parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, everyone — helped her to prepare, encouraging and instructing her, helping her to make a mature first Confession, even sending this little girl on retreat to prayerfully prepare for her first Communion. We fall far short of this today, and that must change!
From an early age, St. Therese longed for the religious life of a Carmelite sister. The persistence of her vocation also struck me: she prayed long and hard on this beginning in childhood and was so strongly minded that, on a pilgrimage to Rome, she pulled rank on her local priests and bishop and cried to the Pope to let her honor him by entering Carmel at age 15. He told her she would enter if God willed it, and a short time later, the local church authorities relented.
The religious life was not without struggles for St. Therese, and it was there that she perfected her “Little Way,” which has made her so beloved the world over. She wanted to do great things for God, but was confined to a convent, young and of poor health. She could not be a priest, and would not be a missionary or a martyr. She was just a little flower on the forest floor — but the little things she did, she could do with great love. As a result she began to bite her tongue when accused or provoked, to seek out the sisters who were avoided by others and look for ways to serve them, and to seek the good for others in every situation, regardless of the cost to herself. She began to love as God loves.
St. Therese was extraordinary, but blazed a trail that ordinary Catholics can follow, perhaps, more easily than that of the spiritual powerhouses of the Church. And I think that was another thing she wanted to tell me. This is a beautiful story of a great soul, and while it’s not a traditional page-turner, I highly recommend it.
On a related note: during the same time period as I was reading this book, a colleague gave me a booklet called “40 Days of Preparation for First Communion with St.Therese of the Child Jesus.” It is a booklet of very short daily prayers and exercises for children, based on the prayers and exercises St. Therese undertook as a girl under her family’s guidance. Unbeknownst to me, my colleague Kathy was given the same booklet by one of our priests to consider for use with this year’s First Communicants. It’s a baby step toward what our First Communion preparation ought to be. St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!