Many of us modern people have the sense that sainthood is a far-off and unattainable goal reserved only for heroes. We despair of our ordinariness. Yet the greatest saint of modern times, a woman whom Pope Pius called “a word of God” sent to point us the way to Christ was as ordinary as we and made it her life’s (and death’s) work to say that it is precisely in the ordinary that God comes to us.
St. Therese of Lisieux was a person who had struggles like our own–and who turned them all to what Pius XI called a “storm of glory” by the help of the Holy Spirit. Born into a middle-class French family in the middle of the last century, Therese was a young girl with a thirst for life. Once, as a child, one of her sisters offered her a choice of different colored threads for use in a sewing project. Therese took them all, an act which epitomized her attitude toward all of life. Later, she would write, “My God, I choose all. I will not be a saint by halves.” As a child, she had dreams of being an adventurous missionary and even a priest and, when this was realized to be impossible, she asked (and eventually received) permission from Pope Leo XIII to enter the Carmelite Order at the age of fifteen.
It was here that Therese began to perfect in earnest her “Little Way”: a way of prayer and life which sought to find God not in some immense Olympian struggle or via some gigantic work of greatness, but in the ordinary stuff of day to day life. Therese, like you and I, felt far too small to attempt the heights mastered by giants. She was acutely aware of the ordinariness of her life. But instead of succumbing to the modern belief that this rendered her life dull and pointless, Therese chose to offer precisely this raw material of ordinariness up to God that he might transform it.
What was this Little Way? Therese described it as the way of Spiritual Childhood. She said of herself, “I am only a very little soul, who can offer to God only very little things.” And so, she fully embraced her littleness rather than lamenting it. She did so by
1. fully recognizing her spiritual poverty, weakness and incapacity and accepting it;
2. fully embracing at the same time a complete childlike confidence in God to fulfill in her what she could not do by her own powers;
3. choosing to live in Love and to apply herself to the practice of Love.
Therese’s attitude toward the littleness and insignificance of her life was delightfully simple. For her, littleness was not a mark of failure but an opportunity for intimacy with God, just as a kitchen table is more conducive to a loving chat than an enormous banquet hall. Therese delighted in her smallness and even rejoiced in her imperfections since they made her all the more attractive to the God who delighted in showing himself to the smallest and weakest of his creatures.
We in the self-empowered Third Millennium shy from this sort of talk. We think it is a bit degrading to speak of a God who calls us to rejoice in our weakness. But Therese did not, for she knew it was the way in which all children lived, forgetting themselves and trusting without question that when they fell down or got tired or did a bad thing they would be set upon their feet by a loving father. In short, Therese knew that the way to save her life was to lose it; whereas our culture still thinks the first shall be first and the last shall be co-dependent.
But in fact it is our self-assertive culture which is always complaining of low self-esteem and worthlessness, for instead of seeing ourselves reflected in God’s loving eye, we look for our value in what we earn and do. But Therese, precisely because she forgot herself, had a confidence which was almost as shocking as her embrace of littleness. For the same young girl who could rejoice over her weakness and even proclaim her nothingness, could also say, “Our Lord has one great weakness. He is blind and He really knows nothing about arithmetic. He does not know how to add, but to blind Him and prevent Him from adding the smallest sum… you must take Him by His Heart. This is His weak spot…. It is this way that I took hold of the good Lord and that is why I shall be well received by Him.”
Such clear-eyed recognition of her littleness and absolute confidence in the love of Christ was what enabled Therese to speak of Jesus as her “divine elevator.” Drawn to her by her very weakness, he would, she was confident, lift her up and place her on the Father’s lap simply because she trusted him to. And inspired by this complete confidence in that fatherly love, Therese was able to see the most insignificant parts of her life as opportunities to love, rather than as mediocre, middle-class or dull. Thus, instead of seeking to perform Herculean feats, she offered God the sweat of aggravation she felt over a sister who rattled her rosary beads during silent prayer. She sought to offer her work, prayer and sufferings, both large and small, up to God in union with Christ for the sake of others. Small tasks, small sacrifices, small thanksgivings: these came her way in a continual stream each moment of each day and she seized upon them all as a chance to love God and offer herself for the good of souls.
Therese died of tuberculosis in complete obscurity at the age of 24. But before she died she said (with typical confidence in God and love for others), “I feel that my mission is about to begin… I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Indeed, with a certain holy impishness, she assured one of the sisters from her deathbed, “Don’t worry; Mother Agnes will not have time to think of her sorrow, for, until the end of her life, she will be so busy with me that she will not be able to do all that she will be asked to do.” Twenty-eight years after her death, God made good this confident promise and Therese was recognized as a saint. Two years after that, the little girl who wanted to be a missionary was made equal Patron, with St. Francis Xavier, of all Missions and Missionaries. And on October 19, 1997, as a fitting crown for her humility and the accessible profundity of her teaching, Pope John Paul II made her the 33rd Doctor of the Church.