Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) was French, a Catholic, a Carmelite nun, a mystic, a saint, and a Doctor of the Church.
On January 2, 1873, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born.
She was born to Marie-Azélie “Zélie” Martin née Guérin and Louis Martin. They lived in rue Saint-Blaise, Alençon, France. Thérèse was their fifth child of nine.
At the time of her birth, there was an outbreak of enteritis. So Thérèse was sent away to a wet nurse. Finally, at 15 months, old, Thérèse was brought home.
The environment in which Thérèse was raised was very “Catholic.” There was Mass attendance, fasting, tender compassion for the poor. And nine children.
Thérèse was happy but also very sensitive and emotional. She threw tantrums when she did not get her way.
When Thérèse was 4-1/2 years old, her mother Zélie died of breast cancer. A few months later, Louis moved the family to Lisieux in the Normandy area. There, they would be close to Zélie’s brother’s family. Louis leased a nice house in the country. It triggered a new era in the life of Thérèse.
Thérèse was sent to a school ran by Benedictine nuns. She was at the top of her class. But the other girls bullied her. On her free days, Thérèse escaped by playing with her cousin Marie Guérin. They pretended to be monks.
Pauline was an elder sister of Thérèse. She had acted as her mother. When Thérèse was nine years old, Pauline joined the Carmelite monastery.
It was a grave loss for Thérèse. In the months that followed, she often became sick. The doctor was not able to diagnose a cause.
But then one day, when Thérèse looked at a statue of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, she saw the statue smile at her. It effected a cure, although short-lived, because the Carmelite nuns doubted it, and so Thérèse lost her confidence in it.
When Thérèse was 13 years old, her elder sister Marie joined the Carmelite monastery. It was another great loss to Thérèse.
At age 14, Thérèse began reading a famous book called The Imitation of Christ. It nourished her during those formative days. And it spurred her to read other great books.
One day she told her father Louis that she too wanted to join the Carmelites. Louis wept. Then Thérèse gave him a flower. But the priest in charge of the Carmelite monastery forbade her to join, due to her being only 14 years old.
That summer, the newspapers were filled with stories about a murderer named Henri Pranzini. Most people saw Pranzini as a threat to their wellbeing, and wanted him dead. But Thérèse spent two months in prayer for his conversion. Just as he was about to be executed, he grabbed a crucifix and kissed it three times. Thérèse saw that as a sign of his actual conversion.
Louis took Céline and Thérèse on a pilgrimmage to Rome. On November 20, 1887, she met Pope Leo XIII, in-person. Right away, she asked him to allow her to join the Carmelites. He replied in a non-committal way.
The pilgrimmage showed her that the royalist bourgeoisie were filled with petty social ambition and vanity, and that the priests were nothing like the saints like in the books she read. A desire formed within her to pray for all people. God was calling her to be an apostle to the apostles. She wrote:
I experienced a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners. (See Note 1)
At age 15, Thérèse was finally admitted to her beloved Carmelite monastery. It was a reform monastery, firmly rooted in the teachings of the great Carmelite reformers Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.
When they asked her why she came to Carmel, she replied that she came to save souls, and to pray for priests.
Thérèse often prayed before the Blessed Sacrament.
Her sister Marie was assigned to teach her the Liturgy of the Hours. Later, Thérèse served in the kitchen. She was eager to conform to the official Rule of the monastery.
However, she suffered from a spiritual malady called scrupulosity. Those who suffer from it are a testimony of suffering and dogged perseverance.
When it came time for Thérèse to chose a confessor, she chose a Jesuit priest: Father Pichon. Quite providentially, he too suffered from scrupulosity. He was uniquely able to sympathize with her battles. Unfortunately, he was soon sent to Canada.
Some of the sisters bullied Thérèse for not being as skilled at handicrafts as they were.
At age 16, Thérèse was finally permitted to wear the Carmelite habit. That was the moment when she became a Carmelite nun. She chose two names for herself:
- of the Child Jesus
- of the Holy Face
So her official name as a nun is Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. In our day, though, most people simply call her Thérèse of Lisieux. Many people try to pronounce her name in a French-sounding way: tuh-REZ of LEE-zoo.
A new theme began to emerge within the thinking of Thérèse. She called it littleness. She would be hidden. She would do acts of charity in such a way as to not be seen. To help with this, she dove into the reading of John of the Cross.
Thérèse had several hopes for her life as a Carmelite nun:
- That Jesus would be her everything
- That Christ’s will would be fully complete in her
- That her life would lead many people to eternal salvation
In those days, most preachers raged about hell. Their point was that if you did even the tiniest misdeed, you were destined for hell. Their conclusion was to live in fear of doing anything wrong. That sort of preaching was deadly for Thérèse. It fed right into her scrupulosity and made it worse.
But when she was 18 years old, a visiting priest, Franciscan Father Alexis Prou, preached a retreat at her monastery. It was about confidence and love. It fed her in ways she had never experienced before.
O Jesus, my love…my vocation, at last I have found it…MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love. (See Note 2)
When Thérèse was 20 years old, her sister Pauline was elected the prioress of the monastery. Pauline appointed Thérèse as the assistant director of novices. Thérèse discovered that she was actually gifted at explaining the faith to others.
Thérèse wrote two plays about her heroine Joan of Arc:
- The Mission of Joan of Arc. It is about the heavenly voices calling her to battle.
- Joan of Arc accomplishes her mission. It is about her martyrdom.
When Thérèse was 21 years old, her father Louis passed away.
Thérèse continued to develop her theory of littleness. Thanks to her sister Céline bringing an Old Testament to the monastery, Thérèse could finally read it. She discovered several passages that teach the idea of littleness:
Proverbs 9:4a. Whoever is simple [little], let him turn in here!”
Isaiah 66:13a. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.
She coined a name for this concept of littleness: petite voie, “the little way.” The little way is a rejection of the Pelagian-inspired spirituality where you bring yourself to perfection. The little way is a radical turning toward God.
Thérèse sensed that God was calling her to be a saint, and not just any canonized saint.
God …made me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint. (See Note 3)
At age 24, Thérèse was inspired to offer herself as a sacrificial victim to merciful love. This was in dramatic contrast to most nuns of those days, who offered themselves as victims to Divine justice. On June 11, 1895, Thérèse and her sister Céline read her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love.
One day Thérèse woke with blood on her lips. She had contracted tuburculosis. In those days, tuburculosis meant death.
Knowing she would soon die a horrible death, Thérèse felt consolation. Great consolation. She would soon hear the voice of her beloved Jesus firsthand.
Not long before she passed away, Thérèse wrote:
I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love him, to teach souls my little way…it is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute surrender. (See Note 4)
In her final days, Thérèse suffered greatly. On her death-bed, she is reported to have said,
I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.
She died on September 30, 1897 at the age of 24.
Her last words on earth were these:
My God, I love you!
Thérèse was beatified in 1923. She was canonized a saint in 1925. It was only 28 years after her death. In 1997, she was declared the thirty-third Doctor of the Church, the youngest person, and only the fourth woman, to be so honored.
In our day, Thérèse is known for her autobiography, L’histoire d’une âme (“The Story of a Soul“). She never set out to write it. But three separate superiors ordered her to write it. It was published after her death.
Thérèse of Lisiers was named saint and a Doctor of the Church. She almost certainly ties with Francis of Assisi as the two most loved saints since the apostles.
The Memorial of Thérèse of Lisieux is observed each year on October 1.
- Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, trans. John Clark, O.C.D. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1972, p. 99
- Ibid., p. xiii
- Ibid., p. 72
- Ibid., p. vii
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.