by Stephanie Targett
St Therese of Lisieux is one of the greatest inspirational theologians I have encountered. To the ordinary person she speaks so profoundly on how best to follow and serve God. Through what came to be known as her 'Little Way' to God, she demonstrates how small acts of kindness and self-sacrifice can achieve extraordinary things, within the context of Christianity.
St Therese was born to a Catholic family in 1873, in Alençon, France and moved to Lisieux in 1877 after her mother died. She was the youngest of nine children, though only five of them survived into adulthood. All four of Therese’s older sisters became nuns, and Therese felt a strong calling to join the Carmelite order of nuns from the age of nine. At the age of fourteen, she asked for permission to enter the order, but was told to wait until she was twenty-one. Yet Therese was relentless. At the age of fifteen, she asked Bishop Hugonin, (Bishop of Lisieux and Bayeux) but was again refused. Therese’s father strongly supported her vocation and took her to Rome in hopes to have an audience with the Pope. In her autobiography ‘The Story of a Soul’, Therese recounts the event when she asked Pope Leo XIII for his permission to enter Carmel. She explains that the pilgrims queued up to see the Pope, and each would kiss his foot and his hand and move on. Those in the procession were told they were not allowed to speak to the Pope, and Therese looked questioningly to her sister, who whispered, “Speak”. Therese then knelt in front of the Pope and asked his permission, “Most Holy Father, in honour of your Jubilee, let me enter Carmel at fifteen!” After some explanation, the Pope, “gazed at me steadily and said, stressing every syllable: “Well… Well… You will enter if it is God’s will!””. As a consequence of this event, Therese was granted permission to enter Carmel at the age of sixteen, in 1888.
Therese lived in the convent of Le Carmel for nine years before she died painfully from tuberculosis in 1897, at the age of just twenty-four. Throughout this time, Therese developed what is known as her ‘Little way’ to God, recorded in ‘The Story of a Soul’. Therese wrote, “It is impossible for me to grow up, so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new.”
Her ‘Little Way’ to God involved enduring day-to-day inconveniences and discomforts. For example, she would calmly endure one of her sisters’ splashing her with dirty water whilst doing laundry in the convent, or noisily fiddling with her rosary in chapel. These examples highlight Therese's humanity; she sets an incredible example on how to love God and love others through these seemingly trivial opportunities that present themselves to us in daily life. She wrote, “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.” It is the things which seem small that can make a considerable difference, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
Therese’s theology and way of life was so impressive that she was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1925 and declared a ‘Doctor of the Church’ in the Catholic Church by Pope St John Paul II in 1997. To be named ‘Doctor of the Church’, Dr D'Ambrosio writes that one must have:
1. Outstanding holiness, even when compared to other saints
2. Complexity of doctrinal understanding
3. Enough writings that the Church can encourage “as an expression of the authentic and life-giving Catholic Tradition.”
There are thirty-seven doctors of the church (a small number of the more than ten-thousand recognised Catholic saints), four of whom are women. Therese takes her place among them and is the youngest Doctor of the Church at the time of her death (twenty-four). To have accomplished so much in such a short life is both incredible and inspiring.
In a homily on St Therese, Pope St John Paul II said, “Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the youngest of all the “Doctors of the Church,” but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters”. Evidently, Therese's youth did not stop her from having great theological discernment, and being recognised as having such.
St Therese is patron of missionaries, florists, and the sick. Moreover, she was a favourite patron of French soldiers in the First World War, many of whom claimed she had appeared to them in the trenches or saved them from harm. Innumerable churches and schools have been named after St Therese, and it is rare to find a Catholic church that lacks a statue of her.
We can learn from Therese’s relentless determination, and her complete selflessness in her way of life. Her contribution to Christian theology is unforgettable.
Stephanie Targett is a second year Philosophy & Theology student at St John's College.
References:  Anonymous, “Therese, Age 15 (Photo),” Society of the Little Flower, 2020, https://www.littleflower.org/st-therese/who-is-st-therese/.  Anonymous, “Who Is St Therese?,” Society of the Little Flower, 2021, https://www.littleflower.org/therese-facts/audience-with-the-pope/ .  St Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul (North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, TAN Books, 2010).  Anonymous, “St Therese on the Outdoor Porch at Carmel during Her Illness,” Society of the Little Flower, 2020, https://www.littleflower.org/st-therese/who-is-st-therese/ .  Anonymous, “Who Is St Therese?”, Society of the Little Flower, 2020, https://www.littleflower.org/st-therese/who-is-st-therese/#her-life-at-lisieux-carmel  Anonymous, “St Therese Quotes,” Society of the Little Flower, 2020, https://www.littleflower.org/st-therese/st-therese-quotes/ .  Ibid.  Anonymous, “St Therese after Her Passing,” Society of the Little Flower, 2020, https://www.littleflower.org/st-therese/who-is-st-therese/ .  Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Doctors of the Catholic Church- Definition and Complete List,” Crossroads Initiative, 2021, https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/doctors-of-the-catholic-church/ .  Pope John Paul II. “Proclamation of St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face as a “Doctor of the Church”, Homily of Pope John Paul II, 19/10/1997, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1997/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19101997.html  Bishop D. J. Hying, “Why Is St. Thérèse So Popular?,” Simply Catholic, 2018, https://www.simplycatholic.com/why-is-st-therese-so-popular/ .