When the disciples came to Jesus and asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom, he called for a child to come to him, and answered, “Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1–4). This exhortation is at the root of one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern Catholicism: Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897).
Canonized in 1925 as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997, I have known her as The Little Flower of Jesus and Thérèse of the Little Way. These popular, diminutive, and endearing titles capture the mystique and appeal of this very modern saint: a sweet, smiling, youthful girl, perfumed with an innocent and often lachrymose pietywho lived all too briefly as a Carmelite nun, was ravaged by tuberculosis, died a gruesome early death, and left a small body of autobiographical writings of piercing simplicity and depth.
A recent biography by Thomas R. Nevin, Thérèse of Lisieux: God’s Gentle Warrior, provides a richly detailed portrait of this remarkably mature spiritual child. We learn a great deal about the world of late nineteenth-century French Catholicism. It was an era of Republican, anti-clerical domination, and the Church responded by creating a counter-world of intense inward piety.
Born to parents fiercely loyal to Catholicism, every aspect of Thérèse’s life and imagination seems to have been formed by Catholic prayers and principles, so much so that her entrance into the Carmelite convent at Lisieux at age fifteen marked no significant change. Two of her older sisters were already in residence, and the third would soon follow, along with a close cousin. The otherworldly realm of the convent fulfilled and intensified the Catholic world in which young Thérèse was raised.
In addition to helping us see the social and religious milieu of Thérèse’s youth, Nevin orients his readers to the remarkable combinations and paradoxes of her spiritual outlook.
Thérèse often endorses the disposition of radical acceptance: “L’Abandon est le fruit délicieux de l’Amour.” In her autobiographical writings, Thérèse expressed a desire to become dramatic witness to Christ. “Martyrdom: That is the dream of my youth.” She wanted to suffer as a missionary, to accept the heavy weight of the cross, to become a victim for the sake of Christ. “Like Joan of Arc,” she writes, “I would like to be burned at the stake.” And elsewhere: “When I think of all the torments that will be the lot of Christians at the time of the Antichrist, I feel my heart leap, and I would like for those torments to be reserved for me.”
Thérèse, however, did not achieve an ascetic disposition by way of exhortations toward iron-willed self-discipline and other strategies for suppressing the human instincts that so often elbow their way forward and demand their say. Instead, she often asserts herself in flights of spiritual egoism: “Me, I’m the CHILD of the Church.” She does not picture herself prostrate in obedience, but instead refers to Jesus as her “petit enfant.” In a very different but equally intimate and even more striking image, she sees herself being held by Jesus as his baby toy! Or in another place, she reversed the image, imagining within herself “the vocation of Priest. With what love, Jesus, would I bear You in my hands.”
Again and again, Nevin nicely draws out what he calls “an engaging two-sidedness” in Thérèse’s spiritual life: a fierce determination to suffer all for the sake of Christ in concert with an almost whimsical and playful intimacy with Christ. Moreover, Nevin also shows how the two sides belong together in Thérèse’s great, unifying vision of divine love. Love brings the anguish of self-abandonmentand it brings the often silly but fragrant, cherished moments of intimacy.
This young girl’s imaginative zeal for grand gesture of service to Christtorments! sacrifice! martyrdom!along with her gauzy images of sporting with the Christ-child in the embrace of love was realized in her slow and painful death. It turned out that Thérèse would not become a famous missionary, boldly preaching to the heathens, nor would she submit her lovely neck to the executioner’s sword as crowds gathered to watch, nor would she become a modern day Joan of Arc. Instead, in the hidden world of the cloister, far from the public eye, entirely removed from the great events of the day, a slow-moving disease patiently, relentlessly killed her.
As the tuberculosis advanced, Thérèse had to abandon the élan and spiritual drama she might have imagined in l’abandon. In her suffering, the smiling baby Jesus did not play with her in the afternoon sunshine. He was only able to be with her in the dark, blind silence of the death he endured for our sake. What God asked of Thérèse was only to die: the utterly banal, empty, and universal destiny we all share. It was the fulfillment of her “little way.”
In this little way, Thérèse testifies to a spiritual purification that came from being entirely captured by a vision of divine love. She writes of becoming a “little child,” and “the smallest of all souls,” even to the point of recognizing that she had no internal grace, no fervent belief, no work of righteousness to offer God. In this sense, Thérèse saw herself as akin to the lost and the damnedvoid and empty of anything remotely meritoriousand yet held aloft by “the tenderness of his infinite Love.”
Unfortunately, Nevin’s treatment of Thérèse mishandles this fundamental insight. He is concerned to block the “benevolent attempts to dress Thérèse in certifiably orthodox dress, to fit her into the procrustean bed of piety.” This leads him to insist that in her final months Thérèse was denied “the creedal substance of faith and the elementary predicates of hope.” He wants us to see that she was “spurred by love rather than creed.”
These sorts of dichotomies are quite alien to what Thérèse wrote. It is hard to image an imagination more saturated by scriptural passages and theological categories. The extraordinary power of her writing comes, in fact, from the enduring potency of the language of faith, not its denial or supersession. Thérèse’s love-filled experiences of unity with Christ included being denied psychological assurances and images of divine reward. Precisely as such they clarify “the creedal substance of faith” and give insight into the “predicates of hope.”
For example, Thérèse writes, “I had at the time a great interior trial of all sorts to the point of asking myself if there was a Heaven.” This is not, as Nevin suggests, “doubting the existence of a celestial life,” as if the dying Thérèse were entertaining a theological idea. It is an expression of her spiritual maturation. She had previously lived for the sake of heaven but was now being conformed more fully to Christ, who lived only for the sake of love. Put differently, facing her own death, Thérèse recognized that what finally matters is not her own destiny (heaven), but rather the love of Christ (which is the essence of heaven).
The same holds for her famous declaration of solidarity with the damned“I told the Good Lord that to please him I’d consent to being plunged into [hell] so that he’d be loved forever in this place of blasphemy”as well as the way in which she identified with “wretched unbelievers.” These formulations do not signal a lack of faith and hope; quite the contrary, they suggest their fulfillment in love.
The proper images for understanding Little Thérèse are not those of modern theology, which tends to promote unfortunate and untenable dichotomies between official church teachings and a living faith, or, as Nevin put it, between “the historical complex of creeds, council statements, theologies, and decrees,” which he suggests “fade before a radical intimacy with Jesus.”
Instead, if we attend to her writings, we see that Thérèse suggests an illuminative rather than critical method. Thérèse takes church teaching about heaven and hell, sin and grace, Christology and ecclesiology and puts them into strikingly fresh forms. She is not critiquing the male priesthood when she imagines her priestly vocation; she is helping us see the universal priesthood of all believers. She is not denying the existence of hell; she is testifying to the omnipotent power of divine love. The truths of the faith are servant truthsthey serve the Truth of Christ. They do not fade or fall away. Instead, when used properly, they become ever more luminous with the light of Christ.
As John Paul II observed when he announced Thérèse as a doctor of the church, her radical awareness of her spiritual childhood teaches a fundamental truth. The breath of Christ’s love fans even the smallest spark of desire for him in our hearts. It’s something we all need to hear. But Thérèse also has a lesson for theologians. We should beware the modern tendency to explain the dry limitations we so often feel in the official language of church teaching with easy dichotomies between spirit and letter. The problem is not in the obvious fact that a creed or a council decree is not the living Word of God. As Thérèse’s “little way” suggests, the dryness comes from the poverty of our love.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is professor of theology at Creighton University.