The Little Flower St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Originally printed in the March - April 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Coady, Mary Frances. "The Little Flower St. Thérèse of Lisieux." Quest  91.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2003):52-55.

By Mary Frances Coady

The basilica, perched like a gaudy oversized crown on the top of a hill, is the first thing you see as the train approaches Lisieux, 180 kilometers west of Paris. A 1920s attempt at baroque splendor, the edifice seems out of place in this modest town, which is otherwise indistinguishable from all the other towns in Normandy that were decimated during World War II and then rebuilt. Whatever one may think of its architectural qualities, however, the basilica does signal something extraordinary about Lisieux.

Lisieux is a remarkable town because a young woman grew up there, entered a Carmelite monastery near the center of town, and died there in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. Her name was Thérèse Martin, known as Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus after she became a nun. Twenty-eight years later, Thérèse was canonized and became the most popular saint in the history of Catholicism. Her statue, depicting a young nun in brown-and-cream-colored robes with an armful of roses (she called herself the "Little Flower" and declared that she would shower roses upon the earth after her death) graced one Catholic church after another.

The unlikely popularity of this obscure nun was the result of several factors: the Catholic appetite at the time for piety (especially when it came packaged in a person of youthful attractiveness), some shrewd work on the part of the nuns after her death (three of whom were Thérèse's own sisters), and, most enduringly, her own writing.

A few years before her death, Thérèse—the product of staunchly devout, royalist stock (not popular in the anticlerical republican France of the time)—was asked by one of her sisters (who was also her religious superior at the time) to write a short account of her childhood. This she did in a school exercise notebook, which she gave to her sister. It was put aside and forgotten until a few months before her death, when she was asked to continue writing.

The result was an astonishing account of her own spiritual development in what she called the "Little Way," a spiritual path that emphasized simplicity and childlikeness, acceptance of her own failings, and an almost light-hearted trust in God. It was not an easy path to forge: her monastery, built on a small patch of ground, with a tall green fence enclosing the garden, was cloistered (that is, the nuns made virtual prisoners of themselves, never leaving the monastery grounds and receiving visitors in parlors where heavily veiled grilles prevented them from being seen). The nuns she lived with, far from being saints, were living exemplars of every kind of neurosis. She suffered bouts of anguish over reports of her father's deteriorating mental condition (he was eventually confined to an institution in the nearby city of Caen). And, as Thérèse herself revealed, she spent most of her nine years in the monastery in a numbing state of spiritual murkiness known as "the dark night of the soul," a state that was often accompanied by nagging doubts about the existence of God.

Not much about the town of Lisieux reflects the spirit of this tough-minded young woman who clung to her faith with little support while living a way of life that many would now label meaningless. Her own nuns, capitalizing on the sensation caused by her autobiographical writing (which was published under the title Story of a Soul), had cards printed depicting a sweet-faced, kewpie-doll nun. Actual photographs, many of them taken by her sister Caline, who brought a camera with her when she entered the monastery, were touched up in order to give her an acceptable prettiness. The shops around town reflect this flowery treatment of Thérèse, with souvenir plastic statues, cheap rosaries, and kitschy bric-a-brac.

The Carmelite monastery, however, still exists in much the same way as it did when Thérèse lived there. There is still a cloistered community of nuns, although occasionally one or two can be seen outside the monastic enclosure, dressed now in a habit consisting of a simplified dress and veil, a disappointment to some visitors who would like them to remain unchanged from the way they dressed in Thérèse's day. Inside the monastery, seen only with permission, is the great iron door notable for the absence of a handle. It was this door upon which, according to a customary ritual, the fifteen-year-old Thérèse knocked when she sought admission to the cloister. The door was opened from the inside and swung shut behind her.

Inside the monastery chapel, a marble tomb flanked by lighted candles and huge vases of roses contains Thérèse's mortal remains. Above the tomb her effigy lies in gilded state, the model of a pretty young nun with rosy cheeks, a garland of flowers around her head. In a small museum beside the monastery, Thérèse's long blonde ringlets, cut off when she received the Carmelite habit, are on display. (The hair of the young women entering the monastery, cut as a sign of their renunciation of worldly vanity, was often made into wigs that were worn for plays during recreation; Thérèse herself was photographed in a wig for a play she wrote about St. Joan of Arc.) Also in the museum is a priest's vestment made from the rich brocade of the bridal gown she wore for the ceremony at which she was given the habit (marking the first stage in becoming a "bride of Christ"), as well as a rough serge robe and a pair of wooden clogs typical of the nuns' garb of the time.

The abbey school she attended was destroyed by Allied bombs. Her childhood home, called Les Buisonnets, still stands, however. Many of the family's possessions still remain, including Thérèse's dolls.

In the climate of theological awakening that followed the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many Catholics cast aside the sugary cult of Thérèse, and her statue was often among the first relegated to the church basement. In recent decades, however, critical editions of her story, restored to its original state, have appeared, as well as her extant letters and the original photographs showing a young nun in a slightly askew habit looking sometimes impish, sometimes pensive. Serious analyses of her work and thought are published with remarkable regularity.

In her writing, if one sifts through the flowery French style of the nineteenth century, one discovers the essence of her spiritual path. She herself pointed to the voice of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs as her inspiration: "You that are simple, turn in here!" One finds this path of simplicity in many spiritual traditions. It is echoed in today's twelve-step programs: give everything over to the Higher Power. A similar message appears in the form of contemporary slogans: Don't sweat the small stuff. Let go and let God. Hand it over.

The yearning for such a path can be heard in many people's desire for the simple life, for solitude and quiet, for relief from the violent jangling of city noise and the drivel of the world of advertising, from the compulsion to grasp and consume. In the midst of everyday struggles and personal ambition, there is a quest for meaning, a longing to see beyond oneself, to view the world with compassion through the eyes of the heart. Beneath our daily striving, despite the belief that we can have it all and that we are self-made human beings, is the recognition that in the end we are weak and powerless. Wise spiritual guides, Thérèse among them, tell us to embrace that powerlessness and surrender it to what the Buddhists call the Ground of our being—or in Thérèse's Christian language, the loving hands of God. This is the path: simple but not easy. Wise guides also acknowledge that the journey down this path is a lifelong effort.

In the town of Lisieux, despite the souvenir shops, life carries on normally: coffee shops and pubs flourish, children go to school, townspeople hurry home with armfuls of bread and market produce. And inside the monastery chapel, the nuns' voices can be heard singing every day at prayer time. Their hidden lives remain dedicated to her timeless message of joyful trust.

Mary Frances Coady is the author of The Hidden Way, the story of the life and legacy of St.Thérèse's spiritual director, Almire Pichon. Her next book is a biography of the Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Tentatively called A Jesuit in Nazi Germany, it will be published by Loyola University Press in 2003. 

Story of a Soul
from The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul 
(New York: Doubleday, Image Books, 2001), 108

From my earliest days I have believed that the Little Flower would be plucked in the springtime of her life. But today my only guide is self-abandonment. I have no other compass. I no longer know how to ask passionately for anything except that the will of God shall be perfectly accomplished in my soul. I can repeat these words of our Father, St. John of the Cross: "I drank deep within the hidden cellar of my Beloved and, when I came forth again, I remembered nothing of the flock I used to look after. My soul is content to serve Him with all its strength. I've finished all other work except that of love. In that is all my delight."

Or rather: "Love has so worked within me that it has transformed my soul into itself."

. . . I know that the Kingdom of God is within us. Jesus has no need of books or doctors of the Churchto guide souls. He, the Doctor of doctors, can teach without words. I have never heard Him speak, but I know that He is within me. He guides and inspires me every moment of the day. Just when I need it, a new light shines on my problems. This happens not so much during my hours of prayer as when I'm busy with my daily work.