In celebrating the centenary of St. Therese of Lisieux, we honor “Papa God” who formed His little daughter into a replica of God’s masterpiece, Mary Immaculate. At age six Therese wrote, “I want to be a very good girl. The Blessed Virgin is my dear Mother and little children usually resemble their mother.” Therese became, as it were, an extension of the Blessed Virgin by her perfect imitation of her virtues. It is precisely Mary’s hidden virtues, her ordinary life at Nazareth, which are echoed in the life and writings of St. Therese whose life and writings were Marian from beginning to end.
However, unlike Mary, Therese was born with Original Sin. The Immaculate Conception sets Mary apart from all God’s creatures. Thus, we may be tempted to feel estranged from her. Not so St. Therese. She would say that she was more blessed being Therese than Mary, because then she could love and admire Mary, whom she recognized as “more Mother than Queen.” Therese seems to “borrow” from the theology of how Mary could be immaculately conceived and still be redeemed when, speaking of herself, Therese writes, “… Jesus has forgiven me more than St. Mary Magdalene since He forgave me in advance by preventing me from falling. I was preserved from it only through God’s mercy!” Applying this to Our Lady: unlike the rest of men who are conceived in original sin, she received the greatest possible mercy, the perfect redemption, freedom from sin at the moment of her conception in anticipation of her Son’s redemptive death. Like Mary, Therese considered this preventive mercy a precious gift. When she made a general confession of her whole life in her first months in Carmel her confessor “spoke the most consoling words I ever heard in my life: ‘In the presence of God, the Blessed Virgin, and all the Saints, I DECLARE THAT YOU HAVE NEVER COMMITTED A MORTAL SIN. . . . Thank God for what He has done for you.’ … and gratitude flooded my soul.”
From the moment of her Conception the Heart of Mary was ever perfectly conformed to God’s Will. She always said “Yes” to God. At the Annunciation when Gabriel revealed God’s plan for her and the world, she uttered her “Fiat” to the singular grace of being the Mother of God. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38). In her autobiography Therese writes that from the age of three on, she refused God nothing. She desired to become a saint, a great saint. She explains this great desire of her life in the incident when as a child of four she “chose all.” In the “Story of a Soul” she writes: “This little incident of my childhood is a summary of my whole life; later on when perfection was set before me. . . I cried out ‘My God I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for / choose all that You will!”
The fruit of union with the divine Will is union with God Himself. For our Blessed Mother this union was most perfect and fruitful – within her womb the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn 1:14). He whom all the heavens and earth could not contain emptied Himself and, with ineffable humility and love, rejoiced to be encompassed within the womb of Mary. What a marvel! It was especially in Holy Communion that Therese partook of this profound and astonishing union with the Word made flesh. “It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes to us each day from Heaven; it’s to find another heaven,” she writes, “infinitely more dear to Him than the first: the heaven of our soul, made in His image, the living temple of the adorable Trinity!”
In her union with the eucharistic Jesus, Therese particularly desired to be adorned with Mary’s virtues. In fact, she realized that to be most pleasing to Jesus one must become like the Blessed Mother in such a way that, as she wrote to Mary, “when the white Host comes into my heart,/ Jesus, your Sweet Lamb, thinks He is resting in you!” (v.5) She calls this sacramental union a “fusion” where “all the joy of Heaven… entered my heart.” It was a time of loving exchange between her soul and God. It was a time “to be His living temple” like the Virgin of Nazareth at the Annunciation.
When Jesus became present in Mary’s womb, she went with haste to bring Christ to John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth. It was during that Spirit-filled greeting that Mary sang her canticle of love to the Almighty. He so delighted in her lowliness that He chose her among all women. Singularly blessed, she magnified the Lord and rejoiced in God her Savior. She acknowledged that God exalts the lowly, feeds the hungry, and shows mercy on those who reverently fear Him. (cf. Lk 1:46 ff.)
In the opening lines of her “Story of a Soul” Therese indicates the “one thing” she intends to do in heaven: “I shall begin to sing what I must sing eternally: The Mercies of the Lord.” Her writings and her entire earthly life can be described as a personalized Magnificat which shall never end. She explains “that the Almighty has done great things in the soul of His divine Mother’s child [Therese], and the greatest thing is to have shown her littleness, her impotence.” Precisely because of this littleness she sought a way to be lifted up to God. “I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection…
The elevator which must raise me to Heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more.”
Mary “rejoices” in God, her Savior. She walked always in that “unspeakable and triumphant joy” (1 Pt 1:8) which the world cannot give or take away. She is rightly called the Cause of Our Joy. Therese too was overflowing with this supernatural joy. She records how she gained the good graces of the old and infirm Sr. St. Pierre, who “was not easy to please,” by her many acts of charity and because “I gave her my most beautiful smile….” There is something about a genuine smile which by its self-forgetfulness and love softens even the hardest of hearts and heals the deepest of wounds.
Moreover, it was “Our Lady of the Smile” who miraculously healed her at the age often. She was so sick with a mysterious illness that there was little hope of recovery. In desperation three of her sisters, kneeling before the statue of Mary, pleaded for their sister, when “all of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin!"
Mary’s life was inseparable from Jesus’ and her Immaculate Heart was ever fixed on pleasing Him. Though she was the Mother of God, her life was ordinary and hidden – it was made up of little things. But the extraordinary faith, hope, and charity which animated her penetrated the heavens. She made and mended clothes for Him who clothes the lilies of the field and who designed the universe. She cooked for Him who feeds the birds of the air and opens wide His hand to feed all in due season. She cleaned the house for Him who alone can cleanse the hearts of men.
Therese’s life too was steeped in Christ Jesus – everything centered on Him. “I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything . . ..” she writes. “I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims. He heard my prayer.” The thought of the Child Jesus was ever on her mind and she did the littlest of things with immense love just to please Him. The less noticed the better. Mary washed the clothes of Jesus, and Therese considered herself “very fortunate, to prepare the linens and Sacred vessels destined to come in contact with Jesus.”
But authentic devotion to the Child Jesus includes suffering. Can one imagine the pain Mary experienced when Jesus was lost in the temple? Mary Immaculate, who ever exercised perfect maternal love, had lost her Son. She was fully aware that He loved her with the most tender, filial love. This made her all the more vulnerable to the anguish which she was about to undergo. Nothing forewarned her of the overwhelming three days of separation she experienced when Jesus remained in Jerusalem. Her preeminent virtue and His singular love would indicate that such a trial could never happen.
In her poem to Mary, Therese probes the depths of this mystery. “Mother, your sweet Child wants you to be an example/ Of the soul searching for Him in the night of faith.// Since the King of Heaven wanted His Mother/ To be plunged into the night, in anguish of heart,/ Mary, is it thus a blessing to suffer on earth?/ Yes, to suffer while loving is the purest happiness!” (v. 15-16) She writes both from fruitful meditation and personal experience. She was pure, never staining her baptismal robe with mortal sin. Yet God “permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness… .He knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least.” This severe trial of Therese’s faith lasted for over a year until her death. To the very end she maintained her grateful, generous disposition to suffer for the love of God and the conversion of poor sinners. “Everything is a grace!” she would say in her last days of torment.
“Mary kept in mind all these things pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). Like the Virgin Mary’s, Therese’s very life was a profound prayer, a continual dialogue of love with her Lord and God. She prayed without ceasing and saw God’s providential hand in every aspect of her life. For her “prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to Heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” Mary, the Mystical Rose, and Therese, the Little Flower, each strove for an ever deeper union with Jesus corresponding to the grace bestowed on each of them.
Mary “stood” at the foot of the cross actively cooperating with Jesus Crucified in redeeming the world, and became Mother of the Church and of each of its members. God the Father permitted the sword of sorrow to transfix her Immaculate Heart precisely because He willed that by her compassion she might also be our Coredemptrix and Spiritual Mother. The agonizing spiritual desolation of Jesus on the Cross, “abandoned” bythe Father, was experienced by Therese, and undoubtedly by the Mother of Sorrows as well. Trials and tribulations were to her the greatest honor the Father could bestow on His child. Each sacrifice was an opportunity to renew her generous love for God and to unleash grace for poor sinners.
She recalls how at the age of 14, “looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the Blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this Blood was falling to the ground without anyone’s hastening to
gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls… I offered to God all the infinite merits of Our Lord.”
After his victorious death and resurrection, Jesus willed that Mary remain and that her Immaculate Heart be, as it were, the very Heart of the Church. With all the ardor of Her Immaculate Heart, she prayed in the midst of the Apostles at Pentecost. Her Immaculate Heart was an ongoing link to the Incarnation and Redemption. She was in their midst for many years – interceding, instructing, and loving. We cannot begin to understand the depths of divine charity abiding within her Heart. Her zeal for the salvation of souls is limitless, especially for sinners who found in her a Mother of Mercy and Refuge of Sinners.
As mentioned in several other chapters of this book St. Therese in her great love of
Christ and souls desired all vocations – warrior, priest, apostle, doctor, martyr. “My desires caused me a veritable martyrdom.” St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians opened her mind and heart to realize all her ambitions – charity! “….I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act….I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS. . . .my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love.” Our Lady and our Saint both lived this hidden vocation of love which is so essential to the entire mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
Our Lady’s cooperation with Christ the one Mediator is unique and her membership in His mystical Body is preeminent precisely because of her perfect cooperation with every grace He gave her.
“Who is my mother and who is my brethren?.. .Whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48-50). God has freely chosen to entrust all grace and the entire order of mercy to her. “She is a mother to us in the order of grace… Taken up to Heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.” (Lumen Gentium 61, 62). As Mediatrix of All Grace and Mercy she continues to actively carry out her maternal mission in the hearts and minds of all her children. Similarly, Therese realized that her silent, simple hidden life was not only significant, but of prominent importance in the Church. Because God desired her little way to be of great importance for the entire Church, she too has been entrusted a role in Heaven. In her last weeks she revealed, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making others love God as I love Him, my mission of teaching my little way to souls…. Yes, I want to spend my Heaven in doing good on earth.”
How remarkable is the resemblance between Mary and Therese, between Mother and child! As the saintly Cure of Ars put it: “Virtue passes readily from the heart of a mother to that of her child.” Let us heed the message which St. Therese wishes to teach us: only those who are “little” in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world will learn to love and resemble their Mother. Only then will they reach the heights of virtue and union with God to which our Saint attained. We end with her own words addressed to our heavenly Mother:
While waiting for Heaven, O my dear Mother,
I want to live with you, to follow you each day.
Mother, contemplating you, I joyfully immerse myself,
discovering in your Heart abysses of love… (v.18)
Unless otherwise noted in the text, all quotes are from “Story of a Soul” or the poem “Why I Love You, O Mary! ” (verse indicated)
-Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean