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!"