St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Homily on the occasion of the visit of the relics of St. Thérèse to Ireland during the summer of 2001

by Fr. Tommy Lane

St. Thérèse is the only saint who stopped the traffic! When her relics were brought to New York so many went to venerate the relics that the traffic on Fifth Avenue came to a standstill! So who is this saint that draws hundreds of thousands of devotees to venerate her relics? She was born in Alençon, Normandy in France on Jan 2nd 1873 and died at the young age of twenty-four. She had spent almost the last ten years of her life in a cloistered Carmelite convent. How did she become so famous? She didn’t found a religious order or go on the missions or do any great or extraordinary work. However she did write a journal of her life at the request of her religious superiors in the convent, who were also her blood sisters, which was published after her death and is entitled Story of a Soul. She has become famous because of her spirituality called The Little Way and also because of the many miracles and favors attributed to her. Her spirituality, The Little Way, is doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well. For example, she said that if you pick a pin up from the floor with love it can save a soul. (For your benefit I will give chapter and page numbers from Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, Third Edition by John Clarke, O.C.D.)

There are many beautiful passages in Story of a Soul about the love of the family members for one another and I am sure that you especially would enjoy reading it. There were nine children in the family but four died young and the surviving five were all daughters and very close to each others. I think we could say Thérèse was almost a pampered little girl. Her father used to call her his Queen!

Tragedy struck the family when Thérèse was only four and a half years old. Her mother died of breast cancer on August 28th 1877. Little Thérèse was devastated. Thérèse describes it as the beginning of the second period of her life. She wrote, “I, once so full of life, became timid and retiring, sensitive to an excessive degree. One look was enough to reduce me to tears.” (Chapter 2, Clark 34-35) On the day of her mother’s burial Thérèse took her elder sister Pauline as a new mother. Three months later (Nov 15th 1877) her father decided to move the family to Lisieux so that they could be in closer contact with his wife’s family. There are some amusing passages in Story of a Soul about times when little Thérèse was a rascal (Chapter 2, Clark 39-40). Once she called the family maid in Lisieux, Victoire, a brat. On another occasion she was swinging off a chair and fell into a bucket full of water and got stuck in it having to be released by Victoire.

On October 2nd 1882 Pauline entered the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux. It was like losing her mother for a second time. When Pauline told her of her intention to enter, “how could I express the anguish of my heart! In one instant I understood what life was; until then, I had never seen it so sad; but it appeared to me in all its reality, and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation. I shed bitter tears because I did not yet understand the joy of sacrifice.” (Chapter 3, Clarke 58) She admitted that the sufferings which preceded Pauline’s entry were nothing compared to those which followed (Clarke 60). Not long afterwards Thérèse became sick. The doctor said she was suffering from a very serious illness, one which had never before attacked a child so young. A miracle was necessary to cure her and it occurred on Pentecost Sunday, May 13th, the following year, 1883. The statue of Our Lady in her bedroom smiled to her, “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. At that instant, all my pain disappeared…” (Chapter 3, Clarke 65-66)

Thérèse writes beautifully of receiving her First Holy Communion on May 8th 1884, “Ah! How sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! It was a kiss of love; I felt that I was loved, and I said: “I love You, and I give myself to You forever!” There were no demands made, no struggles, no sacrifices; for a long time now Jesus and poor little Thérèse looked at and understood each other. That day, it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; they were no longer two, Thérèse had vanished as a drop of water is lost in the immensity of the ocean. Jesus alone remained…” (Chapter 4, Clarke 77)

We could describe Thérèse as a cry-baby. The least criticism or insensitivity would make her cry and then she would cry that she had cried. Christmas 1885 was a turning point in Thérèse’s life. After Midnight Mass her father who was tired remarked that it was the last year she would be getting Christmas presents. Thérèse wrote, “Jesus desired to show me that I was to give up the defects of my childhood and so He withdrew its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa, tired out after Midnight Mass, to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace, and that he speak those words which pierced my heart: “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!”….But Thérèse was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart! Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly…I withdrew my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully…. Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever! On that night of light began the third period of my life, the most beautiful and the most filled with graces from heaven.” (Chapter 5, Clark 98)

On the pilgrimage to Rome she understood that her vocation would be to pray for priests. “I understood my vocation in Italy and that’s not going too far in search of such useful knowledge. I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in his Gospel calls the “salt of the earth” show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn’t Jesus say too: “If the salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted?” (Matt 5:13). How beautiful is the vocation…which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel’s vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls through their words and especially their example.” (Chapter 5, Clark 122)

Although Thérèse frequently calls herself a ‘little flower’ in Story of a Soul she had a strong personality. In 1887 when she was fourteen she asked permission to enter Carmel when she would be fifteen! Her father granted permission but her uncle said no. “The dark night of the soul! I felt all alone in the garden of Gethsemane like Jesus, and I found no consolation on earth of from heaven’ God Himself seems to have abandoned me. Nature seemed to share in my bitter sadness, for during these three days the sun did not shine and the rain poured down in torrents” (Chapter 5, Clarke 109-110). On the fourth day he granted permission but further difficulties ensued. She solicited Bishop Hugonin for permission but he said he would give her an answer during their diocesan pilgrimage to Rome. As part of the pilgrimage they had the privilege of a Papal Audience on November 20th. They were warned not to speak during the audience. “A moment later I was at the Holy Father’s feet. I kissed his slipper and he presented his hand, but instead of kissing it I joined my own and lifting tear-filled eyes to his face, I cried out: “Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you…Holy Father, in honor of your Jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen!” “Most Holy Father,” answered the Vicar General, “this is a child who wants to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen, but the Superiors are considering the matter at the moment.” “Well, my child,” the Holy Father replied, looking at me kindly, “do what the Superiors tell you!” Resting my hands on his knees, I made a final effort, saying in a suppliant voice: “Oh! Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!” He gazed at me steadily, speaking these words and stressing each syllable: “Go…go…You will enter if God wills it!” (Chapter 6, Clarke 134-135) God did will it because on December 28th Bishop Hugonin gave permission for her to enter.

Having the vocation of a Carmelite she felt she had other vocations within her also. She said she felt the vocation of a priest, an apostle, a martyr and others (Clarke 192). Then she read 1 Cor 12-13 that all cannot be apostles, prophets etc. In 1 Cor 12:31 Paul wrote, “Set your minds on the higher gifts. And now I am going to put before you the best way of all.” Then in following chapter he explained how the most perfect gifts are nothing without love. Thérèse wrote “Charity is the most excellent way that leads to God. I finally had rest…I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places, in a word, that it was eternal! Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, my vocation, at last I have found it, my vocation is love!” (Chapter 9, Clarke 194)

Her spirituality, called the Little Way, attracts us to her. She wrote “I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by the passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and 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. We are living now in a age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched then in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: “Whoever is a little one, let him come to me” (Prov 9:4) And so I succeeded. I felt I had found what I was looking for.” (Chapter 10, Clarke 207-208) This gives great confidence to us. We all live ordinary lives not doing anything exceptional. Thérèse reminds us that we can all aspire to sainthood by doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well, e.g. by picking a pin up from the floor with love.

How did St. Thérèse live this little way? One example is enough. “There is in Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me. And still she is a holy religious who must be very pleasing to God. Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing, I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to do for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most. Each time I met her I prayed to God for her, offering Him all her virtues and merits…I wasn’t content simply with praying very much for this Sister who gave me so many struggles, but I took care to render her all the services possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile, and with changing the subject of the conversation…One day at recreation she asked in almost these words: “Would you tell me, Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much towards me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?” Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul.” (Chapter 10, Clarke 222-223)

On Holy Thursday night 1896 Thérèse coughed up blood. It was the first summons to die. The following year she would die from TB. During her illness Thérèse underwent a great trial of faith. “When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I want to believe. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterwards the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense. Never have I felt before this, dear Mother, how sweet and merciful the Lord really is, for He did not send me this trial until the moment I was capable of bearing it. A little earlier I believe it would have plunged me into a state of discouragement. Now it is taking away everything that could be a natural satisfaction in my desire for heaven.” (Chapter 10, Clarke 214)

In her last months before her death in 1897 she felt that her work after her death would extend far beyond the publication of her journal. She said, “How unhappy I shall be in heaven if I cannot do favors for those whom I love.” She said, “I will return, I will come down again.” On July 17th she made her famous prediction, “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. If God answers my request, my heaven will be spent on earth up until the end of the world. Yes, I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.” (Epilogue, Clarke 263). Between August 22nd-27th her sufferings reached their peak and it was only around this time that her illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis. She suffered violently with every breath she took and felt like she was being stretched on spikes. Then they spoke of the danger of gangrene. Thérèse said, “Well all the better! While I am at it I may as well suffer very much and all over – and even have several sicknesses at the same time!” However later she was so overcome with exhaustion that she confided to Mother Agnes, “What would become of me if God did not give me courage? A person does not know what this is unless he experiences it. No, it has to be experienced!…What grace it is to have faith! If I had no faith, I would have inflicted death on myself without hesitating a moment!” (Epilogue, Clarke 264) Thérèse died on Thursday September 30th.

Why do people go to venerate her relics and what is the Church’s attitude to relics? We go to cemeteries to pray to and for our loved ones. We are body and soul. We know our loved ones are not in the cemetery, only their remains, because their soul is gone to God but the grave is a reminder and sign of our loved ones and important for us because it contains their remains. When we pray at the grave of our loved ones and venerate the relics of a saint we are looking forward to the resurrection. When we venerate the relics it is what they point to that is important. When you visit the relics of St. Thérèse, allow them to lead you beyond to the love of God that St. Thérèse wrote so passionately about. Allow the visit to be a time of renewal in your life. That is why there will be a team of confessors and counselors for spiritual guidance available. The Church has always venerated relics. In fact there are relics of martyrs in every altar. If you were to examine beneath the altar cloth you would find a reference to the relics of martyrs contained in the altar. That is why the priest reverences the altar with a kiss at the beginning and end of Mass, because of the relics it contains. The Old Testament witnesses to the importance of relics. A dead man came back to life after touching the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21). What about the practice of touching objects to relics? The Bible also witnesses to miracles associated with this: a miracle was worked with Elijah’s cloak after he departed this earth (2 Kings 2:14) and when Paul was in Ephesus people touched handkerchiefs and aprons to him and took them to the sick who were healed (Acts 19:12).

When you go to venerate the relics of Thérèse pray to her and ask her to pray to God for you and for all your needs. Many miracles and favors have been attributed to her. Ask her to intercede before God for your deepest needs.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux pray for us.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2001

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More on St. Thérèse

Heroic faith of St Thérèse

miracle attributed to St Thérèse during the visit of her relics to Ireland

St. Thérèse and Sacred Scripture (homily excerpt)