Trevor Jones on how St Thérèse found an ordinary way for ordinary people to walk beside Jesus day by day
When Thérèse Martin entered the Carmel of Lisieux in 1888 she joined two of her sisters who were already living the religious life. She came from a happy home where the faith was devoutly lived out. Tragedy had entered the young woman’s life in the death of her mother when Thérèse was four, but a large and warm family had provided compensatory affection. Becoming a nun had been a struggle, not least because Thérèse was very young; she was seeking entry to Carmel at only fifteen.
She had negotiated with the warden of the house, her local bishop and, in a mad moment of dedication had thrown herself at the knees of the Pope during a pilgrimage to Rome and begged his consent to be allowed entry to Carmel. Something worked because although still in reality an adolescent, nearly a child, she was allowed to become a postulant. She recorded her feelings,
‘Our little cell, above all, filled me with joy. But the joy I was experiencing was calm, the lightest breeze did not undulate the quiet waters … with what deep joy I repeated those words: ‘I am here forever and ever.’
Intense and deep prayer
Thérèse had long prepared for this moment; real, intense and deep prayer marked her childhood. After a mysterious illness following her elder sisters’ entrance into the convent, Thérèse had been cured in an instant by a vision of Our Lady. Her other sisters were praying in her room where there was a statue of Our Lady; suddenly it seemed, to Thérèse, to be transformed: ‘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 once she was better.
At the age of nine she had frequently hidden behind a curtain near her bed. There she would ‘think about God and Heaven’. Only later did she realize that she had been practising mental prayer without being aware what it was. With her sister Celine she had talked about God while watching sunsets from the Belvedere at the top of her home. There they had found in silence and shared prayer moments of mystical knowledge of God. It was an extraordinary history and promised a life of rich and deep prayer when she became a religious.
Search for simplicity
The promise was not fulfilled. As soon as Thérèse entered the convent she experienced aridity, and emptiness in her prayer. Her faith was still there, she still delighted in the life of the convent, difficult though that was. But her prayer was empty. It was, she told others, as if Jesus was just not listening. Thérèse described it as Jesus being asleep in the boat as he was on the night that he walked on the waters of the lake. She longed for the rich life of prayer she had known. Because she was a Carmelite she read from the works of the great spiritual leader of the order, St John of the Cross. It all seemed too big for her. She concluded she needed a smaller, simpler way to God, for herself, and she realized thousands of other ordinary small people were trying to live out the Christian life.
Her single great inspiration came from the hotels she had stayed in on her pilgrimage to Rome. She remembered the lifts, the elevators that carried people from one floor to another in the hotels. What was need, for her and others, was a lift to carry her and others straight to God. As she thought about this she counted off the things she could not be, an Apostle, a priest, a martyr, and then she arrived at her solution, she would be love. In being a burning heart of love in the convent she could walk beside Jesus in every tiny detail of life. This became her new way of prayer. It was acted out in her smile, the smile she had seen on the face of Our Lady when she was healed in her childhood. The smile, for everyone under all circumstances, was the outward sign of her Little Way.
From exploring the soaring heights of mystical prayer in childhood Thérèse had found a solution for all the people who had to live out their life in the everyday and ordinary. It has a very ‘get on with it’ message. It is a way of simplicity. The little way of love does not do away with the disciplined pattern of prayer each day or the regular attendance at Mass; it makes those things real in daily life. It requires simplicity of heart and humility of spirit.
Her greatest gift
Thérèse died in much pain from consumption in September 1897. She was only 24. Her last words were, ‘My God I love you’. In her final days she had promised that after death she would send down a shower of roses. Those who sought her prayers found this to be true. It is easy to love Thérèse because of the prettiness of her statues and pictures; the real way is to follow her greatest gift, her little way of simplicity of heart and burning love, and meeting life with the smile of Mary.
To read the life of Thérèse and to see her teaching on the Little Way it is best to read her own words, The Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke OCD (ICS Press Washington). A pilgrimage to Lisieux where there is a great basilica to St Thérèse, Doctor of the Church, and where you can see the charming simplicity of her childhood home, is a moving experience. ND