St Therese of Liseux is one of the most beloved saints of the Catholic Church, earning the endearing nickname, ‘The Little Flower.’
For years after reading her biography I had a quiet itch in my soul whenever I thought about her, because frankly, although I found it lovely to learn about her beautiful life and virtue, I certainly didn’t connect with her.
Everything seemed so easy for St. Therese. Her ‘little way’ seemed so simple and facile. I didn’t see the struggles I had in my own life as a young woman, or any of the ways I got discouraged, or fell and had to keep getting back up. Her life was lovely, but totally unrelatable to me.
A few years ago, I discovered the truth. Not only had I misunderstood the depth of the ‘little way,’ but the autobiography St Therese of Liseux that I read had been heavily edited, to the point of being censored.
A Catholic newspaper news article from 1958 commented on the well-known fact that St. Therese asked her sister, Mother Agnes, to make whatever changes she thought necessary to her autobiography after her death, saying “We have calculated that, even excluding many excisions of one line or less, more than 20,000 words had been left out in the printed editions. This is the equivalent of at least 50 pages of 400 words each…A large number of the cuts seemed to have been made with the definite purpose of concealing as much as possible everything that, in the mind of Mother Agnes, clashed with her…notions of what was unbecoming in a saint and improper for the public to know.”
Fr. Henri Gheon, in The Truth about Therese (Sophia Press, 2013) reveals the deep beauty that comes out when we understand the raw suffering behind Therese’s love and virtue. He describes her as “an intense soul living a life of heroic grandeur amidst dull and all-too-worldly associates, a soul driven by a burning love of God even as she wrestled privately with great physical and emotional pain.”
Therese was more than a simple flower. Her little way is simple but difficult, because it is lived in a complex and complicated world. The little way means obeying the demands of love in whatever moment I am in, in whatever or whoever is in front of me, and trusting God to work out the bigger picture. It means letting go of ambitions of control and illusions of strength in my life, and simply embracing where God has me and my mission to love in that very time and place.
Terese was a strong woman who battled with interior darkness, human weakness and the temptation to atheism during an 18 month long spiritual desert during which she no longer felt the presence of God or certainty about the existence of Heaven. In spite of her trials, she chose to love and to trust in Christ’s love for her. That was her strength.
In the un-censored version her autobiography, which the church sanctioned 50 years after her death, Therese relates,
“I get tired of the darkness all around me. The darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! All right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence!’”
And in a letter to her sister Celine she explains,
“My will is to endure, by Love, The Darkness of my exile here….If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into…Everything has disappeared on me, and I am left with love alone.”
Surrounded by darkness Therese fought to love in spite of her suffering, choosing to hope against hope in the reality of God’s unfelt love. The pious exclamations of faith that had first seemed superficial to me were now revealed as incredibly deep and brave, coming from the heart of someone who chose to believe in spite of the darkness she which she couldn’t see an end to. She walked by faith, not by sight.
Therese wrote volumes of beautiful poetry about Heaven and the experience of Christ’s love. Speaking about these poems to her sister she wrote,
“Dear Mother, to judge by the sentiments I express in all the little poems I’ve made up during the last year, you might imagine that my soul was as full of consolations as it could hold; that, for me, the veil which hides the unseen scarcely existed.
And all the time it isn’t just a veil; it’s a great wall, which reaches up to the sky and blocks out the stars! No, when I write poems about the happiness of heaven and the eternal possession of God, it strikes no chord of happiness in my own heart I’m simply talking about what I’m determined to believe.
Sometimes, it’s true, a tiny ray of light pierces through the darkness, and then, just for a moment, the ordeal is over; but immediately afterward the memory of it brings me no happiness, it seems to make the darkness thicker than ever.”
Even prayer was not easy for the saint.
“I feel then that the fervor of my Sisters makes up for my lack of fervor; but when alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance. I feel I have said this so poorly! I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them.
For a long time I was desolate about this lack of devotion which astonished me, for I love the Blessed Virgin so much that it should be easy for me to recite in her honor prayers which are so pleasing to her.” The strength of Therese’s soul is shown as she continues, “Now I am less desolate; I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my mother, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it. Sometimes when my mind is in such aridity that it is impossible to draw forth one single thought to unite me with God, I very slowly recite an “Our Father” and then the “Hail Mary”; then these prayers give me great delight; they nourish my soul much more than if I had recited them precipitately a hundred times.”
Therese was not a saint because she easily ascended to perfection. She was a saint because in her human weakness and miserable darkness, she clung to the Light, to the Merciful love of Christ and she trusted him to see her through the night in some unknown way. Her little way was a way of poverty, embracing the poverty of her soul and trusting God to enfold her in his mercy and love, giving her all she lacked.
She wrote to her sister,
“I am thankful to Jesus for making me walk in this darkness, where I have a very deep peace, and I will gladly pass the rest of my days in this dim underworld —I ask only that my darkness shall bring light to sinners.
I am glad, yes, very glad, to have no consolations. I should be ashamed were my love to be like that of those girls in the world who are always looking at the hands of their fiancées to see if they have brought any presents, or study their faces to catch a loving smile that will give them pleasant feelings . . .. I do not want love that I can feel; if Jesus can feel it, then that is enough.”
Therese’s soul lived in a world she could neither see nor feel, but believed to be more real than her own experience of darkness and trials. This faith, this trusting abandonment to Love Himself, was her true strength.
There was no superficial banality about the real, un-censored St. Therese of Liseux. In her we have a sister who shows us the path to union with Christ that is the cross. She also shows us that when we abandon our own foolish pretense of strength, embrace the truth of our weakness and give it to Christ, he gives us our true power- a deep and unshakable trust in his Love.