If there is one book that I must recommend, next to the Scriptures, it is the Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun who entered the convent at a young age of 15 and died at the age of 24. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and was proclaimed Universal Patroness of Missions two years later by the same pope.
I first read excerpts of her autobiography, a thin book I bought in front of our church about a year ago, which eventually inspired me to find and read the whole book. Though I would still read parts of this on certain instances, it was only last month that I read it again all the way through for the second time.
How can I even dare to describe this writing? It is almost similar to trying – in vain – to communicate something that does not belong to this world. I will simply attempt to relate the beauty of it, with the hope and prayer that many who have not read it yet, will be encouraged to do so.
Prior to her death, St. Therese wrote her memoirs, which she herself entitled, “The Story of the Springtime of a Little White Flower” not intended to be published to the whole world and not with the expectation that anyone would even be the least interested to read it, but in simple obedience to the Mother Prioress at that time, who was also her biological sister, Pauline. She was not aware of what purpose it should serve and once in a while throughout her writing, she would apologize when she digressed and shifted to another topic and had to resume to the first topic at hand.
When you asked me to write it, I feared the task might unsettle me, but since then Our Lord has deigned me to make me understand that by simple obedience I shall please Him best.
She wrote in a very sentimental and poetic manner, as most would describe her way. She was fond of using metaphors which apparently, other than mere poetry, were arising from such a very deep understanding and enlightenment about the teachings of Christ and a close intimate relationship with Him. Her appreciation of nature is expressed in how she often used these to illustrate events in her life. I found myself quite at home with her writing style since I love poetry yet amazed, and even shocked with her saintly thoughts and actions which seemed so simple yet difficult since they are opposed to the natural tendencies of a person. What was even more remarkable was her wisdom, born and preserved in this book, as the undying fruit of these little acts of love.
One of my favorite parts, if not all, which I believe, is popular to many, was when she was reflecting on God’s so-called preferences. She was musing about why He granted grace to some souls who were previously great sinners like St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene while others did not even get to know God at all in their lifetime.
Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, our Lord’s living garden.
As she wrote, she was always full of love, gratitude and affection for her mother and father, whom she fondly described as saintly, for nurturing her faith and setting the example of true charity in their words and actions. Her parents, interestingly enough, both wanted to devote their whole lives to God, her father wanting to be a monk and her mother wanting to be a nun. Her father was not accepted due to his incomplete studies of Latin and her mother was told God has other plans for her. Indeed, this was so. In their piety, they were to raise children who would all serve God (all of their daughters entered the convent, while the other joined the angels in heaven) and the youngest, little Therese, who eventually became one of the greatest saints in modern times. Even Therese’s parents, Zelie and Louis Martin, were also canonized as saints, led by Pope Francis in 2015.
In the same fondness, she would often share wonderful memories about her older sisters and would express her love for them, who taught and took care of her especially after her mother’s death.
All throughout her autobiography, Therese would quote words from the Scriptures, from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis, Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis and also writings of St. John of the Cross. She had been reading holy books even as a young child. Her reflections were quite aligned with the teachings of Christ and revealed divine mysteries undoubtedly lit by the Lord in her soul that it was no wonder that she was proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997. She was accustomed to mental prayer and having been raised by devout parents, she and her siblings were often quite delightfully engaged in conversations about God and heaven. This was depicted clearly in how she viewed the world at 14, while on a pilgrimage with her sister Celine and her father in Rome, where she wrote:
To begin with, Celine and I found ourselves in the company of many distinguished people. In fact , there were scarcely any others in the pilgrimage; but far from being dazzled thereby, titles seemed to us but “a vapor of smoke,” and I understood the words of the Imitation: “Be not solicitous for the shadow of a great name.” I understood that true greatness is not found in a name but in the soul.
This honest and humble account of her life offers a fresh and enduring hope to others like us that by taking small steps, simple and little acts of love, we can move up towards increasing in virtue, and can please God. It spreads a spark of light for us, that we can all take on a mission and that mission does not necessarily mean going to different places – no matter how much we desire to do so, unless God requires and allows us to do. Our mission depends on our Creator, on what He has particularly called us for. Though we witness saintly acts in people, some well-known, who have done visibly great things, this is not precisely what God intends for every soul. It seems, that our true vocation is to love and to follow God’s Will for us, to humbly submit to Him and not force our own will upon Him, to embrace whatever He gives us, may it be joy or suffering, in whatever state of life we are in: single, married or religious.
My God, I choose everything, I will not be a Saint by halves, I am not afraid of suffering for Thee, I only fear one thing, and that is to do my own will. Accept the offering of my will, for I choose all that Thou willest.
Having read so much about saints, St. Therese, also known as the Little Flower, longed to be like the great saints and martyrs, and desired so much to die and suffer like them. Though not the kind she had in mind, she had her own share of sufferings, interior and exterior: death of her mother when she was 4, sorrow for being left by her older sister Pauline (whom she considered her little mother) to enter the convent, her own illness, the illness and death of her father among others. When she was in school, she experienced being bullied by another older child who was jealous of her for being smart in the class; she was praised by some and in other cases, felt not being liked by others. She also experienced being neglected by a childhood friend, thus, she realized how totally undependable affection of creatures could be, leading her to depend entirely on her friendship with Jesus. The night before her profession, she went through confusion about her vows and living a life at Carmel. After humbly revealing her spiritual state to her superior, the devil lost his grip on her and peace and certainty about her vocation came back to her soul. She bravely entered the dark night of the soul, where she began to doubt in despair if there was really heaven or mere nothingness after death. She humbly admitted about her temptations and struggles from the early days of childhood until her death. She was in every way human in nature. But she was able to rise above all these.
Therese’s “the little way” consisted of seemingly trivial things such as being patient towards a nun who was sitting behind her and always fidgeting with her rosary, a sound that irritated her. She was so distracted that she wanted to glare at her or give her a look to make her stop. Instead, she realized this was an opportunity for her to suffer for God and to offer it for the conversion of souls so she endured this little pain, so to speak. Another was when a disabled old nun whom she had to take care of was somehow a bit cranky all the time and would say unkind words towards her. Still, she continued responding to her in a kind way, always offering her help with a smile. It would irritate her when someone got her paintbrush without asking permission but she would strongly fight her emotions. During recreation, instead of seeking pleasure in frequently talking to her (biological) sisters who were also in Carmel, she would sit next to a nun whom she disliked a lot and find her way to be kind and cheerful to her at all times.
There are, of course, no enemies in the Carmel; but, after all, we have our natural likes and dislikes. We may feel drawn towards one Sister, and may be tempted to go a long way round to avoid meeting another. Well, our Lord tells me that this is the Sister to love and pray for, even though her behavior may make me imagine she does not care for me. “If you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? For sinners also love those that love them.”(Luke 6:32) And it is not enough to love, we must prove our love; naturally one likes to please a friend, but that is not charity, for sinners do the same.
On one occasion, she wrote:
Yes, I know when I show charity to others, it is simply Jesus acting in me, and the more closely I am united to Him, the more dearly I love my Sisters. If I wish to increase this love in my heart, and the devil tries to bring before me the defects of a Sister, I hasten to look for her virtues, her good motives;
When she got terribly ill, she would not complain but instead, tried to hide her suffering by maintaining her usual countenance of joy and patience towards others. How many times have we experienced similar physical difficulties? But it is our response that differs from St. Therese’s. I would verbally complain over a simple headache!
All these seem so little to us but great in the eyes of God, as she said, because the good things that are done in secret are most pleasing to God.
As she said in the latter part of her autobiography, she found her vocation, which is to love. Every little act that she did, and every suffering she went through, she offered out of great love for her Divine Spouse, Jesus, for the salvation of souls and strength of missionaries. Her life was honed in humility, obedience, honesty, faith and devotion to God that suffering became her joy. How did she reach this spiritual level of not letting anything get to her? Often, we can be led to despair at our own imperfections and how far we are from holiness. But St. Therese’s words gave us so much hope that it is possible, by the Grace of God, and that all He requires from us is willingness, desire and effort to do so. She shared that in her case, this did not happen abruptly, but she would practice little by little, in responding to the other nuns and her superior, in handling mundane tasks, offering each act to God, and gradually, receiving God’s Grace and acquiring the desired virtue. Like other saints, obedience was of utmost importance to her.
I cannot, in my limited human words, give justice to her book that has uplifted many souls – including mine – since her death. I attempt to do so now, with fondness and with gratitude to her (and her intercession), from whom I owe a lot of my own recent joys, inner strength and enlightenment. I am sharing about her book for the sake of others who have not heard of her, or for those who may have heard of her but have not read her written work, that reveals about her sainthood and about God who is Love.
And whenever I seem to be so distracted with the ‘concerns and vanities’ of this world, which is quite often, her words of anticipation about heaven bring my mind to focus on the beautiful reality that everything in this world is passing and encourage me to eagerly look forward to going to our true home – heaven with our Creator, where, as most saints in their visions, would describe, joy and love overflow continuously from God, that there is NO need and desire for anything else.
To God be the glory!