Saint Therese writes: “Then, nearly ecstatic with supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love.”
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
30 September 2010
Known as the Little Flower of Jesus, St. Therese (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also called Teresa of the Child Jesus) was born at Alencon in France, in 1873. She was the ninth child of Louis and Zelie Martin, both saintly parents, who had each desired to consecrate their own lives to God in the religious life. Denied that vocation, Louis and Zelie focused their energy on another lofty vocation: the married life in which parents raise children for the love of God, instilling in their hearts true knowledge of purpose and destiny.
Thus raised in a loving home, the ecclesia domestica, the “domestic church” in which her parents carefully nurtured all their children in the womb of Christian virtue and love, St. Therese’s vocation to the religious life manifested itself while she was yet only a young child. By God’s grace, she heard the silent yet persistent call of devotion in her heart, one which drew her toward a life of love, poverty, obedience and self-sacrifice, a life in which she could give of herself completely to her Beloved.
As the whisper in her heart which urged her to commend her life to God increased, seeing no other life for herself but that of the religious life, St. Therese sought permission to enter the Carmelite Convent at age fifteen, only to be refused by the superior, which brought her as well as her father, who was eager to give his daughter to God, no small amount of suffering. As a result, father and daughter traveled to Rome as two companions on a saintly mission in order to seek the consent of Pope Leo XIII. The Holy Father, however, preferred that the decision remain in the hands of the superior, who indeed consented only a short time later, on 9 April 1888. The Little Flower of Jesus was only fifteen. At last, the desire of her heart, one placed there by God himself, had been granted, and, St. Therese, following in the steps of two of her older sisters, joyously entered the convent of Lisieux, a tranquil place of peaceful prayer, silent contemplation, and fervent love of neighbor.
The Little Flower lived that religious life for eleven years; the Gospel life, a life marked by humility, evangelical simplicity, poverty and all the rest; a life of constant growth in holiness, hidden in God, in which incomparable gifts of advanced prayer, contemplation, and mystical union rained from heaven. Yet what clearly stands out in her wondrous life of Christian virtue is her trust in God, a trust so great that, as we clearly see in her eagerness to enter the convent, she was able to fearlessly and joyously throw herself at our Savior’s feet at such a tender age.
The Little Flower of Jesus: The Vocation of Love
So great was St. Therese’s love for Christ, so strong her desire to give totally and completely, that she longed to die a martyr’s death. In her autobiography, written in obedience to her superior and published two years after her death, St. Therese wrote, “Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of Saint Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer.” Yet, on her first reading, she would not find such an answer:
I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
St. Therese continued reading until she found what she termed an “encouraging theme”: “Set your desires on greater gifts. And I will now show you the way which surpasses all others” (cf. 1 Cor 12:31).
The answer that the Beloved revealed to St. Therese was love, queen of the virtues: love would be her calling, love her vocation, love her life. It was love that would bring her peace. She writes:
For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the while body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church . . . had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed there blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my proper place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.
The Little Flower of Jesus: Prudent And Wise, Driven To Love To The End
In the Office of Readings—from the Liturgy Of The Hours, the official and public prayer of the Church—antiphon in Common of Virgins we read, “Radiant virgin, prudent and wise, you are the spouse of the holy Word of God.” St. Therese displayed profound prudence and wisdom in her trust in God; in her understanding of the holy Catholic Church as a nourishing mother whose life is lived for the sake of her children; in her penetrating grasp of the vocation of love; and in her unwaveringly fervent desire to travel to the farthest end along the path of Christ’s will.
St. Therese of The Child Jesus was, we might say, driven to love. Does this not reflect the life of our Savior? Our God who, driven by a resplendent, divine love beyond understanding, loved us to the very end? Further, it is our Savior who continues to give of himself in Eucharist, received, celebrated and adored by millions upon millions of Catholics around the world each day. That is Love to the end and beyond; Love which is perpetuated for all time, flowing into eternity itself.
The Little Flower of Jesus sacrificed her life for love of souls, for their salvation and entry into the heavenly Kingdom. She gave of herself for the building up of the Church, the People of God and the Mystical Body of Christ, for she saw the magnitude of her Beloved’s love for them. That is truly a vocation of love, a love which is bound up in the Supreme Love, our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Therese died on September 30, 1897. As a result of her sanctity and the many miracles which were accounted to her intercession, the cause for her canonization was introduced only seventeen years later. The Little Flower’s life was one of beauty, joy, and wonder, a life which continues to affect members of the Church to this day. Therefore her death did not mark the end of her vocation of love, but rather sparked a new reality of “beginning” in which she continues to touch souls the world over, inflaming within them her ardent desire to love to the end.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.