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Thérèse Françoise Marie Alençon once said her parents were “Worthy more of heaven than of Earth.”
She was the last of eight children, three of whom died in childhood. Orphaned of her mother at the age of 4, she relived the drama of abandonment as each of her four sisters in turn entered Carmelite life, though in return she received the particular affection of her father, who called her “Little Queen of France and Navarre”.
Thérèse entered the Carmel order of Lisieux at age 15 by special permission of Pope Leo XIII, whom Thérèse herself had begged in Rome. “If God wills, you will enter,” was the Pope’s response.
She wanted to “save souls,” and above all “to pray in aid of priests.” Sister Theresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face is the name she took at her profession. At the suggestion of her superiors, she immediately began to keep a diary, in which she noted the stages of her inner life. She wrote in 1895, “On June 9, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I have the grace to understand more than ever that Jesus wants to be loved.”
As a response to changes of attitudes in the industrial age, Thérèse developed a highly original and powerful spirituality, called the “theology of the little way” or “spiritual childhood.” In it she based the practice of love for God not on great actions, but in everyday seemingly insignificant acts.
In her autobiography, Thérèse writes, “There is only one thing to do: throw the flowers of the small sacrifices to Jesus.” And elsewhere, “I want to teach the little methods that have worked for me.”
In their original draft, this diary carries the subtitle, “The Story of the Springtime of a Little White Flower.” Beneath the whimsical appearance, however, there is actually a hard journey toward holiness marked by a strong response to God’s love for man.
Not understood by the sisters of the Carmel, Thérèse said she received “more thorns than roses.” She accepted with patience the injustices and persecutions, as well as the pain and fatigue of illness, offering everything “for the needs of the Church,” in order, “to cast roses on all, the just and sinners.”
For John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the specificity of her spirituality is its total openness to the invasion of God’s love, the capacity it engenders to respond to that love, even in the “night” of the spirit — for which Thérèse was a sister in this to sinners, the fallen away, atheists, the desperate — and for this, she was declared patron of missionaries.
After nine years of religious life, Thérèse died of tuberculosis at 24 on Sept. 30, 1897. In 1923 she was beatified by Pope Pius XI, who considered her the “star of his pontificate” and then canonized in 1925.