Memorial of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus
The Grandeur of the “Little Way”
Today the Church celebrates a beloved saint, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the “Little Flower.” She lived a very sheltered life, joining the cloistered Carmelite convent in her hometown of Lisieux, France, when she was only 15 years old. She died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis in 1984, never having left the convent.
Yet for someone whose life seemed destined for obscurity she became one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church. Pope Pius X called her the “greatest saint of the modern era.” Only twenty-eight years after her death, she was canonized in 1921 by Pope Pius XI. Her reputation for holiness had gripped the entire church and is still strong—her shrine in Lisieux remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in France, second only to Lourdes. Even though she never went beyond her convent walls as an adult, she has been named as patron of missionaries (and of florists!) and her popularity spread through the church like wildfire and remains strong—her shrine in Lisieux is the most popular pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes itself. And although her education was home-bound and rudimentary, she was declared a “Doctor” of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997—a title usually reserved for scholars and great teachers
What gives?! Thérèse gripped the imagination of the Church precisely because of the paradox of her life. She espoused what she called “the little way”—placing her entire life in the arms of God, filled with a tender love for Jesus—she dedicated every conscious act of her life as an act of love and devotion to the One who loved her. She was thoroughly human and thoroughly committed to the gospel. No gesture, no act of enduring annoyance from her fellow sisters, no smile or bearing of suffering—was too little or insignificant for Thérèse to become an an occasion for an act of love. She was a young woman, living a sheltered life, and having limited experiences, yet possessing a magnificent spirit that reached out to the entire world and incorporated its hopes and concerns in her daily prayer.
Pope Francis appealed to Thérèse’s “little way” in his 2015 encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’ (““On Care for Our Common Home”). The Pope recognizes the overwhelming ethical and issues posed by human responsibility for the ravages that are now affecting our earth. He urges people of good will, no matter what their religious convictions may be, to join with believers in addressing these problems. Some people such as competent scientists and political leaders can have a substantial impact. Others of us may despair of knowing how we can respond. Here Pope Francis turns explicitly to the spirituality of the saint we honor today. “St. Thérèse of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.” Such gestures, he notes, enable us to “build a civilization of love”—such a beautiful phrase.
Every one of us has access to such “simple daily gestures.” I don’t know if it is my imagination or not, but I sense that under the tension of the pandemic, some of us drive more aggressively, are less patient with each other, more given to anger, and maybe more concerned with our own cares than those of our neighbors in need. The example of St. Thérèse of Lisieux challenges us to act in a spirit of love and compassion in dealing with all the challenges of life, large and small.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.