Saint Therese of the Child Jesus

Blanche Morteveille




We have seen to what an extent St. Therese of the Child Jesus found spiritual food for her soul in the works of St. John of the Cross. After mentioning this fact, the Saint’ adds: “Later on, all spiritual writers left me in my aridity... Nowadays, I read without understanding or, if I understand, my mind is unable to meditate.” After the joy of understanding the great Doctor of the mystic life at an unusually early age, the young Carmelite soon found it impossible to appreciate any spiritual authors. However, she was neither discouraged nor disappointed by this fact.

“In my helplessness,” she wrote, “the Holy Scriptures and the Imitation of Christ are of the greatest assistance... It is the Gospel more than any other book which helps me in time of prayer... Jesus has no need of books or teachers to instruct our souls; He, the Teacher of all teachers, instructs us without the medium of words.”

It was indeed Jesus Himself who taught her henceforth. Although she mentions this privilege quite simply, she realized that it was a very great grace. Studying the divine revelation contained in the Old and the New Testaments, she frequently discovered “new lights and hidden, mysterious meanings.”

Realising that others have already spoken on this subject, I shall, nevertheless, humbly attempt to say something about these new lights and discoveries of the young Saint of Lisieux, guiding myself mainly by the explanation given by herself. That is possible, since divine providence has willed that this soul, which was so reserved and hidden for those around her should now be laid bare to all. There is here no longer any hidden mystery; she invites us to draw unreservedly from her treasures. If we hesitate to partake of her riches and if our dazzled sight does not dare to gaze, her reassuring smile encourages us to accept the invitation given so lovingly to all.


1. “If There Is a Little One...”

In that part of her Autobiography which is addressed to Mother Mary Gonzaga, St. Therese traces the gradual development of her spiritual discoveries.

At the age of three, the desire to become a saint took possession of her soul. This desire, ardent and irresistible, increased with the years and caused her to leave all things to enter Carmel. There she strove to overcome herself in the constant practice of the most generous, unfailing virtue. Still, notwithstanding all her efforts, she considered there was just as great a difference between the saints and herself as between a mountain and a grain of sand. Her confidence, however, remained unshaken. She wished to become a great saint and she was convinced that her desire came from God, who does not inspire such desires without giving the corresponding graces.

By what means would she obtain her desire? She tells us herself:

“For me to become great is impossible. I must bear with myself and my numberless imperfections, but I intend to find a means of attaining heaven by a little way, very short and very straight, a little way which is wholly new.”

This meant, therefore, that she was bent upon making a discovery.

“We live in an age of inventions,” she continues; “now-a-days, rich people need not trouble to go up the stairs, for they have lifts instead. I should like to find a lift to raise me up to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the steep stairway of perfection.”

The desire and the determination expressed in these ingenuous words were no doubt inspired by God Himself. With keen delight, then, in her study of Holy Scripture, the young Carmelite came upon the passage:

“Whoever is a little one, let him come unto Me.” (Prov. 9:4)

This was like a personal invitation to her. God calls to Himself “the little ones.” Feeling that she was one of these little ones, Therese approached with confidence. But what next? What would God do for them? Then, searching further her eyes fell on the words in Isaias:

“As one whom the mother caresseth, so will comfort you. You shall be carried at the breasts; and upon shall caress you.” (Isa. 66:12-13)

The God of infinite Power and Majesty, who made all things out of nothing, and before whom the angels veil their faces with their wings, in reverential awe and adoration, chose the comparison of a mother’s tenderness for her little child, in order to show men His attitude toward them. No one was better fitted than Therese Martin to understand the full meaning of such a comparison. Her admirable parents had given her a perfect example of fatherly and motherly love.

“Never have I been consoled by words more tender and sweet,” she exclaimed. “Thine arms, 0 Jesus, are the lift which will raise me up to heaven.”

These words broke down all barriers and overthrew all obstacles. Joyously Therese cast herself into the arms of her God to remain there for all her life. Such was her unchanging attitude toward God. It was the truly new and characteristic manner of her sanctity.


2. Her Message From God

The light she had received was not for herself alone. In God’s name, she invites all – sinners and innocent, ignorant and learned – to imitate her in this unlimited confidence, which had brought her to the heart of her heavenly Father.

“The Way that I wish to teach souls is that of confidence and complete abandonment. Confidence, and confidence alone, will bring us to Love... If souls, as imperfect as I am, could feel what I feel, not one of them would despair of reaching the summit of the Mount of Love, since Jesus asks only for abandonment and gratitude.”

What light had the little Carmelite been given and what grace of understanding had she received that she could speak with such authority and utter such daring promises?

According to what she herself has told us, and what her judges have decreed concerning her – for she has been judged and proclaimed worthy of credence by the voice of infallible Pontiffs – the mystery revealed to St. Therese of the Child Jesus in a most special way was the truth of the unfathomable abyss of Divine Mercy, the fatherly tenderness of God toward His poor, little creatures. These two words, “poor,” “little,” have been chosen purposely. It is the abyss of our misery that calls on the abyss of Divine Mercy.

By an exceptional grace the Saint most clearly perceived this truth, which was henceforth her guiding light. From then till the end of her life, the thought of the Mercy of Divine Goodness toward human weakness caused her such gratitude, confidence, and love that the words she used to give expression to these sentiments are among the most beautiful ever uttered by creature to the Creator.

“To me He hath given His mercy,” she exclaimed triumphantly. This expression suffices to explain the extraordinarily fruitful influence of the Saint after her death. Saint Therese of Lisieux has become for humanity a channel of divine favours. There is every reason why we should listen attentively to her message; why we should strive to understand her appeal. Every word of this little Saint has been studied and examined by learned theologians. But above all, Rome has spoken urging all to learn and follow her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood.

It is St. Therese who saw and realised the truth contained in this. It is she whom God gave to us all as an example and a model, or, to use the expression of Pope Pius XI, as “a Mistress in spiritual things.” For that reason we would keep our eyes fixed on the sweet, persuasive Saint and listen to her teaching. Her own holiness is the most eloquent commentary on the doctrine she holds out for our acceptance.


3. Her Little Way for Little Souls

“To remain in the arms of our Lord,” she explains, “I do not need to grow up; on the contrary I must remain a little one and grow ever less.”

She emphasizes the words “a little one.” The expression is not pleasing to all; many even dislike it. But the Saint insists that she wishes to lay open her “Little Way” to “little souls.” The word is repeated as a leitmotiv, the predominant idea in her explanation.

Could she not have made her lesson of love more attractive and more persuasive by insisting less on this? We can imagine the Saint’s beautiful smile taking on an expression of gentle pity in reply to such a question. Our poor little minds would like so much to be considered great!

The Saint had read and reread the writings of St. John of the Cross until she knew them by heart. She was at home in the mode of expression used by him. But it was on purpose, and under the guidance of her interior Director, that she chose the most simple language. This well suits her “secret,” which is much more subtle than one would think at first sight. To penetrate the meaning of this “secret,” let us open the Book which rested on the Saint’s heart day and night, the sacred Book of the Gospels, and then read with her the words that she meditated each day:

“Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 18:3)

“Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 19:13)

And the great, solemn promise:

“Whoever, therefore, humbles himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:4)

There can be no doubt whatever in the matter. It is the lowliest who will be the greatest. What hidden meaning is concealed in the word “little” that it has merited so much honour and is so loved by Jesus and His little disciple?

To be little means to be humble. The humility referred to here is not that of fear which shows itself in humble prostrations; nor is it that which proclaims its unworthiness by loud exclamations and gestures. It is the sweet, simple humility of children.

Jesus might have shown us, as the type of perfection, an old man of consummate virtue, such as Simeon who held Him with ecstatic love in his trembling arms, but He chose to give us as our model a child, a little child. This model is not left to our choice but is imposed on us, for it is a condition necessary for salvation. It is necessary and it is all-sufficing, for it will bring us to the highest sanctity, to that sanctity which obtains the foremost rank in heaven.

Every Christian knows the words of our divine Saviour, but how many understand and realise the depth of the truth contained in them? It is true that spiritual childhood has been practised by the saints – by many of them to an eminent degree – that many masters of the spiritual life have written on this subject, but, by a special permission of God’s providence, no one has lived and proclaimed spiritual childhood with such candour and boldness, such penetrating logic and burning ardour, as St. Therese of the Child Jesus.

In a word: the teaching given by our Lord two thousand years ago has been placed in a brilliant light by the pure, clear-sighted genius of a young nun, only twenty years of age. St. Therese’s Message Is a Message From the Gospel.

The authority of popes, like that of our Lord, has upheld Therese’s Message.

Benedict XV declared: “We desire that the secret of the holiness of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus be understood by all our sons.”

His successor, Pius XI, proclaimed: “It is Our desire that the faithful followers of Christ study her life attentively in order to imitate her and become themselves ‘like little children,’ since, according to our Lord’s own words, that is the essential condition for reaching the Kingdom of heaven.”

There is no question of making the Gospel insipid nor of belittling it, as some people fear. It is essential that we become “little ones,” if we wish to fulfil our duties as true Christians. We must be “little” and “like children.” These two expressions are linked together; it is the latter that gives the former all the tenderness, sweetness, and joy which make that state so desirable.

God asks of us a filial humility, because we are, in truth, His children. It is His desire that we realize our great destiny to be brethren of Christ, co-heirs with Him eternally.

In an admirable work, Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, Dom Marmion has written: “The Masterpiece of the eternal thoughts which is Christ, the wonderful mysteries of the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, and the triumph of Jesus, the institution of the Church and the sacraments, grace, the virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all this marvellous supernatural order has come forth from this movement of the heart of God so as to make us His children.”

Speaking of the Love of God, St. John cries out: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1)

And St. Paul proclaims: “You have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry, ‘Abba: Father!’” (Rom. 8:15) The teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux is in perfect harmony with this great doctrine of divine adoption, which is the very foundation of Christianity. This is proved in the short, but heroic, period of her life which remains to be recounted. Those who dislike “childishness” need not be disheartened; they will soon see that the way of spiritual childhood “is childlike only in name,” as Pius XI so aptly remarked. It is linked inseparably with that true strength of soul, which relies on the divine strength for its power. Therese wished to be a child, but a child of grace, a royal child of the all-powerful Father!


4. Some Multi-Coloured Months

The encouragement given by Father Alexis to the young Carmelite with regard to her spiritual outlook was of the greatest importance, for it made her confidence boundless and brought her the assurance that her aspirations were indeed from God. Henceforth, she gave herself up, unreservedly, to the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Outwardly, her life was spent in accomplishing the seemingly monotonous, but sanctifying, Rule of the religious house she had chosen. In the summer of 1892, being no longer assistant sacristan, she was two months without any definite occupation and spent her time in painting.

As a child, she had longed to learn drawing. When her father was arranging for Celine to have drawing lessons, he asked: “Would my little Queen like to learn also?” In her enthusiastic way, the child was about to exclaim a delighted “Yes,” but Marie thought it right to make objections. Making a tremendous effort to overcome herself, Therese kept silence, offering the great sacrifice to Jesus. Eight years later, He made up to her for her childhood’s sacrifice. As some pictures painted by the young nun showed real artistic talent, Mother Mary Gonzaga told her to paint a fresco in the oratory inside the convent. This work, undertaken by obedience, was carried out in a manner quite remarkable for a beginner. From this time till the end of her life, the saint had the consolation of painting and also of writing poems. But it was for a higher form of art that God destined her, none other than that of moulding souls to His own divine likeness.

However, before receiving the charge of the novices, she was given the duty of portress. In a convent, all communication with the outer world passes through the portress, who is constantly disturbed by every kind of visitor. For one so intensely drawn to silence and recollection, the constant attention needed for this duty must have required a continual practice of virtue and self-denial.

With Celine, the consoling angel of their poor paralysed father, her intercourse was as intimate and spiritual as in the early days of her religious life. After three years of martyrdom far from his family, Monsieur Martin had been brought back to Lisieux, though not to his own home, and was living near his brother-in-law. In August, 1892, he was with Leonie and Celine at a house called Chateau de la Musse, which belonged to Monsieur Guerin.

In a letter to Celine, dated August 15, 1892, the younger sister alluded to the beauty at dawn of the Norman skies, which she no longer saw except in memory, and quoted these words of St. John of the Cross:

“In my Beloved I have the mountains, The solitary, wooded valleys.”

Another letter, about this time, quoted the following saying of St. John of the Cross. which filled her soul with a sense of exultation: “All is mine, all is for me. The heavens are mine; God Himself is mine; and the Mother of my God is mine.” Then she explained to Celine one of her “simple ways” with regard to the Blessed Virgin. Sometimes in prayer she would say:

“Dearest Mother. I am more fortunate than you are. I have you for my Mother, and you have no Blessed Virgin to love as I have!”

Then thinking of the Immaculate Maiden, who dwelt beside the Temple of Jerusalem and who humbly wished to become the handmaid of the mother of the Messiah, the Saint cried out: “And I – poor little creature that I am – I have become your child, not your handmaid.”

Therese never wearied of the title of child. For her, humility and trust were inseparable. Writing to her sister of the light given to her during the preceding retreat, she expressed some beautiful thoughts on the words of our Lord: “Make haste and come down, for I must stay in thy house today.”

On January 2, 1893, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face celebrated her twentieth birthday. Her beauty had become more striking, and the black veil above the uncovered, smooth, white forehead enhanced her gracious charm. Her soul, too, had progressed in holiness and beauty. She was in reality the greatest treasure of the convent, for she was a saint. But how many realised her sanctity? Probably no one but Sister Agnes of Jesus, who could read her little sister’s soul as her very own!

When Mother Mary Gonzaga ended her term as Prioress in February of that year, a new superior had to be elected, in accordance with the Carmelite Rule. An election at Carmel is always an important event. In silence and prayer, each member of the Community implores the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and weighs the respective merits of her sisters in order to choose the Religious whom she considers the most worthy to govern and become the Mother of the Community. The nuns of Lisieux that year elected Sister Agnes of Jesus. The fact that she was only thirty-three shows how highly esteemed she was by those around her. What a joy it was for Therese to have her beloved “little Mother” as superior! It seemed as if an era of wonderful harmony was beginning after five years of silent suffering, and yet God decreed that she should see her Prioress less than any of the nuns. It was the Divine Master Himself who wished for this austere mortification.


5. Spiritual Childhood Further Explained

What position in the Community was to be given to Mother Mary Gonzaga, who had directed the convent for so long? Out of deference to the former superior, Mother Agnes gave her the title of Mistress of Novices. To Therese, who was still in the noviciate, she gave the charge of Assistant Novice Mistress, though she did not actually give her that title. It was a difficult position, but the new Prioress knew she could count on her little sister’s virtue. To accomplish the task assigned to her without ever displeasing Mother Mary Gonzaga required untiring humility, patience, and charity. The Saint accomplished this difficult task and was in reality the Mistress of Novices, though she did not receive that name.

For the entire world, too, it was to prove of significance that she received this appointment, implying the charge of spiritual direction. For the essence of her “Little Way,’’ which applies to all men, is admirably explained in her advice to the novices.

On receiving this charge, she realised that it was beyond her strength and exclaimed:

“Dear Lord, you see that I am too small to feed your little ones, but if, through me, you will give each one what is suitable for her, then fill my hands, and, without leaving your arms or even turning my head, I shall distribute your treasures to the souls who come to me for food.”

In her Autobiography, the Saint further explains: “The knowledge that it was impossible to do anything of myself rendered the task easier. My sole interior occupation was to unite myself more and more closely to God, knowing that the rest would be given to me in abundant measure... I have always found my hands filled when it was necessary to give nourishment to the souls of my sisters.” Thus God responded to the trust of His child, who sought not to store up provisions, but counted on His guidance and inspiration at every minute.

Hers was a “Way” of abandonment and simplicity. Her soul was “passive” under God’s action; but it must be remembered, as previously stated, the passive state of the interior life calls for very great spiritual energy.

“Ever since I placed myself in the Arms of Jesus, I have been like a watchman on the look out for the enemy from the highest turret of a fortified castle; nothing escapes my vigilance... I am often surprised at my own clear-sightedness.”

Guided by the Holy Spirit, the young Novice Mistress led her novices by the light of Eternal Truth. She sought to train them to be perfect Carmelites according to the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila and of St. John of the Cross. Knowing that spiritual direction should be a discreet collaboration with the work of the Holy Spirit, she spoke to the novices of her own lights in so far only as they seemed likely to profit thereby.

The novices of Lisieux were the first disciples of the “Little Way,” which is, in truth, a “simplifying.” Simplicity, in spiritual matters, is an assured means of attaining union with God. Simplicity is like a straight clear path, which does not turn aside but goes straight ahead. It teaches the soul to go direct to God. God is simple. Things are complicated for us, because we are not simple.

As soon as a soul enters the way of spiritual childhood, servile fear disappears. By sanctifying grace, the child of God is established in confidence and love, and feels that she is in the House of her Father. Neither fear nor discouragement can have any power over such a soul. One of the resolutions taken by Therese on the day of her first Holy Communion was: “I shall never let myself be discouraged.” She was now able to share with others the secrets and the results of her heroic tenacity.

When a novice lamented that she always fell into the same faults, the young Novice Mistress took an incident from her own childhood to teach a lesson of perseverance. Remembering her home in the Rue St. Blaise and her childish efforts to go up the stairs alone to reach her mother, she recounted the repeatedly fruitless efforts she made to raise her little foot high enough to go up even the very first step, and then applied her lesson:

“By the practice of all the virtues, raise your little foot in an attempt to mount the stairway of sanctity, but do not imagine that you will be able to go up even the first step. God only asks for your good intentions. At the top of this stairway, He watches you lovingly. Soon, His love will be conquered by your vain efforts and He will come down Himself to carry you up in His arms.”

Spiritual childhood “does not mean the presumption of hoping to attain a supernatural end by purely natural means” (Benedict XV), nor has it any connection with stoic pride. It means a continual and confident recourse to God’s power. Our vain endeavours will act “as a prayer” on His fatherly Heart; our long-continued efforts will not fail to obtain His help.

The Saint confided to her novices the secrets of her own courageous little sacrifices, as she helped them to correct their imperfections. Cost what it might, she fought against sloth in the spiritual combat. Indifferent to flattery and altogether impartial in her conduct, she spared no pains in the accomplishment of her duty. Her personal experience and her exceptional gift of observation made her quick to detect the wiles of self-love: “A novice need not come to me for advice if she does not want to hear the truth,” she exclaimed.

The novices did sometimes find her severe, for poor human nature is so likely to defend itself against those who strive to overcome its miserable self-seeking. The saintly Novice Mistress was perhaps surprised and saddened at not finding in others her own heroic generosity; it is the trial of saints that they do not often meet kindred souls.

What kindness the Saint united with her firmness! A novice, who had offended her, came to ask forgiveness. The pardon was instantly accorded with words that betrayed her emotion:

“If you only knew what my heart feels! I never understood so well with what love Jesus receives us when we ask His pardon after a fall! If a poor little creature like myself feels such tenderness for you when you come back to ask pardon, what must take place in God’s Heart when a sinner returns to Him! Even quicker than I have done, He forgives all our infidelities and never thinks of them again... He even goes further, for He loves us more than ever...”

When human nature falls again and again, in spite of really good intentions, then we must “learn humility from humiliation.”

One of the most characteristic teachings of the Saint was that we should rejoice at everything that causes us humiliation but does not offend God. The last precaution is typically Ignatian. Like St. Paul, she insisted that we should glory in our infirmities in order that the power of God may dwell in us: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)

“I rejoice greatly when people find me imperfect, and still more when I feel my own imperfection,” admitted the Saint. She was convinced that our heavenly Father takes our weakness into account and that He will bless our sincere desires for perfection, even if it be only at the hour of death.

“If, throughout your whole life, you feel repugnance for suffering and humiliation, and if you feel regret that all the flowers of your desires and of your good intentions fall to the ground without producing any fruit, offer to God this sacrifice of never being able to gather the ‘fruit’ of your efforts. In an instant, at the hour of your death, He will cause the very best fruit to ripen on the tree of your soul.”

Through her humble but invincible trust, the zealous Novice Mistress had a reply ready for every difficulty and waged war on every expression of discouragement. Novices were never allowed to find fault with God’s ways; they had to accept calmly their own spiritual “stature,” without bitterness or envy of others. She had practised what she now taught: “I have always been pleased with whatever God has given me, even with the things that did not seem to me as desirable or as beautiful as those of others.”


6. “To Be Little” Means

Unceasingly she strove to teach humility, the virtue so dear to her heart. “When I think of all I still have to acquire!” exclaimed a novice: “– still to lose,” interjected the Saint. “Jesus takes care to fill your soul according as you empty it of imperfections... You have taken the wrong road... You wish to climb a mountain, whereas God wishes you to descend...”

Therese did not mistake the way; she had learned “to descend.” The third resolution taken on the day of her First Holy Communion – “I will strive to humiliate my pride” – had been kept as well as the first resolution; she had made herself “a little one.” How well she understood those words of Monsignor Gay: “The spirit of childhood is even more efficacious than the spirit of penance to overcome pride,” and that other saying: “Nothing makes a man so humble as being sincerely little.”

Her profound teaching was not always understood at once, even though she purposely couched her instructions in simple form. A couple of months before her death, she was asked: “You are always seeking to be like a little child, but tell us what must be done to obtain Eternal Life.”

We can visualize the picture of the novices, in their white veils, gathered round the young Saint as they fixed their questioning looks on her, while she lowered her eyes in deep recollection as if to seek the reply in the depths of her soul. Her words reveal the very foundation of her sanctity:

“ ‘Remaining little’ means that we recognise our nothingness, that we await everything from the goodness of God, as a little child expects everything from its father, that we are not solicitous about anything, and that we do not think about amassing spiritual riches. Even amongst the poor, a child receives what is necessary while he is still small; once he is grown up, his father will no longer keep him, but tells him to work and support him self. It was to avoid hearing this that I have never wished to grow up, for I feel incapable of earning my livelihood, which is Eternal Life. That is why I have remained little; my only care has been to gather flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His good pleasure.”

On another occasion, the Saint explained:

“ ‘To be little’ means that we do not attribute to ourselves the virtues we practise, as if we were capable of any good; we recognise that God has placed this treasure in the hand of His little child and that the treasure is always His... ‘To be little’ means that we are never discouraged at our faults, for, although children often fall, they are too small to hurt themselves seriously.”

These quotations sum up the essential points of the Saint’s teaching on spiritual childhood, which she practised unceasingly throughout her life, thus demonstrating its safe and enlightening precepts.

Her unerring sense of truth in matters of doctrine kept her safe from all error. There is neither quietism nor illuminism in her “Little Way,” which, although it counts chiefly on God’s grace and on the inspirations and impulses of the Holy Ghost, does not dispense us from personal effort and study, nor from submission to the authority of the Church. By this “Way,” we live a truly angelic life. Pius XI called it “a way of golden simplicity,” and Father Petitot says: “By the gift of Wisdom, this ‘Way’ unites the most spontaneous simplicity with the most consummate prudence.”

The words of our Lord Himself are most instructive: “I praise thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and didst reveal them to little ones. Yes, Father, for such was thy good pleasure.” (Matt. 11:25-26)