Saint Thérèse: Making the Unremarkable Extraordinary



Pamela Johnson

Directed Primary Research Fall 2014

"The flower about to tell her story rejoices at having to publish the totally gratuitous gifts of Jesus. She knows that nothing in herself was capable of attracting the divine glances and His mercy alone brought about everything good in her."

Thérèse Martin, January 1895


I. “We earnestly desire that all the faithful should study her in order to copy her, becoming children themselves.”[1]


            On a beautiful rainy day in 2013, a young world traveler by the name of Pauline Susanto made her way from Toronto, Canada to Lisieux, France. She had heard of this small, quaint place considered to be the second largest site of pilgrimage in France after Lourdes. She knew it was Saint Thérèse who made the city famous because her high school was named after Thérèse. However, Susanto says that, “Up until a few years ago, I knew nothing about the saint who made this town…famous…I certainly knew none of her highly-regarded teachings on love…”[2] Upon arrival, Susanto noted that Lisieux was certainly beautiful, but seemingly unremarkable. She suggests, “There is really only a couple of things to see in Lisieux: the Basilica and Carmel, the convent where St. Thérèse spent her life, died in, and was buried at.”[3]

            As she made her way through the various tourist sites, her appreciation and understanding of the saint grew. The Basilica of St. Thérèse stood majestically on a hill as the centerpiece of the town. Inside, the altars and the shrine containing the relics of the saint left her awestruck. At the end of her pilgrimage she took the time to reflect on St. Thérèse.  In considering her new knowledge of the Carmelite, she recalled how at the end of every month in her high school, the principal would give out small awards in recognition of students doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways.[4] She says, “I never understood it and I always thought it was silly (even though I’ve received several of these throughout my high school years). What I failed to understand was how profound yet glaringly simple her teaching was. St. Thérèse taught that love doesn’t necessarily have to be shown through grandeur and heroic sacrifices. If your actions, as little and as insignificant they may be, are motivated by love, then you have loved.”[5]  Thérèse wrote towards the end of her life, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”[6] Susanto believes that journeying to the place where Thérèse lived and died helped her to better understand why her high school wanted to honor small acts of love. At the end of her reflection, she enthusiastically declared, “THAT, my friends, is why Blessed Pope John Paul II declared her as one of the Doctors of the Universal Church in 1997…Girlfriend knows what she’s talking about!”[7]

            Why would a young Canadian woman travel to Lisieux to be inspired about love and small deeds? Who is this saint and what did she do in her life time to garner such veneration? The truth is, Saint Thérèse did very little in her life. She was born in France on January 2, 1873 and died September 30, 1897; she lived just twenty-four years on this earth. Considered to be the “The Little Flower of Jesus” or “The Little Flower,” Thérèse is known for simplicity and the practicality of her approach to the spiritual life. Yet, in 1923 Pope Pius XI called her “the greatest saint of modern times.” She became a nun at the age of 15 when she entered the Carmelite Community in Lisieux. Thérèse began to write an autobiography of her life in 1895, which was published and distributed a year after her death. Originally the autobiography, entitled The Story of a Soul, was published for a very limited audience but her popularity quickly spread. She was beatified by special request in 1923 and canonized in 1925.  

            Thérèse’s story is an unusual one in consideration of other stories of sainthood, martyrdom, and suffering. She is one of the few female saints in the history of the Catholic Church and one of only three women to be named Doctor of the Church, joining Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena.[8] But, what place does Thérèse have with Teresa and Catherine, a great reformer and profound theologian respectively? Her twenty-four year lifespan was plagued with illness and filled with small acts of love. Her fame is especially puzzling amidst the religious climate of her day which was overrun by rigid doctrine, increasing anticlericalism, and a love of suffering that bordered an obsession. How then did The Little Flower become so popular through small acts? Moreover, in 2014, she is still considered to be one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church. One cannot help but to marvel at why this is so. A theologian in the early twentieth century perhaps answers this question best when he stated, “We who are called ‘scholars’ may teach to the world a very wise theology, one which the faithful have not the time to listen to. And the Lord had pity on this crowd. He took a child, Thérèse, and placed her in the midst of His apostles. And this child revealed to them such simple and delightful truths that the scholars suffered their ignorance to be exposed and set about following the child in order to teach her doctrine to the people.”[9] The key to Thérèse’s sainthood and persistent popularity is uncomplicated: love. And this love appealed not only to the great theologians of the Church, but more so to ordinary people. I posit that in the divisive religious and political climate of the late nineteenth century, Thérèse offered a way for unremarkable souls to become extraordinary through simple acts of love.


II.  “I understand that in order to become a saint one must suffer much, choose always what is most perfect, and forget oneself.”[10]


            Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born to a middle-class family in France. According to Thérèse, she did not have a perfect childhood nor did she lead a perfect life. Described as a stubborn and unruly child, she was nevertheless showered with love and affection from her family, particularly by her older sister, Pauline, and her father. Her mother died when she was four years old from breast cancer. Afterwards, she, her father, and sisters moved to Lisieux from their home in Alençon. From this moment onward, Thérèse led a melancholy life filled with sadness. She was prone to “fits of tears” at the slightest of offenses.[11] As she progressed into her adolescence, although Thérèse desired love and companionship, she felt that her sensitivity forced her into solitude.  She believed, “With my ardent nature and my affectionate heart, I would be capable of falling than Magdalene.”[12] She also felt that when she was around others, she could offer them nothing, as evidenced when she suggests, “I heard the intelligence of others being praised frequently, but never mine so I concluded I had none.”[13] As her older sisters, particularly Pauline whom she adopted as her replacement mother, entered into the cloistered community at Carmel, Thérèse became increasingly sorrowful.

            To add to this, Thérèse was plagued with illness from an early age. She suffered from various bodily aches, tremors at the age of nine, and eventually scruples. At one point in her illness, Thérèse spent weeks in bed unable to speak, staring at the image of the Virgin Mary she had in her bedroom. After days of mindful prayer, she claimed that the image of the Blessed Virgin smiled at her and she was suddenly healed. This miraculous event caught the attention of the Carmelite sisters, who questioned her regarding her experience. “These questions troubled me and caused me much pain,” Thérèse says, “and seeing that the Carmelites had imagined something else entirely, I thought I had lied.”[14] This interrogation aided in her scruples, which triggered her anxiety at the thought of displeasing anyone close to her or somehow offending God with her actions. Thérèse believed that she was “really unbearable” because of her extreme touchiness, citing, “If I happened to cause anyone I loved some little trouble, even unwittingly, instead of forgetting about it and not crying, which made matters worse, I cried like a Magdalene and then when I began to cheer up, I’d begin to cry again for having cried.”[15] She took pride in confession and desired to live as pure a life as possible. Along with this, from an early age, Thérèse knew that she wanted to become a saint, saying that God “made me understand my own glory would not be evident to the eyes of mortals, that it would consist in becoming a great saint!”[16] Her scruples continued until 1886 when she had her conversion experience, considered to be her night of light.[17]

            On Christmas Eve in 1886, Thérèse was heading up the stairs with a sad disposition after attending Midnight Mass with her father and sister. Her father looked on her disheartened, and said wistfully, “Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!” Thérèse immediately felt tears begin to well up in her eyes. Instead of crying, she found courage within herself and came to her father and sister and participated with joy in the Christmas festivities her family planned. Thérèse describes this moment as “charity entering my heart” while feeling “the need to forget myself to make others happy.”[18] This joyful moment in Thérèse’s life was the start of her doctrine of the Little Way. She realized that, “Freedom is found in resolutely looking away from oneself,” which is, “the way of trust and absolute surrender.”[19]

            At the young age of fifteen, Thérèse was admitted to the cloistered community at Carmel after petitioning on her own behalf. She was overcome with joy at the thought of a life devoted to serving others. Yet, she found upon entering that she had to prove her worth. She notes in Story of a Soul that her Prioress was particularly hard on her, often assigning her less than favorable jobs such as sweeping the stairs or clearing out rooms with spiders. These tasks were all a part of her suffering, according to Thérèse, which she was happy to oblige. Thérèse understood “that in order to become a saint one must suffer much, choose always what is most perfect, and forget oneself.”[20] Yet, Thérèse’s greatest form of suffering came with her illness. She hid the pain she felt in her body from those in the Carmelite community, including her biological sisters because she desired to suffer. It was not until it was too late for medication or be of any real assistance to her that the community noticed her illness and put her on bed rest. When asked why she refused to notify anyone of her sickness, she said that it was a joy to withstand fatigue and pain when “Jesus had suffered so much for her.”[21] She suffered from clinical depression from 1896 until she succumbed to tuberculosis one year later. Her sisters note that, “At one time she even expressed an understanding of why depressed people commit suicide, declaring, if I had not believed in God, I would have killed myself without hesitating.”[22]

            On July 17, 1897, merely months before her death, Thérèse declared, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love Him, to teach souls my little way.”[23] She began to write her autobiography, The Story of a Soul in 1895. For Thérèse, the Little Way was important because, “I want to point out to souls the ways which to me are so perfectly successful: to throw to Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him by caresses. That is how I won Him, and it is for that that I shall be well remembered.”[24] Her work was finalized in 1897. Because Thérèse was convinced that she would become a saint because of the Little Way, she urged her sister Pauline, “After my death, you must not speak to anyone about my manuscript before it is published…if you act otherwise, the devil will lay more than one trap to hinder God’s work, a very important work!”[25]

Thérèse was absolutely correct in her assumption of sainthood.  A year after her death, The Story of a Soul was sent out to the convents of the Order. From that point on, existing copies were lent out to relatives, priests, and other devout souls. Within a few years, Thérèse’s popularity swelled like an avalanche with readers all over the world demanding copies. By 1905, the Carmelite Community was receiving hundreds of letters each week exalting Thérèse and her Little Way. Furthermore, petitions for Thérèse’s beatification began to pour into the offices of the Catholic Church’s Sacred Congregation of Rites.[26] Requests for beatification was a breach of conventional canon law which stated that no such procedure should be undertaken less than fifty years after the death of a believer.[27] Yet, veneration of Thérèse was so widespread by this time that the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved her entry into the process early. In 1923, Thérèse was beatified, with Pope Pius XI calling her “the greatest saint of modern times.”[28] In 1925 at Thérèse’s canonization, he went on to urge other believers, “Let us take as our own that prayer of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus which closes the precious book of her life: “‘O Jesus, we beg You to cast Your heavenly glance upon a great number of little souls and to choose from this world a legion of little victims worthy of Your love!’”[29] In 1925, the Carmelite Sisters also published Pluie de Roses, a collection of thousands of accounts of miraculous cures, conversion narratives, learning the art of love, and living the little way. At the thought of death, Thérèse said, “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.”[30] This is the shower of roses: hundreds of thousands of followers reading her works, translated into 35 languages with millions of copies circulating around the world by 1932. She is still held in high esteem today as one of the most widely recognized saints of the Catholic Church.


III. “For let us be honest with ourselves: Who among us has ever read The Story of a Soul for the first time without being disappointed?”[31]


In August of 1897, when it became clear that Thérèse was on the verge of death, one of the Carmelite sisters remarked, “Sister Thérèse will die soon; what will our Mother Prioress be able to write in her obituary notice? She entered our convent, lived and died – there really is no more to say.”[32] This is certainly accurate to an extent. Thérèse had not fought any major battles in her life. She lived a relatively comfortable existence. She was loved by her family. In many ways she was very sheltered. She had not ventured outside of her home much other than to visit family. Then she entered into the cloistered community at Carmel at a young age, which was even more sheltered. She read mostly the bible, and was not enthused by the writings of great theologians and philosophers. And she died at twenty-four, not having achieved much of anything. Why, then, was her autobiography so wildly popular?

The Story of a Soul is a fascinating read in that it is not necessarily remarkable. St. Thérèse did not lead what one would consider to be an “extraordinary” life. The bulk of the work focuses on Thérèse’s childhood and adolescence. The autobiography is structured in 3 parts, which St. Thérèse names Manuscript A, Manuscript B, and Manuscript C. Manuscript A was written in 1895 for her sister Pauline, Mother Agnes, Prioress of the Carmel from 1893-1896. Manuscript B, for Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart in 1896. Finally, Manuscript C was written in 1897 to Mother Marie de Gonzague. All of the pieces of Story of a Soul were written by request from the various addressees. However, it was her sister Pauline and the Carmelite nuns who are responsible for the final product of the autobiography, which includes letters and poems written by St. Thérèse in her short lifespan. They consolidated the work into one monograph.

The Story of a Soul is characterized by childhood tears, mild suffering, and the desire for sainthood. Thérèse’s life is not remarkable; yet, her story has been made extraordinary. In her short life, Thérèse says, “God does not need years to accomplish His work of love in a soul. A single ray from His heart can, in one moment, make His little flower blossom for eternity.”[33] It is important to note also that Thérèse asserts throughout her writing that she is only sharing her findings because she believes God wants her to help others. She insists that she is in no way bragging or wanting to put on a sense of perfection. Instead, she argues that, “It seems to me that if a little flower could speak, it would tell simply what God has done for it without trying to hide its blessings.” She goes on to say, “It would not say, under pretext of a false humility, it is not beautiful or without perfume, that the sun has taken away its splendor and the storm has broken its stem when it knows that all this is untrue.”[34] For Thérèse, littleness precedes greatness. She argues, “Ah! For You indeed, the saints too have behaved foolishly; they have done great things since they were eagles! As for me I am too little to do big things, and my folly is to count on the angels and saints in order to fly up to You with Your own wings of love, O my Divine Eagle!”[35]

Yet, Thérèse’s Little Way at times has been a point of frustration for many who read her biography. Ida Görres points this out candidly in her work, The Hidden Face. Her observation of The Story of a Soul is worth quoting at length:

What lay person, the reader muses unhappily, what average “Christian in the world”…who never in his life thought of perfection and who has only tried to live as best he could before God and his conscience, would ever have the courage to pick out such trivialities of his daily life as “sacrifices” and “acts of virtue”? What average Christian would presume to remember them, let alone write them down? The reader things of mothers of many children, of hard-worked servants, of innumerable persons engaged in difficult, monotonous work in oppressive domestic surroundings, of women fettered to a domestic cross day and night. Do they not endure every day a hundred times the trials so solemnly described here? And do they not take these silently and patiently for granted, bowed under the yoke of their lives and consenting to it, possibly cheerful and grateful about it? Do they look in the mirror every hour of the day to note down their “sacrifices” – event though in gratitude for the grace of God? Where would it end, the reader things, if everyone kept such careful account of each drop of sweat and each pinprick?[36]

The trivialities that Görres mentions is Thérèse’s note of her “suffering” by washing in cold water in winter, sweeping the stairs in the convent, assisting an elderly paralyzed nun during the colder months, and choosing to wear a habit made of wool and sandals instead of fur lined boots. Görres points out, rather bitterly, that Thérèse did actually have fur lined boots and nice clothing as a product of her middle-class upbringing, so it is not as if Thérèse was really in need of anything. Even in her own time, Thérèse caused frustration for those who read her work. One of the Carmelite sisters is quoted as saying, “I don’t know why they talk so much about Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus; she does nothing remarkable; it cannot even be said that she is a good religious” because she did nothing to further advance the mission of Carmel. To this, Thérèse responded ecstatically, “To hear on my deathbed that I am not even a good religious, what a joy!”[37] At times the young Carmelite was accused of being “a little rosewater saint” who had never known sacrifice.[38] In other words, as one observer put it, “To be sure, all the saints have done little things, but none of them exclusively little things.”[39] Why, then, is Thérèse’s Little Way still relevant within the Catholic Church?

            Truthfully, what Thérèse has done in her writing of The Story of a Soul is quite genius. The path to sainthood has often been paved in severe suffering, pain, and blood. Instead, Thérèse created a path for herself that was simple: make the unremarkable extraordinary. By teaching her Little Way, Thérèse challenged the dominant narratives of Catholicism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She also stood in stark contrast to other stories of the miraculous and women religious of the time that caused for skepticism and pessimism. Furthermore, Thérèse preserved notions of paternal authority in her adoration of her father, made explicit in her work. More than anything, Thérèse’s Little Way of living was accessible. She could appeal to various ranks of people, from the very ordinary to the pope. Her method was not unique to women or to the middle class or to high-ranking officials of the Church; on the contrary, Pope Pius XI declared, “We earnestly desire that all the faithful should study her in order to copy her, becoming children themselves; since otherwise they cannot, according to the words of the Master, arrive at the kingdom of heaven.”[40] A theologian in 1898 noted of The Story of a Soul, “I have read this book three times already, and each time it has made me a better man.”[41] Essentially, Thérèse urged believers to not “desire extraordinary graces.”[42] By doing so, in the midst of the divisive religious and political climate of the late nineteenth century, Thérèse offered a way for unremarkable souls to become extraordinary through simple acts of love.


IV. “Oh! It is high time that Jesus withdraws me from the poisoned breath of the world… and where others perish I too would perish because I am the weakest of creatures.”[43]


            One of the most important ways in which Thérèse made the unremarkable extraordinary is in her unintentional challenge of dominant Catholic narratives, particularly in the area of suffering. An admirer of Thérèse exclaimed after reading The Story of a Soul, “What a beautiful lesson of faith the virgin of Lisieux has given to us in her trials!”[44] Yet, aside from her illnesses which were certainly painful, did Thérèse truly experience trial in the sense of suffering that is rampant in Catholic culture? Thérèse often makes mention of her sufferings here on earth. At one point on her deathbed, she declared, “I have suffered much here below. Does this seem like a false statement simply because it was not evident to anyone most of the time?”[45] Knowing that the posthumous publication of her autobiography was intended, “she insisted that souls should be well aware that she had suffered much.”[46] Here, let us consider the nature of suffering in the Catholic Church.

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, suffering in Catholicism can be traced in blood. Sainthood has often involved pain and martyrdom. Historian Richard Burton suggests that in the “French Catholic imagination, the spiritual function of woman is to weep, bleed, and starve for the salvation of others, to offer herself up as a holocaust to appease a revengeful male deity.”[47] An example of this can be found as early as the seventeenth century.  In his work, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, Allan Greer sets his narrative around Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha and the Jesuit priest Claude Chauchetière, who wrote a biography of Kateri after her death. Beginning with her death in 1680, Greer follows the process by which Kateri was canonized. The Jesuit fathers Claude Chuchetière and Pierre Cholenec, after much deliberation, which Greer argues was due to “the fact that she was an Indian” so her sainthood was questionable, chose to make her known to the world through their biographies.[48]

In Kahnawake, after Kateri’s conversion to Catholicism in 1676, she began to practice several extreme forms of piety, including “the avoidance of the pleasures of the body and the mortification of the flesh,” in which she began a routine of severe flagellation.[49] Greer argues that she embraced “a spiritual/somatic experience of using pain and discomfort to cross the line into sacred ecstasy.”[50] Her relatives and the Jesuit priests became very concerned, as the physical inflictions were visible and apparent to all who knew her; yet, she refused to stop. Along with a group of fellow female Mohawk converts, Kateri continued this practice, which ultimately led to her early death in 1680. Despite this, her legacy continued and grew, with Mohawk and French settlers making pilgrimages to Kahnawake to celebrate Kateri’s sainthood within a decade of her death in search of miraculous cures. This led to a cult of devotion in the Native American Catholics, as they continue to commemorate her life as the First Mohawk Saint.

            This culture of suffering, acts of penance through (often self-afflicted) corporal punishment continued into the nineteenth century. In this way, Thérèse’s “suffering” can really be called into question. Can suffering, as Görres posited, be reduced to a “careful account of each drop of sweat and each pinprick?”[51] This is precisely what Thérèse did. By tracking every little offense or feeling of neglect and describing it in such agonizing detail, Thérèse turned suffering from a bloody affair into everyday acts of kindness. This is incredibly strategic on Thérèse’s part. In a religious world hell-bent on suffering, she painted a picture of everyday life as true suffering. By doing this, Thérèse made suffering appealing and obtainable to ordinary people. If, as Thérèse suggests, “in order to become a saint one must suffer much” and suffering has been reduced to simple acts of love, then essentially, anyone can be saintly. Indeed, many of her followers argue that, “Her lesson to us is that sainthood is our true heart’s desire and that its attainment is ours for the taking!”[52]

            By redefining suffering, Thérèse created a new imagery of God. She imagined a God of unconditional love rather than a jealous, angry God who must be appeased through acts of penance. Burton suggests that, Thérèse distinguished herself from the bulk of her female contemporaries in the Church, who focused on physical acts of sacrifice to obtain God’s love. In addition to this, with her emphasis on God’s mercy and love rather than on his judgment and anger, Thérèse also set herself apart from virtually all the male Catholic writers of her time “who placed the theory and practice of expiatory suffering at the heart of their religion.”[53] He goes on to say, “It is her distance, notwithstanding appearances, from this characteristic fin de siècle distortion of Christianity, and her stress, correspondingly, on the self-sacrifice that manifests God’s love rather than the self-sacrifice that seeks to appease or deflect his anger” that ensured her sainthood and ushered in a new meaning of suffering that appealed to the masses. Suddenly, everyday life, the seemingly unremarkable, can be an extraordinary act of suffering to a loving God.

            In the same vein, Thérèse’s focus on a relationship with a loving God also challenged another trope in Catholicism: loyalty to the pope.[54] In the anticlerical/clerical battle of the long nineteenth century following the French Revolution, a new culture of devotion to the pope began to arise amongst devout Catholic men. This is particularly evident in the resurgence of Zouave armies, according to historian Carol Harrison. Zouave soldiers saw their voluntary acts of service across the French Empire as preserving the nation while also preserving Catholicism. For Harrison, “Zouave stories positioned their heroes as the fulcrum of an intensely personal relationship with Rome and with the pope that many devout French Catholics embraced.”[55] Dedication to the papacy while also fighting for France meant that France would retain its empire while also rededicating the nation back to the Catholic Church for those who participated and believed in Zouave culture. When you place Thérèse’s writing in the context of war, harsh suffering in Catholicism, and the Zouave loyalty to the pope, it is even more convincing how her emphasis on an intense love and relationship directly with Jesus became so appealing to the ordinary person.

            Both the Zouave culture and Thérèse’s writings participate in various ways in the debates of anticlericalism and the advancement of Catholicism in the nineteenth century, albeit in different ways. Zouave soldiers were explicit in their aim to rededicate the nation back to the Catholic Church. Thérèse participated in this dialogue in a much more indirect way. For both clericals and anticlericals, the notion of the “feminization of Catholicism” was at the forefront of the debates on the future of the Church in France. There was a widespread fear in the nineteenth century of the rising power of women in religious communities. This perception that women in religious communities were powerful (or exerted power) in religious circles fueled anticlericals. Because the feminization of Catholicism created a perceived threat to paternal authority, the family, the state, and the church, those in favor of anticlericalism called for further restrictions on women’s civil liberties within the context of the Church. Historian Caroline Ford suggests that this restrictive behavior towards women was passed down from the Great Revolution. Essentially, women are naturally religious and the feminization of Catholicism is a result of a “battle between the sexes.”[56] Yet, in many ways, women were using religion as a path to freedom. In her work, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, Ford provides examples of just that by means of various case studies. For example, through her analysis of the Loveday affair, she shows how a young middle class woman chose to enter a convent much to the chagrin of her father. When her father petitioned to have her returned to him, she won the case to stay in the convent. This was a direct challenge paternal authority. Other examples include young unmarried women who inherited property from their families and giving that property to the church, which aided in church hierarchy.

In light of Ford’s work, Thérèse is particularly interesting. In The Story of a Soul, Thérèse really hones in on her relationship to her father. She often addresses him as her king who was always so attentive to his little queen, teaching her to be charitable and respectable. For example, at one point she exclaims, “How could I possibly express the tenderness which…my dear King…showered upon his Queen? There are things the heart feels but which the tongue and even the mind cannot express.”[57] Her desire to please him and to make him proud can certainly make Thérèse’s writings safe in light of the concern over loss of paternal authority in religion. Thérèse consistently speaks about her father’s love for his daughters and her respect for him. Simultaneously, Thérèse also does not shy away from expressing the encouragement he gave to his daughters to become women religious. When considering the battle of the sexes that Ford talks about in her work, Thérèse’s writing is even more strategic because it plays on the veneration of paternal authority while also asserting her freedom to pursue religious freedom and sainthood.

Another important way that Thérèse made the unremarkable extraordinary through The Story of a Soul can be seen in the way that she separates herself from other popular women religious of the time. As Burton suggested, the nature of religious women during Thérèse’s lifetime carried an expectation of suffering and martyrdom. This often added fuel to the fire of the anticlerical/clerical debates on the nineteenth century. An example of the contentious discourse around women religious can be found in Ruth Harris’ analysis of Bernadette Soubirous in her work Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. Harris analyzes Lourdes as a place where the miraculous happened through Soubirous’ spiritual apparitions. Presently, Lourdes is the largest site of pilgrimage in France, right before Lisieux. Harris argues that in the case of Lourdes, location is important. The town is located in the department of the Hautes-Pyrénées, which the author describes as a place that was struggling with poverty, population growth, and the lack of common land in the nineteenth century. Word of Soubirous’ visions spread like wildfire, with flocks of people visiting Lourdes. Eventually a shrine was set up there, with visitors making claims of miraculous healings, conversions, and visions of their own.

Another woman religious that can serve as a contrast to Thérèse is Claire Ferchaud. According to scholar Raymond Anthony Jones, when Claire began to have prophesies about World War I, she demanded a meeting with the French president. Claire sought to convince the president of the need to combat apostasy against the nation by consecrating the nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Based on a series of visions of Jesus she had experienced several months prior to this proposed meeting, Claire demanded that France be dedicated to the Sacred Heart and that the image of the Sacred Heart be placed on the French tricolor. According to Jones, this brought up long-standing Catholic requests that Claire felt needed to be fulfilled if the nation were to win in its war against Germany.[58] Claire began to gain followers all over the nation. Above all, Zouave soldiers began to wear the image of the Sacred Heart on their tricolors. High-ranking officials in the Catholic Church even began to capitalize on Claire’s image and vision in order to advance their own views of Catholicism within the nation-state. This made Claire a threat to anticlerical authorities. She never got to meet with the president. Furthermore, she was made out to be dupe of the Church by her adversaries.

One striking difference between Bernadette, Claire, and Thérèse is that the former two became polarizing figures. Because of Bernadette, Lourdes became a national phenomenon when the state attempted to acquire the land and close the shrine due to skepticism and extensive fear of the spread of superstition following her visions. In contrast to Claire, Thérèse was essentially a safe saint for both the nation and the Church.  Thérèse’s portrayal of the Little Way, from this angle, appears even more strategic. Thérèse was demanding nothing from the nation, nor was she stirring up trouble by way of extreme visions.

The Story of a Soul also makes the unremarkable seem extraordinary in light of the women’s movement that was taking place in the nineteenth century. In 1981, Bonnie Smith published Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century. Smith argues that bourgeois women played a significant role in shaping the history of the Third Republic by acting in direct defiance to their liberal husbands through charitable activities in support of the Catholic Church. She argues that bourgeois women championed monarchism, advocated an aristocratic hierarchical structure, and infused their activities with Catholicism.[59] For Smith, participation in charitable work allowed for women to not retreat into a world of domesticity under the laws of the regime. By aligning themselves with the Church, they were able to define their own sense of national identity. Charitable work made way for a deeper sense of Catholic pride and veneration. Historian James McMillan makes this same assertion in his analysis of clerical women. He argues that “by studying the activities of the philanthropic feminists in France, we can appreciate that the real goal of the women's movement in France had little to do with the aims of the anticlericals and much more to do with how a select band of upper-class women sought to bring about the moral regeneration of society.”[60] In other words, through charitable acts, women asserted themselves as active participants in the political climate of the nineteenth century. McMillan goes on to conclude, “Feminism was not an end in itself, only a means towards the elimination of great social scourges,” but instead it sought to “help to vanquish the double standard of morality. In other words, the distinctive concerns of French feminism owed far more to puritanism than they did to anticlericalism.”[61]

Thérèse, being from a middle-class and religious background, certainly serves as an example of the freedom women could find in religion. What is strategic about this, however, is that on Thérèse’s part, this participation in the women’s movement was not seemingly intentional. Thérèse’s consistent desire for the world to not see her, “but to see His love” is evident throughout her work.[62] Yet, the act of publishing an autobiography is certainly intentional. Thérèse made it clear that her work was to be published and that she felt she would become a saint. Moreover, in some ways, when one chooses to write down their lives in such detail as Thérèse does, it is generally with the acknowledgement that it is in some way self-serving. In this way, The Story of a Soul can be interpreted as directly participating in the women’s movement by way of religious freedom and the act of publication. At the same time, Thérèse is strategic in not presenting the autobiography as such. In her own words, “O my God! O Most Blessed Trinity! I desire only to love You and to make You loved.”[63]


V. “My God, I choose all! I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”[64]


            In the mid-twentieth century, a movement began to declare Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. The title of Doctor of the Church is conferred only after careful examination of the theological contribution of the candidate, which mush represent teaching of universal significance to the Church. It may seem unsuitable for Thérèse, “so noted for her simplicity, to be named among the great scholars, theologians, and founders of congregations who make up this august body.”[65] Thérèse herself, however would not consider it so. In that great confidence that she developed as a result of giving herself fully to God, she recognized in herself great spiritual aspirations. “I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and Doctors,” she wrote.[66] In 1997, Thérèse became the third woman in the history of the Catholic Church to be honored with the title of Doctor of the Church. In that same decade, Thérèse’s relics were taken on a worldwide tour. Millions of devout Catholics flocked to cathedrals across the globe to be in the presence of Thérèse. According to Raymond Zambelli, “The saints' relics are poor and fragile signs of what went to make up their bodies. When we are close to their relics we can more easily evoke their human condition: that with their own bodies they acted, thought worked, and suffered.”[67] Over a century after her death, Thérèse is still held is such high regard.

            Several scholars and theologians have attempted to understand the lasting impact of Saint Thérèse. For Ida Görres, “In Thérèse there gathered and became purified the deep, intimate, essential unchanging elements of the Faith and of Love…as the pure embodiment of Christian reality.”[68] Tomas Nevin suggests that, “She “revitalized Christianity” through “a Copernican change in Christian spirituality.”[69] Teresa Margaret posits that the key to Thérèse’s continued veneration is that, “There are many who imagine that this is a special way, reserved for the innocent souls…but that is not suited to people of mature years who need prudence on account of their greater responsibilities: that of the care of souls. It is also too often forgotten that in order to see clearly amid the complex questions that torture humanity today, one requires, together with prudence, that outstanding simplicity which wisdom brings and which St. Thérèse manifests in so irresistible a manner that she thereby draws all hearts to her.”[70] In the mid-twentieth century, a bulletin was issued at the University of Paris which stated, “Little Sister, lead us in this way of spiritual childhood which is your own way; and disconcerting as it may be for our pride and our restlessness, show that it is the surest and most direct way to God.”[71]

To be sure, Thérèse offered a different view of Catholicism and Christianity. Yet, the knowledge of Jesus’ love was not a new notion. It was not that Thérèse discovered something different about the nature of Jesus. In The Story of a Soul, Thérèse recounts her rather insignificant, short life in painstaking detail. Her accounts of suffering were not out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, the autobiography was a success in that it ensured her sainthood and millions of followers around the world today still attempt to follow her Little Way. Thérèse created a path for herself that was simple: make the unremarkable extraordinary. By encouraging small acts of love, Thérèse challenged the dominant narratives of Catholicism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She also stood in stark contrast to other stories of the miraculous and women religious of the time that caused for skepticism and pessimism. Furthermore, Thérèse preserved notions of paternal authority in her adoration of her father, made explicit in her work. More than anything, Thérèse’s Little Way of living was accessible. By offering little acts to God, Thérèse believed that God would elevate her to sainthood. At the same time, by sharing her method she taught others how to become little flowers, suggesting, “That is how I won Him, and it is for that that I shall be well remembered.”[72] Because of this, she could appeal to various ranks of people, from the very ordinary to the pope. In fact, her appeal to ordinary people is what has maintained her veneration. For the average Christian, small acts of love are more feasible than martyrdom.  One scholar suggests that the understanding that Thérèse was ordinary makes ordinary people feel that the saint is “one of us.”[73] In this way, Thérèse succeeded in making the unremarkable seem absolutely extraordinary.



Figure 1
July 1876, Young Thérèse. Figure located at


Figure 2
July 1896, Thérèse in the sacristy court yard. Figure located at


Figure 3
Prayer of Thérèse. Written in her handwriting: “O my good Blessed Virgin, grant that your little Thérèse may stop tormenting herself.” Figure located at


Figure 4
Prayer of Thérèse. Written in her handwriting, on her deathbed, September 1897: “O Mary, if I were Queen of Heaven and you were Thérèse, I would want to be Thérèse so that you might be Queen of Heaven!!!”

Figure located at


Figure 5
October 1, 1897. After Thérèse’s death, in the infirmary, just before the removal of Thérèse’s body.

Figure located at

Primary Sources

Navantes, S. Following St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus: Meditation on Her Virtues. Darlington, Durham: Carmel.

Thérèse. The Story of a Soul: The Inspired Life Story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Her Own Words. Chicago: Carmelite Press.

Walking the Little Way with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Belleville, Ill: Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.


Secondary Sources

Burton, Richard D. E.  Holy Tears, Holy Blood: Women Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840-1970.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Clarkson, Tom. Love Is My Vocation; An Imaginative Story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953.

Curtis, Sarah A. "Charitable Ladies: Gender, Class and Religion in Mid Nineteenth-Century Paris." Past & Present [Great Britain] no. 177 (2002): 121-156.

Ermatinger, Cliff. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Spouse and Victim: The Itinerary of Grace at Work in Her Soul from Baptism to Spiritual Marriage and Self-Offering. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2010.

Ford, Caroline C.  Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Görres, Ida Friederike. The Hidden Face; A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. New York: Pantheon, 1959.

Greer, Allan. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Harris, Ruth.  Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Harris, Ruth. "The "Unconscious" and Catholicism in France." Historical Journal [Great Britain] 47, no. 2 (2004): 331-354.

Harrison, Carol E.  “Zouave Stories: Gender, Catholic Spirituality and French Responses to the Roman Question.”  The Journal of Modern History 79, no. 2 (June 2007): 274-305.

Jonas, Raymond Anthony. The Tragic Tale of Claire Ferchaud and the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

McMillan, James F.  “Clericals, Anti-Clericals and the Women’s Movement in France under the Third Republic.” Historical Journal 24, no. 2 (1981): 361-376.

Nevin, Thomas R. Thérèse of Lisieux: God's Gentle Warrior. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

O'Donnell, Christopher. Prayer: Insights from St. Theŕèse of Lisieux. Dublin: Veritas, 2001.

Orsi, Robert A. Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1996.

Pope, Barbara Corrado. 1988. "A Heroine Without Heroics: The Little Flower of Jesus and Her Times". Church History. 57, no. 1: 46-60.

Smith, Bonnie.  Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoisie of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Teresa Margaret. I Choose All: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Spiritual Doctrine. Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1964.

[1] Pope Pius XI, April 29, 1923.

[2] Pauline Susanto, “Lisieux: The Home of the Little Flower,” Tales of a Pilgrim, August 24, 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] Susanto, Lisieux.

[6] Thérèse, The Story of a Soul: The Inspired Life Story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Her Own Words, (Chicago: Carmelite Press).

[7] Susanto, Lisieux.

[8] Walking the Little Way with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, (Belleville, Ill: Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate), 18.

[9] S. Navantes, Following St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus: Meditation on Her Virtues, (Darlington, Durham: Carmel), 121.

[10] Thérèse, The Story of a Soul

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Thérèse, Story of a Soul, 67.

[15] Ibid, 97.

[16] Ibid, 72.

[17] Ibid, 98.

[18] Ibid, 99.

[19] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Walking the Little Way, 23-24.

[23] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[24] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[25] Ibid, vii.

[26] Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face; A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 9.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Walking the Little Way, 13.

[29] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 43.

[30] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[31] Görres, The Hidden Face, 15.

[32] Ibid, 9.

[33] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[34] Ibid, 15.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Görres, The Hidden Face, 16-17.

[37] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[38] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 124.

[39] Görres, The Hidden Face, 18.

[40] Pope Pius XI, 1925.

[41] Foreword, Story of a Soul, ix.

[42] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 80.

[43] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[44] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 23.

[45] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[46] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 124-125.

[47] Richard D. E. Burton, Holy Tears, Holy Blood: Women Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840-1970.  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 19.

[48] Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 22.

[49] Ibid, 115.

[50] Ibid, 124.

[51] Görres, The Hidden Face, 17.

[52] Walking the Little Way, 13.

[53] Burton, Holy Tears, Holy Blood, 22.

[54] Carol E. Harrison, “Zouave Stories: Gender, Catholic Spirituality and French Responses to the Roman Question.”  The Journal of Modern History 79, no. 2 (June 2007): 274-305.

[55] Harrison, “Zouave Stories,” 275.

[56] Caroline C. Ford, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 25.

[57] Thérèse, Story of a Soul, 37.

[58] Raymond Anthony Jonas, The Tragic Tale of Claire Ferchaud and the Great War, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[59] Bonnie Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1981), 10.

[60] James F. McMillan, “Clericals, Anti-Clericals and the Women’s Movement in France under the Third Republic,” Historical Journal 24, no. 2 (1981): 361-376.

[61] McMillan, “Clericals.”

[62] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[63] Thérèse, Story of a Soul, June 9, 1895.

[64] Ibid, 27.

[65] Walking the Little Way, 18-19.

[66] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[67] Raymond Zambelli, “Understanding Thérèse’s Relics,”

[68] Görres, The Hidden Face, 409.

[69] Thomas R. Nevin, Thérèse of Lisieux: God's Gentle Warrior, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ix.

[70] Teresa Margaret, I Choose All: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Spiritual Doctrine, (Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1964).

[71] Navantes, Following St. Thérèse, 121.

[72] Thérèse, Story of a Soul.

[73] Görres, The Hidden Face, 14.

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