Saint of the Possible: Thérèse of Lisieux
It was one of those rotten days. I’d had a bad day at work, I was mad at someone in authority over me, and my clothes were soaked with freezing rain as my husband and I patched the tire on the car. By the time we finished, we were late delivering a now-cold casserole to a couple whose newborn baby we rejoiced over, but whose sweetness increased the ache in my still-empty arms.
So yeah, I groused a bit.
Something about that cranky day imprinted on my memory. After I dropped off the soggy casserole, my seminary neighbor took one look at my scowl and suggested I refocus on Jesus, maybe read something on the lives of Christians who’d gone before me.
Image by FallenPegasus via FlickrThat was the first time I’d ever read Christian biographies. I admired these brothers and sisters in Christ, but truthfully, I also felt I’d never be like them. I lacked their talents, faith, and deeds. If we were all flowers in God’s garden, I felt that these biography-worthy folks were long-stem roses, and I was a scraggly weed-blossom with no exceptional characteristics at all.
But something sprouted in my heart when a friend loaned me a biography of Thérèse of Lisieux.
I had nothing in common with Thérèse, really. She was born in France in 1873, entered a Carmelite convent at fifteen, and died nine years later of tuberculosis. Her life was short, sheltered, and uncomplicated by punctured tires, marriage, and bad work-days.
Her life was, however, exactly like mine in the most important ways. She loved God. She wanted to give Him her all. She struggled to serve Him in the midst of broken and frustrating circumstances, living among broken and frustrating people.
Unlike me, Thérèse understood that the intentions of the heart are more important than the greatness of the act; she knew that it was not necessary to have talent or deeds or be a “long-stem rose” in God’s garden to honor Him. When she read Jesus' words, "whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me" (Matthew 25:40), she took every opportunity to respond to His call, even though her offerings might've been small. Utterly confident in God's love for her, she didn't care that her life was "one that [was] humble and hidden" or that she had nothing outwardly extraordinary to offer the world, but she rejoiced in opportunities to serve God and to simply be His “little flower” (a name which has stuck with her.)
“I have no other means of proving my love for you [God],” she wrote, “than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love” (Story of a Soul, 196).
Thérèse did ordinary things with extraordinary love. She referred to this path as her “little way,” using even the smallest of behaviors and attitudes to show God devotion in the everyday activities of life, "...to cast before Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices" (Storm of Glory, 171).
Sometimes our opportunities are obvious and easy. Just as Thérèse performed her tasks in the sacristy or linen room to God’s glory, I can also honor Him while I’m preparing meals, chauffeuring kids, or plotting a novel as I keep God at the center of my choices, thoughts, and trust each moment.
Sometimes little acts of love require sacrifice. Perhaps, like me, you’ve had a rotten day. Or maybe even a rotten year. Maybe there’s a person in your life who has hurt you, demeaned you, or just drives you nuts. Thérèse had all those sorts of people in her life, too. Instead of dodging them or complaining, as I’m tempted to do, she sought them out and showed them attention. Her kindness was not an act. She wasn’t phony, smiling at them while thinking how much she would rather be anywhere else. She yearned to please Jesus, and saw honoring His children as part of it. One of my favorite anecdotes refers to a nun whose throat-clearing habit made Thérèse’s skin crawl, but Thérèse prayed to love the noise so she could better love the nun. This “little, nameless, unremembered” act might seem miniscule in its importance, but I can relate to it, and it makes me aware of my own tendencies and choices. I can change the look on my face when someone’s interrupted me, or soften the tone of my voice when I’m exasperated. The minutest of acts can be tokens of our affection for Jesus if done with love.
Biographer John Beevers describes Thérèse’s "flowers of little sacrifices," or seemingly insignificant acts of devotion, this way: “They seem simple to do or not do; but although simple, they are in reality not easy. They are, though, possible. It is not given to many men or women to achieve martyrdom, to enjoy the excitement and endure the loneliness of the mission-field … but everyone can destroy his pride and kill his self-love; everyone, however lowly his position, however limited his sphere of action, however small his talents, can love God and his neighbor and manifest this love by a unflinching persistence in performing the ‘little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.’ Thérèse is the saint of the possible” (Storm of Glory, 112).
Thérèse’s autobiography itself (the collection of her writings, published as Story of a Soul) was an act of obedience. Her sister asked for an account of childhood memories, and her superior asked the dying (and to her thinking, uninteresting) Thérèse to write something for use in Thérèse’s own obituary. (Now that’s sensitive!)
After her death, the writings were given to other Carmelites for use as the requested obituary. Since then, Story of a Soul has inspired millions, including a teenager named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who was so moved that she decided to change her name. We know her as Mother Teresa, a woman who indisputably seized each moment to show extraordinary love.
Whether you feel you’re a wildflower or a long-stem rose in God’s garden (and I’ve since learned that to God, we are all extraordinarily gorgeous flowers), your life is made up of moments. How we respond to our circumstances in those moments reveals our hearts. An action does not have to be mighty to be a token of love to the Lord. I pray you’re blessed as you offer extraordinary love in a phone call, word, or smile today.
Question for the Day: Thérèse loved flowers: their rich scents, vibrant hues, and soft textures. What’s your favorite flower? Why?
PS - I wish I could have fit more of Saint Thérèse's words here, as I find them truly inspirational, but I rambled on enough as it was. If you'd like to read just a few of my favorite quotes (including the throat-clearing story, to which I can thoroughly relate), check out my blog post for today on Tea and a Good Book, http://www.susannedietze.blogspot.com/.
Photos of St. Thérèse are in public domain.