No wonder she’s so beloved. She saw enormous potential in the daily grind; she responded with gusto to confined circumstances. In an era of syrupy piety, she used organic metaphors and spoke with a fresh voice. Best of all, she transformed limited, flawed humanity into Christ’s own life. Or as Richard Rohr puts it, she taught that “We know God by participation in God, not by trying to please God from afar.”
It’s helpful to understand her parents, who adored their youngest child. Her mother died when was Therese was four, a tragic loss. About the time she entered Carmel, her father entered a mental institution—horrid places in the nineteenth century. As she matured, Therese revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She came to see the martyr as her gentle father, lying in the mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his head.
As a young girl in a strict convent, she wasn’t immune to irritation. Caring for grumpy older nuns, directed by a prioress who was probably neurotic, surrounded by a community jealous of her relationship with her blood sisters, she disappeared into Christ. She writes: “One feels that to do good is as impossible without God’s help as to make the sun shine at night.” Freely she admitted falling asleep during her prayers for seven years running.
She would die of tuberculosis at age 24, the age when if male, she would’ve been ordained. Her last illness was excruciatingly painful, yet she drew on a whole repertoire of jokes and puns to cope. One sister wrote, “There are times one would pay to be near her. I believe she will die laughing, she is so happy.” Her honest account described being “stretched out on iron spikes.” Yet she clung to the image of herself as a child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. In an era when God was punitive and many Christians wanted simply to deflect God’s anger, Therese is warm, earthy, worth celebrating.