Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux—Oct. 1

At first her story seems treacly sweet. Then you look beneath the surface.

There is a reason why this girl who never left her French village, and died at 24, is so universally popular. And it’s not the syrupy piety later writers tried to foist onto her.

The biographical facts are stark: a pampered childhood, then the devastating death of her mother when Therese is four. Four sisters are devoted to her, but the closest one, Pauline, a “second mother,” leaves home to join the Carmelite convent when Therese is nine. At fifteen, she enters the same convent, having convinced the pope she’s old enough.

Simultaneously, her beloved father is hospitalized for mental illness. The teenager subsequently revises her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She sees it instead as her father lying in the 500-bed hospital, a handkerchief covering his head. Therese was never allowed to see him again, and she died an agonizing death, without painkillers, from TB.

For a teenager, life in Carmel can’t have been easy. Many nuns see the way of life as a penance deflecting God’s anger. Therese sees herself as a little child, sleeping fearlessly in her father’s arms, hiding her face in his hair. That contrast fits with how people for centuries equated holiness with grandiose male adventures: bolding fighting battles, founding organizations, dying bravely. She shifts the emphasis to the ordinary grind, no accomplishments, remaining little in God’s greatness, sleeping through her prayers.

So few Christians seem to get it—that the way of Jesus is one of descent, imperfection, disappointment. Instead, we’re hell-bent on ego-driven achievement and success, like everyone else. Therese seemed to understand what it means to follow a crucified Christ. Because her “little way” is one of confinement and failure, it is enormously appealing to those who know the humble limitations of being terminally human.

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