SAINT THERESE DOCTOR OF THE LITTLE WAY
Bro. Francis Mary F.I.
On October 20, 1997, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face joined two other women Saints in the ranks of the Doctors of the Church. Just twenty years ago Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila were proclaimed Doctors of the Church by Pope Paul VI shortly after the closing of Vatican Council II, which had opened up a greater role for the laity in the Church.
It is interesting to note that even as Saint Therese prophesied that she would “spend her time in heaven doing good upon earth” so too a good case could be made, that even during her lifetime there were instances that pointed to the day when she would be declared a Doctor of the Church. They are found in her “Story of a Soul”, one from the lips of Saint Therese herself, when a small child, and the other, by her priest teacher when she was a eleven-year-old student in his religion class. Her father often took his favorite child, his little “Queen”, on short excursions. On one occasion, returning home at night with her “king”, she saw a cluster of stars that formed the letter “T”. In her autobiography she writes, “I pointed them out to Papa and told him my name was written in the heavens.” It is hardly a coincidence that in the Office of Morning Prayers for Doctors of the Church we read the following antiphon: “Those who instruct people in goodness will shine like the stars for all eternity.”
At the Benedictine boarding school where she excelled in religion and science, but did poorly in mathematics and spelling, she showed great talent as a story teller and teacher. She loved to tell stories which sometime ran over several days. “I liked to make it more interesting when I saw the impressions it produced and which were evident on my companion’s faces. Soon the mistress forbade me to continue in my role as orator, for she preferred to see us playing and running and not discussing.” She continues, “I grasped easily the meaning of things I was learning, ...as far as the Catechism is concerned, I received permission to learn it during my recreation periods.” She mastered the truths of the faith so well, often expressed in her own words, that her teacher, Father Domin, could always call on her to answer a hard question the other students could not; and as Saint Therese relates in her autobiography, he “used to call me his little doctor.”
In the famous passage where she expresses her insatiable desire to be and do all things for the love she bore Jesus, she wrote: “Ah! In spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and Doctors.” It would seem that she left this option open when she said that “God does not inspire us with desires He does not intend to fulfill.”
As a girl, Therese Martin, had a natural gift for teaching and in the Carmelite Order she was given the office of Assistant Novice Mistress. Coupled with this natural talent was an unquenchable thirst for the truth and knowledge. She points out in her autobiography that she could not count the number of books she read before she entered the Carmelites, none of which would impede her spiritual progress. Her favorite book in this period of her life was the “Imitation of Christ”, which she read so often and used for meditation that she could recite from memory any part of it. However, what she was able to articulate as a young Carmelite Religious, in the “Story of a Soul” is explainable only through the action of Grace and her tremendous, heroic response to every Grace she received. In her own words, “I can not remember refusing God anything from the age of three.”
She threw herself wholeheartedly into what ever she did. As a small child she and her sister, Celine, were offered a basket of toys and attractive things and were asked to choose whatever they wanted. After Celine had chosen a ball of wool, Therese was given the opportunity to choose. After a moment’s reflection, she writes: “I stretched out mine saying: ‘I choose all.’” She recalls that incident of her childhood as a summary of her whole life. “Later on when perfection was set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self.” She understood that God offers many different opportunities to make sacrifice, many different degrees of personal holiness for each individual soul.
“Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: My God ‘I choose all!’ I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will: so take it, for “I choose all” that you will!” When she embraced religious life she didn’t settle for half measure. She had to become a great Saint; anything less than that would not do. With a sharp intellect, a phenomenal memory, an unquenchable thirst for the truth and the action of the Holy Spirit, one would expect great things of this ardent religious. She never disappointed those fellow religious who really understood her, accepted her wise counsels and were inspired by her heroic living the truth she professed so boldly.
There was no indication at the time of her canonization that she would ever be considered to be a Doctor of the Church, for at the time there were no women “Doctors”. Yet her spiritual classic, the “Story of a Soul” with its universal, timeless, scriptural simplicity had and will ever have such a profound influences in the lives of countless twentieth century Christians, on into the twenty-first century, that it is comparable to the tremendous scriptural and social revolution introduced by the “Little Poor Man of Assisi” in the thirteenth century.
So how would Saint Therese view this unexpected honor? Ever motivated by an uncompromising, unswerving quest for the truth, she readily admits that if the supreme Master-teacher found one more little and more abandoned to His merciful love than herself that person would have been chosen by Jesus to give the world her spiritual “Little Way”. As the Church approaches the new millennium, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face joins the ranks of the illustrious Doctors of the Church, but always remaining as she so ardently desired, “the Heart” of the Mystical Body, there to love and teach others the science of love of Him who is Love.