In the thinking of St. Therese, what does it take to be a saint?
Therese grew up in a culture influenced by Jansenism. Jansenism was a heresy from the seventeenth century that over-emphasized the role of grace in man’s salvation. It had a long-lasting effect on the Church in France. In the late nineteenth century, during Therese’s life, the French clergy often preached “fire and brimstone” sermons. They focused on man’s sinfulness and the horrors of Hell.
During the school retreat before the first anniversary of her reception of first Communion, Therese was greatly frightened by the priest’s warnings against mortal sin. She was suddenly overcome by scruples. How could she be sure she was on the road to salvation? How could she be sure she was in God’s graces? Maybe she was guilty of mortal sin without acknowledging it. How could she ever be good enough to please God?
From counting good works to scruples
Therese’s childhood practices furthered such doubts. Her parents were saintly, but they were not immune to the negative influences in French Catholic culture. One day when Therese was only four her sister Marie brought a string of sacrifice beads home from school. She was supposed to count all her good works of the day on the beads. Their mother Zelie liked this idea and made a string for daughter Celine. Then Therese wanted one too, and her wish was granted.
Now, trying to offer little sacrifices to God throughout the day is a good practice. But for Therese, as for many of the people she knew, performing good works became the focus of her spirituality. That was fine when she was four and confident of her ability to do good works. But as she grew older, she saw more of her weaknesses. She began to fear that she could never be good enough to please God. She also worried that her sins were so many and so grievous that no amount of good works could make up for them. This led her to the brink of despair.
Therese’s first battle with scruples lasted eighteen months. But her scruples returned a few times over the years. In her autobiography she calls this struggle “a martyrdom.”
All her life, Therese had a strong desire to be a saint. But she knew that she could not expect herself to perform great deeds. How then could she be holy? She writes:
I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched, then, in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: ‘Whoever is a LITTLE ONE, let him come to me. [Prv 9:4]’ And so I succeeded. I felt I had found what I was looking for.… The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus!” (Story of a Soul, 207-8)
In place of doing the great works of someone who was strong, she put total trust in God. She counted on Him to lift her to the heights.
Contentment with what God set before her
This doesn’t mean she no longer did good works or made sacrifices. But she contented herself with doing small things:
- repaying criticism with a smile
- following the Carmelite Rule as carefully as she could
- making love for God her motivation in all things
- volunteering for tasks that other nuns sought to avoid
- telling jokes to keep her sisters from being sad as they watched her succumb to tuberculosis
All these things required her to mortify her will. Because Therese was weak like us, they sometimes required heroic effort. But they were not extraordinary things. She did not have to seek them out. Every day, every hour of her life presented opportunities to abandon herself completely to Christ.
God did not allow her to become a foreign missionary as she desired. But she could still write letters to encourage missionary priests.
He did not grant her ecstasies in prayer. Instead, she fell asleep at mental prayer and offered Him that sleep in perfect contentment.
She could not become a choir nun since two of her sisters were already choir nuns. Instead of being envious, she asked to remain in the novitiate her whole life, taking her place with the beginners.
Whatever God set before her to do, she did with all her heart. And lest she be tempted to think about how many merits she was gaining, she gave them all away for others, rejoicing that she would stand before God with “empty hands.”
As we try to walk along the Little Way, we should take care not to make works–even little works–the center of our spirituality. For Therese, these works grew out of her recognition of her littleness. They were expressions of her love. They were signs that she was content to be weak. She gained nothing from them. She placed no confidence in them.
All her confidence was in God. And so should ours be.
Congratulation to Chissy and Joan Dilger, who won the two copies of Jean Heimann’s new book. Seven Saints for Seven Virtues!