I’ve previously explained why I believe that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. In this article, I had noted that there have been many who have objected to Saint Thérèse being named a Doctor of the Church in 1997, one of whom famously said that the Little Flower’s complete theological corpus could fit on the back of a postage stamp, and, to be honest, in comparison to Doctors of the Church like Augustine and Thomas, this is true. Still others objected her being named a Doctor even compared to some of the great female doctors of the Church, like Catherine and her Carmelite predecessor, Teresa of Jesus, for Thérèse’s “Little Way” is certainly not as mystical as The Interior Castle or The Dialogues. And yet, this 24-year-old nun’s theology is every bit as essential as any other Doctor of the Church.
Bishop Robert Barron, in his text, Catholicism: A Journey into the Heart of the Faith (2011) describes Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s particularly unique role as a Doctor of the Church and as a saint. Barron describes Thérèse’s sanctity as a “transfigured prudence,” and he goes on to say, “for at the heart of the little way is the capacity to know in any given situation the precise demand of love, how best in the here and now of the present moment to will the good of the other.” (210)
And, isn’t that the case, ultimately with love? Isn’t that what another Doctor like Thérèse stated in the Summa theologiae, prima secunda, and quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1766). The Catechism goes on to say, citing yet another Doctor, Augustine, concerning love: “All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good. Only the good can be loved.”
Only the good can be loved. One of the most important lessons that Thérèse can teach us is that, in order to truly love, we must triumph over our individual passions, conquering our own sinful, fallen inclination of our own needs and selfishness to put others first, to, ultimately, put Christ first.
Allow me to illustrate this from a moment in Thérèse’s life from her childhood. On Christmas Day 1886, Thérèse, whom we know was a tremendously emotional and neurotic child (some now claiming she suffered from Attachment Anxiety Disorder), was excited to have her father place, as was the custom in the Martin family, little gifts in her shoes. As the young Thérèse went up the stairs on Christmas Day, having received her little trinkets in her shoes, thinking she was out of earshot, her now-canonized father, Louis, commented to her sister: “Well, fortunately, this is the last year.” Thérèse, upon hearing the comment, had to make a decision — to grow in sorrow and despair, to grow in anger and rage, to the words uttered by her father, or to react by not taking offense, by responding in love, and to not ruin the family’s Christmas with a fit or a tantrum. This seemingly unimportant event and Thérèse’s reaction to it was viewed by the Little Flower as the Lord breaking into her heart, assisting her to learn how to love.
In this little Christmas Day drama, Thérèse is able to begin to will the good of another, to break free of her burning compulsion to place her ego, her needs first, before the needs of her family. This is the beginning of the “Little Way” in her life.
Pray that each of us in our lives can learn to follow the “Little Way,” to learn to love by conquering our own innate selfishness and ego and to heed the words of this Doctor of the Church from the 11th chapter of Story of a Soul:
O my God, Thou knowest I have never desired but to love Thee alone. I seek no other glory. Thy Love has gone before me from my childhood, it has grown with my growth, and now it is an abyss the depths of which I cannot fathom.