'Little Flower' a Likely Doctor of Church for an Age of Anxiety

By Kreilkamp, H. D. | National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

'Little Flower' a Likely Doctor of Church for an Age of Anxiety


Kreilkamp, H. D., National Catholic Reporter


Pope John Paul II officially designated St. Therese of Lisieux a a doctor of the church Oct. 9, only the third woman to be so named. The pope's announcement illustrates the continuing influence of the "Little Flower" in this century and into the third millennium.

The story of Therese's life has been translated into more than 40 languages, with millions of copies circulating. Her words continue to provoke in readers a sea change in attitudes towards life, death and eternal destiny.

A cursory reading of her story reveals how much she loved life, family and sisters -- both within and outside her convent -- and how much she was delighted by flowers and beautiful things such as poetry and lace. Part of Therese's universal appeal is this love of life and gaiety. These aspects of Therese are warm familiar and unchallenging.

Her love of suffering, however, is a different matter. Her writings lead us to, and reveal, the experience of suffering out of love for Christ. In a time when whole industries exist to help us avoid even the most minor experiences of discomfort, embracing pain for the sake of Christ may seem inexplicable, even grotesque. Yet we recognize this love of the cross as part of Therese's inheritance from St. John of the Cross. As Fr. Henri Nouwen said, the cross is at the center of Christian faith -- even though it often seems incomprehensible to our culture.

Therese's Story of a Soul, her spiritual autobiography, written simply for her Carmelite sisters, reveals such a profound love of suffering that it is a scandal to many and incomprehensible to others who do not share our faith in redemption through the sufferings of Jesus. Therese's love of suffering sets her in a place apart in the gallery of Christian spiritual writers like St. Augustine; even he did not share her hunger for suffering, although he chastised himself for the sins of his youth.

In this sense, Therese shows us how to embrace and celebrate all of life. Her love of suffering is not depressing or dark but rather an affirmation that all of life's experiences can be paths to holiness if only we will choose to walk down them.

Because of this vision, Therese has deeply influenced many well-known Catholic writers. Thomas Merton testified in his autobiography to the tremendous impact Therese had on him. He considered her the greatest saint in the church for the last several hundred years, "even greater, in some respects, than the two tremendous reformers of her order, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila." Her "Little Way," with its remarkably honest yet firm trust in the merciful love of Jesus, was a source of inspiration for Merton, as it was for Graham Greene. Greene acknowledged that Therese's sense of hope was reflected in some of his characters.

What is amazing about Therese is the way her influence took off, as she predicted, with her death. Before that, in her Carmelite convent in Lisieux, she was hidden, unnoticed, even among her own sisters. This was as she hoped, because of her love for the "hidden Christ," described by Isaiah as a man "despised" even among his own people.

We're accustomed to thinking of the saints at death as simply "entering into their rest," their eternal sabbath -- which indeed they do -- but Therese has changed our perspective of death as the end of a human being's activity on this earth. …

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