“As the Council itself explained,” he wrote, “this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. . . . The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living.” (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, At the Beginning of the Third Millennium No. 30).
A model of such holiness in ordinary Christian living is Saint Thérèse who was born in Lisieux, France on January 2, 1873. She taught us that we can become holy through our everyday lives and ordinary activities in our various vocations. Holiness is within the reach of everyone!
We are just ordinary people filled with the same miseries, troubles and weaknesses as everyone else, yet we are called to holiness. Whether it’s in the drudgery of daily duty, or in the heroism of the martyrs, we must present to the world the fruits of holiness.
St. Thérèse did this in the ordinary circumstances of her daily life and became, as Pope Pius X said, “the greatest saint of modern times.” She is our best model for holiness and our best hope to become a holy people.
But she is more than a model of holiness; she is also a worker for holiness. She said, “I will make God loved; I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let a shower of roses fall from heaven. I will work until the end of the world.” These are bold promises but she went even further and said that God would honor her promises!
Who was this “greatest saint of modern times”? According to a nun in her convent, “she never did anything.” So how did she become a saint? Simply by loving God and her neighbor through the ordinary events of her daily life in the convent. She was an extraordinary lover in her ordinary life. Her simple smile opened the hearts of other nuns who experienced God’s love for them through her. She put up with the annoyances of other nuns out of love for them and for God. She called this her “Little Way.” It was a way of simplicity, humility, obedience, abandonment, confidence and trust in God’s merciful love.
St. Mother Teresa, who named herself after Thérèse, is a modern example of someone who followed the Little Way throughout her lifetime. She said, “Today the Church needs saints. This calls for our combating our attachment to comforts that lead us to choose a comfortable and insignificant mediocrity. Each one of us has the possibility to be a saint. Holiness is, for each of us, a simple duty.” So, let us take Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as our model for sanctity and become saints.
When St. John Paul II visited Lisieux he said, “Of Thérèse one can say with conviction that God’s Spirit allowed her heart to reveal directly to the men of our time the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel: the fact of having truly received ‘the spirit of adopted sons through which we cry out: Abba, Father!’ ” (Romans 8:15).
Thérèse told the story of her life in a book, The Story of a Soul. The book was published in 1898 and was later translated into 66 languages. It has sold more than 100 million copies to date. In 2004, Leonardo Defilippis directed Thérèse, the movie, based upon the book.
One movie reviewer described Thérèse as “a film about such an incredibly popular and important contemporary saint, [that] has the power to help renew the life of the Church in America . . . Thérèse is a saint for all of us, one we all can relate to, and imitate, in her love of God and neighbor in the ordinary events of life.”
Thérèse called her spiritual doctrine “The Little Way of Spiritual Childhood.” She never received mystical revelations from God. She learned her doctrine through Divine Providence. Jesus never manifested Himself to her. He taught her in secret. She learned very little from books because she didn’t understand them. She wrote that she wanted “to find out a little way, all of my own, which will be a direct short-cut to heaven.”
The Bible was her primary teacher. She read in it, “Is anyone simple as a little child? Then let him come to me.” (Proverbs 9:4) And so she came to God as a little child.
Thérèse lived in the late 19th century, at the beginning of our technological age. The elevator fascinated her. It took people quickly up floors rather than a slow trip on the stairway. She used this thought as a metaphor for her spirituality. She was too weak and too little to climb the steep stairway of perfection, so she became “simple as a little child” and took the arms of Jesus as her elevator to heaven.
Thérèse believed that God does not demand great deeds from us. All He wants is self-surrender, gratitude and deeds done with love. God does not need our intelligence or our talents. It doesn’t take any talent to love, so Thérèse simply willed to love God and her neighbor in ordinary daily life and abandoned herself in confidence to His Divine Providence. This is a Little Way that is open to everyone.
Thérèse’s Little Way teaches that ordinary people can become saints by practicing their daily duties and by loving God and neighbor in their ordinary lives. This can be done, writes Thérèse, if you “miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest thing right, and doing it for love. Love never pleads inability; everything seems possible and everything seems allowable – so different from human prudence, which hesitates at every turn and walks warily!”
Saint Paul explains in the Bible in chapters 12 and 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, that even if we have all the gifts of heaven, without love, we are nothing. Love is the best way to God who is love. Thérèse wrote, “Love, in fact is the vocation which includes all others . . . . Beside myself with joy, I cried out: ‘Jesus, my Love! I’ve found my vocation, and my vocation is love.’”
The Little Way is based upon complete and unshakeable confidence and trust in God’s love for us and His forgiveness of our sins for which we have true sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment. We should not fear God’s justice but trust in His mercy. God’s love never fails us.
Regarding her Little Way, Thérèse said on her deathbed, “It is to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father; it is to be disquieted about nothing, . . . [offering love and sacrifices to God.] . . . . Finally, it is not to become discouraged over one’s faults, for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”
She wrote, “Insignificant as I am, I long to enlighten men’s minds as the prophets and doctors did.” God honored her longing and St. John Paul II declared her as a Doctor of the Church.
He said, “Thérèse of Lisieux did not only grasp and describe the profound truth of Love as the center and heart of the Church, but in her short life she lived it intensely. It is precisely this convergence of doctrine and concrete experience, of truth and life, of teaching and practice, which shines with particular brightness in this saint, and which makes her an attractive model especially for young people and for those who are seeking true meaning for their life.” (Pope John Paul II, Homily, October 19, 1997, on the day Thérèse was named as a Doctor of the Church). St. Thérèse died on September 30, 1897.
For more information about other saints, you may order my book, Saints of the States.