The Little Flower: Story of a Soul
Sainte Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte Face (1873 – 1897) was born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin in Alençon, France. She was the daughter of Louis Martin, a watchmaker, and Zélie-Marie Guérin, a lacemaker. Both her parents were very religious and had aspired to religious life before their marriage. Lacking vocations themselves, they vowed to give all their children to the church. Thérèse was the youngest of nine children (only five surviving to adulthood).
Zélie-Marie died of breast cancer in 1877, when Thérèse was only four years old. Afterwards her father was unable to continue to work and sold his business. The family moved to Lisieux where Zélie-Marie’s brother, Isidore Guérin, a pharmacist, lived with his wife and two daughters.
When Thérèse was nine years old, her sister, Pauline, entered the Carmelite order of nuns. Thérèse too wanted to enter the Carmelite order, but was told she was too young. At 15, another sister, Marie, also became a Carmelite. Thérèse renewed her attempts to join the order, but was prevented the bishop of Bayeux. Thérèse accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome. During a general audience with Pope Leo XIII, she importunately asked him to allow her to enter the Carmelite order, but the Pope stood by the decision of the bishop. Shortly after, Thérèse’s bishop relented and she entered the Carmelite community. Upon the death of her father another sister, Céline, joined the order.
The Story of a Soul was written at the behest of her mother superior. The autobiographical account of her life discloses her so-called "Little Way" approach to spirituality. The pursuit of holiness, she argues, does not require great or notable acts, but only little acts of sacrifice and great love for God:
Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.
The book bears all the marks of a woman religious who was very young. As such, much of the work is tinged by melodrama and, frankly, unworthy approaches to the spiritual life. One such flaw is when she compares herself to a ball to entertain the baby Jesus.
I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything. I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims. He heard my prayer.
At other times, however, Thérèse’s determination to serve God in the little details of the ordinary are quite mature and profound. In these places, they suggest a happy affinity with the “sacred ordinary” we also find in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God.
Reformed and Catholic readers are well reminded that the sovereignty of God is ultimately a pastoral doctrine. The Dutch Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper, once wrote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” This confident reality underwrites our ability to abandon the willful pursuit of our own wills in favor of an active, involved, and considered self-offering to him. Nothing that we offer him is truly lost for in saying, “Not my will, but yours” we consummate the gift that is our very selves.