St. Thérèse’s Teacher: Our Lady of the Little Way
St. Thérèse believed that the Blessed Mother was the living embodiment of “The Little Way.”
By Fr. John Saward
In July 1937, forty years after St. Thérèse’s death, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, came to Lisieux to give a first blessing to the basilica then being constructed in honour of the Little Flower. He had a meeting in the Carmel with Thérèse’s sister, Céline, in religion, Sr. Geneviève of the Holy Face. The Prioress gave her permission to take Pacelli’s photograph as he posed under an archway in the cloister. Afterwards, the Cardinal and the Carmelite had a private conversation. Sr. Geneviève kissed his hand, and then astonished him by saying: “Your Eminence, you’re going to be Pope after Pius XI. I’m sure of it. I’m praying for it.” Unsmiling, the Cardinal replied: “I’d much rather you prayed for me to have the grace of a happy death. That’s far more precious to me. May the good God be merciful and kind to me at that supreme moment.”
It was a wonderful reply: Eugenio Pacelli knew that no one gets to Heaven by an automatic process, and being a Cardinal, far from being a help, might well prove to be a hindrance. The Church teaches us, the saints never cease to remind us, that we must pray every day for the great gift of perseverance to the end, for the grace of a holy death. Céline, Sr. Geneviève, immediately responded with words that must have impressed and consoled the Cardinal: “If you follow the little way of spiritual childhood of our little St Thérèse, there is room only for confidence. She said there would be no judgement for children, and that you can remain a child even if you hold the highest of offices.”
We shall never know in this life what St. Thérèse, through Sr. Geneviève, did for the soul of Pope Pius XII; it may be that she helped him to grow in his trust in the merciful love of Christ, and, thereby, in that sanctity which was so evident to all the faithful when our Lord did at last grant him the grace of a happy death. Such is the mystery of the Communion of Saints: we are so intertwined as members, one of another under Christ our Lord as Head, that we can communicate his grace to one another. The saints help us to be saints. While they live, they encourage us by their example, and after death, they help us by their prayers in Heaven, even by their sacred relics on earth. For as the Church teaches us, their bodies were the members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and will be raised by Christ unto glory, and serve him now as instruments by which he pours out graces of healing and conversion.
Who among the saints most helped St. Thérèse to learn, and to live, the doctrine of the Little Way? First, as she tells us so often in the story of her soul, her first instructors were those saints whom God’s Providence gave her as parents, Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, and then, of course, she drew upon the wisdom of the saints of her own religious family, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. But St. Thérèse’s first teacher, under God, was of course his Blessed Mother, the Mediatrix of All Graces and the Queen of Carmel. As the Little Flower explains in her last and greatest poem, Pourquoi je t’aime, ô Marie, “Why I love you, Mary,” the Blessed Virgin is the living embodiment of the doctrine her divine Son gave St. Thérèse to teach. The Little Way is Our Lady’s way.
The Smile that Heals: Our Lady in the Life of St Thérèse
St. Thérèse felt the motherly love of Our Lady throughout her life. On the Feast of Pentecost 1883, when she was ten years old and suffering from a mysterious and debilitating illness, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her in all her loveliness:
I had never seen anything so beautiful. Her face exuded an inexpressible kindness and tenderness, but what pierced me to the depths of my soul was the Virgin’s ravishing smile. Then, all my pain vanished, and two great tears fell from my eyes, and flowed silently over my cheeks, but they were tears of unalloyed joy … Ah, I said to myself, the Blessed Virgin has smiled at me. How happy I am! … But I won’t tell anyone, because then my happiness would disappear.
Later, Thérèse began to doubt whether the Virgin really had smiled at her. That scruple departed in November 1887, in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Paris, just before her trip to Rome with her father. She recalled:
“I realized that she watched over me, that I was her child, and so I could not give her any name but Maman (“Mummy”), because that seemed so much more tender than ‘Mother.’ ”
Sr. Thérèse of the Holy Child Jesus and the Holy Face made her solemn profession at Lisieux Carmel on the feast of Our Lady’s birthday, 1890. She saw a wonderful appropriateness in that date.
What a lovely feast … for becoming the bride of Jesus! It was little Mary, only one day old, who presented her Little Flower to little Jesus … That day everything was little except the graces and the peace I received, except the serene joy I felt in the evening as I looked at the stars shining in the sky, and thought that soon beautiful heaven would open to my enraptured eyes, and I should be able to be one with my Bridegroom in eternal happiness.
St. Thérèse drew up a wedding invitation for her profession. It may seem quaint and fanciful, the sentimental outpouring of a young woman of the bourgeoisie of the Third Republic. Far from it: it expresses nothing but the truth of St. Thérèse’s own life, and of the Church’s faith concerning the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption, the Divine Motherhood of Our Lady, Grace and Glory, the Communion of Saints, and the Consecrated Life of the Evangelical Counsels:
Monsieur Louis Martin, Proprietor and Master of the Lordships of Suffering and Humiliation, and Madame Martin, Princess and Matron of Honor in the Heavenly Court, invite you to the Marriage of their daughter, Thérèse, to Jesus, the Word of God, Second Person of the Adorable Trinity, who by the operation of the Holy Ghost was made Man and Son of Mary, the Queen of Heaven.
There is another message, of vast importance for the present time, in those few words. Notice how St. Thérèse describes her father:Proprietor and Master of the Lordships of Suffering and Humiliation. When she wrote those words, Louis Martin was plunged into humiliating mental and physical affliction. St. Thérèse saw this suffering as transfigured by the grace of the risen Christ into a noble apostolate, which her father, in his humble faith, was undertaking for God’s glory and the good of mankind. Her mother had died of cancer when Thérèse was very young, but now she shines, free from all pain and in perfect beauty, Princess and Matron of Honor in the Heavenly Court.
The Narrow Way Made Visible: Our Lady in the Doctrine of St Thérèse
The Little Way is Our Lady’s way, the way she follows, the way she is. By the working of the Holy Spirit, the Son came to us from the Father along the Little Way, as the child of Mary, and as children of Mary, along the Little Way, and by the working of the Holy Spirit, the incarnate Son now leads us to the Father. This is the great insight of St. Thérèse, Our Lady’s Little Flower. When our Lord in the Gospel says, “Unless you convert and become like a little child, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” he is calling us to have hearts like that child’s heart which most resembles his own, the immaculate heart of his Virgin Mother.
The Blessed Virgin followed her Son by the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. Just five weeks before her death, St. Thérèse confessed to Mother Agnès that none of the sermons she had heard preached about Our Lady had touched her. These fervorini made the Holy Virgin grandiose rather than truly great, ascribing to her extravagant privileges beyond those determined by the Church’s dogmas. The Little Flower had a clear idea of what was needed: “For a sermon to please me and do me some good, I need to see [Our Lady’s] real life, not her supposed life; and I am sure that her real life must have been very simple.”
If we wanted proof of St. Thérèse’s fitness for appointment as a Doctor of the Church, we need look no further than her perception that, before anything else, Our Lady is Mother, God’s Mother and ours, and that her supernatural privileges, her freedom from all sin and her incomparable fullness of grace, do not make her remote from us, but, on the contrary, bring her closer than any other creature could ever be, whether on earth or in heaven. Sin and selfishness separate; grace and self-giving love unite. No creature has more grace, none is more on fire with true charity, than the Immaculate Virgin. Therefore, none is more intimately united to us poor sinners, in compassion and kindness, than is Mary. Here are the humble words in which St. Thérèse expounds these high mysteries:
Of course, the Blessed Virgin is Queen of Heaven and Earth, but she is more Mother than Queen, and we must not say that, because of her privileges, she eclipses the glory of all the saints, as the sun on its rising makes the stars disappear. Mon Dieu! How strange that would be! A Mother who made the glory of her children disappear!
The Mother of God shares her all with us. People such as ourselves, flawed and flecked by the sin of Adam, tending to pride and inclined to selfishness, like to boast of our privileges, and cling to what is most precious to us. But Mary, conceived without sin, magnifies the Lord for what He has done for her, and is immaculately generous to others with the graces and blessings she has received. God has given her the gift of making the most pure and perfect gift of herself. As Thérèse says in her last and greatest poem, Pourquoi je t’aime, ô Marie, “Why I love you, O Mary:”
The mother’s treasure belongs to the child,
And I am your child, Mother dear,
Your virtues, your love, are they not mine?
So when the white Host descends into my heart,
Jesus, your sweet lamb, thinks He’s resting in you!
In those last two lines, St Thérèse shows her familiarity with the doctrine of her compatriot, St. Louis-Marie de Montfort, who said that, when we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, we should ask the Blessed Virgin to lend us her heart to welcome him.
St. Thérèse likes to call Our Lady la petite Marie, little Mary, for two reasons. First, she is the purest embodiment of the little way of childlike trust in the merciful love of God, and secondly, she is faithful to her Son, lovingly serves him, in the little details and humble circumstances of daily life. At last, the Queen of Heaven, but first of all, the Handmaid of the Lord. Mary’s grandeur is her humility and accessibility, Thérèse continues:
You make me feel it’s not impossible
To follow in your footsteps, O Queen of the Elect,
The narrow way to heaven you have made visible
By always practising the humblest virtues,
Close to you, Mary, I like to stay small,
I see the vanity of worldly grandeur …
In Nazareth, Mother full of grace, I know
You live in great poverty, wanting nothing more.
No raptures, no miracles, no ecstasies
Adorn your life, O Queen of the Elect!
The number of little ones on earth is very great;
They can raise their eyes to you without trembling.
It is the common path, incomparable Mother,
You are pleased to tread so you can guide them to Heaven.
For the last eighteen months of her life, St. Thérèse suffered, not only the physical agony of tuberculosis, but also the immeasurably greater, spiritual pain of a trial of faith, with relentless temptations to doubt. The theologians tell us that this experience was not a purging dark night of the soul: St. Thérèse had already passed through the purgative way, and was now in the unitive way, united to Christ our Lord in spiritual marriage. No, the purpose of St. Thérèse’s trial of faith was of another order: our blessed Lord wanted to bestow on his little bride the privilege of co-operating with him in the salvation of souls. He wanted her to hear the voices of the modern, anti-Christian world, to hear them and resist them, and by offering up, in loving union with Christ, the suffering of mind they caused her, to merit the grace of conversion for the unbelievers of her time and ours.
Now in the darkness of this last stage of her earthly journey, Thérèse walked confidently with her hand in Mary’s:
Mother, your sweet Child wants me to be an example
Of the soul that seeks Him in the night of faith …
St. Thérèse is comforted not only by Our Lady’s motherly prayers from Heaven, but also by the example of Our Lady’s own trial of faith on Calvary, what Pope John Paul II called “perhaps the deepest kenosis of faith in human history.” As the Little Flower goes on to say:
It was the will of the King of Heaven that His Mother
Should be plunged into the night, into anguish of heart;
Mary, does that mean it is good to suffer on earth?
Yes, suffering in loving is the purest good fortune!
All that He has given me, Jesus can take back
Tell Him never to bother about me …
He may hide Himself, I am ready to wait for Him
Without resting till the day my faith is no more …
That came, at last, on September 30, 1897. Thérèse’s faith was no more, because it was now fulfilled in vision, in the eternal peace of heaven. She saw, she sees, the divine Bridegroom face to face in all his risen beauty, she rests on his heart, and helps his Blessed Mother in showering his graces, like roses, on earth, graces of healing for bodies and souls, the conversion of minds from unbelief, of hearts from un-love, the gift above all, to turn from adult pride and be humble, like a little child – like Mary, like Jesus himself.
The Little Way, Our Lady’s Way, The Way of the Soldier of Christ
As a Cardinal, Eugenio Pacelli learnt a lesson from St. Thérèse through her sister, and as Pope he bestowed an honor on St. Thérèse for her country: he made her the secondary patron of France, co-patron with St. Joan of Arc. The year was 1944, when Thérèse’s native Normandy was a blood-stained battlefield. The Pope’s ranking of St. Thérèse with St. Joan, at the very time when their beloved France was fighting for liberation from the anti-Christian tyranny of National Socialism, is an act full of portents and prophecy, for it reveals the true profile of St. Thérèse’s sanctity, and reminds us of her great and growing importance for the Church in our time.
St. Thérèse, like St. Joan, is a soldier of Christ, engaged in fighting, not flesh and blood, but the spiritual foes of the Christian soul, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sanctity, said Thérèse, “has to be won at the point of the sword!” Like St. Joan, to whom she had an enthusiastic devotion—in whose honor she wrote poems and plays, whom she herself played in one of the ‘pious recreations’ in Carmel—St Thérèse saw herself as a fighter in the army of God against his foes, what St Paul calls “the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” Now the paradox of St. Joan, which is also the paradox of St. Thérèse, is the coincidence in them both of littleness and courage. St. Joan is a little maiden, la Pucelle, and yet, she is a soldier, the marshal of the hosts of France. St. Thérèse is Our Lady’s Little Flower, and yet, our Lord has called her to confront and overcome, by his power, the world of modern unbelief. These are living paradoxes. In St. Thérèse, as in St. Joan, we see the smallest and frailest of all, opening herself, without reserve, to the strengthening grace of the Holy Spirit. This is the grace he gives us all in Confirmation, and thereby they become, as we can become, the sturdiest and bravest of all in spiritual combat for Christ and his Church. Is this not what our Lord taught St. Paul, when he told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” When I humbly acknowledge my littleness, my weakness, my nothingness, and place my trust, like a little child, in the risen power of Christ, then in him I can be strong. Without him, we can do nothing; with him, we can do everything, and no enemy can overpower us. The Little Way of childlike humility is a sword of the Spirit for defeating Satan and the world.
St. Thérèse and St. Joan are the maidservants of Our Lady. The paradox of their lives is a reflection, an extension, of the mystery of Mary. The Handmaid of the Lord is the Queen of Heaven. Through the humility of Mary’s fiat, the eternal Word was made flesh, flesh of her flesh, flesh of our flesh, so that in the flesh, on the battlefield of our humanity, he might conquer our humanity’s ancient adversary. Nothing so frightens Lucifer as humility, for he is eaten up by pride. La petite Marie, the gentle Virgin, is, therefore, terrible to the powers of darkness, like an army in battle array. The Little Way of Mary is the road to victory in the Lamb. This is the argument of St. Thérèse’s play, “The Triumph of Humility,” which dramatizes Satan’s campaign of hatred against the Church and her religious. His tactics are very simple: get the nuns to be absorbed with themselves, in imitation of his own self-obsession. He has some weighing-scales, on one side of which he places three scrolls, representing the vows of religious life (Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience). On the other side, he adds three scrolls bearing the inscriptions, “Pride, Independence, Self-Will.” The vows of the Church are outweighed by the deceits of Satan. But then St. Thérèse makes St. Michael appear on stage, with a small scroll bearing a single word: “Humility.” When added to the vows, it totally outweighs the parchments of demonic egotism. The good archangel addresses the evil one:
I want to prove your folly to you again.
Do not forget, serpent, infernal monster,
The humility of the Virgin Mary,
Who crushed you with her virginal foot?
Lucifer shrieked with despair: “I am defeated … I am defeated!”
In this play, St. Thérèse, Doctor of the Church and Dramatist of the faith, the Little Flower of Our Lady, has taught not only religious, but every Christian, a truth to sustain us through all the trials of our existence: the littleness of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. If we make it our own, it is triumphant, always triumphant, and will be eternally triumphant by the power of the Lamb of God.
No more do I fear the brilliance of your supreme glory
With you I have suffered and I want now
To sing on my knees, O Mary, why I love you
And tell you forever that I am your child.
Fr. John Saward is priest in charge of the parish of SS. Gregory and Augustine in Oxford, England. He is the author of eight books and the translator of The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger; along with John Morrill and Michael Tomko, he has edited a new anthology of English Catholic writing, Firmly I believe and Truly: The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England, to be published soon by Oxford University.