The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul
Translated by John Beevers
Publisher: New York, N.Y: Crown Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN: 978-0-385-02903-2
Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), who referred to herself as “the little flower gathered by Jesus,” chose to return to God by the shortest, simplest way possible, that of love. Her twenty- four years of life were imbued with love for her beloved Jesus and with gratitude for all that he had given to her. She wrote, “I believe that if a little flower could speak, it would tell very simply and fully all that God had done for it.”
The mystery of the special grace that she received was resolved for her when she realized that Jesus “does not call those who are worthy, but those He chooses.” This revelation sustained her in her desire to become a saint even though she was like “a humble grain of sand.” Greatness was not required of her, since “He that is mighty hath done great things to me.” This opened the way to her doctrine of “the little way of spiritual childhood” and gave hope to all those with whom she came in contact. As John Beevers writes in the Introduction to the book,
She knows that nothing she can ever do can be adequate, but this leaves her quite untroubled. The depth of her love for God means that all the small, trivial acts of which she is capable take on great value because of the motive behind them. And God, with His overwhelming love and understanding, accepts them joyfully. So “the little way” means salvation is made not easy, but obviously possible.
Therese regarded herself as “a very little soul who can only offer very little things to God.” She believed that there is hope for the weakest and the “smallest” of us when we rely on the greatness of His grace and mercy. She lived her life accordingly.
Her autobiography was written at the request of her prioress at the Carmelite convent where she lived; it was completed only a few weeks before her death. Though much of this book was written while she was fatally ill, it is lit with the joys of love of family, the beauty of God’s creation, and the perfection that “consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.”
She says, “I am not going to write ‘my life,’ but put down ‘my thoughts’ about the graces God has given me.” She begins with her gratitude that the least of God’s children are loved as much as the loftiest of souls. She tells us that in the garden of Jesus:
The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm…. They are His wildflowers whose homeliness delights Him. By stooping down to them, He manifests His infinite grandeur. The sun shines equally both on cedars and on every tiny flower. In just the same way God looks after every soul as if it had no equal. All is planned for the good of every soul.
Therese lived a simple, gentle life in the French countryside, in a loving and deeply religious family, yet she knew great suffering, “for my soul has matured in a crucible of inner and external trials.” During her brief life she lost her mother, her “second” mother when her sister Pauline entered the convent, and then her beloved father. She wrote of Pauline’s departure, “How can I express the agony I suffered. In a flash I understood what life was. Until then I had not seen it as too sad a business, but now I saw it as it really was – a thing of suffering and continual partings. I cried bitterly.”
She suffered two bouts of long, painful, and debilitating illnesses. The first was during the time of Pauline’s departure, when she wrote that her illness “took such a serious turn that, humanly speaking, it seemed I should never recover.” The second was during the year before her death. “But now I am ill and I shall not get better. Yet I am at peace. For a long time, I have not belonged to myself, but have completely abandoned myself to Jesus…. So He is free to do whatever He wants with me.”
Throughout the course of her life the reader witnesses the significant inner changes that are wrought by her sustaining faith, self-abnegation, and increasing love for Jesus. Yet, quietly she also endured the pain of inner darkness and spiritual aridity.
Don’t imagine that I’m overwhelmed with consolations. I’m not. My consolation is not to have any in this life. Jesus never manifests Himself nor lets me hear His voice. He teaches me in secret…. This evening, after a barren period of meditation, I read this: “Here is the Master I give you. He will teach you all you need to do. I want to make you read of the science of love in the book of life.” The science of love! The words echo sweetly through my soul. It is the only thing I want to know.
Towards the end of her life this suffering intensified and she experienced the dark night of the soul described by St. John of the Cross, whose writings she embraced. She says:
Dear Mother, this story of my suffering is as inadequate as an artist’s sketch compared with his model…. My sufferings increased and I tried to find peace and strength by thinking of eternal life. For the voice of unbelievers came to mock me out of the darkness: “You dream of light, of a fragrant land, you dream that their Creator will be yours forever, and you think you will one day leave behind this fog in which you languish. Hope on! Hope on! And look forward to death! But it will give you, not what you hope for, but a still darker night, the night of annihilation!”
But the strength of this self-proclaimed little flower proved as great as that of the mighty cedars she admired.
Although I had not the consolation of faith, I forced myself to act as if I had…. I ran towards Jesus and told Him… that I was well content during my stay on earth never to see with the eyes of the spirit the heaven which awaited me…. And so, in spite of this trial which robs me of all sense of pleasure, I can still say: “Thou hast given me, O Lord, a delight in Thy doings.”
Her faith in the face of darkness, her acceptance and love, gave her this final grace:
I have never before felt so strongly how gentle and merciful God is. He sent me this heavy cross just at the time when I was strong enough to bear it…. Now it has only one result: it removes all natural satisfaction from my longing for heaven…. I no longer want anything except to love until I die of love. I am free and fear nothing.
Her experience of the darkness and God’s absence only inflamed her love and diminished the self that was separate from him. “But today my only guide is self-abandonment. I have no other compass. I no longer know how to ask passionately for anything except that the will of God shall be perfectly accomplished in my soul.” She mirrors the realization of St. John of the Cross who says, “descending into the depths of my own nothingness, I was raised so high that I reached my goal.”
What she experienced, endured, and received was the fulfilment of the way she chose at the beginning: her “littleness” was now absorbed into God’s greatness. She no longer looked to herself for anything but only to Him.
In spite of my littleness I dare gaze at the Sun of love and long to fly towards It…. With cheerful confidence I shall stay gazing at the Sun until I die. Nothing will frighten me, neither wind nor rain. If thick clouds hide the Sun and if it seems that nothing exists beyond the night of this life – well, then, that will be a moment of perfect joy, a moment to feel complete trust and stay very still, secure in the knowledge that my adorable Sun still shines behind the clouds.
She makes her promise to her Beloved: “For as long as You wish, I will stay with my eyes on You. I want to be fascinated by Your gaze. I want to be the prey of Your love.”
Therese died in the infirmary of the Carmel of Lisieux on the evening of September 30, 1897. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI twenty-eight years later. Her little book and the story of her life have been read by millions of people throughout the world. Just before her death she said, “What I have written will do a lot of good. It will make the kindness of God better known.”