If you’ve been reading my reviews here for a while, you know that I love stories. I frequently remind you, dear readers, that I love stories because it helps explain my affinity for movies with bad acting or TV shows with morally objectionable content (which, these days, is all the shows). From the story of how I fell in love with Jesus to the story of salvation history, that basic beginning–middle–end format draws me in.
You can imagine my disappointment when I realized that The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul is not actually a story in the customary sense. Then you can imagine my delight and consolation in finding that, in this case, the story I imagined wouldn’t be nearly as good as the wisdom I found.
Autobiography is a tricky field. There is a debate over how much must be fact and how much can be fictionalized (remember A Million Little Pieces?), and there’s a separate debate over the dividing line between autobiography and memoir. From my perspective, The Story of a Soul is a spiritual memoir. It does reveal much about young Thérèse’s life, but her focus is never just to share her history. It’s to share the wondrous working of God throughout her life that led her to her final days in the final pages of her story.
Thérèse Martin grew up as the youngest of five daughters at the end of the 19th century. Her mother died when Thérèse was very young, leaving her in the care of her older sisters and her loving father. The committed religious faith of the Martin parents (who have been beatified) nurtured Thérèse so incredibly that she showed great piety from the youngest age and eventually followed her sisters into the nearby Carmelite convent at only sixteen. She never emerged, dying at age twenty-four after describing her journey to faith at the urging of her oldest sister, then also her religious superior. It is from this writing that Thérèse earned her title of saint and her patronage of missionaries (despite being cloistered for her entire adult life).
St. Thérèse is best known for her “little way”: her conviction that even the smallest prayers, sacrifices, and love offered to God have infinite worth. She never saw herself as someone great; I think she would be flatly stunned by her book’s worldwide acclaim and her position among the canon of saints. Over and over, she asks God only to do what is best for her, to ignore her completely for the sake of others, and to accept the feeble graces she can offer back to him. If smiling warmly at the sister who most annoys her is what draws her closer to the God who made even self-centered sisters, then so be it. Since her biological brothers all died, she is content to never have a priest for a brother—until one requests a spiritual sister and Thérèse is chosen. Great works are too much for her, but small things with great love are her calling and consolation.
The story of St. Thérèse is a reminder to all of us that what we should be, what we must be, is exactly what God wants of us and nothing more. There is no such thing as just offering prayer, as just serving one group of God’s children, as just raising one child. Even little things done with great love by the littlest of God’s creation add to the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
Featured image by Doug8888 at Flickr