I’ll never forget the first time I encountered St. Therese… it wasn’t a positive experience. In Catholic grade school, we watched a somewhat insipid cartoon about the Martin family. Therese was portrayed as the perfect child – pious, perfectly obedient, and not a bouncy ringlet out of place. As a preteen girl, I knew (or thought I knew) two things: 1. There was no way I could be anything like Therese and 2. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.
Thanks to the adamant encouragement of a youth minister, I changed my mind about number 2. I discovered that St. Therese wasn’t a boring goody two-shoes, she was (and is) a powerhouse of a saint, a Doctor of the Church, who realized that above all else our “vocation is to love”.
If that sounds like a simple message, think about it for a minute. It might be easy enough to understand, but not so easy to truly carry out.
Therese wasn’t born perfect, she had to overcome an overly sensitive nature, a tendency towards self-indulgence, and a self-centeredness that is all too easy to relate to.
Therese came to understand, however, that God’s plan for each of us is unique and that He understood not only our strengths, but our weaknesses. Not all of us were destined to be breathtaking roses or fragrant lilies in God’s garden, but rather violets and daisies, perfect in their own humber way. For this simple, yet profound, revelation, Therese became known as the “Little flower”, encouraging each of us in her Story of a Soul that “Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wants us to be” (15).
For Therese, this perfection consisted in entering the convent at the young age of 15 (!) and modeling holiness to her fellow sisters, through her “little way”. Her life was incredibly short; after her death at age 24, however, she continues to inspire others through her writings and her incredible patronage of those who seek her intercession (never tried praying a novena to her? It’s never too late to start!).
It was another saint, however, that convinced me that my first reaction to St. Therese (that I could never be like her) was also a fundamental misunderstanding of sainthood. Several decades after Therese’s death in 1897 in France, another young woman wrote about her journey with the Lord, this time in Poland. St. Maria Faustina Kowalska also entered the convent at a young age and had her fair share of struggles with illness and challenges within religious life. She asked God big questions about sin, judgment and mercy, but also about her own life. Could she ever become a saint?
When I first read St. Faustina’s Diary, I was surprised to run across a passage wherein Faustina dreams of Therese, who empathizes with Faustina about her current sufferings. At this moment, Faustina realizes that she and St. Therese actually have a lot in common when it comes to life’s challenges and she dares to ask “Dear sweet Therese, tell me, will I go to heaven?” Therese answers “Yes, you will go to heaven”. Faustina goes on to ask “But, little Therese, shall I be a saint as you are, raised to the altar?” Therese answers again “Yes, you will be a saint just as I am, but you must trust in the Lord Jesus” (150).
Here was another young woman who wasn’t quite sure she could ever aspire to the kind of holiness that Therese lived and espoused. She had the same doubts so many of us have “Can I actually live up to these sort of standards?” “Is living out God’s plan for my life a real possibility” “Could He really mean me to be a saint?”
The truth is, as St. Therese points out, that if we trust in Jesus, sainthood is not only a possibility, it is a call upon our hearts. We are made to join Christ in heaven. We may not make it there with the high-drama of St. Joan of Arc, the wit of St. Thomas More, the incredible self-gift of St. Maximilian Kolbe, or the profundity of St. Thomas Aquinas. In fact, our story definitely won’t be identical to any of these great saints or to Sts. Therese and Faustina.
Rather, our path to heaven will be uniquely our own. The important lessons we can glean from St. Therese are 1. Sainthood is possible – yes, even for you and me. 2. We are each a unique flower in God’s garden with a unique call. And 3. The Communion of Saints is called that for a reason, as St. Therese’s message to St. Faustina attests: the saints understand our struggles as well as our deepest hopes and desires. They are here to intercede for us along the way.
St. Therese, pray for us!