St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 19th-century French nun, lived in an era when women had far fewer rights than today, when women were far less recognized as “equal” to men, when women had little to no ‘voice’ in the Church.
Yet reading her today, one is struck by her freshness, vigor, energy. Unlike the almost universal contemporary feminine voice, in and out of the Church, Thérèse is not oppressed. Thérèse is not aggrieved. Thérèse is not a victim.
Thérèse had one burning focus, one goal, one desire. She willed the one thing: to become a saint.
“What do you say to Jesus when you pray?” she was asked near the end of her life.
“I don’t say much of anything,” she replied. “I just love Him.”
The burning question of our own time, by contrast, may be: Am I doing enough?
That was a concern that could not have been further from Thérèse’s mind. Her concern was her relationship with Jesus—period. Her concern was that of St. John the Baptist: to decrease, so that Jesus could increase (John 3:30).
Her sister Céline, fretting over her spiritual progress, once remarked, “How much I still have to gain!” “Rather,” Thérèse rejoined, “how much you have still to lose.”
We Type-A personalities are apt to throw our hands up in despair. Where’s the “program,” the “project,” the packed calendar in an approach like that?
Maybe, though, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. In this culture of perpetual aggrievement, could it be that we’ve been missing the message that’s right in front of our faces? Could it be that we hesitate to enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13) because we can’t bear the scandal of the Cross—and, by extension, of the Church?
The 20th-century priest and theologian Romano Guardini wrote, “One might almost venture to suggest that the defects of the Church are [Christ’s] Cross…And he who will have Christ, must take His Cross as well. We cannot separate Him from it.”
If we can’t bear the scandal of the Church–through the centuries, up to and including now–then perhaps we have not yet accepted the scandal of ourselves: our propensity to take the shortcut, our dependencies and attachments, our desperate need for mercy. If we don’t think we have it in us to be clerics, Pharisees, indulgence-sellers, lorder-overs, abusers of power—including sexual power—then maybe we have not yet examined our conscience at its depths.
We are like the ten foolish virgins who failed to keep their lamps in oil (Matthew 7:24-27). We are neither fully alive nor fully awake. We’re so busy worshiping the gods of popularity and approval that our lamps have gone out. We haven’t the light to see what’s right in front of us.
Thérèse understood the temptations of power, property, and prestige—spiritual and otherwise–down to the ground. She had not a shred of illusion about her own self-sufficiency, competence, or goodness. If she had never committed a mortal sin, she reasoned, it was because God, like the indulgent father who sees his child is about to stumble over a rock in its path, had unobtrusively, pre-emptively removed it.
Thérèse accepted the Church without question, comment, or complaint. She threw herself into the arms of Jesus because she hungered for him, needed him, desired to surrender herself to him—not for her glory, but for the salvation of the souls for which she knew He thirsted.
In a culture where women celebrated for “doing it their way” are often only trying to be like men, could Thérèse be a radical exemplar of true feminine genius?
In our grasping for worldly power, could she be leading us back to the authentic, radical power of our glorious womanhood?
Could it be that this young woman who lived and died in obscurity, a cloistered Carmelite, was fiercer, more independent, more original, and freer than we have dared to dream of being?
Come and see.