French singer Edith Piaf kept her picture on her bedside table. She was the reason Dorothy Day became a Catholic. Teilhard de Chardin changed his life’s course because of her. She has been an instrument of conversion as well as of comfort, and she might be just the saint needed for times like ours.
She is St. Thérèse de Lisieux.
The world and the Church may be said to be in distress, and when we look at the history of Christianity to try and find words of wisdom, a plan of action, the one saint that seems to crop up again and again is Thérèse, because what she teaches about is love in the heart of the Church.
Within our faith tradition, love is intrinsically connected to mercy. Again and again, Thérèse goes back to the word mercy—in fact, she uses it 75 times. At her canonization process in 1910, Sister Thérèse's prioress, Mother Agnes, was asked why she wished to see Thérèse beatified. She replied, "Because it will procure the glory of God, principally by proclaiming his mercy."
And it is God’s mercy that Thérèse prays about, writes about, talks about. She would have agreed with Kierkegaard that the greatest Christian heresy is believing that the opposite of sin is virtue; he contends, instead, that the opposite of sin is grace. And it is grace that animates Thérèse, that keeps her focused. For Thérèse, mercy demands unceasing dependence. And if that isn’t a thought for our times, as we contemplate the interdependency of people and indeed of species! Perhaps if we can be more aware of our complete dependence on God’s mercy, we can learn more about being merciful to others.
“The memory of my faults humbles me,” writes Thérèse; “it causes me never to rely on my own strength, which is but weakness, but especially it teaches me a further lesson of the mercy and love of God.”
The key consists in seeing beyond our own faults to the greater reality—the unfailing mercy of God. Fear has to yield to confidence; not confidence in our own selves, but confidence that God’s mercy will always prevail. “We have only to beg pardon,” Thérèse writes, “and all is repaired by that act of love. Jesus opens his heart to us. He forgets our infidelities and does not want to recall them. He will do even more. He will love us even better than before we committed that fault!”
This is the love in the heart of the Church to which she is so clearly pointing. It’s a love that transcends all the inevitable problems and heartaches and crises of daily life. Thérèse herself wasn’t immune to personality conflicts; she writes in some detail about a member of her community who is consistently rubbing her the wrong way, and finally realizes how to deal with this sister: charity, she discovers, is not something you feel, but something you do.
And that’s how the Little Flower shows us how to grow in times of adversity. Not by relying on our own selves, but rather seeking that mercy and becoming confident that it is ours. By behaving as though we believe in it, by practicing acts of charity and not just thinking about them. Her concept of God’s mercy was so great, in fact, that she had a strong disagreement with her prioress about Purgatory, which most Catholics viewed as unavoidable; Thérèse, relying on God’s mercy, held that souls can go straight to Heaven. “You do not have enough trust,” Thérèse said. “You have too much fear before the good God. I can assure you that He is grieved over this.” The soul, she believes, gets exactly what it expects of God, whether that be judgment… or mercy.
In times of turmoil, that's an important lesson to remember. No matter what happens around us, no matter what adversity we must face, the love in the heart of the Church is an utter reliance on God’s mercy that transcends everything. Thérèse claimed it confidently as her own. And it's there for us, too.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir