By Jonathan Ghaly
“It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“I assure you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you!”
“The great saints have gained Heaven by their works; myself, I wish to imitate the thieves, I wish to take it by a trick…”
“I ought to be distressed at sleeping [for seven years] during my prayers and acts of thanksgiving. Well, I am not distressed. I think little children please their parents as much when they sleep as when they are awake.”
-Thérèse of Lisieux
“The message this saint brings the world is actually one of the most mysterious and urgent which it has ever received. The world is dying because it has lost the spirit of childhood.”
If you’re reading this, congrats, you’ve survived the ‘Year of the Throat-Punch’ which was 2020, and now more than halfway through its sister, 2021. If we learned anything these 19 months, we learned that we are not in control of anything. At an even deeper level, many people came face to face with the difficult experience of being alone, and having to depend and trust only on ourselves.
In this context, what does the alluring way of a cloistered French nun who died unnoticed and viciously of tuberculosis in her early 20s more than a century ago have anything to do with us today? It almost sounds like a joke. Yet in a word, she is the antidote to the deep modern malady from which we all suffer: living life as an orphan.
A few years after Dorothy Day found Thérèse’s Story of a Soul “colorless, monotonous, too small in fact for my notice,” she ended up spending over five years writing a biography on Thérèse, despite her exhausting daily schedule and duties. Day would call her “the saint for our times.”
When one gets past some of her adorable and flowery Victorian style of writing, Thérèse is nothing less than revolutionary. This article intends to “re-propose” Thérèse and how truly revolutionary she was, showing that we have perhaps not gotten to the depth of her “little way;” and to show that little Thérèse was far from perfect — even shockingly imperfect — and in that sense a witness to us of a very different way than our guilt-ridden, earn-love orphan mentality knows.
(This article was condensed from a longer version that can be read here.)
The 24 year old Thérèse seemed to crash the party in the Church right after her death. “Doctor of the Church,” though theological books caused her “head to split and heart to dry.” “Patroness of Missions,” though she never left the cloister in Carmel “The greatest saint of modern times,” canonized only 27 years after her death compared to the terribly long average process of 181 years. “The greatest healer of modern times,” with seven volumes of 3,750 pages of personal testimonies from around the world detailing miracles, conversions, and cures attributed to her to support it. She has even been seen as the yin to Friedrich Nietzsche’s yang — Nietzsche being one of the most influential atheist existentialist philosophers in history, the father of nihilism and proclaimer of the death of God. Seriously? Who is this woman?
Thérèse’s childlike audacity essentially stole the heart of the whole Church like Amy Winehouse and Adele stole the Grammys. Despite this, Thérèse is still so reduced and kept at a distance. I hear so many friends and acquaintances claim with certainty, “Oh, Thérèse, yeah, she’s just way too flowery and perfect for me.” This is understandable, since for the last couple decades Thérèse and her “little way” have been reduced and diluted into our own flawed categories and boxes: from Facebook each year on her feast day October 1 populating with the overused and out of context quotes on “showering roses from heaven,” “doing small things with great love,” and so on, even into movie theaters with the 2004 movie Thérèse: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, which received an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a professional critic’s comment, “This is the sort of movie parochial-school boys will want to draw moustaches on. They deserve our forgiveness.” We don’t need more hagiographical plaster idealizations of the lives of the saints which dehumanize them and make us feel like failures. We need a real, raw, imperfect and human saint who understands that she is first and foremost a beloved daughter, who says things like: “We would like to never fall! What does it matter, Jesus, if I fall every moment? It shows me my weakness, and it is a great gain for me.” Hagiography is in the end for the orphan. The daughter knows well that she is loved though she is full of faults, but the orphan feels always the need to earn her love, no matter how many accomplishments she has wrought.
Thérèse’s Weaknesses and Faults: How ‘Little’ Was Thérèse?
Thérèse was no plaster-saint. When you do get to know her, you begin to love her even more precisely because she had so many weaknesses and struggles, many of which she was more than happy to boast of. Her struggles are even a bit shocking to us, because we have this orphan mentality cycle: struggles = weakness = incapability = worthlessness = I’m not loved.
These assumptions make us ashamed and filled with existential insecurity which the orphan knows well: “I cannot be loved. I am not worthy of it.” We assume saints like Thérèse had only minor “nun” issues to deal with, but not real issues like we have. We are, once again, very wrong. Here is a list of just some of Thérèse’s struggles, and the influences which would make her struggles ever more agonizing:
- At a very young age Thérèse was deeply influenced by perhaps the most fear-inducing, rigorous and merciless heresy of Jansenism, still very present today. Her grandmother, an avid Jansenist, would hound Thérèse’s mother Zelie, repeating, “That’s a sin. That’s a sin. That’s a sin.”
- Thérèse would cry and cry tears of anxious guilt whenever she even accidentally did something wrong, such as tore a piece of the wallpaper, then confess her crime and, as her mother wrote, “she awaited her sentence as if she were a criminal.”
- Her First Communion retreat when she was 10 was given by a severely Jansenist priest who preached about mortal sin and how much God hated souls in the state of sin.
- Thérèse was extremely hypersensitive, and until the “grace of Christmas” when she was 14, would be extremely hurt and cry over almost anything, and then cry because she cried. Her family would tell her, “You cry so much during your childhood you’ll no longer have tears to shed later on!”
- Thérèse suffered the loss of her mother at the age of 4, and of her older sister who became her adopted mother to the convent at the age of 9. The insecurity which comes from such loss is extraordinary, and traumatic.
- Jansenism further made little Thérèse obsessed with “keeping count.” In preparing for her First Communion she recorded 1,949 small sacrifices and 2,773 short prayers(!).
- Poor Thérèse suffered a psychological breakdown at the age of 10.
- Being so sheltered and doted on by her sisters, Thérèse was socially awkward at school and bullied as a loner and outcast.
- Because of this and her hypersensitivity, Thérèse longed so deeply to be loved, and admitted, “With a heart such as mine, I would have allowed myself to be taken and my wings to be clipped… I know without Him, I could have fallen as low as St. Mary Magdalene.”
- The influence of Jansenism followed her even into the convent, and she admitted to struggling with and fighting serious scrupulosity “almost to the point of madness.”
- This further gave Thérèse an obsessive and unhealthy preoccupation with suffering and holiness. From a letter in her early convent years: “Holiness…consists in suffering, and suffering from everything… Holiness! One must conquer it at sword point, one must suffer…one must suffer…one must agonize…”
It is in this rigorous Jansenist context that Thérèse’s other faults in the convent are so shocking, even scandalous:
- Thérèse admitted that for seven years she regularly fell asleep during Mass, particularly after receiving Communion, the climax of the liturgy, and during her prayers. To anyone struggling with Jansenism this would be tantamount to sacrilege and perhaps unforgivable. Thus her quote, “I ought to be distressed…”
- Praying the rosary was extremely difficult for her, and she could never focus on it.
- She struggled tremendously with reading any kind of book by spiritual writers or theologians, and admitted they always left her dry and repulsed from them.
- She struggled with her vocation of being a cloistered nun and had perpetual FOMO, wanting to be many other vocations, including a priest, and a traveling missionary.
- She was completely terrorized by some minor quirks and habits of the other nuns in her cloister, which many people may not have ever noticed.
- She claimed she constantly heard mocking voices in the last year and a half of her life, trying to convince her that her life was worthless. She struggled with total despair.
- For a year and a half she was constantly tempted to atheism and felt like heaven and hell were fairy tales and lies. She called atheists her “brothers” during this time, and understood atheism as if from within (thus her being put in dialogue with Nieztsche).
- She even had suicidal thoughts and once said: “I would not even want to tell you the degree of blackness that is in my soul for fear of making you share in my temptations… Yes, if I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation.”
How’s that for “perfect?” The real Thérèse was an intensely frail human being who suffered so many consequences of being formed by the worst possible heresy for a hypersensitive young girl full of “countless imperfections,” as she so honestly admits. She would have passed a lie detector when she said she was not even close to being a saint. With all her faults and weaknesses, why was Thérèse not discouraged, why did she not despair, even going so far as claiming, “The weaker you are, the more Jesus will love you”? The secret was her Little Way, properly understood.
Thérèse’s ‘Little Way’ is a Gift Specifically For Us
We American Catholics today are prone to a “new Pelagianism” (and new Jansenism), as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently acutely observed. Today we perceive Christianity as “a titanic, voluntary effort, of one who decides to be coherent and who manages to do so, a sort of isolated challenge before the world.”
This is exactly the insecure position of the orphan — it is self-affirming, self-referential, and in the end, self-destructive. Yet one cannot blame the orphan, for he does not have a father, and all is up to him — at least he thinks. The orphan’s gaze on himself can only see his failures, and is without mercy. In fact, in her own convent were two older nuns who criticized Thérèse for speaking “too much” about God’s mercy, and not enough of his divine Justice. Yes, believing in love and believing in mercy as an orphan is almost impossible. Thérèse discovered that only under the gaze of a true Father can we finally fully accept ourselves, and learn that we are loved, no matter our faults. Thérèse rediscovered the Father. This was Thérèse’s revolutionary genius: “Sanctity does not consist in performing such and such acts; it means being ready at heart to become small and humble in the arms of God, acknowledging our own weaknesses and trusting in his fatherly goodness to the point of audacity.”
All of this came from Thérèse’s certainty of Jesus’ love for her. The sense in Thérèse’s writings is that Jesus is a real person, as if she hung out with Him daily, like the disciples on The Chosen. She doesn’t witness to a doctrine or a theology, or even a spirituality, but a living relationship, a real person, exactly like a child raving to her friends about her amazing dad and all the cool things he can do. “I have long believed that the Lord is more tender than a mother… Children are always giving trouble, falling down, getting themselves dirty, breaking things—but all this does not shake their parents’ love for them.”
To say something like this during a time influenced so strongly by Jansenism (coming from many priests’ mouths!) is in fact, shocking and revolutionary. I will now let Thérèse explain it to you in her own words with four of her quotes. As you read her, put all of your personal wounds, weaknesses, harsh beliefs, self-talk, distrust, and inner shame all on the table:
I. “[E]ven had I on my conscience every crime one could commit, I should lose nothing of my confidence. My heart broken with sorrow, I would throw myself into the Arms of my Saviour. I know that He loves the Prodigal Son, I have heard His words to Mary Magdalene, to the woman taken in adultery, and to the woman of Samaria. No one could frighten me, for I know what to believe concerning His Mercy and His Love. And I know that all that multitude of sins would disappear in an instant, even as a drop of water cast into a flaming furnace.”
II. “You know, Mother, I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new… The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more. O my God, You surpassed all my expectation. I want only to sing to Your mercies.”
III. “Oh, my darling sister, I beg you, understand your little one. Understand that in order to love Jesus, to be His victim of love, the weaker one is, with neither desires nor virtues, the more one is fit for the workings of this consuming and transforming love… One must consent to remain always poor and utterly weak… Let us love our littleness; let us love to feel nothing, and we shall then be poor in spirit, and Jesus will come to look for us, however far away we are. He will transform us into flames of love Oh, how I would like to be able to make you understand what I feel…It is confidence and nothing but confidence which must lead us to love.”
IV. “Spiritual childhood is to recognize one’s own nothingness, to expect everything from the good God as a child expects everything from its father. It is to be concerned about nothing, not even about making one’s living. Even poor people give their children absolute necessities when they are small.”
Holy #@$%! Thérèse’s confidence is absolutely stunning and challenges us to our core! What mind-boggling good news to our modern self-help perfectionism, and to our harshness towards ourselves! It’s the opposite of everything we hear in our orphan culture (and sometimes even parishes). What we are lacking is “the awareness that we ‘belong to’ the Father…[from] when we get up in the morning and drink our coffee, when we roll up our sleeves to clean the house, when we go to work…” Jesus knew this best: “If someone were to stop Jesus as He was walking, talking with the apostles, or eating, and ask, ‘What fills your consciousness in this moment?’ He would have said, ‘the Father.’” I unfortunately have several very different answers to this question if it were posed to me…
The need for this awareness today is becoming more than urgent than ever. I recently discovered a “modern” litany written by a friend which begs to understand all of this, and is so different from the heroic and harsh litanies of old, such as the intense Litany of Humility (“From the desire of being loved, deliver me O Jesus.” …yikes!). The new Litany of Trust is full of existential begging and poverty, and so much more relevant for us who think we are orphans today:
“From the belief that I have to earn Your love, deliver me Jesus.
From the fear that I am unlovable, deliver me Jesus.
From the false security that I have what it takes, deliver me Jesus.
From the fear that trusting You will leave me more destitute, deliver me Jesus.
From the rebellion against childlike dependency on You, deliver me Jesus…”
The very contemporary married Servant of God (dying only eight years ago!) Chiara Corbella proclaimed so many times and so clearly, “In life, it is not important to do something, but to be born and be loved.” For Jesus, this position of the dependent child on her Father is not an option, it’s an ultimatum: “Unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In Christianity, being loved is mandatory.
Jonathan Ghaly graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a Realtor and real estate investor in the metro Denver area. He likes long walks on the beach, playing basketball and soccer with his buddies, and having existential conversations while sipping Oak and Eden whiskey.
-  Thérèse, Dorothy Day, 1960.
-  Ibid.,
-  Anthony Del Valle Las Vegas Mercury, October 26, 2004. Compare this with Roger Ebert’s review of the 1987 Alain Cavalier film Thérèse: “[It’s] not like any other biographical film of a saint – or of anyone else. It makes a bold attempt to penetrate to the mystery of Therese’s sainthood, and yet it isn’t propaganda for the church… This movie is so deep and so subtle that we cannot ever be sure just what the filmmaker thinks about Therese. That’s one of the reasons I found it so disturbing and provoking… What was the secret of Therese Martin’s joy?” Roger Ebert, review on Therese, February 6, 1987.
-  Cf. 33 Days to Merciful Love, Fr. Michael Gaitley, pp. 47-50; and Two Sisters in the Spirit, von Balthasar.
-  “A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others. According to this way of thinking, salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter Placuit Deo To the Bishops of the Catholic Church On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation, Paragraph 3, February 22, 2018.
-  Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Communion and Liberation Movement, St. Peter’s Square, Saturday, March 7, 2015.
-  Two Sisters in the Spirit, von Balthasar, 1970.
-  La convenienza umana della fede, Fr. Luigi Giussani, pp 126-127, quoted in The Radiance In Your Eyes: What Saves Us From Nothingness?, Fr. Julian Carron, pp 102-103.
-  Ibid., 105.
-  Litany of Trust, Sr. Faustina Maria Pia, SV,
Copyright Jonathan Ghaly. All rights reserved.