Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower of Jesus"

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (feast day, 3 October)

On 2 July 1873, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in Alençon, France, the daughter of two devout parents. Her father, Louis Martin, was a skilled watchmaker, her mother, Zelie Guerin, a successful lacemaker in a region known for its point d' Alençon. Before they married, both of Marie-Françoise-Thérèse's parents had sought a religious life, but both had been discouraged.

Thérèse of Lisieux, 1896
Married in 1858, Louis and Zelie Martin produced nine children over the course of the next fifteen years, but within three years, between 1867 and 1870, four of their small children had died. A final baby, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse, was born in 1873. Unfortunately, Zelie Martin died just four years later, in August 1877.

In 1882, when Marie-Françoise-Thérèse was eight years old, her sister Pauline (born in 1861) entered the Carmelite convent of Lisieux, followed in 1886 by the eldest sister, Marie (born in 1860); Léonie (born in 1863), joined a community of Poor Clares in the same year (since the rigors of the Poor Clares proved too much for her, in 1887 Léonie joined an order of Visitation sisters at a monastery in Caen; she would leave briefly, but from 1893 she was a permanent member of the Visitation order). In 1894, the fourth Martin sister, Céline joined her sisters at the Carmelite convent of Lisieux.

Although Marie-Françoise-Thérèse had first sought to join the convent in Lisieux when she was only nine, she experienced what she later regarded as a conversion on Christmas in 1886. By 1887, she again approached the sisters at the Carmelite convent, asking for entrance, and again was refused. But later in the year, she traveled with her father to Rome; there, in a general audience with Pope Leo XIII, on 20 November 1887, she approached the pope, kneeled at his feet, and asked him directly for permission to enter the convent at Carmel. Although he blessed Marie-Françoise-Thérèse, his answer was that she had to follow the advice of the convent superiors--but, he added, "You will enter if it is God's will."

On New Year's Day of 1888, having returned to Lisieux, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse was informed by the prioress of the Lisieux convent that she would be allowed to enter. She joined the community on 9 April 1888. She remained in the convent until her death, at the age of twenty-four, on 30 September 1897.

Thérèse of Lisieux's spiritual memoir, L'histoire d'une âme (The Story of a Soul), exists in three parts: the first, written between 1895 and 1896 and dedicated to her sister Pauline, recounts her childhood memories; the second, in the form of a letter written to her elder sister, Marie, was composed in September of 1896 and preserves her spiritual discovery, the "little way of love and trust"; the third, addressed to the prioress of the convent and written in 1897, focuses on her life as a nun. The autobiography was first published on 30 September 1898, on the anniversary of Thérèse of Lisieux's death.

Thérèse of Lisieux was beatified on 29 April 1923 and canonized on 17 May 1925. On 19 October 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, one of only four women (the others are Teresa of Ávila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites, the order to which Thérèse belonged and Catherine of Siena, both made Doctors of the Church in 1970, and Hildegard of Bingen, named as Doctor of the Church in 2012).  

Her feast day was established as 3 October (it was later moved, in 1969, to 1 October.)

Thérèse of Lisieux's parents were beatified in 1994, and there is some effort now underway to canonize them. 

For an excellent introduction to Thérèse of Lisieux's life and thought, the Society of the Little Flower website offers ample information.