St. Thérèse of Lisieux has sometimes been cited by Marian minimalists who imagine that she is to be numbered among a “chorus” of voices which caution us against “exaggerations” (according to these minimalists) in the practice of Marian devotion. A careful study of her writings and, in particular, her lesser-read poetry, reveals quite the opposite: she knew perfectly well the divine grandeur of the one who had obtained so many incomparable graces for her. Only Our Blessed Lady, the “Teacher of the Doctors of the Church,” could have revealed the secret of “The Little Way” to St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will he clothe you? You men of little faith! (Lk 12:27f).
“O ye of little faith!” Jesus rebukes the disciples. Certainly this rebuke is worth taking to heart. When do we in fact rely on faith to save us? St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Little Way, had an unbounded faith, but she used very simple words and the imagery of flowers to explain it. Significantly, she began writing her autobiography, the Story of a Soul, kneeling before a statue of Mary, which she and her family held in special veneration. There, the Mother who had “given so many proofs of the maternal preferences of heaven’s Queen for our family”1 inspired her:
…and I begged her to guide my hand that it trace no line displeasing to her. Then opening the Holy Gospels my eyes fell on these words: “And going up a mountain, he called to him men of his own choosing, and they came to him” (Mk 3:13). This is the mystery of my vocation, my whole life, and especially the mystery of the privileges Jesus showered on my soul. He does not call those who are worthy but those whom He pleases or as St. Paul says: “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and he will show pity to whom he will show pity. So then there is question not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God showing mercy” (Rom 9:15-16).2
Central to the Little Way of St. Thérèse is what could be called the “paradox of God’s predilection.”3 Why does God seem to have preferences? Why does he choose, for example, to bestow such incomparable (even “quasi-infinite” in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas4) favors of his grace on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, when Mary is, after all, only a creature? And why does he choose to bestow such favors of his grace on Little Thérèse herself?
Jesus deigned to teach me this mystery. He set before me the book of nature; I understood how all the flowers He has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wild flowers. And so it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden. He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but He has created smaller ones and these must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when He looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be…
It seems to me that if a little flower could speak, it would tell simply what God has done for it without trying to hide its blessings. It would not say, under the pretext of a false humility, it is not beautiful or without perfume, that the sun has taken away its splendor and the storm has broken its stem when it knows that all this is untrue. The flower about to tell her story rejoices at having to publish the totally gratuitous gifts of Jesus.She knows that nothing in herself was capable of attracting the divine glances, and His mercy alone brought about everything that is good in her.5
The Little Flower, by pointing out the different flowers and their different vocations, all summed up and finding the same meaning in pleasing the gardener, points to the same mystery as that proclaimed by St. Paul: “One Body, many members” (cf. 1 Cor 10-12). In focus here is the mystery of the Church, Christ’s Body.
Minimalism or Maximalism?
During the second session of the Second Vatican Council (1963), the presence of a deep-seated division with regard to “the Marian Question”6 was revealed within the Catholic Magisterium. This division had been present for some time within the Church, and it had grown considerably during the decade immediately preceding the council. In 1958, eight years following the dogmatic definition of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Ven. Pope Pius XII, and one hundred years following the apparitions of the Immaculate Conception to St. Bernadette Soubirous, a Marian Congress was held at Lourdes to study, among other things, the possibility of a dogmatic definition of Mary’s Universal Mediation of all Graces and her cooperation with Christ in His objective act of Redemption.
At the Marian Congress held at Lourdes in 1958, two tendencies among Mariologists had emerged… a maximalist tendency, which held that all of Mary’s privileges stemmed from her divine maternity within the hypostatic order; and a minimalist tendency, according to which Mariology had its foundation in the parallel between Mary and the Church. The first tendency was defined as “Christotypical” because it emphasized the intimate connection between Christ and his Mother in the one act of salvation. The co-redemption and the mediation of Mary derived from this union. The second tendency asserted instead that Mary’s role was subordinate to that of the Church, which held the first place after Christ and of which Mary was only a member. Her privileges were to be understood within the Christian community, of which she remained the “type” and model. For this reason the second tendency was called “ecclesiotypical.”7
This false dichotomy—which would erroneously separate Mary’s ecclesiotypical identity from her Christotypical identity—only grew more prevalent in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council. This dichotomy was emphasized during the Council sessions by the self-proclaimed Marian minimalists themselves, such as the French Dominican Fr. Yves Congar, who wrote in his diary on September 22, 1961, that the “drama of his life” was “to fight, in the name of the gospel and of apostolic faith, against a development, a Mediterranean and Irish proliferation, of a [Maximal-Christotypical] Mariology which does not come from revelation, but is [only] backed up by pontifical texts.”8
Of course, any such separation between the Christotypical and ecclesiotypical roles of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the Mother of God and Mother of the Church—ignores the Pauline doctrine that the Church is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, from which St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort draws the obvious corollary: if Mary gave birth to the Church’s Head, then she must also give birth to the Church’s Members, which is the meaning of Mary’s Universal Mediation in the Order of Grace. If not, the Church would be a monstrosity, as St. Louis de Montfort so aptly describes. Indeed, as the great Mariologist and Second Vatican Council peritus Fr. Gabriele Maria Roschini pointed out, it is not truly possible to speak of any (exaggerated) maximalist tendency in Mariology, because of the well-known saying of St. Bernard—de Maria numquam satis, about Mary we can never say enough—though “one can, however, with real grounds, speak about a minimalist tendency,” which would reduce Mary “to the level of all the other members of the Mystical Body of Christ, as a prima inter pares (first woman among equals).”9 In fact, Marian minimalism leaves one totally unguarded against a variety of heresies, particularly the “great heresies” regarding grace and merit.10 In the words of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner:
Whence the importance of Mary’s possession of those who wish to be incorporated into Christ, conformed to Him in life and in death: except through her it cannot be achieved. This mysterious mutual possession, then, is the basis of all other cooperation in the work of salvation, the reason for rejecting the Protestant solus and “passive” ecclesio-typology, and affirming the universal Marian mediation of grace or active ecclesio-typology.11
In the end, thanks largely to the efforts of the Council periti, Fr. Gabriele Roschini and Fr. Carlo Balič,12 with the aid of Fr. Gérard Philips of the University of Louvain, the final text of Lumen Gentium, Chapter 8, on the Blessed Virgin Mary—despite certain compromises with the Marian minimalists—could aptly be described by Fr. Roschini as follows:
Notwithstanding all its caution, the Marian text of Vatican II can be described as a melodious hymn to Mary, Mediatrix (with Christ and in dependence on Christ the Mediator) between God and men. Also here, as ever, the saying proves true: “Man worries, but it is God who leads him.”13
The Little Flower
The historical notes of the preceding section are necessary for one to understand some of the controversy that has, at least for the past half century or so, surrounded the Marian spirituality of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In fact, St. Thérèse has often been cited by the Marian minimalists as being “on their side”—in opposition to the Marian maximalists. This is due to several oft-cited quotations of the Saint, such as the following:
How I would have loved to be a priest in order to preach about the Blessed Virgin! One sermon would be sufficient to say everything I think about this subject. I’d first make people understand how little is known by us about her life. We shouldn’t say unlikely things or things we don’t know anything about! For example, that when she was very little, at the age of three, the Blessed Virgin went up to the Temple to offer herself to God, burning with sentiments of love and extraordinary fervor, while perhaps she went there very simply out of obedience to her parents. Again, why say, with reference to the aged Simeon’s prophetic words, that the Blessed Virgin had the Passion of Jesus constantly before her mind from that moment onward? “And a sword will pierce through your soul also,” the old man said. It wasn’t for the present, you see, little Mother [Mother Agnes of Jesus—Thérèse’s sister Pauline]; it was a general prediction for the future.
For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me and do me any good, I must see her real life, not her imagined life. I’m sure that her real life was very simple. They show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the Gospel, where we read: “And they did not understand the words which He spoke to them.” And that other no less mysterious statement: “His father and Mother marveled at what was said about Him.” This admiration presupposes a certain surprise, don’t you think so, little Mother?
We know very well that the Blessed Virgin is Queen of heaven and earth, but she is more Mother than Queen; and we should not say, on account of her prerogatives, that she surpasses all the saints in glory just as the sun at its rising makes the stars disappear from sight. My God! How strange that would be! A Mother who makes her children’s glory vanish? I myself think just the contrary. I believe she’ll increase the splendor of the elect very much. It’s good to speak about her prerogatives, but we should not stop at this, and if, in a sermon, we are obliged from beginning to end to exclaim and say: “Ah! Ah!” we would grow tired! Who knows whether some soul would not reach the point of feeling a certain estrangement from a creature so superior and would not say: If things are such, it’s better to go and shine as well as one is able in some little corner!14
There are many observations that can be made regarding this (wonderful) quotation of the Little Flower, but the first must be that, rather than calling for any kind of minimalism, she is explicitly calling upon the priests of her day (late nineteenth century) to do more: “It’s good to speak about [Mary’s] prerogatives, but we should not stop at this.” The second observation (which perhaps should have been the first) is the humor of St. Thérèse. This humor is plentiful throughout her autobiography, but it literally saturates her so-called Last Conversations, recorded shortly before her death, from which the above quotation is taken. To see more of this humor, we need only consider the remainder of the passage quoted above:
What the Blessed Virgin has more than we have is the privilege of not being able to sin, she was exempt from the stain of original sin; but on the other hand, she wasn’t as fortunate as we are, since she didn’t have a Blessed Virgin to love. And this is one more sweetness for us and one less sweetness for her!15
Was St. Thérèse of Lisieux indeed the prototype Marian minimalist, as Jean Guitton (for one) suggests?16 To answer this question, we must return to the final sentence of the passage that we have been quoting, in which St. Thérèse tells us, “Finally, in my poem: Pourquoi je t’aime, o Marie, I have said everything I would preach about her.”17 Thus, to understand this quote of Little Thérèse in its proper context, we must turn to her poetry.
Why I Love You, O Mary
As we have seen, by her own admission, the homily that St. Thérèse would have liked to preach about the Blessed Virgin Mary is in her poem, Why I Love You, O Mary, which begins:
Oh! I would like to sing, Mary, why I love you,
Why your sweet name thrills my heart,
And why the thought of your supreme greatness
Could not bring fear to my soul.
If I gazed on you in your sublime glory,
Surpassing the splendor of all the blessed,
I could not believe that I am your child.
O Mary, before you I would lower my eyes!18
At this point, one may be hard pressed to reconcile the poem with the quotation we cited in the preceding section. But on reflection, St. Thérèse is merely stating a fact, which she takes for granted: namely, that Mary’s sublime glory does, indeed, surpass the splendor of all the blessed! Nevertheless, in the truly maximal spirit that was very much a part of her character, the Little Flower does not stop at this.
If a child is to cherish his mother,
She has to cry with him and share his sorrows.
O my dearest Mother, on this foreign shore
How many tears you shed to draw me to you!…
In pondering your life in the holy Gospels,
I dare look at you and come near you.
It’s not difficult for me to believe I’m your child,
For I see you human and suffering like me.19
At this point, St. Thérèse reveals the key to her Marian spirituality. In perfect imitation of Mary Herself, St. Thérèse ponders the events of the Gospel in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19). To claim that the events of the Gospel lead one to embrace “minimalism” is to close one’s eyes completely to the events of the Gospel! Clearly, the evangelists did not think that the events they related were in any way “minimal” (cf. Jn 21:25). Neither did our Doctor of the Little Way.
When an angel from Heaven bids you be the Mother
Of the God who is to reign for all eternity,
I see you prefer, O Mary, what a mystery!
The ineffable treasure of virginity.
O Immaculate Virgin, I understand how your soul
Is dearer to the Lord than his heavenly dwelling.
I understand how your soul, Humble and Sweet Valley,
Can contain Jesus, the Ocean of Love!…
Oh! I love you, Mary, saying you are the servant
Of the God whom you charm by your humility.
This hidden virtue makes you all-powerful.
It attracts the Holy Trinity into your heart.
Then the Spirit of Love covering you with his shadow,
The Son equal to the Father became incarnate in you,
There will be a great many of his sinner brothers,
Since he will be called: Jesus, your first-born!20
Though it is almost a crime to make any comment on poetry, it is worth noting that, in the final two lines of the stanza just quoted, St. Thérèse explicitly links the ecclesiotypical and Christotypical aspects of Mary’s Universal Motherhood, in perfect accord with the thought of St. Louis de Montfort. She contemplates the Mother of the Church, the Mother of many children: “Christ the firstfruits; then at His coming, those who belong to Him.” (1 Cor 15:23) In the words of St. Louis de Montfort:
“This man and that man is born in her” (Ps 86:5), says the Holy Ghost through the Royal Psalmist. According to the explanation of some of the Fathers, the first man that is born in Mary is the Man-God, Jesus Christ; the second is a mere man, the child of God and Mary by adoption. If Jesus Christ, the Head of men, is born in her, then the predestinate, who are the members of that Head, ought also to be born in her, by a necessary consequence. One and the same Mother does not bring forth into the world the head without the members, or the members without the head; for this would be a monster of nature. So in like manner, in the order of grace, the head and the members are born of one and the same Mother; and if a member of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ—that is to say, one of the predestinate—were born of any other mother than Mary, who has produced the Head, he would not be one of the predestinate, nor a member of Jesus Christ, but simply a monster in the order of grace.21
The Little Flower continues:
O beloved Mother, despite my littleness,
Like you I possess The All-Powerful within me.
But I don’t tremble in seeing my weakness:
The treasures of a mother belong to her child,
And I am your child, O my dearest Mother.
Aren’t your virtues and your love mine too?
So when the white Host comes into my heart,
Jesus, your Sweet Lamb, thinks he is resting in you!22
In this stanza, St. Thérèse precisely and succinctly expresses the meaning of Total Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. One cannot resist comparing these words of St. Thérèse to the following words of St. Maximilian Kolbe:
We belong to her, to the Immaculate. We are hers without limits, most perfectly hers; we are, as it were, herself. Through our mediation she loves the good God. With our poor heart she loves her divine Son. We become the mediators through whom the Immaculate loves Jesus. And Jesus, considering us her property and, as it were, a part of his beloved Mother, loves her in us and through us. What a lovely mystery!23
To St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as to St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Louis de Montfort, total consecration to Mary is not an abstract idea, but rather a concrete reality—which is to say, maximal. “For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me and do me any good, I must see her real life, not her imagined life.”24 Concretely, total consecration to Mary means perfect imitation of her, in her active ministry, and most especially her virtue of humility:
You make me feel that it’s not impossible
To follow in your footsteps, O Queen of the elect.
You made visible the narrow road to Heaven
While always practicing the humblest virtues.
Near you, Mary, I like to stay little.
I see the vanity of greatness here below.
At the home of Saint Elizabeth, receiving your visit,
I learn how to practice ardent charity.25
In the quotation of the preceding section, St. Thérèse makes particular note of the relative silence of Mary in the Gospels. In her poetry, the Little Flower turns even this silence into maximalism, when she likens Mary’s eloquent silence to the veil of God’s Tabernacle, which was her own body:
When good Saint Joseph did not know of the miracle
That you wanted to hide in your humility,
You let him cry close by the Tabernacle
Veiling the Savior’s divine beauty!…
Oh Mary! how I love your eloquent silence!
For me it is a sweet, melodious concert
That speaks to me of the greatness and power
Of a soul which looks only to Heaven for help.26
In another stanza of the same poem, St. Thérèse sheds light on her understanding of the “ordinariness” of Mary’s life, when she writes:
Since the King of Heaven wanted his Mother
To be plunged into the night, in anguish of heart,
Mary, is it thus a blessing to suffer on earth?
Yes, to suffer while loving is the purest happiness!…
All that He has given me, Jesus can take back.
Tell him not to bother with me…
He can indeed hide from me, I’m willing to wait for him
Till the day without sunset when my faith will fade away…
Mother full of grace, I know that in Nazareth
You live in poverty, wanting nothing more.
No rapture, miracle, or ecstasy
Embellish your life, O Queen of the Elect!…
The number of little ones on earth is truly great.
They can raise their eyes to you without trembling.
It’s by the ordinary way, incomparable Mother,
That you like to walk to guide them to Heaven.27
If “to suffer while loving is the purest happiness,” then to limit the Blessed Virgin Mary to a life without suffering would be to limit her love; and this, to St. Thérèse, would be unthinkable! Thus, Mary must experience all suffering, even the dark night of the senses, as well as that of the soul—so cherished by St. John of the Cross and so central to Carmelite spirituality—if she is to experience Maximal Love, which is the only love worthy of the Mother of Love!
Of course, St. Thérèse does not actually mean that Mary experienced no miracles, for that would be to deny the reality of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, to say nothing of the many lesser miracles of the Gospel. Rather, St. Thérèse means that Mary did not seek gratification in the miracles that were, in fact, so integrally a part of Her “ordinary” life. It is seeking precisely such sensual or spiritual gratification in the favors God bestows on us, either in the form of extraordinary miracles or silent consolations (both of which Mary certainly experienced), that St. John of the Cross warns us against. Certainly the Blessed Virgin Mary did not succumb to any such temptation! In this, as in everything, Mary is our perfect example.
However, St. Thérèse does not limit Mary’s activity to her exemplary role. Indeed, in the same poem, and in truly maximal fashion, St. Thérèse affirms Mary’s active role as Advocate for sinners, Mediatrix of all Graces, and even Coredemptrix with Jesus—offering her Divine Son on Mount Calvary like a priest offering the Sacred Host on the altar—in no uncertain terms, to the point of mingling the blood of her own Immaculate Heart with that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
You love us, Mary, as Jesus loves us,
And for us you accept being separated from Him.
To love is to give everything. It’s to give oneself.
You wanted to prove this by remaining our support.
The Savior knew your immense tenderness.
He knew the secrets of your maternal heart.
Refuge of sinners, He leaves us to you
When He leaves the Cross to wait for us in Heaven.
Mary, at the top of Calvary standing beside the Cross
To me you seem like a priest at the altar,
Offering your beloved Jesus, the sweet Emmanuel,
To appease the Father’s justice…
A prophet said, O afflicted Mother,
“There is no sorrow like your sorrow!”
O Queen of Martyrs, while remaining in exile
You lavish on us all the blood of your Heart.28
Finally, St. Thérèse concludes her poem—which contains many more stanzas than those we have quoted—with the following reflection on why the Gospels tell us so little about the life of the Virgin-Mother of God:
Saint John’s home becomes your only refuge.
Zebedee’s son is to replace Jesus…
That is the last detail the Gospel gives.
It tells me nothing more of the Queen of Heaven.
But, O my dear Mother, doesn’t its profound silence
Reveal that The Eternal Word Himself
Wants to sing the secrets of your life
To charm your children, all the Elect of Heaven?29
St. Thérèse confided to her sister Céline that writing this poem about the Blessed Virgin Mary was the last of the “very important work” remaining for her to do before she died. Indeed, St. Thérèse died less than five months after completing the poem, and her hand shook as she signed her name, “little Thérèse,” after this final stanza:
Soon I’ll hear that sweet harmony.
Soon I’ll go to beautiful heaven to see you.
You who came to smile at me in the morning of my life,
Come smile at me again… Mother… It’s evening now!…
I no longer fear the splendor of your supreme glory.
With you I’ve suffered, and now I want
To sing on your lap, Mary, why I love you,
And to go on saying that I am your child!30
1 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Third Edition, translated from the Original Manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, p. 13. Hereafter cited Story of a Soul.
3 Cf. Jonathan Fleischmann, “The Paradox of God’s Predilection”, Missio Immaculatae International, Vol. 12, No. 5, 2016, pp. 7-15.
4 “The Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God, which dignity is in a certain manner infinite, inasmuch as God is an infinite good; in this respect, then, she could not have been made greater,” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, P. 1, q. 25, a. 6.
5 Story of a Soul, pp. 14-15.
6 For the “Minimalist” position, cf. René Laurentin, La question mariale, Ed. du Seuil, Paris, 1963. For the “Maximalist” reply, cf. Gabriele Maria Roschini, La cosiddetta “questione mariana”, Tip. S. Giuseppe, Vicenza, 1963.
7 Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story), Loreto Publications, Fitzwilliam, NH, 2012, pp. 289-290.
8 Ibid., p. 292.
9 Ibid., p. 294.
10 Cf. Jonathan Fleischmann, Marian Maximalism, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2016.
11 Peter Damian M. Fehlner, St. Maximilian Ma. Kolbe, Martyr of Charity—Pneumatologist, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2004, p. 64.
12 Cf. Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 2000, p. 68.
13 Gabriele Maria Roschini, La Mediazione mariana oggi, Pontifical Theological Faculty “Marianum”—Institute of Mariology, Rome, 1971, p. 109, as quoted by Paolo M. Siano, “Mary ‘Mediatrix of All Graces’ in the Papal Magisterium up to the Pontificate of Paul VI” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross—VII: Coredemptrix, therefore Mediatrix of All Graces. Acts of the Seventh International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2008, p. 99.
14 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, Translated from the Original Manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1977, pp. 161-162. Hereafter cited Last Conversations.
16 Cf. Jean Guitton, The Spiritual Genius of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Burns & Oates, London, 1997.
17 Last Conversations, p. 162.
18 The Poetry of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Translated by Donald Kinney, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, p. 215. Hereafter cited Poetry.
21 Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, No. 32.
22 Poetry, p. 216.
23 Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Scritti di Massimiliano Kolbe, Roma, 1997, No. 508.
24 Last Conversations, p. 161.
25 Poetry, p. 216.
27 Poetry, p. 218.
28 Poetry, pp. 219-220.
29 Poetry, p. 220.