The vocation of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is but the epitome of the “reaction” man is called to give to God’s loving initiative. Her ecstatic exclamation, “I shall be love!” is but the reverberation of, “God is love.” It is only natural, then, that the Little Flower was a child of the Church and a child of Our Lady, because it is in the heart of the Church and in the Immaculate Heart where the fullness and sublimity of God’s love dwells.
You Who Came to Smile at Me
As we observed in the first part of this two-part series on the Marian spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Little Way, it is not hard to see that St. Thérèse was well aware that it was Mary who had chosen her; that the predilection she speaks of at the beginning of her autobiography includes Mary’s predilection for her Little Flower, perfectly united to that of her Son. Indeed, it was during a time of deep physical and emotional suffering early in St. Thérèse’s life that Our Lady showed special favor to her Little Flower. St. Thérèse relates that “the devil had received an external power over me but was not allowed to approach my soul nor my mind except to inspire me with very great fears of certain things… my bed seemed to be surrounded by frightful precipices; some nails in the wall of the room took on the appearance of big black charred fingers, making me cry out in fear.”1
We were at the time in the beautiful month of May, and nature was adorned with flowers and was bursting out with joy. The “little flower” alone was languishing and seemed forever withered.
However, she had a Sun near her, and this Sun was the miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin that had spoken to Mama twice, and the little flower often, very often, turned her petals toward this blessed Star. One day I saw Papa enter Marie’s room where I was in bed. He gave her several pieces of gold with an expression of great sadness and told her to write to Paris and have some Masses said at Our Lady of Victories so that she would cure his poor little girl…
A miracle was necessary and it was Our Lady of Victories who worked it. One Sunday during the Novena of Masses, Marie [Thérèse’s older sister] went into the garden, leaving me with Léonie who was reading near the window. After a few moments I began calling in a low tone: “Mama, Mama.” Léonie, accustomed to hearing me always calling out like this, didn’t pay any attention. This lasted a long time, and then I called her much louder. Marie finally returned. I saw her enter, but I cannot say I recognized her and continued to call her in a louder tone: “Mama”… Marie knelt down near my bed with Léonie and Céline. Turning to the Blessed Virgin and praying with the fervor of a mother begging for the life of her child, Marie obtained what she wanted.
Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse had also turned toward the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the “ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.” At that instant, all my pain disappeared, and two large tears glistened on my eyelashes, and flowed down my cheeks silently, but they were tears of unmixed joy. Ah! I thought, the Blessed Virgin smiled at me, how happy I am, but never will I tell anyone for my happiness would then disappear.2
Later, at the time of her First Holy Communion, St. Thérèse would consecrate herself totally, with her companions, to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the afternoon, it was I who made the Act of Consecration to the Blessed Virgin. It was only right that I speak in the name of my companions to my Mother in heaven, I who had been deprived at such an early age of my earthly mother. I put all my heart into speaking to her, into consecrating myself to her as a child throwing itself into the arms of its mother, asking her to watch over her. It seems to me the Blessed Virgin must have looked upon her little flower and smiled at her, for wasn’t it she who cured her with a visible smile? Had she not placed in the heart of the little flower her Jesus, the Flower of the Fields and the Lily of the valley?3
I Shall Be Love
The Little Flower lived total consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Aren’t your virtues and your love mine too?”4 Total consecration to Mary, which is the ultimate maximal love to Mary, is simultaneously relying entirely on Mary to communicate her “virtues and love” to us, and burning with those same virtues and love to communicate them to others; in other words, Mediation with a big, big M. This mediation returns the “virtues and love” to Jesus, the Head of the Church, bringing life to all the members of His Body by the love that is the life of the Church.
But just as Mary Magdalene found what she was seeking by always stooping down and looking into the empty tomb, so I, abasing myself to the very depths of my nothingness, raised myself so high that I was able to attain my end. Without becoming discouraged, I continued my reading, and this sentence consoled me: “Yet strive after THE BETTER GIFTS, and I point out to you a yet more excellent way.” And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.
I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES… IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!
Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love… my vocation, at last I have found it… MY VOCATION IS LOVE!
Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.5
Consider that St. Francis of Assisi calls the Blessed Virgin Mary the Virgo Ecclesia Facta6 —the Virgin-Made-Church—and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit.7 And consider no less, as St. Maximilian Kolbe tells us, that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Created Immaculate Conception, as the Spouse of the Uncreated Immaculate Conception in the Most Holy Trinity: the Holy Spirit. As such, Mary holds within herself all the love of creation, just as the Holy Spirit contains all the Love of the Trinity.
In the union of the Holy Spirit with her, not only does love bind these two beings, but the first of them [the Holy Spirit] is all the love of the Most Holy Trinity, while the second [the Blessed Virgin Mary] is all the love of creation, and thus in that union heaven is joined to earth, the whole heaven with the whole earth, the whole of Uncreated Love with the whole of created love: this is the vertex of love.8
Not only does St. Thérèse take for her own the vocation of Mary—to be the Heart of the Church and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, who is love—she also places herself as Mary’s child in the midst of the Church:
Well, I am the Child of the Church and the Church is a Queen since she is Your Spouse, O divine King of kings.9 The heart of a child does not seek riches and glory (even the glory of heaven). She understands that this glory belongs by right to her brothers, the angels and saints. Her own glory will be the reflected glory, which shines on her Mother’s forehead. What this child asks for is Love. She knows only one thing: to love You, O Jesus. Astounding works are forbidden to her; she cannot preach the Gospel, shed her blood, but what does it matter since her brothers work in her stead and she, a little child, stays very close to the throne of the King and Queen. She loves in her brothers’ place while they do the fighting. But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love… I desire to suffer for love.10
St. Thérèse of Lisieux took for her own the very vocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mirroring the image of the Created Immaculate Conception,11 Mother of God and Mother of the Church: to be the Heart of the Church—one member of Christ’s Mystical Body among many others, yes, but the most necessary and most noble member of all, BURNING WITH LOVE—the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, who is the Uncreated Immaculate Conception, without whom no member of Christ’s Mystical Body could or would act. That is why, as Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner tells us, Mary’s universal mediation of grace with Christ, and our participation in that mediation, is absolutely necessary for an active, Catholic, ecclesiology.
My White Host is Virginal Milk!
At the Heart of the Church, then, we find the Little Flower, always inseparable from her Mother and ideal, the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the Heart of the Church, we also find the Eucharistic Jesus. In the words of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke:
The source and highest expression of our Christian life in the worship of the Holy Eucharist naturally leads us to recognize with deepest devotion and love the Blessed Virgin Mary who is the first and best of us to live in Christ and to attain, with Him, our final destiny…
The life of Mary is the pattern of our own life, receiving our Lord into our very being through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and following Him faithfully on the way of the Cross, which leads us, body and soul, to eternal glory. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary uncovers for us our final destiny which we anticipate at each Holy Mass…
When we participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, our Blessed Mother is one with us, exemplifying faith in Christ and drawing us into ever deeper love of Christ.12
It is not surprising, then, that in the spirituality of St. Thérèse, the Eucharist is the source and summit of all sweetness. It is also inseparable from the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed, the Doctor of the Little Way goes so far as to liken the Eucharistic Jesus to Mary’s Milk. She devotes an entire poem, The Divine Dew, to this subject:
My Sweet Jesus, You appear to me
On your Mother’s breast, all radiant with love.
Love is the ineffable mystery
That exiled you from your Heavenly Home…
Ah! let me hide myself under the veil
Concealing you from all mortal eyes,
And near you, O Morning Star!
I shall find a foretaste of Heaven.
From the moment a new dawn awakens,
When we see the first lights of the sun,
The young flower beginning to open
Awaits a precious balm from on high.
It is the good-giving morning dew,
Which, producing an abundant sap,
Makes the flower of the new bud open a little.
Jesus, you are that Flower just open.
I gaze on you at your first awakening.
Jesus, you are the ravishing Rose,
The new bud, gracious and scarlet red.
The ever-so-pure arms of your dear Mother
Form for you a cradle, a royal throne.
Your sweet sun is Mary’s breast,
And your Dew is Virginal Milk!…
My beloved, my divine little Brother,
In your gaze I see all the future.
Soon, for me, you will leave your Mother.
Already Love impels you to suffer,
But on the cross, O Full-blossomed Flower!
I recognize your morning fragrance.
I recognize Mary’s Dew.
Your divine blood is Virginal Milk!…
This Dew hides in the sanctuary.
The angels of Heaven, enraptured, contemplate it,
Offering to God their sublime prayer.
Like Saint John, they repeat: “Behold.”
Yes, behold, this Word made Host.
Eternal Priest, sacerdotal Lamb,
The Son of God is the Son of Mary.
The bread of Angels is Virginal Milk.
The seraphim feeds on glory.
In Paradise his joy is full.
Weak child that I am, I only see in the ciborium
The color and figure of Milk.
But that is the Milk a child needs,
And Jesus’ Love is beyond compare.
O tender Love! Unfathomable power,
My white Host is Virginal Milk!13
As her death approached, St. Thérèse was restricted by her doctor (Dr. de Cornière) to a diet consisting almost entirely of milk… and she did not like that at all! Mother Agnes relates the following anecdote of the Little Flower, in which St. Thérèse exhibits once again the humor so typical of her last days:
Showing me with a childish gesture the picture of the Blessed Virgin nursing the child Jesus, [Thérèse] said: “There’s something that’s good milk; you must tell Dr. de Cornière that.”14
In suffering, as in everything, St. Thérèse is inseparable from her Mother, because, as Cardinal Burke says, Our Lady’s life, the pattern for us, is to follow Jesus on the way of the Cross. That is what The Little Flower means, when she goes on in an earlier quote to speak of what it is to “strew flowers”: it is to not miss a single small suffering but offer up every single one to Jesus.
The Thief Made His Mamma a Thief
Near the end of her earthly pilgrimage, St. Thérèse tells us that it was Mary who came “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2), as Mother Agnes relates:
It was Saturday, and she had coughed up blood at midnight: “The Thief had made His mamma a thief… So she came at midnight to force the Thief out of hiding; or else she came all alone because the Thief didn’t want to come.”15
Later that same day, the Little Flower returned to the same subject: “The Blessed Virgin isn’t a thief by nature… But ever since she had her Son, He taught her the trade.”16 Once again, with her quintessential charm, St. Thérèse teaches us the core of Mariology: What the Blessed Virgin is not by nature, she has become “ever since she had her Son,” because He has taught her His trade(s): mercy, mediation, redemption, love.
It was during these last days of St. Thérèse’s life that her faith was most seriously tried. She told Mother Agnes:
If my soul had not been filled in advance with abandonment to God’s will, if it had been necessary that it let itself be submerged by these feelings of joy and sadness that succeed each other so quickly on this earth, this would have been a bitter pain, and I could not have borne it. But these changes only touch the surface of my soul… Ah! Nevertheless, they are great trials! I believe it isn’t the blessed Virgin who is playing these tricks on me!… She is forced to do so by God!… He tells her to try me so that I give further proofs to Him of my abandonment and love.17
During this time of trial, St. Thérèse repeated the words of her poem from memory: “Since the Son of God willed that His Mother be subjected to the night, to anguish of heart, it is, then, a good thing to suffer on earth?”18 Once, when Mother Agnes asked Thérèse if she could see “the thief” any longer, the Little Flower replied, somewhat enigmatically: “Yes, I see her! You don’t understand! She is really free not to steal me [emphasis added]… Ah! ‘I looked to the right, and there was no one who knew me.’ (Ps.141:5) God alone can understand me.”19
In her faith—as in everything—St. Thérèse of Lisieux takes the Blessed Virgin Mary as her model and ideal: she who could and would only do God’s will, but who at the same time is perfectly free.20 This is the key to unlocking the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, who was preserved from every stain of original and actual sin, not through a restriction of her freedom, but rather by the grace of perfect freedom, which is the fruit of perfect faith. This grace of preservative redemption, which was granted to the Virgin-Mother of God, was a free gift of predilection and mercy from God the Father, in view of the merits of Her Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ. St. Thérèse explains this mystery beautifully, making herself the recipient of both God’s predilection and his mercy, as a true reflection of her Blessed Mother:
Jesus knew I was too feeble to be exposed to temptation; perhaps I would have allowed myself to be burned entirely by the misleading light had I seen it shining in my eyes. It was not so for me, for I encountered only bitterness where stronger souls met with joy, and they detached themselves from it through fidelity. I have no merit at all, then, in not having given myself up to the love of creatures. I was preserved from it only through God’s mercy!
I know that without Him, I could have fallen as low as St. Mary Magdalene, and the profound words of Our Lord to Simon resound with a great sweetness in my soul. I know that “he to whom less is forgiven, LOVES less,” but I also know that Jesus has forgiven me more than St. Mary Magdalene since He forgave me in advance by preventing me from falling. Ah! I wish I could explain what I feel. Here is an example which will express my thoughts at least a little. Suppose a clever physician’s child meets with a stone in his path which causes him to fall and break a limb. His father comes to him immediately, picks him up lovingly, takes care of this hurt, using all the resources of his profession for this. His child, completely cured, shows his gratitude. This child is no doubt right in loving his father! But I am going to make another comparison. The father, knowing there is a stone in his child’s way, hastens ahead of him and removes it but without anyone’s seeing him do it. Certainly, this child, the object of his father’s tender foresight, but UNAWARE of the misfortune from which he was delivered by him, will not thank him and will love him less than if he had been cured by him. But if he should come to learn the danger from which he escaped, will he not love his father more? Well, I am this child, the object of the foreseeing love of a Father who has not sent His Word to save the just, but sinners. He wants me to love Him because He has forgiven me not much but ALL. He has not expected me to love Him much like Mary Magdalene, but He has willed that I KNOW how He has loved me with a love of unspeakable foresight in order that now I may love Him to folly! I have heard it said that one cannot meet a pure soul who loves more than a repentant soul; ah! how I would wish to give the lie to this statement!21
It is precisely the freedom to receive both God’s predilection and His mercy, borne of faith and epitomized in Mary’s perfect freedom to the point of being unable to sin, which ultimately enables Mary—and her little daughter Thérèse—to love perfectly (to folly) by freely giving up everything for Christ.
This trial was very great for my faith, but the One whose heart watches even when he sleeps made me understand that to those whose faith is like that of a mustard seed He grants miracles and moves mountains in order to strengthen this faith which is still small; but for His intimate friends, for His Mother, He works no miracles before having tried their faith. Did He not allow Lazarus to die even after Martha and Mary told Him he was sick? At the wedding of Cana when the Blessed Virgin asked Jesus to come to the help of the head of the house, didn’t He answer her that His hour had not yet come? But after the trial what a reward! The water was changed into wine… Lazarus was raised from the dead! Thus Jesus acted toward His little Thérèse: after having tried her for a long time, He granted all the desires of her heart.22
Mediation and Mercy
In the preceding sections, we have seen that by a sort of spiritual alliteration we can set mercy next to mediation, and we find within this the key to Mary’s Christotypical and ecclesiotypical roles, as well as the key to what St. Thérèse is writing. St. Thérèse energetically proclaims the Gospel, while she is safe in the shadow of the great fir trees: “Already I was in love with the wide open spaces. Space and the gigantic fir trees, the branches sweeping down to the ground, left in my heart an impression similar to the one I experience still today at the sight of nature.”23
We are reminded of a particular vision of the apparition to St. Catherine Labouré, in Rue du Bac, in 1830, when the visionary received directions to have a medal struck that later became known as the Miraculous Medal. St. Catherine Labouré saw the Virgin standing on a globe, dressed in a blue gown and a white veil, holding out her hands. On her fingers were jeweled rings, shooting out rays. St. Catherine Labouré heard these words describing what she saw: “The ball which you see represents the world… and each person in particular. These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The jewels which give no rays symbolize the graces that are not given because they are not asked for.”24
The Little Flower asked for ALL grace, so she could love “to folly,” and God could not resist her: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Mt 11:25). This is a Marian Maximalism that is maybe more daring than any other. Thérèse lives the Magnificat of her heavenly Mother, who is Full of Grace:
My soul magnifies the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength in his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the humble.” (Lk 1:46-52)
Mary’s humility was not a mystery to Little Thérèse; she simply hid under the veil of Mary’s humility and lived—in Mary, with Mary, and through Mary—the Eucharistic Faith of the Church. “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45).
We must do what we are called to do, even if we are “unable to” with our own resources. If we do what we must, despite the fact that we cannot succeed on our own, Mary will provide us with the necessary strength. This is the Little Way of the Little Flower. It is a fundamentally Marian Way. It relies entirely on Mary. St. Thérèse did not sit back and do nothing; neither did she decide for a smaller portion. She “wanted more”, knowing in her deep faith that Mary was the Mother who wanted her children “to shine” in Heaven. Her vocation was love which, as St. Paul tells us, sums up everything: “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
We are called to be fools for Christ, taking up our cross and walking behind our Lord. The Little Flower listened closely to the Lord’s words, and she embraced His Cross. A question arises: What did she really do, being confined by sickness and being a cloistered nun? St. Francis gives us the answer: When choosing, do what is hardest. In other words, it is not so hard to know what one must do, and it might not be something necessarily significant to anyone else, but it will matter to God. Mary will give you the necessary help and strength, if you first take the step of relying on her and doing whatever is most difficult—just for today:
Lord, what does it matter if the future is gloomy?
To pray for tomorrow, oh no, I cannot!…
Keep my heart pure, cover me with your shadow
Just for today.
If I think about tomorrow, I fear my fickleness.
I feel sadness and worry rising up in my heart.
But I’m willing, my God, to accept trial and suffering
Just for today…
Near your divine Heart, I forget all passing things.
I no longer dread the fears of the night.
Ah! Jesus, give me a place in your Heart
Just for today.
Living Bread, Bread of Heaven, divine Eucharist,
O sacred Mystery! that Love has brought forth…
Come live in my heart, Jesus, my white Host,
Just for today…
O Immaculate Virgin! You are my Sweet Star
Giving Jesus to me and uniting me to Him.
O Mother! Let me rest under your veil
Just for today.25
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. 63. Hereafter cited Story of a Soul.
2 Ibid., pp. 64-66.
3 Ibid., p. 78.
4 The Poetry of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Translated by Donald Kinney, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1996, p. 216. Hereafter cited Poetry.
5 Story of a Soul, p. 194.
6 The title “Virgo Ecclesia Facta”, or Virgin-Made-Church, is applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Francis of Assisi in his Salute to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cf. Johannes Schneider, O.F.M., Virgo Ecclesia Facta: The Presence of Mary in the Crucifix of San Damiano and in the Office of the Passion of St. Francis of Assisi, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2004, p. 70.
7 The title “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” is applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Francis of Assisi in the Antiphon “Sancta Maria Virgo” for his Office of the Passion. Cf. Ibid., p. 105.
8 Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Scritti di Massimiliano Kolbe, Roma, 1997, No. 1318.
9 In the words of François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D., professor at the Teresianum in Rome and member of the Pontifical Roman Academy of Theology: “Jesus is the New Adam, the God-Man, the Creator and the only Savior of all men, the Eternal Son of the Father who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became in a completely virginal manner the Child and the Spouse of his creature, to the point that his creature became truly his Mother and his Spouse. Such is the Mystery of the New Eve in her ineffable communion with the New Adam: she is inseparably Mary and the Church, as Mother of God (theotókos) and Spouse of God (theonúmphos), Virgin-Mother and Virgin-Spouse.” François-Marie Léthel, “The Cooperation of Mary and the Church in the Mystery of the Redemption in the light of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux,” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross—II: Acts of the Second International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 2002, p. 382.
10 Story of a Soul, p. 196.
11 Cf. Maximilian Mary Dean, “Mirror of the Blessed Virgin”, in St. Thérèse: Doctor of the Little Way, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA, 1997, pp. 119-124.
12 Raymond Leo Burke, Divine Love Made Flesh, Catholic Action for Faith and Family, San Diego, CA, 2012, pp. 109-111.
13 Poetry, pp. 37-38.
14 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, Translated from the Original Manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications, Washington, DC, 1977, p. 84. Hereafter cited Last Conversations.
15 Ibid., p. 85.
16 Ibid., p. 86.
17 Ibid., p. 87.
20 St. Augustine defines perfect freedom, not as being able not to sin (posse non peccare), but as being unable to sin (non posse peccare)!
21 Story of a Soul, pp. 83-84.
22 Story of a Soul, p. 142.
23 Story of a Soul, pp. 29-30.
24 Cf. Robert Billett, “St. Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous Medal”, Mary’s Touch #4, October 1997.
25 Poetry, pp. 52-53.