Born toward the end of the nineteenth century, Thérèse entered the world when middle-class religion in France was narrow and rule-bound. The French Revolution toppled the Church in France from its position of power. Liberty, equality and fraternity, the watchwords of the new secular society, were held suspect by religious people, who tended to distance themselves from politics and the wider culture.
Thérèse’s family was part of the rising bourgeoisie, secure, self-satisfied and self-contained, with little interest in anything outside their own social and religious sphere. The Martins were influenced by Jansenism, a seventeenth-century theology focused on predestination, a pessimistic view of humanity and rigorous moral principles. Their sights were set on heaven; the world was filled with temptations to be avoided on the way to the final goal.
A comparison might be drawn with some of the immigrant communities of the same time in the United States, who nurtured their own religious and cultural life apart from “outsiders.” They kept to themselves and their own time-honored customs in order to protect their children from influences they considered dangerous and undesirable. The benefits of a democratic society were revered even while its philosophy was held slightly suspect.
Thérèse was nurtured in this kind of milieu, with all its limitations. Her parents were comfortably off, thanks to their own industry, and she had the benefit of a middle-class home with its relative comfort.
But life was far from ideal. She was the youngest child of a working mother and later of a one-parent family, with all the attendant difficulties and challenges. She had gone through a period of neurosis in girlhood, and her father suffered from a humiliating mental illness. After the loss of her mother, Thérèse was fearful, timid and self-protective. She grew up in a Church that stressed authority and fostered fear of the body, fear of free expression, fear of feelings.
There was a tendency to identify religion with good manners, financial comfort, exterior conformity. The outward stamp of religion was put on everything, just as in the United States, where a grade-school text series offered a separate edition for children in Catholic schools, in which science, for example, was taught by a mythical “Sister Anne.” It was as if “Sister Anne” somehow made scientific experiments more “holy” than those conducted by plain Miss Smith in the public school.
In such an atmosphere the life of a priest or nun tended to be overvalued and marriage considered only second-best. Both Zelie and Louis Martin had been frustrated in their desire for religious vocations. When they were first wed, Louis announced that theirs would be a “Josephite Marriage” (without sexual intercourse). A year later, however, their first child was born. Neither Thérèse nor any of her sisters regarded marriage as a desirable option. It is therefore all the more surprising to find that Thérèse speaks as powerfully to the married as to the single person of our day.
Carmel, the order Thérèse entered, was also limited in the kind of women it attracted and kind of work they did. Behind the walls of the convent, Thérèse lived an uneventful, domestic life. She taught no pupils, nursed no sick poor, did not engage in a missionary apostolate (much as she was attracted to the missions). She did not even do the hard, dirty work that might have come the way of a Sister of Charity. Yet in and through her life situation, with all its limitations, Thérèse found a way to holiness that was full of confidence and love; her way was devoid of all fear and timidity in approaching God.
Thérèse, naturally good as she was, knew intuitively that goodness is not holiness. Holiness is not something we can attain by our own efforts. Holiness is God touching and transforming even the most ordinary life. We need only the boldness to claim this gift, the boldness of a child who trusts absolutely in a parent’s love and generosity.
Thérèse read the Gospels assiduously and thus saw past the God of merit and reward to the God of unconditional love. In the Gospels she discovered a God who loves the weak and imperfect, the sinners and prostitutes, the lepers and tax collectors.
Thérèse’s life was made up of common tasks, daily responsibilities of a small kind, household chores and community commitments. Like us, she experienced the joys of family life as well as the heartbreaks to which all intimate relationships expose us. By her very ordinariness, Thérèse reaches out to people in all walks of life.
Even someone like Dorothy Day, so deeply involved in alleviating suffering and in social action, found in Thérèse real inspiration despite the two women’s outwardly different life-circumstances. Dorothy, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, named her daughter Tamar Teresa after our saint and wrote a book on Thérèse’s life. For Dorothy saw that, however politically or socially involved a person may be, the love that motivates him or her is far more important than exterior accomplishments.
Thérèse managed to convert all the events of her life, great and small, into love–and only love counts in the end. She had a Midas touch. Everything was a treasure given by God; in touching it she discovered the hidden gold. She revealed a way to holiness that is within the reach of all.
Despite her cultural poverty and narrow religious upbringing Thérèse blazed a trail, cutting across all self-righteousness and smugness to center herself on a God of compassion who welcomes sinners and “little ones.” Thérèse’s teaching has so entered into the mainstream of Catholic consciousness that we now take it for granted.
After her death, when her sisters arranged for Thérèse’s writings to be printed, what she had to say literally took the world by storm. Here was an ordinary young woman who had attained sanctity by a path all could recognize and claim as their own. People loved her, not merely admired her. Beneath the plush, bourgeois exterior, the sentimental language, the roses and lace, beat a heart authentic, faithful and bold.
Thérèse was recognized and acclaimed by the thousands who read her autobiography and clamored for her canonization. Theologians expounded her doctrine, popes lauded her, her influence has been quite unparalleled in modern times. Yet at fifteen she had hidden herself away in a convent and was known to very few outside her own family.
What did she really have to say? Is her message for today as it was for the men and women of yesterday? Yes, because it is pure gospel teaching, perennially valid, ancient yet ever new.
Holiness is God’s gift. If we want this gift, we can have it. It is as simple as that. We have only to give ourselves to the particular life God has given us, and to do so with love. As Thérèse wrote, “It’s love I ask for, love is all the skill I need.”