Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” brought to my mind the youngest and most recent doctor of the Church, the often over-sentimentalized, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In this writing, Pope Francis challenges us to contemplate the holiness of the “the saints next door,” “in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.”
Although Thérèse doesn’t offer a scholarly presentation of theology like many other doctors of the Church, she was a wise witness of faith. Her designation as “Little Flower” may sound deceptively sweet. This imagery can also be interpreted as her genius for solidarity and sisterhood — her identification with simple believers, who may never be recognized or acclaimed, but make up “the saints next door.”
The little way demands not great actions, but simply surrender and gratitude — doing small things with great love. Thérèse, of course, wanted to perform heroic deeds by being a warrior, missionary and martyr. After meditating on 1 Corinthians 12–13, however, she realized that even the most heroic deeds are nothing without love. She discovered that her vocation was simply to love. The “little way” is available to everyone because everyone is called to holiness.
In reality, the love that Thérèse displayed was nothing sentimental. One thing to learn from her is the discerning way she treated those she disliked. This might strike us a trivial, but in our families and communities, we are often most challenged and many relationships are severed. She despised, for example, a sister in her convent, and yet in her wisdom admits that this sister must be pleasing to God: “I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this sister what I would do for the person I loved the most.” Every time Thérèse encountered this sister, she prayed for her. “I took care to render her all the service possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile, and with changing the subject of conversation.”
Thérèse also displayed this more challenging vision of love in her feasting at the “table of sorrow,” what she called “the dark banquet of bitter bread.” As we now know, she absorbed in her interior life the pain and alienation of unbelief that was experienced widely in the secular age. During her 18-month “dark night of the soul,” Thérèse embraced those who experienced the pain of unbelief: “He permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer anything but the cause of struggle and torment.” This trial, which began at Easter of 1896, lasted until her death at a very young age. In the midst of her feelings of darkness, she begged for mercy for her unbelieving fellow human beings and committed herself to sit with these poor sinners at the table filled with bitterness. As most scholars suggest, Thérèse, like spiritual heir Mother Teresa of Calcutta, experienced significant desolation in the spiritual life without ultimately losing her faith.
Perhaps we need the strength to do small things with great love or the grace to return hatred with charity. Maybe we yearn to be embraced in our own struggles with darkness or are searching for ways to accompany unbelievers with mercy and love. In all these things, we have been given — in the profound witness of Thérèse of Lisieux — a “sister in solidarity” to guide along the way.