Thérèse wanted to join two older sisters and join the convent at Lisieux so badly that she actually approached Pope Leo XIII by herself on a family trip to Rome and asked his permission to join when she was only fifteen years old. He deferred to the superior of the convent, however, who had told her she was not yet old enough.
She experienced what she called her “complete conversion” after nine years of childhood grieving over the loss of her mother which was compounded when her older sisters entered the Carmelite monastery (Pauline had been like a second mother to her). She finally halted her grieving and self-pity for the sake of her father and others. Writing about this ten years later she said:
In an instant Jesus, content with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do in ten years." After nine sad years she had "recovered the strength of soul she had lost when her mother died and, she said, she was to retain it forever".
Her little way underscores the truth that we can rely upon the mercy of Jesus if we place our trust wholeheartedly in Him. In the face of her littleness she trusted in God to be her sanctity. Not having “the facility to perform great ones” she performed little virtues. Thérèse admitted that she was not attracted to the great acts of mortification of the Saints and never made acts of penance because of her “cowardliness.”
St. Thérèse returned over and over to the theme of littleness, referring to herself as a grain of sand, an image she borrowed from Pauline...'Always littler, lighter, in order to be lifted more easily by the breeze of love.' She wanted to go to heaven by an entirely new little way. "I wanted to find an elevator that would raise me to Jesus". The elevator, she wrote, would be the arms of Jesus lifting her in all her littleness.
St. Thérèse’s little sacrifices included spending time with another religious sister who annoyed her in almost everything and being kind to her. She wrote:
“Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing I told myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most.”
Once when someone took her lamp at night by mistake after night prayers, she remained in the dark without complaining, observing that by virtue of the exterior darkness, “I was interiorly illumined!”
When unjustly blamed for something that was not her fault, she decided not to defend herself and accept the verbal correction without making any excuses consoling herself that everything would be revealed at the Last Judgment.
She thought her assignment of kitchen duty was a good way of “putting my self-love in its proper place, i.e., under my feet.” She gives countless examples of this sort from refraining from chatting to not complaining when dirty laundry water was splashed on her and not asking questions she was curious about novices while training them. All of these and many more she offered to the Lord. These humble submissions and small sacrifices were the stuff of the “Little Way.”
But she did not get overconfident and expected daily to discover other imperfections in herself to work on. She saw her own weakness not something to be depressed about, but rather as an opportunity to receive more of the treasury of God’s mercy. This she believed would be a sign that He wanted to “live more deeply in her” (Martin, The Fulfillment of all Desires, p. 149).
She was also a realist and knew she was not perfect. If a situation arose which she thought exceeded her level of virtue, she tried to avoid the situation so as not to fail in charity. She wrote, “My last means of being defeated in combats is desertion.”
One of the weaknesses she considered most embarrassing, was falling asleep during prayer times, but she was confident that the Lord was mindful of our littleness and that she was forgiven.
During the course of her novitiate, contemplation of the Holy Face had nourished her inner life. This is an image representing the disfigured face of Jesus during His Passion. And she meditated on certain passages from the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 53). Six weeks before her death she remarked to Pauline, "The words in Isaiah: 'no stateliness here, no majesty, no beauty,...one despised, left out of all human reckoning; How should we take any account of him, a man so despised (Is 53:2-3) --these words were the basis of my whole worship of the Holy Face. I, too, wanted to be without comeliness and beauty...unknown to all creatures."
St. Thérèse admitted that she had spoken of dryness as her daily bread, yet she was a very happy creature confident in God’s love. For Thérèse sanctity was “a disposition of the heart which makes us humble and small in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness, and confident to the point of audacity in the goodness of our Father” (Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbee, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese de Lisieux).
She worked at abandoning herself to Jesus by submitting to everything within the limits of the possible and reasonable, in order to obey God, to humbly live in conformity with the will of God, which gradually becomes our will.
St. Thérèse’s confidence in God’s mercy even in the midst of her suffering from the tuberculosis that would take her life is extraordinary. She wrote to Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart on her littleness:
Oh, Jesus, how much I could say to all little souls about how ineffable Your condescension is . . . I feel that if (though this would be impossible) [If] You were to find a soul more weak and little than mine, You would be pleased to shower upon it even greater favors, if it abandoned itself to You with complete confidence in Your infinite mercy.”
When St. Thérèse was dying and too sick to receive the Eucharist, it was she who consoled the other sisters saying, “No doubt, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments. When God does not permit it, it is good too! Everything is a grace!” She, of course, still had the consolation of her spiritual communions.
She was convinced she too was dying of love, as our Lord did on the Cross in anguish. She was dying of suffocation from tuberculosis in her lungs, only one of which was functioning at that point. In the Infirmary where she was staying she pinned to her curtains pictures of the Holy Face of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and Blessed Théophane Vénard, a young Fr. priest martyred in Vietnam. She expressed her desire to spend her heaven in God’s service to others and indeed, she has been one of the most popular saints of the modern era.
Just before she died with all of her sisters present, she gazed at the crucifix and exclaimed, “Oh! I love Him!” and finally, “My God, I love you!” Just before she died she seemed to be in ecstasy with a mysterious smile upon her face. She is beautiful and her “little way” is something to be emulated by us all.
St. Therese pray for us!