I’ve come to the conclusion that, although she died young, St. Therese is primarily a saint for grownups. When I was in high school and college, I loathed St. Therese. I thought she was sappy and wimpy. All her talk of “Little ways” and flowers and small, homely miracles left me sick to my stomach. She may have been Holy, but she never did anything. She was no example for me. I was going to change the world, create something totally new, be a heroine. What could a sickly girl who lived practically her whole life in a convent have to teach me?
Fifteen years and some heaping doses of humility later, I’m in a different place – almost a different person in some ways. I don’t change the world. I change diapers. And also sheets. Lots and lots of sheets. I may not live in a convent, but my home is a sort of enclosure – most of my time, energy and prayer-life are spent within these walls. And now, when I approach St. Therese, I don’t see a weak, sickly girl. I see a woman who understood that, when God has blessed us with an absence of large temptations, we ought to wage the same battle against the little temptations that DO afflict us. I see a Doctor of the Church, who teaches that even a humble unnoticed life has great value in the eyes of the Church.
St. Therese has gone from a target of my scorn and derision to one of my favorite saints. Here are a few reasons why:
1. St. Therese teaches us how to be good parents. When Therese describes her early life, her parents stand out. Her mother and father loved their daughters and doted on them. They were interruptible – when one of the girls wanted to talk, or play, or show off an accomplishment, their parents were willing to watch and listen and be present to them. Therese’s mother died young, but she was such a good example of maternal care that her older daughters were able to carry her love to her youngest child. Therese’s father took his daughter on long walks and on fishing trips.
St. Therese could bask in Christ’s love because she had already absorbed so much love and care from her family. She teaches us that to give our children a straight path to Christ, we should first give them our love and attention. Her description of her parents helps me to remember that the first job on my list should always be to convey God’s love to my children as best as I can. St. Therese helps me be a better mother.
2. St. Therese teaches us to accept the tasks we’re given instead of dreaming of the ones we wish we’d been given. Therese dreamed of doing really big things for God. She wanted to join the Carmelite mission to Asia, but that’s not what God had planned for her. Instead, she stayed in France, praying, working at homely tasks, and caring for the younger sisters in her convent. She didn’t give in to disappointment and daydreams. Instead, she focused on doing the little things before her well. And, because she was faithful in the small tasks, she now has a much bigger one: Patroness of the Missions.
3. St. Therese understood how hard it is to keep your temper in the face of little annoyances. One of my favorite episodes in Therese’s autobiography occurred as she was washing clothes. One of the other sisters accidentally splashed her and soaked her habit. Therese was angry, but she knew the other sister had just been clumsy – there was no malice in her action. So Therese stayed calm, continued to smile, and offered up the soaked habit. This incident is basically the “Mother of small children” experience in a nutshell. St. Therese can intercede for us as we face the spills and leaky diapers and broken dishes of our lives, because she knows how we feel.
4. St. Therese understood the importance of small, homely miracles. She accepted even the small gifts God gave her with great pleasure. She didn’t ask for the ability to levitate, or huge acts of healing. Instead, she asked for things like snow. And she was as awed and happy when God gave her snow as another saint might have been by the ability to cast out demons. For most of us, the small, homely miracles are the important ones: A car that makes it to the gas station on an empty tank, an open ‘sick appointment’ 20 minutes after we call the doctor because we’re sure the babies in bad shape, an out of season rose in bloom just when we’re at our lowest and really need a sign that God is still taking care of us. St. Therese is the saint for anyone who’s ever gotten an unexpected check just as the kids’ dental bill is due or who’s encountered a helpful stranger to change that flat tire. She knows that for ‘little souls’ like us, even the tiny gifts from God are very important.
I wish I’d understood Therese a little earlier in my life – I could have spent more years learning from this great saint. But I’m glad I gave her a second chance – because her little way is a great help to this mother of little ones.