The original sculpture of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Gian-Lorenzo Bernini (1645) is located in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Teresa’s feast day is October 15th.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, who died at age twenty-four, entered the Carmelite Order at the age of fifteen. Two of her older sisters were also nuns in the same monastery. She sought to live a prayerful life but she could find no explicit ministry that she could practice when she reflected on First Corinthians, chapters twelve and thirteen. But then she made a startling discovery – it was really a grace.
The Mission of Love
Thérèse offers all in the Church a valuable lesson on 1 Corinthians 12-13. She goes to the heart of First Corinthians:
I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In a word, love is everlasting. (“Liturgy of the Hours,” October 1, 1450-51)
As Thérèse read the ode to love in chapter thirteen, her heart was filled with joy:
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my calling is love...In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction (Ibid).
She became convinced that the power of the love of one person could build up the Body of Christ, anywhere and at any time.
In her autobiography, Thérèse writes: “I knew that the Church had a heart that appeared to be aflame with love. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love embraces every time and every place.” At last, she found her answer. Her calling was love, and she perceived the power of the love of one person to build up the Body of Christ.
Unfortunately, photographs of her can be insipid, and many look on her ‘little way’ as sentimental piety. If it were, it should be rejected. But in fact, it is a heroic way concerned with the present moment.
(Column continues below)
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Why has the Church ranked this cloistered nun with such a short life among the Doctors of the Church? First, she grasped the heart of the Church’s mission. In the vocation of love, there is no separation or opposition between love of God and love of neighbor. Limitations of the cloister would not curtail her ministry or her total self-giving, which she knew was the most effective and most fruitful action of the church. Second, her ‘little way’ is simple, direct, and universally accessible, especially to the homebound, the infirm, and the forgotten.
Finally, Thérèse embraces a theology of Christian hope. Sooner or later, every person comes to the edge of the cliff, and perhaps many times during one’s lifetime. The time of unemployment is one example of this. It is a dynamic faith and unshaken trust that casts one’s care on the Lord. For her, the Carmelite vocation was an apostolically-fruitful life, a life lived in the heart of the Church. Though St. Francis Xavier spent his life as the itinerant apostle to the Indies, Thérèse spent herself as a cloistered missionary, and for this, she has been named with him as Co-Patron of the Missions. “Thérèse’s ‘little way’ no longer seems little.” (Stephanie Paulsell, “Reading St. Thérèse,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Summer/Autumn, 2010. 74) Her message, Paulson concludes? “More love.” Her feast day is October 1st.
Here we have three women-saints, three Doctors of the Church, each so different in personality yet one in purpose. Their message to women as well as to men: pray, work your best, and let God do the rest. Of saints, Phyllis McGinley writes: “What are saints except geniuses – geniuses who bring to their works of virtue all the splendor, eccentricity, effort, and dedication that lesser talents bring to music or poetry or painting?” (Saint-Watching, 17)
Like musicians, painters, poets, saints are human beings but obsessed ones. They are obsessed by the goodness and beauty of God as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language and Beethoven by sound.
Saints are not born; they become God’s masterpieces. They are made into God’s works of art.