One of the most beloved saints in modern times is St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. The reason she’s so popular is that ordinary people can relate to her, to her spirituality, and even her struggles with faith. Brother Joseph Schmidt has written a comprehensive biography of the Little Flower called “Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of Therese of Lisieux.” Here are some excerpts from our recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here):
Tony Rossi: How did your interest in St. Therese develop?
Brother Joseph Schmidt: It’s been a lifelong interest. When I was 15 years old, I first read Therese’s biography “Story of a Soul.” At that time, I wasn’t very impressed. Subsequently I found out that many people are not overly impressed on the first reading…You have to read between the lines and you have to read in a mature way. That didn’t happen to me until I was in my twenties….Now, for the last 50 years or so, I’ve been studying Therese and deepening my appreciation for her “Little Way,” the way she suggests we imitate the gospel and Jesus’ life.
TR: Can you elaborate on the “Little Way” of St. Therese?
Brother Joseph Schmidt: Her little way is a disposition of the heart, as she says, which makes us humble in God’s arms, aware of our weakness, confident in God’s grace. From that, our life is lived in active charity and active non-violent love.
TR: I was listening to a song recently by the Christian singer Matt Maher, and there’s a line in it that reminds me of St. Therese. The line is “All God’s children are the apple of His eye / Even the ones we can’t stand sometimes.” St. Therese made it a habit to go out of her way to be nice to people she didn’t particularly care to be around. Tell me about that aspect of her spirituality and the positive results it had.
Brother Joseph Schmidt: When she got into the convent, she was a bridge for all the dysfunctionality…There was a lot of harshness in the convent…(but) she was able to stop the escalation of this harshness….She did it by what St. Paul describes as “loving.” She was patient and kind. She wasn’t jealous, mean, or rude. She didn’t delight in evil and she didn’t retaliate. Gradually, people under that influence of kindness and love of other people began to see that they don’t have to do that kind of stuff…It was through her example that she began to win people over. In her canonization process, her sister Celine said that Therese’s first miracle after she died…was the conversion of the convent. That is, the people in the convent became much more loving to one another.
TR: Along those lines, another miracle after Therese died was she changed the Prioress’ view on receiving the Eucharist daily. Would you tell me a little bit about that?
Brother Joseph Schmidt: Under the influence of Jansenism (Editor’s note: Jansenism is a heresy that claims God is vengeful and desires retribution), the Eucharist was not fostered as a daily sacrament for reception by the faithful…Her superior had the authority to allow the sisters to receive communion because religious could receive communion more often. But the superior was under the influence of Jansenism…and she didn’t allow (it). Therese objected so she told the superior, “When I die, it will be more clear to you that communion should be received every day. Jesus didn’t come down in the Eucharist to sit in a tabernacle…He came down to reside in us.”
TR: We’re talking about the writings of Therese having an influence on the Pope. Yet in her life, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about Therese. How do you account for this flowering of popularity and interest in her that grew in the years afterwards?
Brother Joseph Schmidt: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that, when she died, this manuscript that she had written for her sisters – it was not for publication originally – that manuscript was circulated among the priests who were chaplains at the Carmels in France. They began to read it and began to see what Therese was living and teaching was really the gospel. It’s not about having big ascetical practices or becoming big headed in the spiritual life. It’s living daily life in as loving a way as possible. So that was the first thing.
Now, in her writings, she mentions that she would like, when she gets to heaven, to do good on Earth. So people began to pray to her for intercessions for favors. Lo and behold, many, many little miracles and big miracles occurred. Now little miracles would be like little coincidences when you pray to Therese. Big miracles would be the ones documented by medical science. But they began to multiply. So those two factors took place, and within 20 years or so of her death, devotion to Therese spread around the world through missionary priests who were in touch with Carmelite communities and had read her autobiography.
Another thing that seems to be important is that her spirituality resonates with our best self so that when we read her and begin to understand her, we say, “Yes, that is what the Holy Spirit is asking of me.” And it resonates so much with the Gospel that we say, “Yes, this is what we need in our own life. We need it in the Church. We need it in society.” It naturally stimulates people into their best self.
(To download the full podcast, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast)