St. Therese of Lisieux was born in Alencon, France in 1873, the youngest of 9 children. The year she was born the economies of Europe and the United States failed; historians call it the Long Depression; it lasted for 6 years, till 1879. France was hit the hardest.
During this time, her mother died, when Therese was 4 year’s old. Her family was never poverty stricken, but her biographers say she experienced a sense of helplessness and suffering as a child.
She had a spiritual experience on Christmas day 1886, when she was 13. She would always have a special devotion to the Child Jesus. She entered the Carmelite convent when she was 15 and for the next 7 years she lived the simple, routine life of a Carmelite nun until her death of tuberculosis on September 30, 1897. She was only 24.
She kept a notebook of her reflections on the spiritual life and after she died her two sisters who were also Carmelite nuns made the notebook public. They called it The Story of a Soul and it became a spiritual classic among Catholics. Therese called her spirituality “the little way.”
She had a great desire for God and she wanted to die for God if she could. In The Story of a Soul she recalls her envy of people who did great things for God, who built hospitals or were great theologians or who traveled as missionaries to other continents.
Emerging from its depression, France embarked on what it called a “civilizing mission” into Asia and Africa, and one way it tried to civilize places like Vietnam (French Indo-China) was to send Catholic missionaries there. In exciting times like these, Therese thought of herself, living unknown in a convent, as a nobody.
But she made a spiritual discovery:
“Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognised myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; 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, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised 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, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. 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.”
Her love transformed all she did, however small, into a gift for God.