St. Therese of Lisieux: Loving Scripture in The Little Way
St. Therese’s whole life was a prolongation of the Mass in both parts. As a bride of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, she devoted her Little Way to the spoken Word, Scripture and the embodied Word, the Eucharist. Her Little Way incorporated this liturgical duality which allows for a full penetration of the total Incarnate Word into one’s mind, lips, and heart- soul, mouth and body.
In this way she was both ahead of her time and in line with ancient practice (1). The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church tell us: “The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord's Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God's Word and Christ's Body”(2). St. Therese fed her soul with the fullness of the Word. It was the singular source of her sanctity. As Scripture says, “For the word of God is living and active" and "it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified"(3).
One scholar said it well, when he said that, “St. Therese was saturated in the dew of Holy Scriptures”. Though she never had a formal education in biblical studies, Therese demonstrated a convincing mastery of both the Old and New Testaments. References to scriptures are peppered throughout her autobiography. She either drew applicable
passages from her superb memory, or if she needed the certitude of God’s will, she simply opened up the Bible and found a relevant passage that seemed to be written just for her. Only a Saint with her childlike simplicity could see beyond the dubious complications that biblical scholars so often create. Therese soaked in the true, simple message that God wished to convey. The Gospel was plain to her, it was her way of life. She lived the Gospel message of humility and love. Monsignor Vernon Johnson (an expert on St. Therese) used to love to tell the story of the old priest who, on the day St. Therese was canonized, turned to his colleagues on the steps of St. Peter’s and said ‘It is the Gospel that has been canonized today’. It would be difficult to express more accurately the whole life and message of St. Therese of Lisieux. “To understand her is to understand the Gospel. Essentially her doctrine is nothing but a fresh and vigorous restatement of the basic Christian truths…Without realizing it she was giving back to the Church and to the modern world the God of the Gospels”(4).
The saturation of the Gospel into her soul, mind and psyche undoubtedly began when she was a child. After spending a day with children, she realized that as the youngest in the family she never had the access to a child’s mind as her sisters had. It was the first encounter with her own spiritual species of ‘Littleness’. “Seeing innocent souls at close range, I understood what a misfortune it was when they were not formed in their early years, when they are soft as wax upon which one can imprint either virtue or vice. I understood, too, what Jesus said: ‘But whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it were better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’ Ah! How many souls would have reached sanctity had they been well directed!” (5). This is both an example of Therese seeing the Gospel relevance of her experience and it is also an insight into the value she placed on her own childhood formation. She often experienced a subjective encounter with the spoken Word at Mass. The daily Gospel spoke to her needs on that particular day. “I was filled with confidence, for the Gospel of the day contained these beautiful words: ‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’”(6). This reading seems rather ordinary and humdrum to the average Mass attendee who was actually listening attentively. The Little Flower certainly listened, for this was Jesus, himself, telling her about her vocation…Her response: “No, I did not fear, I hoped the kingdom of Carmel would soon belong to me”.(7)
Therese not only identified with, and internalized the Gospel, but all of Holy Scripture spoke to her as the true Word of God. She had a sound familiarity with the Psalms which she owned as her personal prayers to the Lord. With her keen memory and brilliant intellect she could mentally visualize Scripture, “…I can raise my head and see the words of Psalm 22 realized in me: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd…”. Though the Gospel message of becoming as a child to enter heaven is often seen as the scriptural root of St. Therese’s spirituality, it is the Old Testament concept of God as Father and as a divine source of providence that served as the foundation of the ‘Little Way’. Her four proofs for her teaching were all taken from the Old Testament. They are Proverbs 9:4-5, Wisdom 6:7, Isaiah 40:11 and Isaiah 66:12-13. “Let whoever is simple turn in here; to him who lacks understanding, I say come and eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed” (7). This is an invitation that Therese answered as the ‘little flower’ to the heavenly banquet that she now enjoys. This also has a eucharistic overtone which fits her devotion to the Eucharist. Lastly, her clarity of heaven and the virtue of hope that was so prominent in Therese as well as in this passage. “He himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike”(8). Here, the ‘Little Way’ is validated. Scripture reflects God as a providential Father who holds his children close to his heart. St. Therese used this to teach that complete trust in God leads to a childlike abandon. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (9). The book of Isaiah expresses the same sentiment, “As nurslings you shall be carried in her arms and fondled in her lap. As a mother comforts her son so I will comfort you” (10).
St. Therese, as a Doctor of the Church, met the requirement to be completely orthodox in her study, interpretation and teaching of scripture. For her it was a part of her Catholic spirituality which encompassed all of Tradition. She was always faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the official guardian and interpreter of Scripture. “There is nothing here of the Protestant presumption of ‘private interpretation’; that would have horrified her. She loved Holy Church and its teachings with an ardent love; she would have laid down her life in defense of any article of Catholic faith”. (10) For her, Scripture could not be separated from the whole life of the Church especially the Eucharist. Monsignor Vernon Johnson synthesized well, her way of finding an organic link between Scripture and the Eucharist. “To the little soul the whole burden of Scripture is the coming down of the Father’s love to dwell in the soul of His little child and so lift it up to Him; and the whole of the Catholic Church, its hierarchy its sacraments, exist for one purpose and one end, namely, the planting of that seed of divine love in each individual soul. And therefore it is the Blessed Sacrament which is, above all, the center and inspiration of the Little Way, because in it this truth is focused to a point with such complete simplicity. And it is the little soul which, with its complete simplicity of outlook, sees this most directly; just as in the case of a little child, the only thing it sees in its parent is love”(11).
1.The Second Vatican Council spoke so eloquently of the Church, not only as the People of God- but as Bride. “The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words” (DV 23). This statement reflects the notion of the Incarnate Word, both in Scripture and naturally in the Eucharist, as a source of food for the Bride. If this is true of the Church as bride, then it must also be true of the many spouses of Christ who follow the Little way of St. Therese of Lisieux.
2. CCC 103, Dei Verbum 21
3. Heb 4:12, Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13
4. Bird, Msgr. T., St. Therese’s Use of Scripture, St. Therese Doctor of the Little Way, pp 20-30. Park press Inc., Waite Park MN, 1997. p.27
5. St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, The Autobiography of St.Therese of Lisieux. Third Edition, translated by John Clarke, O.C.D.. ICS Publications, Washington D.C., 1996. p.113
6. ibid p.133
7. ibid p.15
9. Wis 6:7
10. Isaiah 66:12-13
11. Bird, Msgr. T., St. Therese’s Use of Scripture, St. Therese Doctor of the Little Way, pp 20-30. Park press Inc., Waite Park MN, 1997. p. 13, 21-24