Few spiritual figures have touched as many readers in the past century as Saint Therese of Lisieux, the saint popularly known as the Little Flower. Though she was only twenty-four years old when she died, her writings have had tremendous impact, making her one of the most popular spiritual writers in the twentieth century. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, has been a source of priceless inspiration ever since it was written, and has become the great spiritual bestseller of our time. A hundred years after her death in 1897, millions of copies have spread throughout the world and it has been translated into more than fifty languages.
The reason for the continued success of her autobiography is, quite simply, that it is unlike any work of devotion and spiritual insight ever written. Once it is read, it cannot be forgotten. Its appeal across cultures and generations has been extensive, moving both peasants and popes, men and women, young and old -- people of every kind of intelligence and education succumb to its spell. Yet is not a conventional work of religious devotion; instead, it is in many ways a supernatural book. In the words of Pope Pius XI, Saint Therese "attained the knowledge of supernatural things in such abundant measure that she was able to point out the sure way of salvation to others," and it is especially in The Story of a Soul that she has pointed out this sure way to the generations that have followed her. As Therese herself said of this book just prior to her death, "What I have written will do a lot of good. It will make the kindness of God better known."
I am going to entrust the story of my soul to you, my darling Mother, to you who are doubly my mother. When you asked me to do this, I felt it might be too great a distraction and might make me too concerned about myself, but afterwards Jesus made me realise that I should please Him by unquestioning obedience. Besides, it involves me in only one thing: to start extolling now the mercies of the Lord-which I shall go on doing throughout eternity.
Before starting, I knelt before the statue of Mary, the one which has given us so many proofs that the Queen of Heaven looks after us like a mother. I begged her to guide my hand so that I should not write a line that would displease her. Then I opened the Gospels and saw these words: "Then He went up onto the mountainside, and called to Him those whom it pleased Him to call." There, indeed, was the mystery of my vocation, of my whole life, and of the special graces given me by Jesus. He does not call those who are worthy, but those He chooses. As St. Paul says: "I will show pity, He tells Moses, on those whom I pity; I will show mercy where I am merciful; the effect comes, then, from God's mercy, not from man's will, or man's alacrity."
I had wondered for a long time why God had preferences and why all souls did not receive an equal amount of grace. I was astonished to see how He showered extraordinary favours on saints who had sinned against Him, saints such as St. Paul and St. Augustine. He forced them, as it were, to accept His graces. I was just as astonished when I read the lives of saints to see that Our Lord cherished certain favoured souls from the cradle to the grave and never allowed any kind of obstacle to check their flight towards Him. He bestowed such favours on them that they were unable to tarnish the spotless splendour of their baptismal robe. I also wondered why such vast numbers of poor savages died before they had even heard the name of God.
Jesus saw fit to enlighten me about this mystery. He set the book of nature before me and I saw that all the flowers He has created are lovely. The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realised that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wild flowers to make the meadows gay.
It is just the same in the world of souls--which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but He has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be.
I also understood that God's love shows itself just as well in the simplest soul which puts up no resistance to His grace as it does in the loftiest soul. Indeed, as it is love's nature to humble itself, if all souls were like those of the holy doctors who have illumined the Church with the light of their doctrine, it seems that God would not have stooped low enough by entering their hearts. But God has created the baby who knows nothing and can utter only feeble cries. He has created the poor savage with no guide but natural law, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop. They are His wild flowers whose homeliness delights Him. By stooping down to them, He manifests His infinite grandeur. The sun shines equally both on cedars and on every tiny flower. In just the same way God looks after every soul as if it had no equal. All is planned for the good of every soul, exactly as the seasons are so arranged that the humblest daisy blossoms at the appointed time.
I'm sure, darling Mother, that you are wondering where I am heading, for so far I've said nothing about the story of my life. But you did ask me to write freely about whatever came into my head. So--to be quite accurate--I am not going to write "my life," but put down "my thoughts" about the graces God has given me.
I have now reached a stage in my life when I can glance back at the past, for my soul has matured in a crucible of inner and external trials. Now, like a flower braced by a storm, I can raise my head and see that the words of the Psalmist have been fulfilled in me: "The Lord is my shepherd; how can I lack anything? He gives me a resting place where there is green pasture, leads me out to the cool water's brink, refreshed and content . . . dark be the valley about my path, but I fear none while he is with me." For me, the Lord has always been "pitying and gracious, patient and rich in mercy." So, Mother, it is with joy that I shall sing to you of His mercies. As it is for you alone that I am going to write the story of the Little Flower gathered by Jesus, I shall speak quite freely, without worrying about style or all the digressions I'm sure to make. A mother always understands her child even though it can lisp only a few words. So I am sure you will understand me, as it was you who fashioned my soul and offered it to Jesus.
I believe that if a little flower could speak, it would tell very simply and fully all that God had done for it. It would not say that it was ungraceful and had no scent, that the sun had spoilt its freshness, or that a storm had snapped its stem--not when it knew the exact opposite was true.
The flower who is now going to tell her story rejoices at having to relate all the kindnesses freely done her by Jesus. She is well aware that there was nothing about her to attract His attention, and that it is His mercy alone which has created whatever there is of good in her. It was He who ensured that she began to grow in a most pure and holy soil, and it was He who saw to it that eight fair white lilies came before her. His love made Him want to keep His little flower safe from the tainted breezes of the world, and so she had scarcely begun to unfold her petals before He transplanted her on to the mountain of Carmel.
I have, Mother, just summed up in a few words what God has done for me. Now I am going to give some details of my life as a child. I know that you, with your mother's heart, will find it not without charm, though it might bore anyone else. For the memories I'm going to recall are yours as well, since my childhood was spent close to you and our saintly parents surrounded us both with the same tenderness and care. May they bless the least of their children and help her to sing of the divine mercy!
I separate into three very distinct periods the story of my soul until I entered Carmel. The first, though short, is full of memories. It stretches from the time I began to reason until our beloved mother left us for heaven.
God favoured me by awakening my intelligence very early and by imprinting the happenings of my childhood so sharply on my memory that the things I am going to write about seem as if they took place yesterday. No doubt Jesus, in His love, wanted to make me know and appreciate the incomparable mother he had given me, as He was in haste to crown her in heaven.
Throughout the whole of my life God has been pleased to surround me with love. My first memories are of smiles and loving caresses. He placed me in the midst of great love and He also put a similar love in my little heart and made it sensitive and affectionate. So I loved Daddy and Mummy very much and, as I was very openhearted, I showed my love in a thousand ways. Some of them were rather queer, as you can see from this extract from one of Mummy's letters: "Baby is a unique little imp. She has just been hugging me and wishing me dead! 'Oh, how I wish, darling Mummy, that you would die!' I scolded her. She said: 'It's so that you can go to heaven, for you say that one has to die to go there.' When she is overcome by love for her father, she wishes he were dead too. The little darling never wants to leave me. She always keeps near me and loves to go into the garden, but if I'm not there she won't stay and cries so much that she has to be brought to me."
Here is a passage from another letter: "The other day little Therese asked me if she would go to heaven. 'Yes,' I told her, 'if you are very good.' 'Yes, but if I were naughty I should go to hell and I know very well what I should do there. I should fly up to you in heaven and then you'd hug me very tight. How could God take me away from you then?' From the look on her face I saw that she was quite sure that God could do nothing to her if she hid herself in her mother's arms. Everyone has to know the moment she's done the slightest thing wrong. Yesterday she accidentally tore a bit of the wallpaper and she was really terribly upset and wanted to tell her father about it as soon as possible. We had forgotten all about it when he came in four hours later, but she ran to Marie at once and said: 'Tell Daddy straightway that I tore the paper.' She stood there like a criminal waiting to be sentenced, but she thinks she'll be forgiven more easily if she accuses herself."
I loved my dear godmother very much. Without seeming to, I took notice of all that was done and said around me, and I think I had the same opinions then as now. I listened very attentively when she was teaching Celine, and I behaved very well and did everything she told me in order to be allowed into the room during these lessons. And so she gave me lots of presents which delighted me, though they weren't at all valuable.
I was very proud of my two big sisters, but it was you, Pauline, who were my ideal. When I was beginning to talk and Mummy used to ask me: "What are you thinking about?" my reply was always the same: "Of Pauline." I used to hear it said that you were certain to become a nun and, though I wasn't too sure what this meant, I thought: "And I too will be a nun." This is one of the first things I remember, and I never wavered in my resolution. It was your example which drew me to the Spouse of Virgins from the time I was two. How many tender memories I could disclose to you, but I must go on with the full story of the Little Flower, for if I were to write in detail about my relations with you I should have to leave all the rest of my story.
Darling Leonie was also very dear to me and she loved me greatly. In the evenings she used to look after me when the rest of the family went out for a walk, and I can still hear her sweet voice singing the little songs that sent me off to sleep. I remember her first Communion very well. I was put to bed early in the evening, as I was too young to stay up for the celebration dinner, but I can still see Daddy coming up to me and bringing his little queen a piece of the first-Communion cake.
Now I have only to tell of Celine, the little companion of my childhood, and I have so many memories of her that I don't know which to chose. We understood each other perfectly, but I was much livelier and far less artless. Although I was three and a half years younger, I thought of us as the same age. Here is a passage from one of Mummy's letters which will show you Celine's goodness and my naughtiness: "Celine seems naturally good. Goodness is embedded in her very being. Her soul is guileless and has a horror of evil. But I can't be too sure how the little minx will turn out, for she's such a little madcap. She is more intelligent than Celine, but nothing like as gentle and she is stubborn beyond words. It's quite impossible to budge her when she says no. Putting her in the cellar for a whole day would not make her say yes. She'd sooner sleep there. Yet she has a heart of gold and is very affectionate and without a trace of slyness. It's amusing to see her coming running to me to confess her faults: 'Mummy, I've given Celine a push and I've thumped her, but I won't do it again'. She says that every time she has done anything wrong."
I had a fault of which Mummy says nothing in her letters: great self-love. I could give several examples if it would not make my story too long. Mummy said to me one day: "Therese, I'll give you a halfpenny if you will kiss the ground." This was quite a fortune to me. I should not have had to bend far to get it, for, as I was little, there wasn't much space between my face and the ground. But my pride revolted, so, holding myself very straight, I said: "Oh no, Mummy, I'd rather not have the halfpenny."
Another time we were going out to visit a friend. Mummy told Marie to put me in my pretty blue dress trimmed with lace, but to see that my arms were covered to keep the sun off them. I let myself be dressed with the indifference that children should have at that age, but I thought I should have been much prettier with bare arms.
With such a temperament I should have become very wicked and perhaps have been eternally lost if I had been brought up by bad parents. But Jesus watched over me. He drew good from my faults, for, checked in good time, they served to make me grow in perfection. As I loved myself and also loved goodness, I had only to be told once that something was not good. I am pleased to see from Mummy's letters that I became more of a consolation to her as I grew older. As I was surrounded by nothing but good examples, I naturally wished to imitate them. Here's what she wrote in 1876: "Now even Therese wants to start making sacrifices. Marie has given her two little sisters some beads on which to count their acts of self-denial. They often talk of spiritual things. The other day Celine said: 'How can God be in such a tiny Host?' Therese told her: 'That's not so amazing as God is almighty.' 'What does almighty mean?' 'Why, it means He can do whatever He wants.' She and Celine are very fond of each other and amuse themselves together. Every evening after dinner Celine goes off to catch their bantam cock and hen. They bring them in and sit by the fire and play with them for hours. One morning Therese climbed out of her bed and joined Celine in hers. When Louise came to dress her, Therese hugged and kissed her sister and said: 'Leave me alone, Louise, for we are just like the bantams. We can't be separated.' "