Everyone loves St. Thérèse, right? She’s super holy, she gives out roses, she’s a Doctor of the Church, and her family is really cute — even her parents are saints. Thérèse has a statue in nearly every church, and if you hang out in Catholic circles, people probably recommend her autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” a lot.
But what if you don’t especially love St. Thérèse? Can you still be a good Catholic? Is it your fault? Does it mean you’ll never get a rose sent from heaven?
I’ve been asking myself those questions for a while now. And this year, ahead of her October 1 feast day, I decided to get answers.
I read “Story of a Soul” for the first time when I was 12 years old. I was immediately smitten - in awe at her profound holiness, the simplicity of her short life, and the humble Little Way that has come to define her spirituality.
I chose St. Thérèse as my confirmation saint. It was not exactly a unique choice - sometimes I joke that having St. Thérèse as a confirmation saint is one of the signs of a basic white Catholic girl. Of course, there’s a reason the Little Flower is immensely popular in Catholic circles. In addition to being one of just a few female Doctors of the Church, Thérèse is known for answering novenas by sending roses as a sign to those who are praying to her, especially for help in discerning or making an important decision. What’s not to love about that?
But then in college, I read “Story of a Soul” again. That time around, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it. The saint’s life just seemed deeply unrelatable.
A sensitive and delicate soul from a young age, Thérèse was unusually pious as a child. At the age of 3 or 4, she would frequently take up voluntary penances and sacrifices. She says she was attentive to sermons as a child and never complained when her toys or possessions were taken away. This description of childhood was so far removed from every child I’ve ever known that I found it almost laughable.
Thérèse lived a very sheltered life before entering the convent - at times bordering on naivety. She never played games with the other children at school, instead preferring to sit on her own and think about serious matters. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I don’t know that I would have been friends with St. Thérèse if I had known her while she was alive. She just wasn’t very fun.”
The saint goes on to talk about how God never gave her a desire without granting it, how the weather would reflect her feelings at major moments in her life, and how she was once miraculously cured from a serious illness when a statue of Mary smiled at her. Eventually, her desire to be united to Christ became so profound that she arrived a point where she was able to say, “I cannot suffer any longer, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
It’s not that I didn’t believe these experiences were true. It’s just that I couldn’t relate to them. In the opening of her autobiography, Thérèse refers to her life as being one filled with “special graces.” And I believe God did grant her extraordinary graces. But, maybe as a result, her life seemed so different from mine that I felt I had no connection to her.
Rather than feeling inspired by Thérèse's Little Way of holiness, my second time through her autobiography left me feeling discouraged by the remarkable nature of her life, and how unattainable it seemed to me. It was like watching an Olympic athlete perform - while their feats of athleticism are undoubtedly admirable, they strike me as exceptional and certainly not something I am capable of imitating.
I didn’t share my feelings with many people because they made me feel guilty. Plus, again, everyone loves her, right?
But over the years, I have discovered numerous friends and acquaintances who also struggled with St. Thérèse.
In one sense, I was comforted to know I was not alone in my secret Thérèse disillusionment.
On the other hand, she was still my confirmation saint, and I still wanted to have a relationship with her, even if I found her life to be deeply unrelatable. I continued asking for her intercession - particularly in the annual novena leading up to her feast day - and occasionally reading other works about her life.
This year, I decided to take a stab at reconnecting more deeply with St. Thérèse. I read her autobiography for a third time, hoping for a fresh perspective in the stage of life that I’m in now. I also spoke to Dr. Susan Timoney, chair of the Advisory Board for the Center for Carmelite Studies at The Catholic University of America, for advice. Here’s what she told me:
It’s ok if you don’t relate to every saint
Timoney pointed to Pope John Paul II’s commitment to highlighting saints from various walks of life.
“We look for people like us, I think, to emulate,” she said. “And so if we're called into a sort of friendship with them, it would make sense that some would be more appealing than others. I think everybody would say they certainly have ones with whom they feel a real soul bond.”
She added, though, that “every saint can teach us something.” So if we initially don’t feel any connection with a saint, it could be because “we're not quite ready for what they have to offer us or to share with us.”
Servant of God Dorothy Day wasn’t a fan of St. Thérèse - at first
Dorothy Day was given a copy of “Story of a Soul” after she came into the Church in the late 1920s, Timoney said, “and she described it as a bunch of ‘pious pap’.”
“You can imagine that someone like Dorothy Day wouldn't have a natural affinity or attraction for Thérèse of Lisieux. I mean, their stories were so different,” she said.
But in the early 1950s, Day went back and re-read Thérèse, and discovered at that point that she had a lot to learn from the saint. Among the things that impressed her were Thérèse's profound trust in God and the faith-filled family in which she was raised. Day was so intrigued that she ended up writing her own biography of Thérèse.
Sometimes an autobiography is not the best place to start
Reading saints’ writings - and particularly their autobiographies - can be challenging, Timoney said, because the context of their lives and the language they use may feel foreign to us. She pointed to St. Teresa of Avila, who frequently invoked medieval images of chivalry, knights, and lords. Modern readers who find these images unappealing may be better served by reading other works about St. Teresa of Avila to supplement writings by the saint herself.
In the case of Thérèse of Lisieux, Timoney said, it’s good to recognize that she was writing from the perspective of a young woman - Thérèse entered the convent at age 15 and died at just 24.
Still, she cautioned against dismissing Thérèse because of her youth and seeming naivety. Despite her young age, the saint displayed a bold pursuit of holiness that all Catholics can learn from.
‘Taking a break’ from a saint is ok - but don’t shut the door completely
Timoney said if you’re really struggling to connect with a saint, it’s ok to set them aside for a while and spend time focusing on other saints.
But she also said it’s good to be open to re-encountering the saint in a new way later on - perhaps in a homily or a new book that might give you a different perspective in that saint’s life.
It can also be helpful to consider what other admirable people saw in a particular saint, Timoney added.
“I was not initially attracted to Thérèse, but I was very attracted to Dorothy Day. And I started reading Thérèse after reading of Dorothy Day's devotion to her,” she reflected.
She encouraged Catholics not to give up completely on saints, even if they don’t feel an initial connection to them. She noted that she was inspired in her own life to return to St. Thérèse once the saint had been named a Doctor of the Church.
“I thought, ‘I’d better go back to her, because there must be something here if she was named a Doctor.’ So I think sometimes it’s important to have the discipline of being willing to pick it up again and to look for what that lesson might be.”
Thérèse can teach us about trust...and also suffering
Even people who find much of Thérèse's life unrelatable may find that some of her message resonates with them, Timoney said. She pointed particularly to her example of trust. As people age, they may find trust difficult, because they have experienced the disillusionment of being failed by people whom they have trusted.
“I think trusting is something that doesn't come easily...Thérèse's childlike trust in the Father is something that all of us are called to practice, and to recognize that God can be trusted, and we can place our trust in Him,” Timoney said.
She also noted Thérèse's attitude toward suffering as an important witness. Thérèse embraced the redemptive power of suffering - an idea that is countercultural today.
“All of us experience suffering in some way in our own lives. And certainly given this time in which we've moved through the pandemic, suffering can sometimes seem overwhelming. And if Thérèse as a child could understand that and could trust in the Lord, then that ought to help us be able to place our trust in the Lord and know that even in our suffering, He's there with us.”
And of course, Timoney said, there’s the “Little Way” for which Thérèse has become well-known - the idea of practicing small acts with great love - and this is a path that anyone can strive to follow, regardless of their circumstances in life.
“She so well understood that we're called to practice charity in small ways and in big ways, and that we ought not to underestimate the grace or the blessing in being charitable to the person at work who annoys us, or recognizing the person begging on the street and acknowledging their presence, even if we're not able to give something to them at the moment.”
So…if you don't love St. Thérèse , you can do what I'm doing on her feast day this year, and practice being charitable to someone who annoys you. Even if that someone is St. Thérèse.