(A personal account of the journey through life with Saint Therese by the creator of this website)
Father Mark Kirby, O.S.B. Prior of Our Lady of the Cenacle Monastery in County Meath Ireland says: “we do not choose the saints we are devoted to but rather they choose us”. When I heard him say this in a sermon some months ago I began to think about my favorite saint (after our Lady of course), and as my friends and readers of this blog will no doubt have learned by now this is Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. I began to think over again how I came to know her and the journey we have had together and how she has changed my life. Then I began to think about just how perfect Saint Thérèse is for me as a patron because of so many similarities in our personalities and dispositions and the struggles that she had to contend with and overcame and which I am struggling with now, and how she was the very example I needed to follow to become a saint myself. Indeed I am a terrible sinner but having studied the life of Saint Thérèse and being given many graces by her intercession I have a clear path to heaven if I will only follow it with total abandon to divine providence just as she did. After thinking about these things for some time now I have come to the conclusion that I did not choose her really at all but rather she chose me and has done everything to win my heart and having done so has never ceased since to draw it close to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
So how did it happen? Some of my closest friends know the whole story and its concrete beginning would have to be during my first year of college. It was during that year that I met and became close friends with two young women, and as time went on I developed a deep affection for both of them. And so when I discovered that both of them had taken Saint Thérèse as their confirmation patron I was very interested in learning about her and who she was. And one could suggest that it was simply in my nature to do something like this because I do love Saints, but this had never happened before and has never happened quite the same way since. In a way I am very thankful to these two young women who because of the affection they drew from me and their exuberance about Saint Thérèse became the vehicle for my meeting my favorite Saint who would change my life. And so I developed at first a superficial devotion to the little flower, but there was no real depth to it because I didn’t know her.
I remember clearly the moment Thérèse stole my heart. It took me almost two years to finally read Story of a Soul, her autobiography, during the late Fall of my junior year. And I remember laying on my bed reading that wonderful little book and at one point or another setting it down and looking up to heaven I spoke to Thérèse and adopted her as my “little sister in heaven”. Later, I would adopt two more “little sisters in heaven”: Saint Bernadette Soubirous and Blessed Jacinta Marto of Fatima. And from that moment on I have deeply loved Thérèse and this love has only grown as time has gone on. I cannot even think about her passion and death anymore without beginning to weep. I suppose brotherly affection of this kind comes naturally to me because I have two younger sisters (and no brothers) who I love very much, even if at times they can annoy me to no end, but then what are siblings for.
After having read story of a soul and having this experience my relationship and devotion with Thérèse deepened a great deal, but still I was only scratching the surface. A few months after reading the book my best friend (here on earth) told me about a new Carmelite community of monks who were trying to live out the ancient charism of Carmel and who were devoted to Saint Thérèse. I have to say I came very close to trying to run away from everything right then and there to be with them, but it was not to be. By the end of that year Thérèse had already been working on me a great deal and my heart slowly was shifting more and more toward God and so it was ripe for the suggestion placed before it of a vocation to the priesthood during that summer between my junior and senior year. Just before the feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel over the span of one week three priests (two of whom I knew very well and trusted a great deal) suggest that I should consider the priesthood. By September I had been convinced that this was my path and not long after Thérèse’ feast day I had been lead to the community I would later spend two years with as a seminarian.
I entered seminary being torn between the active life and the contemplative life, between the community I was entering and that Carmelite community I mentioned before, and blessing of blessings two of the founding members of that group were finishing up their last year of seminary while I was making my way through my first year. I also was blessed by the presence in the seminary of another wonderful community of devout religious men and not to mention that down the road from the seminary was the largest Carmelite Convent of Nuns in the world who were (and still are) exploding with vocations. One of my classmates who would become one of my best friends actually had an older sister who was in the convent and so we quickly became friends because of our mutual love for Carmelites. I was even so blessed to serve Holy Mass at the Convent on about one Sunday a month on average and sometimes more. My Latin professor too was another blessing because he was incredibly devoted to Thérèse and was the spiritual director for the nuns.
It was like I had died and gone to Thérèse heaven. I was surrounded by the spirit of Carmel and living in a seminary with a bunch of wonderful priest and seminarians, the very sort of people Thérèse loved to pray for! This was the perfect environment for growing closer to Thérèse and consequently our Lord and our Lady. It didn’t take long for Thérèse to make her move because the very day I entered was a feast day of her patron Saint: Francis of Assisi, as it was the feast of his being imprinted with the stigmata. And then just a couple weeks later on her own traditional Feast day I finally picked up and began reading the short biography on Thérèse’ time in Carmel written by her sister Celine (Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face), which I found so wonderful I almost couldn’t put it down. After finishing that I was ravenous for anything I could read on Thérèse, but I decided to find out what were the best books to read and I had to look no further than my Latin professor and the two Carmelite Monks in residence who independently recommended a set of must read books, and when even my holy Novice Master recommended some of the same books I knew I had my “Ultimate Thérèse Book List”.
And so for the next year and half I was constantly reading something about or by Thérèse in addition to whatever spiritual reading or course required reading I was doing. This finally culminated in quite possibly the most powerful book I have ever read in my life. Now this book moved me so very deeply because of how I had grown in my love, devotion, and knowledge of Thérèse and her family. I had come to point where I felt like I really and truly “knew” Thérèse in a way I had never known any other Saint (except for Saint Bernadette and Blessed Jactina) and even I knew her immediate family so well that I felt like I knew what each would do in any given situation and I found myself saying things about them that one would normally only say about ones close family and friends. It was the spring of my second year in seminary and Lent was upon us. Thérèse had worked an incredible miracle for me on her feast day in the preceding fall and helped me to be able to attend the ordinations and first masses for the two Carmelite Monks I had been in seminary with during my first year.
Now I was in a difficult time in seminary when my future there seemed very uncertain and it was Lent which in and of itself was difficult. It was then that I tackled the sequel to the official biography of Saint Thérèse: The Story of a Life, the work: The Passion of Thérèse of Lisieux. This was a book I knew that my Latin professor had to stop reading half way through because it was too difficult for him to continue. I have to say that I had to put down the book for days at a time before getting up the courage to read it again over the course of that Lent, which was the most difficult Lent of my life thus far. When I finally came to understand what Thérèse really actually suffered in her body, mind, heart, and soul my own heart was broken and I lost count of the times I cried reading the book at various points. I also realized that I was a complete coward and weakling for not putting up with the trifling sufferings I had before me (and later reading about Bernadette’s passion and especially that of little Jacinta I felt the same).
It was after this that I felt I finally “knew” Thérèse, and I recognized that very few really know her. Most have this disgustingly saccharine understanding of her or simply “don’t get her” as some have said to me. I don’t expect that everyone will have a devotion to Thérèse as I do or the monks or the nuns or my Latin professor but you ought to at least make some effort to understand the saint who was called by Pope Saint Pius X: “the greatest Saint of modern times” and even more what she has to teach us, for she is a Doctor of the Church, for the church as only raised up 33 individuals in all of history to be her official teachers and she is one of them.
And if you are not devoted to Thérèse and even after reading her autobiography and her official biography (the two must read books for everyone) are not inclined to be that is fine but then open yourself up to that saint who is seeking you out to become your friend your brother or sister in heaven just as Thérèse is for me, and when they have made themselves known to you do everything in your power to come to know them, love them, and learn from them and you will grow closer to Jesus and Mary and ultimately be with them, God willing, in paradise.