Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Real Truth About ‘The Little Flower’

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published January 1, 2008

Female saints sometimes don’t seem human. You see them depicted on holy cards with demure, pious expressions and rosary beads laced in their fingers.

It would be easy to believe they spent their entire day murmuring prayers. It is hard to imagine them grumbling during rush-hour traffic or fuming about a co-worker’s vexing habits.

And not to get too personal, but one might wonder: Did any of them ever go out on a date?

St. Thérèse of Lisieux readily comes to mind as an example. The portraits show her with a sugary smile, and nearly always surrounded by flowers.

Some biographers create a picture of someone who never spoke a harsh word or wrestled with a single temptation.

Most Catholics know the story of the saint known as The Little Flower. She was born in 1873, entered the Carmelite cloister at the tender age of 15 and died nine years later of tuberculosis.

She spent nearly all her days behind convent walls, so it is easy to conclude she knew little about life in the real world. Did she ever crack a joke? Harbor a doubt? Or love a man?

I recently discovered that the answer to all these questions is a surprising yes.

In “The Little Way: The Spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux,” Bernard Bro gives us a glimpse of Thérèse without the sugar coating. He reveals that her down-home humor often lit up the convent.

In fact, she was known for entertaining the other nuns behind cloister walls with her hilarious impersonations. One nun recalled that she could “make you weep with devotion and just as easily make you faint with laughter during recreation.”

Bro also points out that Thérèse did indeed struggle with temptations, but even then her humor didn’t fail her.

For example, there was an elderly nun who unknowingly ruptured the silence during meditation by scraping her false teeth with her fingernails, driving Thérèse nearly to distraction.

“As soon as this nun came in,” Thérèse wrote, “she used to begin making a funny little noise which sounded like two shells being rubbed together.”

Poor Thérèse actually broke into a sweat trying to control herself, but here is where her holiness really shone through. Instead of laughing or screaming, as she wanted to, she kept still.

She also did something that might inspire people who suffer through insipid music or snooze-inducing sermons during Mass: “I concentrated on listening to it as if it were a magnificent concert, and my entire meditation was spent in offering this concert to Jesus.”

It seems Thérèse also grappled with agonizing doubts, especially toward the end of her life, when her physical suffering was terrible.

Bro reveals that she spent 18 months in a tunnel of darkness, where the devil preyed on her relentlessly. At one point, she struggled with believing in life after death.

Still, she never gave up trusting in God’s love. Her last words were “My God, I love you!”

She was clearly someone who faced many situations women confront today. But one might still wonder: Wasn’t there something missing in the life of this simple nun, tucked chastely away behind convent walls?

In truth, chastity has never excluded love. And the tender story about Thérèse and the man she cherished is recounted in a wonderful book “Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love.”

In 1895, a young seminarian, Maurice Bellière, wrote to the Mother Superior asking that a nun pray for him as he was struggling to endure the rigors of the seminary.

She chose Thérèse, and the twosome began corresponding.

In his letters, Maurice called Thérèse his “good angel,” while she spoke fondly of the “union which has formed between our souls.”

Always humble, she warned him at one point against idealizing her: “The good God has given you as your sister not a great soul but one who is very little and very imperfect.”

Maurice went on to become a missionary in Africa, strongly crediting Thérèse’s prayers and her encouragement for this event. She sent him poetry, they exchanged photos and she kept his near.

As she faced death, she promised he would inherit her most cherished possessions: a relic, a painting and a well-worn crucifix.

Toward the end, the man she called “my dear little brother” paid her a great compliment by writing “Jesus is the Treasure but I found Him in you.”

Despite overly frilly portrayals, St. Thérèse was a very real lady who doubted, laughed, cried and faced temptations, just like everyday women still do today.

Granted, maybe she never did have a real date. But that certainly didn’t prevent her from knowing love’s deepest meaning.

Lorraine Murray will have a new book published by Ignatius Press this spring. Her other books are available on her Web site: Readers may send her an e-mail at Artwork featured in the print edition(“Grail”) is by Jef Murray.