Therese, Child of Mary
The past century has been called the age of Mary. In defining her Immaculate Conception one hundred years ago, Pope Pius IX inspired a renewal of Marian interest that has climaxed in the truly Marian pontificate of Pope Pius XII. The apparitions of our Blessed Mother at Lourdes in 1858 and at Fatima in 1917 have helped the devotion of the faithful keep pace with the announcements of the Popes. Our age has seen the canonizations of saints devoted to Mary, the consecration of the world to her Immaculate Heart, the definition of her glorious Assumption into heaven, and the proclamation of the feast of her universal Queenship. Truly this has been a Marian era unparalleled in the history of Christianity.
In proclaiming these prerogatives of Mary, the Church does not intend to cause any sense of separation between this sweet Mother and her children. All Mary's glories flow from her greatest privilege, being Mother of God, and this Motherhood is our surest claim to her love and protection—for she is our Mother too. Jesus is called her « first-born » Son because as Mother of His Mystical Body she will have so many spiritual children. Christ announced this doctrine at the moment of our Redemption; He called us to be sons of God by making us children of Mary: Woman, behold thy son... Son, behold thy mother (John 19, 26).
To remind us of our spiritual adoption and to bring us back to the spirit of childhood during this Marian age, God has called upon a special child of Mary, St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Because of the public emphasis on Mary's perfections, her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, we sometimes tend to place our Blessed Mother on an unapproachable pedestal. We forget that her glory now is the result of her life on earth; she attained sanctity by practicing the lowly hidden virtues which are well within our power. We lose sight of the truth that Mary is our most lovable Mother. St. Therese's mission is to help us regain a childlike love and trust in our Blessed Lady. The Little Flower made known her aim in these words: « It is good to speak of Mary's prerogatives, but one must not stop there. We must make her loved. » Therese was Mary's child and she looked upon her Mother as a model to imitate: « I wish to be Mary's good little daughter. Mary is my dear Mother, and usually daughters resemble their mother. »
In looking at the characteristics of Therese's little way of spiritual childhood we find a striking resemblance to the life of Our Lady. The conviction that Mary had walked in the same way of littleness encouraged Therese in her difficult path to holiness:
And thou, by practising the lowliest virtues here
Hast shown me how to find and tread the narrow way.
O Queen of the elect, if I but follow thee,
Thou'lt guide my faltering feet so that they never stray.
(Poem : Why I love you, Mary)
We know very little of the facts of Mary's life on earth, but from her portrait in the Gospels we may conclude that there was little that was outwardly extraordinary. After the miraculous birth of her Son and the visit of the Wise Men, Mary led a secluded life, growing in wisdom and grace before God by performing the simple tasks of a carpenter's wife. Her life of sacrifice consisted in denying herself, taking up her cross daily and following Christ. Our Lady found in her daily life opportunities enough to prove her love for God and to advance in holiness.
Therese, « the little child of Mary, » modeled her life according to the picture presented at Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana and Calvary. She saw Mary practicing the virtues of charity, humility and confidence in a sublime and unparalleled degree, but yet in so simple a setting that she exclaimed : « One can well understand that the real life at Nazareth and afterwards must have been quite ordinary. He was subject to them. How simple that is! » Therese strove to imitate this simplicity.
Like our Blessed Mother, Therese did not seek great occasions to practice virtues; the hidden opportunities were her choice. She endeavored to do the « ordinary things extraordinarily well » and in this lies her greatness: « I made my mortifications consist solely in breaking my will, keeping back a word of retort, rendering little services without making much of them, and a thousand other things of this kind.» Hidden in Carmel she studied and fashioned herself upon the perfect model of simplicity, the Virgin of Nazareth.
Her ordinary life in the convent once drew the comment : « What could possibly be written of Sister Therese after her death? » What has she done worthy to be recorded? This thought concerning the Little Flower seems to echo an impression of our Blessed Mother contained in a Gospel story. After Jesus had preached in His own town of Nazareth, many of the people were astonished at His wisdom. Was He not the Son of a common laborer and is not His Mother called Mary (Matthew 13, 5 5)? The people of her own village considered Mary to be quite simple and ordinary; why should her Son preach to them? But in such simplicity lies Therese's as well as Mary's greatness. Saint Pius X once corrected a priest who criticized the lack of the extraordinary in the life of the Little Flower: « Ah! What is most extraordinary of all in her life is precisely her extreme simplicity. » Therese in taking the 0 little way » of simplicity was exploring a path too often deserted since the time of the Virgin Mary. There have been few souls who have so well understood the lessons of Nazareth.
Humility is the true evaluation of our worth in the sight of God. This means a realization of our essential worthlessness, since we have nothing that is not due to God. Mary, although Mother of God, was nothing in her own eyes and attributed all her glories to their true Source: because He who is mighty has done great things for me... He has exalted the lowly (Luke 1, 49). She expressed her humility soon after the birth of her Son, when like any other mother she humbly brought her Divine Child to the temple and offered Him to God. In her daily submission to St. Joseph at Nazareth Our Lady was but cultivating the flower of humility which blossomed in all its splendor on Calvary when she took her place by the cross of her dying Son.
As Eve sinned through pride, it was fitting that Mary should bring the redemption of mankind about through humility: He has looked graciously upon the humility of His handmaid (Luke 1, 48). Through her littleness—Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word—the Incarnation and whole process of our redemption was set in motion.
In meditating on the Magnificat, Therese saw where Mary's greatness lay:
God's little handmaid — how I love thee by that name,
For thou didst capture God by thy humility.
That priceless virtue is the cause of all thy powers
Since to thy heart it drew the Blessed Trinity.
On littleness then, in union with Jesus and Mary, would Therese lay the foundation of her « little way of spiritual childhood. » Convinced of her nothingness, the 0. little handmaid of Mary » depended entirely on her heavenly Father and Mother. Like a child, she had no confidence in herself, knowing that « the moment God sees we are convinced of our nothingness He stretches out His hand. »
In Therese's life as in Mary's humility opened the soul to God. She never denied the acts of virtue she performed, but with the fullest gratitude attributed them to the Holy Trinity living in her. Humility in her own words was no more than o seeing the truth and accepting it. And the truth is that God is everything and that, without Him, we are nothing. »
In her weakness Therese, again like a child, placed all her confidence in our Blessed Mother who was watching over her moment by moment with tender care. Her very littleness was an irresistible appeal to Mary whenever she began to falter in her little way. As Mary's child, Therese knew that our Blessed Mother's virtues would supply for the defects in her own:
For am I not thy child, Mother most dear to me?
Thy virtues and thy love, are they not wholly mine?
The basis of the supernatural life is faith. At the message of the angel Gabriel Our Lady made a perfect act of faith saying: Be it done to me according to thy word. With these words she conceived in her womb Jesus Christ, the Saviour of men. The Holy Spirit inspired St. Elizabeth to say in praise of Mary's faith: Blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken unto thee by the Lord (Luke 1, 45).
When we meditate on the life of the Holy Family at Nazareth, we usually think of days of intimacy and love between Joseph and Mary and the Child Jesus. This picture is not false—love was the binding force between them—but it must also have been a time of vibrant faith. The Jewish people always thought of God as the Lord of might and majesty, but He was Mary's helpless Child. Even though the miraculous visit of the angel Gabriel was stamped upon her memory, how frequently must Mary have made acts of faith during Our Lord's thirty years with her. This Son, who depended entirely on her in His infancy, whom she taught and trained in His boyhood days, and who even in His manhood was «like to us in everything except sin,» was truly her God and Creator.
In our own time Therese is perhaps the supreme example of perfection fashioned in the school of faith, and how closely does she resemble the Blessed Mother. Mary, throughout the years at Nazareth, performed menial tasks, passed through periods of anguish and spiritual suffering and lived by faith. In Mary's garden, Carmel, the Little Flower followed her model along this same path. During her last eighteen months of sickness, her trial of faith was extreme: « Our Lord allowed my own soul to be plunged in thickest gloom and the thought of heaven so dear from my earliest years to become for me a subject of torture... But I try to live by faith... » On her deathbed she made the admission: «have made more acts of faith during this past year than in all the rest of my life. » But never once did she doubt the final outcome, for she had only to glance at the result of this same trial of faith in Our Lady's life. Mary, who for Therese was « possible of imitation, practicing the hidden virtues and living by faith just as we do, » was assumed into heaven and crowned in glory.
Therese saw in our Blessed Mother's soul the dispositions she tried to fashion in her own: to conform herself to God's will and to depend on Him alone. The Little Flower spent her life in the o silent martyrdom of love, » walking by faith in the trials God sent her. She learned this life of silence and faith from Mary, who, when she did not understand the words Jesus spoke to her, kept all these things carefully in her heart:
And now I understand the Temple mystery,
And why my loving King answered His Mother so.
Mary, He would that thou shouldst the example be
For souls who, seeking Him, the night of faith must know.
In ordinary human life a small child has supreme trust in his parents; in our spiritual life we must have such confidence in our heavenly Father. Instances of this childlike hope abound in the life of Our Lady and her child, Therese. Mary did not fully understand the harmony between the divine motherhood and her vow of virginity, but she accepted the angel's word and uttered her fiat. It would be difficult to gauge the anguish in Joseph's heart in discovering that she was with child, but Our Lady remained silent and put her confidence in God. The profound impression Mary's silence and hope in God made upon the Little Flower is recorded in her poem:
With what sweet eloquence thy silence speaks to me! The loveliest melody can have no purer tone. Listening, I learn the power, the greatness of a soul, That seeks no other aid than that of heaven alone.
Reading the Gospel, Therese could not help but see the confidence of Mary portrayed there. In the difficult journey to Bethlehem there was no murmur; in the flight into Egypt, no hesitation. And especially was Mary's child struck by the marvelous example of simple trust shown at the marriage feast of Cana. They have no wine, said Our Lady, and in spite of an apparent denial of her request she then said to the waiters: Do whatever He tells you (John 2, 5). Who could refuse to follow such complete confidence!
In Carmel Therese had many opportunities to perfect her hope in God and show her childlike reliance on her loving Mother. Very often we read in her autobiography that when she was unjustly reprimanded for not doing a task properly, or when her words were interpreted wrongly, imitating Mary she took refuge in humble silence. Even when she was grievously tempted by the devil to think her little way was a delusion, her confidence never wavered. She could truly say: u I am never discouraged; I abandon myself in the arms of Jesus. » Her way to the Heart of God was one of spiritual childhood, and like a small child Therese never even considered that her heavenly Father and all-loving Mother would fail her.
One of the most beautiful resemblances between Mary's and Therese's confidence is exemplified by the prophecies of each of them which are being fulfilled even today. While in the hill country of Judea before the birth of her Son, Mary, a young Hebrew virgin, had uttered the tremendous words: Behold all generations shall call me blessed. And nineteen-hundred years later in a secluded convent in France, Therese, an unknown Carmelite virgin, echoed the words of her Mother, saying: Ah! I know it well, all the world will love me! Only true humility and supreme confidence in God could enable Mother and child to say these words with such assurance.
St. Therese tells us that love is the heart and goal of her little way. o My vocation is love! » she exclaimed. a I would so love Jesus, love Him as never yet He has been loved. » In her love as in everything else Mary was both the ideal and guide. For our Blessed Mother had the beautiful privilege of loving her God while loving her Child. In showering her motherly love upon her Son while laying Him in a manger, Mary was adoring the very God of heaven and earth. Her maternal love led Mary to take her place beneath the cross: There was standing by the cross of Jesus His mother... (John 19, 25). She had nursed and taken care of her Son during life; she could not abandon Him in death.
Therese's little way is one of spiritual childhood: God is her loving Father, Mary her understanding Mother. In human life the relationship of a child to its parents is above all a relationship of love. Therese modeled her spiritual life upon this truth. All her sacrifices, all her acts of virtue were prompted and motivated by love. « Never have I given to the great God aught but love. » In expressing her love for God, St. Therese, like any child, first centered it upon her Mother; Mary would purify it, endow it with her own fervent love and then direct it to her beloved Son. Therese identified herself with Mary, and in this union her love for God assumed a purer quality.
Therese knew the tender spot she held in her Mother's heart; Mary had pointed this out to her as a child. In curing her at the age of ten, Mary chose a smile as the sign of the grace she meant to confer. And this smile—the only language between a mother and her infant—was the mark of love and union between them. Therese sought to win and return our Blessed Mother's love by her own love and confidence. «. How I love our Blessed Mother. If I had been a priest how lovingly would I have sung her praises, » she said as she was dying. Especially did she rely on her love for Mary as her approach to God. As Mary's child she could well say: « I very often ask the Blessed Virgin to tell God that He must not bother Himself on my account and that she will look after my commissions. » This love for Mary inevitably led Therese to the font of all love, the Sacred Heart of her Son.
When Pope Pius XI canonized the Little Flower in 1925, he proclaimed to the world that Therese had obeyed the Rule of her Order to perfection; for a religious, this is what sanctity consists in. Therese was a Carmelite, and a Carmelite's aim is to reflect the life of Our Blessed Mother. In Carmel there is no need to speak continually of devotion to Our Lady because a Carmelite must become her living image. St. Therese saw Mary as o possible of imitation, » and by living the Carmelite Rule to perfection, she became, in the words of Pope Pius XI, a o new and ineffable smile of the Immaculate Virgin. »
Near the end of her life Therese said : « Mary is more Mother than Queen. » She had attained the Carmelite ideal of becoming a child of Our Mother. Her simplicity and humility were fashioned in the atmosphere of Nazareth; her faith, confidence and love of God were reflections of the virtues of the Mother and model of her little way. Therese, whom Pope Pius XII has called the « little flower of Mary, » has brought back into reality childlike love of God. It is for us to imitate this « sweet mirror of the most merciful Virgin Mary. »
Randal Malley, O. Carm.,