One of the earliest signs of Thérèse’s sanctity can be found in her childhood wish that her parents would die. Thérèse’s mother, Saint Zèlie Martin, recounts in one of her letters that her little girl, aged two and a half, loved to run to her mother, embrace her, and say: “Oh, poor little Mother . . . I do wish you’d die.” Receiving a “scolding”, she would go to great pains to explain herself: “Oh, but it’s only because I want you to go to heaven. You told me yourself one can’t go to heaven without dying.”
Thérèse did not stop there. Zèlie also records, with comic flourish, how her little girl “want[ed] to kill her father too, when she gets really affectionate.” Thérèse’s parental intimacy naturally transposed into a longing for heaven and an unshakeable (although sorely tested) confidence in God. As I will discuss at more length, later on, Thérèse, like St Francis, believed death was a friend, a sister even. She held that God’s mercy and justice are inextricable from each other, and, in so doing, supplied a counter to the Jansenist heresy still lingering in regions of France throughout the nineteenth century. It rejected the place of free will in the economy of salvation and emphasized divine justice over and against divine mercy.
Thérèse’s writings, letters and poems are saturated by a sense of divine mercy, by the “living flame of love” so characteristic of the Carmelite charism—especially as found in the writings of her special patrons, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila. In one of her most famous poems, which she first composed in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Thérèse says: “Living by love means banishing fear— / All glancing-back to faults of earlier day: / Of my past sins I see no imprint here, / Love in a trice has burnt them all away.” Her poetics, as with her spirituality, is marked by her distinctive adaptations of the language of scripture in order to communicate the movements of her soul.
At first glance, Thérèse’s bold confidence and simple faith, her expressive turns of phrase and atypical attitude towards death, may raise the eyebrow of the skeptic of her sanctity. For example, Dorothy Day confessed that when she first encountered the writings of Thérèse, they sounded like “pious pap.” Her little way seemed “too small in fact for [her] notice”, especially when compared to weighty, socio-political concerns. A convert to Catholicism who had spent years on the streets of New York serving the poor and advocating for social peace, Day admits that her first assessment of Thérèse turned out to be dead wrong. Immersing herself in the writings of the young Carmelite, Day said she no longer found a melodramatic teenager but, instead, one of the greatest saints of our times. In Thérèse, Day discovered a model of holiness, of love which goes to the very end, which sees in the ordinary events of daily life, of each present moment, opportunities to encounter divine mercy.
For Day, it was easy to become overwhelmed by the politics of her time, or to feel that political pragmatism should be the sovereign concern. In her autobiography, she says she found in Thérèse a resolution and alternative to the Communist dream that the present day should be sacrificed for the sake of realizing an imagined, utopian future. Through Thérèse, Day learned that the source of meaning in our daily lives cannot be solely or even principally determined by activism, politics or the allure of future outcomes: “in these days of stress and strain,” Day observes, “we are not developing our spiritual capacities as we should and most of us will admit that. We want to grow in love but do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” Thérèse is the saint who has been marked out by the Church as the great master of this science of love, as the teacher of this hidden way of holiness—a holiness which can be found in the midst of the daily “stresses and strains” which have characterized emerging modernity and still plague us today.