I am always delighted to see that, especially among younger Catholics, Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) is increasingly becoming one of the Church’s more “popular” saints. I am sure that many of us are already familiar with the broad outlines of her life. That she was one of five children, of Louis and Zélie (Guerin) Martin, all of whom entered the religious life. That, during a family pilgrimage to Rome, she implored Pope Leo XIII to grant her a dispensation to allow her to enter the Carmel at Lisieux at age 15; which, though not due to the pope’s intervention, she in fact did. That, after dying at the tender age of 24, her reputation grew largely due to the posthumous publication of her spiritual diary Histoire d’une Ame [Story of a Soul]. And, that she was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.
In my household, moreover, the feast day of St. Thérèse (October 1st) holds a particular significance. My wife and I, quite deliberately, selected that day on which to be married; thereby making St. Thérèse the patron saint of our marriage and family. (Just as an aside, our son was born on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. I think the LORD is trying to tell us something about the spiritual direction of our family.) One portion of St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul has always resonated with my wife and me in particular. In fact, we placed this text on the last page of our wedding programs.
Charity gave me the key to my vocation…I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places… In one word, that it was eternal (chapter 9).
St. Thérèse was prompted to write this passage based on her meditation of 1 Cor 13:1-13, and it illustrates well why she is truly a Doctor of the Church. St. Thérèse had a great desire to join the ranks of the martyrs of the Church. “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth,” she writes “and this dream has grown with me within the Carmel’s cloisters.” She also had the ambition to be a Carmelite missionary which, because of her ill health, she was not allowed to fulfill. But reflecting upon St. Paul’s great exhortation to love, St. Thérèse realized that love is the vocation of every Christian; it is the universal vocation. Much like holiness, all Christians are called to live out their particular vocations in love; whether one is called to the married life, or the consecrated religious life, or to some other particular vocation. Further, and this is one St. Thérèse’s great insights, if one lives out perfectly this universal vocation to love, one is embracing all of the particular vocations. In other words, the saint who loves perfectly is, in the realm of love, an apostle, and a prophet, and a martyr, etc. “Thus I shall be everything,” writes the Little Flower, “and thus my dream will be realized.” In a way, the Church has formally endorsed the Little Flower’s theology on this point. For, while she never left the confines of the Lisieux Carmel during her religious life, upon her canonization St. Thérèse was made co-patron – along with St. Francis Xavier – of missionary work. By doing “all the smallest things and doing them through love,” St. Thérèse lived perfectly her, and every, vocation.
And that is the great reminder which St. Thérèse gives to my wife and me as the patroness of our married life: that every particular vocation is lived through the universal vocation to love. And, in knowing this, we should all exclaim with St. Thérèse: “O Jesus, my Love…my vocation, at last I have found it…My vocation is love!”
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.