St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day (Charlotte, NC: TAN Classics, 2010).
Thérèse’s mother died when she was four years old. At fifteen she entered a cloistered Carmelite convent in Lisieux, France shortly after her father suffered the first of a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed and in pain. Eventually all four of his daughters entered the convent, leaving him alone. He could only talk to them two times a year, and then only through the bars of the enclosure. For me, the sacrifices made by Thérèse’s father as he gave up his daughters one by one to lives of prayer and penitence is one of the most moving themes of her autobiography. The day after she entered Carmel he commented to a friend, “Only God could ask such as sacrifice [from me], but He helps me so much that my heart is filled with joy, even in the midst of tears.” A generous and deeply religious single parent, he cultivated simple piety in each of his daughters who grew up panicking if they missed their prayers before leaving the house, cherished the Eucharist, and revered images as Mary as they did the memory of their own mother.
The Story of a Soul (1895-1897) contains the reflections of a 24 year old girl about her sheltered religious upbringing and her life in a cloistered convent. It was written at the request of her Mother Superior as a form of self-examination but it is much more than that. Thérèse’s deep love for God seeps through every page and gently initiates the reader into her life of simple mysticism. Thérèse called her approach to life “The Little Way,” by which she meant small, everyday actions done out of love for God. “Love proves itself by deeds,” she wrote, “and how shall I prove mine? The little child will scatter flowers whose fragrant perfume will surround the royal throne, and in a voice that is silver-toned, she will sing the canticle of love. So, my Beloved, shall my short life be spent in Your sight. I can prove my love only by scattering flowers, that is to say, by never letting slip a single little sacrifice, a single glance, a single word; by making profit of the very smallest actions, by doing them all for love.” More than just fine-sounding phrases, we see how Thérèse put her philosophy into practice as she befriends the most insufferable women in the convent, prevents herself from engaging in pleasant conversation with her superiors so as not to waste their time, pretends to be harsh towards the novices under her guidance lest they see how compassionate she was, and lets people think that she is lazy when she is slow to get up to do gardening – her favourite past-time – so as to let someone else have the pleasure.
Scattered throughout the book are profound insights into the nature of God and the path of mystical union expressed in language so simple and beguiling that anyone can understand it. Troubled about why God “has preferences” and gives more grace to some people and less to others, Thérèse writes that “Jesus chose to enlighten me on this mystery. He opened the book of nature before me, and I saw that every flower He has created has a beauty of its own, that the splendor of the rose and the lily’s whiteness do not deprive the violent of its scent nor make less ravishing the daisy’s charm. I saw that if every little flower wished to be a rose, Nature would lose her spring adornments, and the fields would be no longer enameled with their varied flowers. So it is in the world of souls, the living garden of the Lord. It pleases Him to create great Saints, who may be compared with the lilies or the rose; but He has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or violets, nestling at His feet to delight His eyes when He should choose to look at them. The happier they are to be as He wills, the more perfect they are.”
The Story of a Soul is like a gentle breeze carrying the sweet perfume of spring. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.