The author, Sr. Joanna Marie, passed away in October, 2000. The CINCarm community
misses her wisdom and loving kindness. She was founding the Carmelites of Divine Mercy,
for those who for reasons of age or infirmity could not be accepted into a typical community.
We pray God will reward her for her compassion for others and passion for Carmel.

St Therese as a novice

   St. Therese:  

An Ordinary Mystic for Ordinary People
On Saint Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church


  Sr. Joanna Marie Ermilio, C.D.M.L.

"I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission to make God loved as I love Him,
to teach souls my little way

On July 17, 1897, a few months before her death, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, known also as the Little Flower, uttered these words. She died on September 30, 1897 at the age of twenty-four years and nine months. Therese's sister Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline), asked her what this little way was and Therese answered: "It is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute surrender."

On August 14, 1921, Pope Benedict XV stated: "In spiritual childhood is the secret of sanctity for all the faithful of the Catholic world. There is a call to all the faithful of every nation, no matter what their age, sex or state of life to enter wholeheartedly into the Little Way which led Sister Therese to the summit of heroic virtue."

Pope Benedict XV's successor Pope Pius XI then stated on April 29, 1923: "We earnestly desire that all the faithful should study her in order to copy her, becoming children themselves, since otherwise they cannot according to the words of the Master, arrive at the kingdom of heaven." (Mark 10:14-15)

During this coming year from September 30, 1996 through October 1, 1997, we as a church and in particular the Carmelite Order are celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the death of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. What more fitting way to celebrate her then by our imitation of her little way of absolute trust and surrender to the Merciful Love of God?

One major aspect of Therese that we all can identify with is the realization that the deeds of the great saints who were martyred or went to mission lands and performed all kinds of miracles is not for most of us. We can identify with her acknowledgement of being one of the little ones. Therese was an ordinary mystic and therefore she is the perfect model for us ordinary people.  

Karl Rahner says: "In the coming age we must all become mystics or be nothing at all." At face value it seems like an impossible task that we, you and I, should become mystics. It is a challenging task but not an impossible one. What does it mean to be a mystic? Most of us link that word to the extraordinary phenomena of visions and voices and ecstasies. But that is what they are: "extraordinary phenomena". We are ordinary people. For us mysticism means experiencing God in our daily lives. Seeing through and beyond the happenings of each day and allowing God to touch us, love us, heal us and draw us close to Him by our response to His VERY immediate and immanent love and mercy.  

The Little Way of Spiritual Childhood as set forth by St. Therese is the mystical way for all - including us "ordinary" people. Why is the Little Way a mystical way? Because it reaches to God by LOVE and not solely by reasoning.

Peggy Wilkinson, OCDS in her book "Finding The Mystic Within You" states that there are two kinds of knowledge: "rational" knowledge and "mystical" knowledge .  

"Rational" knowledge is gained through our conscious effort by using our intellect in the form of reading, studying, hearing talks and storing them in our memory.  

"Mystical" knowledge is not knowing "about" God, but "knowing" God Himself. It is an intuitive knowing by and through love. Mystical knowledge is not anything we can obtain on our own. It is a free gift from God. All we can do is dispose ourselves to receive it by our daily fidelity to prayer and the duties of our state in life. Our fidelity to grace opens up our hearts for the action of the Holy Spirit so that God - Jesus may reveal Himself to us in the depths of our being.  

While rational knowledge comes to us from without, i.e. through books, conversations and through our senses, mystical knowledge comes from within and by-passes, sort of leap-frogs over our created senses. That is why when someone says that they have experienced God working in their life or in their prayer, they usually cannot explain the "how" of the experience. All they can usually say is "I know that I know - How do I know? I don't know. I just KNOW!"  

Mystical knowledge then is about receiving. It is about openness and emptiness. The openness and emptiness of children who know they need "everything" from their parents and "know" they will receive all that they need. They remain on the alert for the coming of the father or mother and as soon as they hear them coming, they run to them flinging themselves into the paternal or maternal arms knowing they will receive all they need and much more. Once again it is the way of absolute trust and surrender in and through love.  

I said that the child waits in alertness for the coming of the parent but it waits in the present moment. I say present moment because God is in the present. On Mt. Horeb when Moses was visited by God in the burning bush and was told to go to Pharaoh and ask that the Israelites be let go, Moses asked God: "Who shall I say sent me? God answered: "Tell him that I AM sent you." (Exodus 3:14) Jesus also tells the Pharisees: "Before Abraham came to be "I AM". (John 8:58) Jesus speaking to the Pharisees and God on Mt. Horeb did not say "I was" or "I will be". In both instances, what was said was "I AM" denoting the present moment. If one is alert in an attitude of waiting that means that all his or her attention is riveted on that expectation. "NO-THING" can avert its attention. Therefore the spirit is silent in the waiting and detached from all that could hinder that alertness. God will not fight for our attention. He longs for us to give it to Him freely and gratuitously.  

Contemplation for many is a word which is reserved for the nuns and priests but it is a normal state of a Christian prayer life. In contemplation, God reveals Himself to us without the intermediary of words, feeling, ideas on either the sensory or spiritual level. It is a "knowing without knowing" or a "knowing by unknowing".  

In the life of St. Therese, we see the marks of the mystical repeatedly. When she was just short of fourteen years old, she received what she termed the grace of a "complete conversion". Until that time she was overly sensitive and cried for every little thing. When she had cried over anything, she then cried for having cried. It was December 25, 1886 and she, her father and her sister Celine had just returned home from midnight Mass. It was the custom to place the youngest child's shoes by the chimney corner and fill them with little presents. Now at fourteen years old, Therese was really no longer a child but she was the youngest. Her father was tired and as Therese tells it: 'He (Jesus) permitted Papa to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace and that he speak those words which pierced my heart.' "Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!" (The Story of a Soul, p.98) Therese heard those words which cut her deeply, but as she says: "Therese was no longer the same; Jesus had changed her heart! ...Therese had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half (when her mother died), and she was to preserve it forever....The work I had been unable to do in ten years was done by Jesus in an instant, contenting Himself with my good will which was never lacking." (Ibid p.98)  

The key here for Therese receiving this mystical grace was her good will which was never lacking. She was disposed to receive all from God all along the way so that when the time came for the Lord to intervene she was alert and in readiness to receive all that He wanted to give her and she was never disappointed.  

On September 8, 1896, Therese writes to her sister Marie (Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart) about her vocation. She says that she was filled with aridity and dryness in her prayer and was feeling what we would call frustrated because her desires for God and for the good of souls was causing her a veritable martyrdom as she could not see how all her desires could be fulfilled. In her words, she says: "I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR.....O Jesus, my Love, my Life, how can I combine these contrasts? How can I realize the desires of my poor little soul?" (Story of a Soul p. 192) Therese turned to the scriptures and read in 1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:1. "I will point out to you a more excellent way. And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.....I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES...IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my vocation, at last I have found it...MY VOCATION IS LOVE!" (Ibid P. 194)  

As one continues to read through The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese, one can readily see how she constantly sought the Lord in all situations and circumstances with an attitude of loving surrender. Once she found that her vocation was love, then no matter what happened to her including her final year of life spent in the darkness of faith and in great pain as her lungs and intestines were eaten up by tuberculosis was an obstacle to her growth in union with God. She died with these words on her lips. "Oh! I love Him! My God!....I love You!" (St. Therese of Lisieux: her last conversations - p.246). She constantly sought the Lord through love. She had the insight (because she was vigilant and readily alert) to see beyond all the simple, mundane and often painful happenings of everyday life and found God in them. This took faith but above all love. This insight is none other than mystical insight and it is an insight that you and I can have if we dispose ourselves to it and approach each day, each moment of the day in faith and absolute trust and surrender to the immediate love and mercy of God.  

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!


September 22, 1996

This article first appeared in the magazine "Carmel In The World" 1997. Vol.XXXVI, N. 1.  Please do not upload to another site or publish in any manner without written permission from the author.  

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