The Common Good
September-October 2003

The Little Flower

by Kathryn Harrison | September-October 2003

When Thérèse Martin died in 1897 at age 24, she was a nobody; most of
the world had never heard of her.

When Thérèse Martin died in 1897 at age 24, she was a nobody; most of the world had never heard of her. But within two years, hundreds were making the pilgrimage to Lisieux, her hometown, and an official beatification process had begun by 1910. She became Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in 1925. Kathryn Harrison writes about the extraordinary life of the "Little Flower."

In her letters...Thérèse returned over and over to the theme of littleness, referring to herself as a grain of sand, an image she borrowed from [her sister] Pauline, who, in the week preceding Thérèse's entry into Carmel, had spoken of advantages given the small: "Always littler, lighter, in order to be lifted more easily by the breeze of love." …[T]he remainder of her life would be defined by retreat and subtraction. She who had abandoned the world outside the cloister walls found the microcosm of the community within too large.

Consumed by her struggle not merely to achieve mastery over self but to reduce that self, to strip away need and preference—desires as seemingly innocent and humble as for a warm bed, a tablemate who didn't insult or rebuke her—Thérèse consecrated her every sacrifice to God, for the purpose of saving souls. But the habit of self-abnegation promised a mortal salvation, too, one that would have been deeply compelling to Thérèse, who never admitted so heretical an agenda, or even consciously acknowledged it. Absolute impoverishment confers absolute power. What—who—could be taken away from her?

From Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, by Kathryn Harrison. © 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with Lipper/Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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