A Doctor of the Church for Our Times

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] Her little way seemed “too small in fact for [her] notice”, especially when compared to weighty, socio-political concerns.[5] 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.”[6] 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.

What Dorothy Day discovered in Thérèse has been recognized by people holding a variety of standpoints, both religious and non-religious. Although she was cloistered from the age of fifteen until her death from tuberculosis at age twenty-four, Thérèse is “known all over the world.”[7] As Patrick Ahern reminds us, this is remarkable given that, during her life, Thérèse was only known by her “family, a few friends and schoolmates, and two dozen nuns who shared her life in the convent.”[8] Following her death, however, her message of divine love spread around the world.

Over 900 biographies have been written about her, many of which mine her writings for her penetrating insights into the integration between psychology and the spiritual life. She is the most quoted female saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and appeals to those on the margins of society.[9] Alongside St Francis of Assisi, she is one of the saints who most appealed to those living under Communism’s violent persecution of Christians and other similar religious groups.[10] Mother Teresa of Calcutta took her religious name from the young saint of Carmel and, while still a cardinal, Pope Francis was known to include an image of Thérèse in the letters he wrote. To this day, he ensures that one of her books is with him when he travels.

Thérèse possessed an authentically missionary heart, longing to bring the message of Christ as “the way, truth, and life” (John 14:6) to others. In her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul, she describes her missionary spirit in the following way: “Ah! in spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostle. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your Name [Jesus]” but “O My Beloved, one mission alone would not be sufficient for me; I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages.”[11] Here, we see her way of humility at work; she knew she was only one person but believed that, as a daughter of God, the amount of goodness that could be worked through her was incalculable.

Thérèse models authentic humility. Too often, we view humility as timidity and self-loathing dressed up as virtue. Rather, humility is a calm confidence in the providence of God. Thérèse called this a fruit of the “doctrine of charity.”[12] Through her teaching of this doctrine she was elevated to the status of co-patron of missionaries, alongside St Francis Xavier, and declared the youngest Doctor of the Church by Pope Saint John Paul II on 19 October 1997, the centenary of her death.


Living a quiet and hidden life in the Lisieux Carmel, dying from tuberculosis at the young age of twenty-four, and leaving behind no systematic body of theological writings, it may initially seem surprising that St. Thérèse was so recently declared a Doctor of the Church for our times. This surprise becomes even greater when we remember that she is the only saint John Paul II declared a Doctor of the Church during his lengthy pontificate. It is incumbent upon us to know why she is the doctor of our times.

Scanning over ecclesiastical history, we see that Doctors of the Church are often best known for their substantial and systematic or mystical writings which speak to, and redress, the intellectual, spiritual and doctrinal concerns of their times. Thérèse wrote no theological treatises and her spiritual writings, collected letters and poetry reveal a style deeply personal and poetic, profoundly substantive yet markedly distinct from most of the other Church doctors. (Although echoes of other doctors, especially Augustine, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Ávila saturate her writings).

Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, explains that the Church (her followers, friends and saints) has the “duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (§7). In so doing, Christianity seeks to speak in “language intelligible to each generation” so as to “respond to the perennial questions” concerning “this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other” (Ibid.). Throughout history, the saints have played a special role in this call to, as the document puts it, “recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings and its often dramatic characteristics” (Ibid.).

In his 2002 reflection, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”, Cardinal Ratzinger comes to similar conclusions. The saints, he says, are those throughout history (both hidden and known) who witness to Christian revelation with their lives. They draw us into “close contact with the beauty of Christ himself” for the “world of beauty created by [the] faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints” enables the singular beauty of Christ to “become visible,” throughout history and across the world. Saints given the title of Doctor of the Church” play a particular role in making aspects of divine providence visible throughout history. Later, as Benedict XVI, he notes that the “declaration that a saint is a Doctor of the Universal Church implies the recognition of a charism of wisdom bestowed by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church.”[13]

What is the particular charism of Thérèse? Her ability to manifest, to teach the “doctrine of charity” to us. In large part this is why John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church, saying that she is given to us as a “Teacher for our time, which thirsts for living and essential words, for heroic and credible act of witness,” for sympathetic hearts sensitive and attuned to the relevance of the “unchanging Gospel” in “whatever changes can be noted in the course of history.”[14]

Born in 1873, Thérèse lived on the brink of an emerging late modernity—which John Paul II, in his 1979 visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, called our “difficult century.”[15] Characterised by a growing sense of alienation, anxiety, power politics, and a burgeoning secularization, our modern age has caused many of our contemporary wounds. In Thérèse, Providence has shown us that the particular strains of our time require a different kind of doctor: someone who has endured the difficulties of our age and knows how to call the higher science of divine love, of divine mercy into our present conditions.

From her childhood, Thérèse felt called, with her missionary heart, to endure the drama of her age so as to bring the light of Christ to those who suffered. She personally bore many of the wounds so characteristic of our times—including bouts of burdensome anxiety; the loss of her mother to cancer; panic attacks and neuroses; profound social misunderstanding (even from members of her own religious community); the loss of her father shortly after she entered the Lisieux Carmel; a slow death by tuberculosis, which aggravated her sensitivities and anxieties; and an accompanying dark night of the soul, in the final period of her life, that plunged her into a depressive abyss—which, she believed, helped her empathize with the existential plight of those who do not believe in God, with her “brother atheists” (as she viewed them).

Indeed, Thérèse’s interest in, and care for, those who suffer and those who held worldviews dramatically different from her own has inspired an extensive literature in its own right. As just two examples, the agnostic psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, has written a gripping study of the Carmelite charism and Bridget Edman, a Swiss Carmelite based at the Cape Town Carmel in South Africa, recently published an imagined dialogue between Thérèse and Nietzsche, entitled: Nietzsche Is My Brother (2010). Unlike the leading, atheist philosophies and political philosophies of her time—as propounded by Nietzsche, Comte, Marx, and company—Thérèse found the presence of God not only in her sufferings but through them.

In the hidden yet rich drama of Thérèse’s life we find, as Christopher Wojtulewicz has recently put it, the emergence of a “new language . . . to confront the struggles of our present time,” thereby “reawakening the apostolic origins of Christianity,” and reminding any of us who feel alienated or lost that our primary identity is one of divine filiation, that we are God’s children. Wojtulewicz also reminds us that the Jesuit theologian, Erich Przywara, held that the “new language” of Thérèse’s attentive spirituality shows how akin she was to another saint of emerging late modernity, St. John Henry Newman. In both, we find the “simple” and thoughtful observations of “real life” meet “concrete religiosity”, concrete devotion, the sense that—as Newman would put it—God is not merely notional but real, personal, our creator.

As I have noted elsewhere, ahead of Newman’s canonization last year:

In our increasingly relativistic culture, both Newman and Thérèse recall us to the reality that . . . the goodness, truth, and beauty of Christ sets us free. In our increasingly commodified culture, both Newman and Thérèse invite us to imitate the humble [way of the] hidden lives of the holy family. In our increasingly isolating times (in which the British Parliament has even appointed a “Minister [for] Loneliness”), Newman and Thérèse remind us that we are not only called to friendship with others but to intimate encounter, and friendship, with Christ. These are reminders, for our specific historical moment, that the entire Church has been given, in unique ways, through the lives of Thérèse and Newman.

It is the witness of Thérèse’s entire life which St. John Paul II offers to us as a model of hope and friendship with God in our times. As importantly, her sense of divine filiation, of being God’s daughter, also opens up to us a way to face and make sense of one of the most persistent mysteries of the human experience: the “problem of pain”, as CS Lewis would put it.[16]


Very often, when Thérèse is discussed a focus is placed on her devotion to the Child Jesus, her “little way,” and the hope she has inspired in so many. However, it is important to also remember that her full, religious name is Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The Feast of the Holy Face of Christ was first established by Pope Pius XII on Shrove Tuesday in 1958. Fittingly, he established the feast as a reminder that meditating on, and participating in, Christ’s passion allows us to begin the spiritual pilgrimage that brings us through the Lenten desert and into the joy of Easter and new life.

The devotion to the Holy Face is also “associated” with two material artifacts revered in the Christian Churches: Veronica’s Veil and the Shroud of Turin—which is “believed by the faithful to be the burial cloth of Christ” and bears an imprint of a crucified man’s body. Thérèse learned of this devotion to the Holy Face during her Carmelite novitiate, especially as it circulated with renewed enthusiasm amongst the Carmelites of the nineteenth century as a result of various mystic revelations shared by Sister Marie of St. Pierre, a contemporary of Thérèse’s, who lived in the Tours Carmel. The divine revelations granted Sister Marie often parallel those received by Sister Faustina in Poland, in the early half of the twentieth century.

Thérèse found in this devotion an indescribable consolation and confidence. This opened up to her the greater meaning found in suffering when it is united to Christ. However, this confidence was hard won and repeatedly tested. Thérèse admitted that the thought of death frightened her. She resisted this, clinging instead to the heart of the Christian faith. Which, as she explains, tells us that heaven is a place of “everlasting repose . . . that never-ending Sunday” of the land of our Father.[17] She learned this lesson the hardest way, through experience.   

I opened this reflection by sharing how little Thérèse had wished for her parents’ death so that they would begin real and full life with Christ in heaven. This early childhood conviction was sorely tested and refined through a crucible of suffering which started when she was only a few years old. She lost her mother to breast cancer when she was only four and a half. She lost her surrogate mother, her sister Pauline, to a Carmelite convent when she was still quite young. Just after joining the Lisieux Carmel, her beloved father, St Louis Martin, had to be hospitalized for three years and he died shortly thereafter, in 1894. Thérèse, herself, would endure the long, slow death of tuberculosis, crying out at times that were it not for her faith in Christ she would have taken her own life. By the end of her short life at age twenty-four she had already experienced a lifetime of suffering.

It is important to remember how wracked with pain Thérèse’s life had been. Otherwise, it is easy to view her as that writer of “pious pap” (to return to Dorothy Day) who supplies us with poetic maxims but has not entered into the mystery of Christ’s passionate redemption. Indeed, Thérèse herself said that we have to experience something to “know what it is.”[18] In her writings, we see the degree to which she advanced quickly in the spiritual life by embracing her suffering, discerning in each day the presence of God, and developing an imaginative and devotional sensibility we could call cruciform in shape.

The poetry she wrote during her time in the Lisieux Carmel shows the degree to which her aesthetic sensibility was imbued by a Christian consciousness, that “science of the cross” as St. Edith Stein would call it some decades following Thérèse’s death. The Little Flower’s prayer dedicated to the Holy Face, to the suffering Christ, which draws on her meditations on Isaiah, especially reveals this: “O Jesus,” she says in a prayer,

Who in Thy bitter Passion didst become “the most abject of men, a man of sorrows,” I venerate Thy Sacred Face whereon there once did shine the beauty and sweetness of the Godhead; but now it has become for me as if it were the face of a leper! Nevertheless, under those disfigured features, I recognize Thy infinite Love and I am consumed with the desire to love Thee and make Thee loved by all men. The tears which well up abundantly in Thy sacred eyes appear to me as so many precious pearls that I love to gather up . . . O Jesus, whose adorable Face ravishes my heart, I implore Thee to fix deep within me Thy divine image and to set me on fire with Thy Love, that I may be found worthy to come to the contemplation of Thy glorious Face in Heaven.

Yoking together the language of desire and the language of devotion, Thérèse’s prayer shows the degree to which her Christian sensibility grew into a rich, aesthetic form, rooted in a personal relationship with Christ. The prayer examples Christian art at its most mature, showing the degree to which personal expression, constructed according to the grammar of the cross, shows the distinctively cruciform pattern of the Christian imagination. For, as Erich Przywara pointed out, “the ‘scandal of the folly of the Cross’, which is plainly revealed to the senses, appears as the origin, measure, and defining goal of Christian sacred art.”[19] As with her beloved John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse’s prayer became increasingly poetic, personal and mystical as it drew nearer to the cross in her years at Carmel. Her poetry became imbued with the charism of Carmel.

In his penetrating study on the life of Thérèse, Hans Urs von Balthasar shows how she entered into a greater engagement with the world and its sufferings by, paradoxically, retreating into the quiet depths of Carmelite spirituality, saying:

Far from being a flight from the world, Carmel and all purely contemplative forms of life in the church extrapolate the encounter between the world and the living God of Jesus Christ to its most radical point. In the language of scripture, “wilderness” means the dumfounded nakedness and demonic decadence of a world stripped of her green finery, on the one hand, and a place of undistorted, unmitigated encounter with the living God, on the other hand: “a land naked and pitted, dried up and darkened, a land through which no man passes and in which no man dwells” (Jer 2:6) yet a land toward which God still “seductively” redirects his Bride in order to “speak to her heart-to-heart” (Hos 2:14).[20]

It is in Carmel and her personal passion that Thérèse’s life conformed to and fulfilled the aspirations of her poem-prayers.

When Thérèse contracted tuberculosis, she underwent all the horrors of this disease, including coughing up blood, the inability to eat, constant fatigue and fever, heavy sweats, delirium, and difficulties breathing. In her seminal work, The Hidden Face: A Study of Thérèse (1959), Ida Frederike Görres spends a significant amount of time detailing the kind of agony the young saint underwent as her life drew to a close, “With moving simplicity, Thérèse accepted the painful weaknesses her failing [and disease-ridden] body imposed upon her. Her slow-starvation—for a long time she was able to take only liquid nourishment—engendered vivid fantasies of greed, as is often the case,” and these, in addition to her spiritual dark night, made her fear she was on the brink of losing her reason.[21] Turning to poetry to describe this dark period in Thérèse’s life, Alfred Barrett, SJ says the devotee of the Holy Face embraced her everyday crosses; in her “lowliness and love and anguish” we find, he says, her “blind” with “the beauty of a stark Gethsemane.”[22]

In order to receive a full picture of Thérèse, it is important that we think about the story of her suffering so as to have a sense of her as a whole person, thereby avoiding what Görres calls the “hagiographer’s temptation”—meaning, the tendency to sugar coat or white wash the real struggles of the saints who dared to face the difficulties of existence head-on, and, in so doing, peacefully witnessed to hope as opposed to despair.[23] In exploring Thérèse as a woman who endured many of the burdens particular to our times—anxiety, loss, separation from our loved ones, doubt, the fear of death—we find an example of the Christian sensibility particularized, made flesh. As many of us know, her inspiration does not end with the hidden, quiet witness of her short life, which flowered in the desert of Carmel—where, as von Balthasar notes, the “encounter between the world and the living God of Jesus Christ” is brought “to its most radical point.”[24]

It is remarkable how many stories, gathered from around the world, testify to Thérèse’s spiritual friendship and accompaniment in the decades following her death. “We need look no farther afield than Scotland”, last year, “to see how [her]‘depths of charity’ have touched so many, across this country, in personal and local ways.”[25] In late August and September of last year, many of us had the privilege to venerate her relics when they arrived to Scottish shores. The stories of hope and healing that emerged from this visit alone remind us that she continues to intercede on behalf of those whom God has especially given to her. The theme for this year’s Catholic education week in the Scottish Catholic Church was Christ as the way, truth and life (John 14:6). In Thérèse we see how the way of Christ is possible in the events which make up the drama of daily life in modernity. She is our doctor: the one who forecasts our times to us and prescribes the medicine of Divine Love.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was originally delivered as the 2020 Cardinal Winning Lecture, hosted by the St. Andrew's Foundation at the University of Glasgow.

[1] Dorothy Day, Thérèse (Indiana: Ave Maria, 2016), 70.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Udris. Holy Daring (Gracewing, 1997), 59.

[4] Robert Ellsberg. “Foreword” in Thérèse by Dorothy Day, vii.

[5] Dorothy Day. “Preface” in Thérèse, xiv.

[6] Day, xii.

[7] Patrick Ahern, “Introduction” in Maurice and Thérèse (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 5-7.


[11] Thérèse of Lisieux. Story of a Soul (Washington: ICS, 1996), 192-193.

[12] Ibid, 242.

[14] Pope John Paul II. Divini Amoris Scientia. 19 October 1997.

[15] Pope John Paul II. “Homily of His Holiness Pope John Paul II” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 7 June 1979.

[16] CS Lewis. The Problem of Pain (London: HarperCollins, 1997).

[17] Story of a Soul, 42.

[18] Story of a Soul, 147.

[19] Erich Pryzwara. “Beautiful, Sacred Christian” in Analogia Entis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman, 2014), 554.

[20] Hans Urs von Balthasar. Two Sisters in the Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 10.

[21] Ida Frederike Görres. The Hidden Face: A Study of Thérèse of Lisieux (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 371.

[22] Quoted in Patrick Ahern’s Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love (New York: Doubleday, 1998).

[23] Ibid, 398-399.

[24] Von Balthasar, 10.

[25] Rebekah Lamb. “The Famous Saints Still Winning Over Hearts and Minds.” The Scottish Catholic Observer. 4 October 2019.

Featured Image: unknown photographer, Therese of Lisieux, taken between 1888 and 1896; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Rebekah Lamb

Rebekah Lamb is a Lecturer in Theology & the Arts at the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews, UK.

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