“My vocation is love!” These words of Thérèse of Lisieux caught my attention immediately. As a twenty-something trying to “figure out my life,” I found Thérèse’s bold statement jarring at first. But, as I reflected on her confident words, I found them reassuring and true. Who was this woman who was so passionate about love? What was her relationship with Jesus like? How can her story change my story? Might love become my vocation as well?
Most of what we know about Thérèse comes from her autobiography, Story of a Soul. In the book, Thérèse (calling herself the Little Flower) weaves together her spiritual journey with her life growing up in France during the late nineteenth century. One word describes her story: remarkable. However, don’t be fooled. On the outside, Thérèse’s journey is quite unremarkable. What stands out is the way that she took her simple, unassuming life and let the love of God transform every action and thought. Her most ardent desire was to give herself in service of Jesus, so in 1888 at age fifteen, she entered a Carmelite convent. Let me clarify something here. When you picture Thérèse as a nun, do not picture someone like Mother Teresa, out on the streets of the city feeding the hungry and giving clothes to the poor. She was a Carmelite nun, which meant that when she entered the convent at age fifteen, she would never again see the outside world. Clearly she did not join the religious life to be seen doing great things for God. She was called because of love, and in the walls of that convent, God’s love was radiating with such brilliance that we are still pondering the life of this Little Flower.
As Story of a Soul progresses, what is most remarkable is that Thérèse’s faith remains just as simple as it did when she was a child, though increasing in devotion and maturity. Hers was a humble understanding of the love of God—no task was too small to be used by God, no person too insignificant. She especially made it a point to love the sisters who annoyed her the most. One can imagine that, living in such close quarters to the other sisters, one’s patience would be tested often. Rather than become obsessed with the faults of the other sisters, she embraced them and rejoiced in them, saying “I ought to seek the companionship of those Sisters towards whom I feel a natural aversion, and try to be their good Samaritan. A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul” (Story of a Soul, ch. 10). She wanted to remain obscure, doing her acts of love in secret, because she could “only offer very little things to God” (Story of a Soul, ch. 11).
Thérèse is exceptional because she lived out her vocation of love with pure and honest sincerity within her context: the convent in Lisieux. That Thérèse was called to a hidden life seems obvious to those of us who have benefitted from her straightforward wisdom, but she struggled with her vocation on occasion, saying, “I want to be a warrior, a priest, an apostle, a doctor of the Church, a martyr… If only I were a priest!” (Story of a Soul, ch. 11). We all struggle with God’s call for our lives at some point. We compare ourselves to others and create misguided dreams and expectations of what we think God should want for us when most of the time all he wants is ourselves, obedient in the context he’s given to us. However, I can’t help but notice that if Thérèse had been called to be a warrior, a priest, an apostle, she would have been prohibited because of her gender and the time in which she lived.
The irony is that after her death Thérèse became all of the things she longed to be. She ministers to us and fights for the faith through her simple words of devotion and confidence in the love of God. She even became a doctor of the Church! As I reflect on Thérèse’s vocation and ponder my own, I am thankful for the options I have to live out a vocation of love. If God so leads me, I have the ability to minister to his people. Let us continue to live the little way, creating the space for all of God’s people, both men and women, to follow wherever God’s love might lead.