Near the end of the 19th century (1897), Therese of Lisiuex died at the age of 24, after spending nine years in a small convent. During the illness that took her life, Therese overheard one of her sister nuns say: “Sister Therese will die soon; what will our Mother Prioress be able to write in her obituary notice? ‘She entered our convent, lived and died’–there’s really is no more to say.” In fact, there is far more to say.
After her death, her autobiography (written only because the Prioress requested that she write it) revealed a young woman of incredible devotion and love. Therese lived by what she called “the little way.” It involved, she said, “only one thing: to strew before Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices. . . expecting everything from the good God.” Therese based her little way on two truths: It is always right to love as Jesus loved, and God delights to give us the capacity to love in that way. So, Therese was alert to what love demanded from her in the course of ordinary, daily life, and she lived that discipline under what she called “the veil of the smile.” She concealed with a smile the sacrifices she made, some small and some large, in order to care for her sisters in the community. Her smile was not hypocrisy; it was not an act. It was instead, a discipline she freely chose, expressive of the person she knew she was called to become, and, therefore, in some way, already was. Even four decades after her death, the surviving sisters who knew her spoke of here radiant face and her beautiful smile.
In her autobiography, Therese tells us how she found her calling. She was overwhelmed by “infinite desires,” to serve Jesus and she imagined herself as being, among other things, a Carmelite nun, mother of a large family of children, brave warrior, faithful priest, bold apostle, compassionate doctor, brave martyr, loyal guard of the papal residence in Rome, and insightful prophet.
She did not now what she should do, but she wanted her life to count. Then, one day as she meditated on 1 Corinthians, her life’s work became clear to her:
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 Love. . . my vocation, at last I have found it. . . my vocation is love (see David F. Ford, The Shape of Living. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997, pp. 121-122).
We live in a very different time and place and are very different people, most of us, than Therese of Lisieux. Nonetheless, she has touched the truth for all of us: no matter what we do, no matter what roles we play and jobs we do, our identity and our vocation–our name and our calling–is love.