Teresa and Therese – Feminine Perpectives of the Path to Holiness

Gina Gianmbrone
From the Jul/Aug 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Whenever their parish priest spoke about St. Teresa, Louis Martin would gently nudge his youngest daughter, Thérèse. “He’s talking about your patroness,” Louis would whisper to his little girl. Thanks to her father’s influence, St. Thérèse of Lisieux grew up with a special affection for her namesake, St.Teresa of Avila. She looked to Teresa as her model throughout her life, once telling a priest, “Father, I want to love God as much as St. Teresa did.”

Until a couple of years ago, I would have dismissed Thérèse’s pious wish as the sort of thing a saint-to-be would say, not the sort of thing I would say. Of course Thérèse wanted to love God as much as St. Teresa. Thérèse was holy. Holy people want to imitate the saints. Holy people want to love Jesus even more than they already do. But as for me, I was satisfied with loving Jesus exactly as much as I already did. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Him. It was just that I wasn’t inclined to empty any of the occupied space in my heart to make more room for Him.

But then I met St. Teresa of Avila. I had known who she was before. I even took her name at Confirmation back in eighth grade. But I didn’t really know her until I began to read her writings, study her life, and pray for her intercession. That’s all it took for an unrecognized feeling to begin welling up inside of me. For the first time in my very Catholic life, the concept of becoming holy intrigued me. I began to actually desire to fall in love with
Jesus. Perhaps there should be advisory stickers on St. Teresa’s writings, especially The Way of Perfection: “WARNING: This book may cause contrition and conversion. Side effects include increased love for Jesus and hatred of sin. Studies indicate that readers are more prone to engage in extended periods of prayer and voluntary acts of penance. Open at your own risk.”

While St. Teresa’s impact will not be the same on everyone, the Church nonetheless believes that an encounter with her is of universal value. That explains why she bears the distinction of being a Doctor of the Church. Regardless of the emotional impact of her writings, her exalted ecclesiastical status should be enough to merit a space for at least one of her books on any Catholic’s reading list, right next to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul.

Sisterly Similarity

When he whispered to his daughter at church, Louis Martin didn’t know that she would later record the memory in her now-famous autobiography. Neither did he know that his little Thérèse would share much more than a name with St. Teresa of Avila. Thérèse not only joined the Discalced Carmelite Order, which Teresa founded, but she also went on to become a saint and a Doctor of the Church as well.

The presence of Sts. Teresa and Thérèse (along with St. Catherine of Siena) among the esteemed ranks of the Doctors of the Church serves to remind women in particular that they have an “equal opportunity” to ascend to the peak of the Church’s spiritual hierarchy. Not that this was ever the goal. Neither Teresa nor Thérèse aimed for public admiration or ecclesiastical prestige. Rather, they emphasized the importance of humility and exemplified it in their lives. The virtue of humility is a common topic in St. Teresa’s writings, and St. Thérèse follows suit in her book as well. In fact, many themes overlap in the teachings of the two saints.

We can only speculate about how much direct influence Sr. Teresa of Jesus, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, spiritual leader, and religious reformer, actually had on Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, the nineteenth-century French girl who died before she was twenty-five. We do know that as a member of the Discalced Carmelites, Thérèse would have been familiar with Holy Mother Teresa’s writings. We also know that Thérèse adorned the wall of her cell with Teresa’s picture and one of Teresa’s favorite verses: “Forever will I sing the mercies of the Lord.” Thérèse employed these words at the beginning of her Story of a Soul, in which she occasionally makes direct reference to St. Teresa.

Little Works of Love

In her spiritual testimony, marked at least in part by St. Teresa’s influence, the Little Flower presented her Little Way. This simple program of sanctification has earned for Thérèse the love and devotion of countless Catholics, myself included. We could broadly summarize Thérèse’s Little Way in her advice to do little things with great love. She believed that even tiny gifts from a loving heart were pleasing to Jesus.

Thérèse spent her nine years as a Carmelite nun carrying out ordinary tasks with extraordinary love. As Bl. Teresa of Calcutta put it, Thérèse’s canonization shows that we can be canonized too; we only have to do the little, ordinary things of life. While St. Teresa inspired me to want to love Jesus more, St. Thérèse’s example helped me learn how I could begin to do that in regular life.

Thérèse smiled at a difficult nun instead of scowling at her. She quietly went thirsty so another sister could finish the cider. She chose the worst spot in the laundry room to spare the others from getting drenched. Thérèse took the real, if miniscule, struggles of daily life and turned them into opportunities to show love to Christ. But this approach was not entirely new; Teresa of Avila had presented the same idea centuries before. In the book
which many consider her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, St. Teresa writes: “The Lord does not look so much at the magnitude of anything we do as at the love with which we do it.” Teresa of Avila had articulated a fundamental principle of St. Thérèse’s spiritual doctrine. Years later, Thérèse gave us a prime example of how to put the principle into practice. Both of these women understood that Jesus does not require great works from us. All He asks is that we love Him with our whole heart, mind, and soul.

The Secret to Sanctity

St. Thérèse lived a life of selfless sacrifice. St. Teresa had mystical experiences, produced numerous written works, and reformed an ancient religious order. The Church has declared that both women exemplify holiness of life, but these activities were not at the root of their sanctity-fervent love for Christ made these women holy.

Both Teresa and Thérèse knew that this same love could sanctify others as well. They taught that anyone could become a saint, because love for Jesus is the source of holiness. As St. Thérèse wrote, no one should despair of reaching “the summit of the mount of love.” St. Teresa believed any person was capable of experiencing the perfect union with Jesus that she called “the Spiritual Marriage.” Both women chose beautiful images and poetic phrases when they reflected on the glories of loving Jesus.

As such, Sts. Teresa and Thérèse offer a special perspective on the nature of holiness. They reveal that sanctity is a divine romance, that holiness is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus. Through their uniquely feminine sensitivities, these holy women communicate the passionate and emotional joy of loving the Lord.

These two heavenly Doctors help cure spiritual stagnation by assuring us that making more room in our hearts for Christ is nothing to fear or avoid. On the contrary, the love of Jesus promises to fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart. Like Thérèse, we should want to love Jesus as much as St. Teresa did. It’s not just a pious wish. Loving Jesus is the path to true happiness in this life, and in the life to come.

Gina Giambrone is the author of The Four Teresas (Sophia Institute Press, 2006). She holds an MA from Franciscan University of Steubenville and works as a freelance writer and speaker

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