“From nature springs the fear of death, from grace springs audacity.”—Saint Thomas Aquinas
“Death grins broader in the pot every morning, and I grin at him and I show him his master. Oh, be blessed, blessed, blessed. I see nothing in this world but blue skies and our altars. . . . We talk now all day long of my death and how it will be just like the rest of the housework.” —Elizabeth Ann Seton
I want a certain faith like that of Elizabeth Ann Seton. I want to live with joy in front of suffering, even if my bones and tissues are ravaged by tuberculosis. I want to grin at death as she did, unafraid. I want to die as she did, firmly holding to Christ, certain that he, and not a yawning darkness, is what will meet me in the final moment.
I want such holy audacity, the fruit of grace, the inheritance of the saints. Today’s saint is a sure witness to me of this possibility, and a mentor on this path: Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Although she is also known as “The Little Flower”—a soft, feminine nickname, if ever there was one—Thérèse was anything but delicate.
Thérèse was born in 1873 into a middle-class French family that, from the perspective of holiness, was something of an all-star cast—her two parents are canonized saints and one sister is on the road. All the same, as a child, she suffered intensely—first from her mother’s untimely death and then from her own paralyzing sensitivity. Nevertheless, at the age of fourteen, she developed the desire to follow her two older sisters into the Carmelite convent. She entered the next year.
From this time to her death some eight and a half years later, Thérèse lived out what she herself called her “Little Way”, an “elevator ride” to holiness based not on extraordinary penances or mystical encounters, but on entrusting herself totally to God in and through the simple acts of the everyday.
After her death, this simple but revolutionary formula catapulted her to Catholic greatness. Before she was even canonized in 1927, Pope Pius X had already called Thérèse the “greatest saint of modern times.” And in 1997, one hundred years after her death, John Paul II raised her to the status of Doctor of the Church, which is to say that her “Little Way” is a sure teaching for Catholics of all time.
I first encountered Thérèse in that same year, on Holy Thursday, when I sat down to watch a French film version of her life by admitted atheist Alain Cavalier. Although Cavalier took some liberties with his presentation, his stark, minimalistic version of Thérèse’s life drew me right in.
In scene after scene in the film, Cavalier’s Thérèse appears in delicate gauzy white—her nightgown, her Carmelite cape, the wedding dress she wears when she pledges her vows to Christ. And yet, she is no frail ingenue. The drama that unfolds is a striking display of her inner certainty and undeniable boldness.
The scene that most affected me has the twenty-three-year-old Thérèse lying in the infirmary, suffering a painful death by tuberculosis. Her sister Céline who had also joined the convent, is acting as her nurse.
Thérèse speaks pointedly to her sister. “When I say “’I suffer,’ (je suffre)” she tells her, “you say ‘Good’ (bien).” Céline goes along, and there follows a series of quick cuts, snippets of scenes in which the ailing Thérèse repeatedly gasps the words “Je suffre”-and the obedient Celine replies “Bien.”
I suffer. Good.
I suffer. Good.
I suffer. Good.
As I witnessed this simple litany, Thérèse began to steal my heart.
Is not “I suffer!” the most basic of human cries, common to each one of us? Babies cry out in pain and hunger, as do people who are not even fully conscious. We have heard this cry again and again during the COVID-19 pandemic. This cry wells up from someplace deep in the brainstem; it is ancient as the psalmists’ lament. And yet, it finds a place precisely on Golgotha, in the anguish of the God-man who cannot help but cry out “why?”
But only in Christ can this cry attain to goodness. Only here does suffering become redemptive. And like every saint, Thérèse discovers and lives the link between suffering and goodness in union with the Suffering One.
But what Thérèse adds to the union with Christ in suffering is a holy audacity, a boldness, a thrilling “at-onceness.” For Thérèse, the secret of the holy life is an immediate giving up of the self, a surrender at the speed of light. And this is only possible because Thérèse’s soul is tremendously light. She attributes no great virtue to herself. She is simply a child, basking in the Father’s love. And with the sheer trust of a child she catapults herself confidently into the arms of God.
Simplicity. Alacrity. Audacity. The Little Way amounts to a sort of dizzying act of trust in God. It is, in fact, the Great Way and is a truly saintly maneuver. We see the same in the deathbed scene of Mother Seton.
She too is being ravaged by tuberculosis. She too is being nursed by her own kin. And like Thérèse, in this moment, her soul’s movements seem effortless. Her holiness becomes a kind of thrilling impetus for those around her. Death appears to have no hold.
Don’t we want this same boldness, this same courage? It seems the only way to get it is, in imitation of Thérèse, to throw ourselves into the arms of the Father.
Surrender, at the speed of light.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
This reflection was previously published. To view all the Seton Reflections, click here.