Many Catholics are familiar with the image of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux dressed in her Carmelite habit, holding a crucifix mixed in with some roses. A while back, I happened across a different image of Saint Thérèse ― one I had never seen before. Instead of holding a crucifix and roses, the young Carmelite nun was holding a book entitled, Evangile (French for “gospel”). Recalling the many Biblical quotes and references I had noticed in Thérèse’s writings, I felt instantly drawn to the portrayal. I’ve often wondered how someone who had died at the age of twenty-four and had lived in a time when Catholics (even nuns in convents) did not have ready access to a Bible had been able to achieve such a strong grasp of Scripture.
Thérèse Connects Scripture to Life ExperiencesThérèse’s older sister, Céline, painted the original of this image. That Céline chose to paint her sister holding the gospels is not surprising, for Thérèse clearly had a strong love for Scripture. The young saint was able to connect a wide variety of Bible verses to many moments in her life. For example, while writing about her desperate illness at the age of ten, Thérèse compared her woeful situation to the story of Lazarus as told in the eleventh chapter of John. Lazarus was deathly ill, but Jesus deliberately waited to help his friend, knowing a miracle was needed to demonstrate the glory of God.
Thérèse wrote that her painful experience was also somehow necessary for the glorification of God. After many days of this mysterious and debilitating illness, Thérèse turned toward a statue of Mary, begging for pity. All of a sudden the statue became miraculously surreal in appearance. It offered Thérèse a heavenly and motherly countenance of assurance and peace. Thérèse was at that moment completely healed.
When Thérèse wrote of memories of her confirmation, she did so in terms of Scripture. She compared the moment she was anointed with the Holy Spirit to what the prophet Elijah experienced at Mount Horeb, sensing God’s presence in a tiny whispering sound. (See 1 Kings 19:12-14)
Scripture and Thérèse’s Little WayThérèse favored two Old Testament verses which summed up her whole spiritual direction: “Let whoever is simple turn in here.” (Proverbs 9:4, NAB) and “Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike.” (Wisdom 6:7, NAB). Thérèse felt these verses illustrated her calling to know and understand God as purely as possible ― by having complete, childlike confidence in Him. This style of becoming little and simple in the eyes of God ultimately became known as her “Little Way.”
Slices of Biblical Exposure during her ChildhoodBorn in France in 1873, Thérèse grew up in a devout Catholic family that participated in many religious devotions: frequent Mass attendance, morning and evening prayer, feast-day celebrations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and more. In school Thérèse was a good student with a brilliant memory ― catechism and sacred history were her favorite classes.
Thérèse was also an avid reader. She treasured books on the saints and read Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ many times over. At the age of fourteen, about one year before entering the Carmelite convent, Thérèse wrote, “I was nourished for a long time on the ‘pure flour’ contained in The Imitation of Christ, this being the only book which did my any good, for as yet I had not discovered the treasures hidden in the Gospels.” She never mentions having had a Bible at her disposal during her childhood; however, it is clear that Thérèse was exposed to portions of Scripture through her participation in Catholic devotions, her religion lessons, and her love of reading.
Biblical Exposure in the ConventAfter entering the Carmelite convent, Thérèse was again intermittently exposed to segments of the Bible through a variety of sources. She had a breviary, which contained the Psalms and a smattering of other Bible passages mixed in with hymns and devotions. She participated in the Divine Office and other devotions that included excerpts from Scripture. We also know that Thérèse relished a great Carmelite style of prayer called “mental prayer,” a contemplative way of praying, usually by meditating on a passage from Scripture.
Thérèse’s spiritual sister as well as her blood sister, Céline, wrote a biography about Thérèse following her death, sharing even more insights. Before becoming a nun herself, Céline copied large sections of the Old Testament into a notebook and gave it to Thérèse when she joined her sister in the convent. Thérèse cherished this partial Old Testament. The verses offered her much to ponder during mental prayer and helped her to grow closer to the Lord. Céline also wrote that Thérèse kept a copy of the gospels with her almost constantly ― Perhaps Céline had this memory in mind when she painted Thérèse holding the gospels.
Céline described how Thérèse would often copy favorite verses onto cards, paper, or the back of pictures. Céline also noted that Thérèse struggled with the varying translations she happened to notice. The young saint once expressed an interest in understanding Hebrew and Greek, so as to comprehend God’s Word better. As time went on, Thérèse could no longer enjoy the great theological works she had read so fervently earlier in her life. The passages of Holy Scriptures to which she had access (she never had a complete Bible available to her) became her only true source of inspiration.
Bits and Pieces Come TogetherThérèse’s understanding of the Bible seems to have come together in a mystical and mosaic-like way. Her highly insightful enthusiasm and mysticism, blended with miscellaneous chunks of Scripture from a wide array of sources helped this young and childlike saint to develop a very impressive understanding of Scripture.
Note: A similar version of this article was printed in the October, 2006 issue of Liguorian.
The original portrait of St. Thérèse holding the Gospels is in Lisieux. The painted copy shown above is at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
Resources:Carmel de Lisieux, Souer Camille, Archive Office (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Clarke, John, O.C.D., ed., St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1977.
John Paul II Cultural Center
Martin, Céline, My Sister Saint Thérèse, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, 1951/1997.
Martin, Thérèse, Story of a Soul, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1972 edition.