St. Thérèse: The greatest sinner of modern times

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St. Therese
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In a private audience during his pontificate, Pope St. Pius X reportedly called St. Thérèse the “greatest saint of modern times.” I wholeheartedly agree. She has spent her heaven during good on earth, showering down roses and unleashing what his successor, Pius XI, called a “storm of glory.”

This is all true, but I’d also add that she is the greatest sinner of modern times. Perhaps even the greatest sinner since St. Augustine or at least St. Francis of Assisi.

To be sure, I’m being a bit playful, but to make a serious point: Thérèse profited greatly from her sins. She didn’t commit the greatest sins of modernity. In that sense, I alone have outdone her easily. But the Little Flower suffered her own failures and repented so wholeheartedly that all things worked together for her good, even her sins. What hell had planned in order to isolate her and destroy her, the Father used to draw his beloved daughter closer to himself and give her life in abundance, for he is rich in mercy.

Perhaps some readers may find this a strange approach to understanding St. Thérèse. Many see her as a nearly sinless nun, aloof from the struggles of us who feel so helpless to move past our miserable sins. But that is to mistake Thérèse. In contrast, she was a devotee of St. Mary Magdalene and all the women who repented in tears at Jesus’ feet, and she understood herself as a sister to even the most scandalous sinners, united to them in a sort of solidarity of repentance.

This saintly repentance was something dear to Thérèse’s heart, and she wanted to teach others. A few months before her death, on her sickbed, Thérèse gently yet directly corrected her sister, Mother Agnes, for not knowing how to profit from her failures and sins. How much more for each of us? How often do I ignore or squander the graces offered to me in the moments after my sin? How easily do I follow sin with sin!

St. Thérèse wants to teach us how to use our sins like manure, fertilizing the soil of our hearts to receive the seed of the Gospel and to bear fruit a hundredfold. Enter into her school, and join her in being the greatest sinners of modern times.


Never discouraged

Underlying her saintly repentance, St. Thérèse refused to be discouraged. She made this resolution at the age of 12, in preparation for her first holy Communion, writing straightforwardly in her retreat notebook: “I will not be discouraged.” She meant what she wrote, and throughout her life, she kept this simple but pivotal resolution.

She was not discouraged by own weakness. In fact, she wrote in her autobiography: “I am not disturbed at seeing myself weakness itself. On the contrary, it is in my weakness that I glory, and I expect each day to discover new imperfections in myself.” Even more, Thérèse was not discouraged even by her own sins. “Even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms.”

With her sensitive temperament and her saintly ideals, Thérèse surely felt pangs of sorrow when she sinned and failed, but she refused to allow these feelings of misery to lead to the choice of discouragement. She explains this in a prayer she wrote for another sister: “Alas! often in the evening I am sad because I feel I could have corresponded better with your graces. … And yet, O my God, very far from becoming discouraged at the sight of my miseries, I come to you with confidence.”

“My God, I know I have merited this feeling of sadness, but let me offer it up to You just the same as a trial that You sent me through love. I’m sorry for my sin, but I’m happy to have this suf­fering to offer to You.”

In another prayer, Thérèse reveals the spiritual battle at play with discouragement: “Every morning I make a resolution to practice humility and in the evening I recognize that I have committed again many faults of pride. At this I am tempted to become discouraged but I know that discouragement is also pride.” With the Spirit’s gift of knowledge, Thérèse rightly saw discouragement as a temptation of pride, disguised as false humility.

In addition to all of this, Thérèse also refused to be discouraged by the sins of others. She interceded zealously for the most scandalous sinners, and she called them her brothers. One of these was Father Hyacinthe Loyson, who was once an acclaimed preacher at Notre-Dame in Paris and a provincial for French Carmelites, but who left the Catholic Church, married an American Protestant, and then founded his own church. Thérèse called him “our brother, a son of the Blessed Virgin.” And in her correspondence with another priest and friend, she boldly writes: “You must know me only imperfectly to fear that a detailed account of your faults may diminish the tenderness I have for your soul!”

Struggling against scrupulosity


“Earlier in her life [Thérèse] suffered from the mental and spiritual pains of scrupulosity, harboring dreadful fears that her sins offended God and rendered her unworthy of his love. Later, through growth in true knowledge of the Catholic Faith, continuing prayer, and spiritual direction, she was able to cherish the fact of God’s mercy, as well as his justice. Realizing that he loved her (and each one of us) for the imperfect being she was, she developed her own “little way” to show God and neighbor her gratitude and love through all the normal, little things that can come to matter so much when done in the spirit of loving charity. Thérèse can be a most powerful ally in the quest to cope with scrupulosity, both as an intercessor and as a source of great spiritual wisdom, including her insights on good will.”

— From “Scrupulosity: Heal Your Mind, Unbind Your Soul, and Let God Work” by Kevin Vost (OSV, $18.95)

Confidence in the Father’s mercy

St. Thérèse paired her refusal to be discouraged with a great confidence in the Father’s merciful love. This confidence motivated the entirety of her life. She summarized this quite simply in a letter to her sister Marie: “It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love.” The goal of all things is the God of love, and our path to him is “nothing but confidence.”

While this confidence animated Thérèse’s entire life, she particularly emphasized it in terms of her sin and the Father’s mercy. She ended her autobiography with a great cry of confidence. She called upon the tax collector who beat his breast repentantly in the temple and upon the repentant woman who charmed Jesus with her tears and kisses. And then she cried out: “Yes, I feel it; even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms, for I know how much he loves the prodigal child who returns to Him.” Again, Thérèse is not indifferent to sin. It breaks her heart and saddens her deeply. Yet at the same time, she trusts the superabundant love of Jesus for all returning prodigals.

St. Thérèse
St. Thérèse as a novice at 16 years old in 1889.

In her sickbed conversation with Pauline, Thérèse again explained the reason for her confidence. No matter how greatly she could sin, she could never outdo the Father’s mercy. At best, her great collection of sins would be only a drop of water compared to the “fiery furnace” of the Father’s merciful love.

The challenge is to exercise this confidence in the immediate aftermath of some relapse into sin, and on this point, Thérèse is straightforward: Do not slink away from God. We must run to him.

“Even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms.”

Again and again in her writings, Thérèse contrasted those who flee in terror and those who run to God and take him by the heart. She expressed this poignantly in her parable of the little bird: “And yet after all these misdeeds, instead of going and hiding away in a corner, to weep over its misery and to die of sorrow, the little bird turns toward its beloved Sun, presenting its wet wings to its beneficent rays. It cries like a swallow and in its sweet song it recounts in detail all its infidelities, thinking in the boldness of its full trust that it will acquire in even greater fullness the love of Him who came to call not the just but sinners.”

For many of us, this choice becomes real in our decision to go to confession or to delay. When the Good Shepherd finds us entangled in the thorns of our sins, do we trust that he approaches us in tender mercy and that he will place us on his shoulders rejoicing? Or, instead, do we cry out like the demons: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mk 1:24). When I stand on the edge of this decision, I can imagine Thérèse standing next to me, like St. Joan of Arc calling forth courage from her once-defeated troops. Here the words from the Letter to the Hebrews strike the heart: “We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life” (10:39). Onward to confession and to victory!

Intimacy of reconciliation

With her filial confidence in the Father’s merciful love, Thérèse understood that her need for his mercy opened her to ever greater intimacy with the Father.

In preparing for her first confession, Thérèse asked her sisters if she should tell the priest that she loved him with all her heart, since her sisters had told her to speak as if directly to God. This question may seem childish, but it carries a deep wisdom. Forgiveness is a moment of great intimacy. It is in the confessional that we can experience just how merciful, personal and life-giving is the love of Jesus Christ.

For we can hear great homilies about the love of God, yet the words don’t always penetrate our hearts. But when we go to confession with hearts broken by sin yet trusting in the Father’s merciful love, then a simple word of love becomes a treasured revelation and a foretaste of heavenly peace. That’s why confessionals are usually stocked with tissues.

Thérèse expressed this intimacy of reconciliation in her parables of two mischievous sons, one who flees from his father and the other who runs to him. This latter son begs the father to “punish him with a kiss,” and Thérèse is supremely confident that the father will respond with such intimate love, even though he knows that his son’s repentance is still imperfect and that he will likely cause more mischief.

But what about the demands of justice? How could a kiss be a fitting punishment given the horror of our sin? Remember that divine justice is not simply the doling out of punishment for each sin, like a human criminal system. Rather justice is a matter of putting relationships back into right order. Our sins disrupt and confuse this order. We forget who we are and who God is. Often, in our sinfulness, we see God as a master to be opposed or circumvented. In the moment of reconciliation, God reveals that he is our loving Father, and in his justice, he teaches us to be his child. Thérèse knew to run to him, filled with the Spirit, crying out “Abba! Father!”

With Thérèse, we can base this bold confidence on the many Gospel passages when Jesus reconciles sinners with such tender love. I would particularly highlight how Jesus reconciled Peter after his three denials. First, the Risen Lord cooks breakfast and calls Peter to come and eat. Then, having filled his stomach, Jesus goes for Peter’s heart. He doesn’t scold him or shame him. He doesn’t demand proof that he will never make any future mistakes. Rather, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” (Jn 12:15).

For us, what better way to receive Jesus’ love and to profess ours to him than to fly to the confessional as soon as he draws us. “Forgive me, Father” is very close to “Jesus, I love you.” And perhaps the intimacy after reconciliation will be greater than the intimacy before the sin.

St. Thérèse’s daily offering

O my God! I offer You all my actions this day for the intentions and for the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I desire to sanctify every beat of my heart, my every thought, my simplest works, by uniting them to His infinite merits; and I wish to make reparation for my sins by casting them into the furnace of His merciful love. O my God! I ask You for myself and for those whom I hold dear, the grace to fulfill perfectly Your holy will, to accept for love of You the joys and sorrows of this passing life, so that we may one day be united together in heaven for all eternity. Amen.

Welcoming God-sized mercy

An essential part of this intimacy is approaching mercy and forgiveness on Jesus’ terms, and here Thérèse shows herself to be an attentive bride of the Bridegroom. She wrote to Jesus: “Is Your disdained Love going to remain closed up within Your heart?” She knew that her spouse has an abundance of love to pour out but so few souls to receive it.

She states her response to Jesus’ abundant mercy in her momentous Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. In that oblation, she prays: “I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love, asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within you to overflow into my soul.” In other words, she does not ask for mercy proportioned to her needs, but proportioned to Jesus’ generosity. She welcomed God-sized mercy.

“It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love.”

To better explain this, I’ll propose a rather strange analogy. Jesus offers us mercy like an Italian-American hostess serves lasagna. The hostess feeds her guests because they are hungry, yet her serving size is not proportioned just to their hunger. Rather, she dishes out the lasagna in proportion to her hospitality and the very goodness of lasagna, so that even if they are no longer that hungry, she still is putting more lasagna on their plates because she’s rightly proud of her dish. Similarly, with Jesus, he offers us mercy because we need healing, but he does not limit his mercy to just healing us. He longs to pour out the riches of his mercy in proportion to his love and the very goodness of his mercy. He loves to be merciful. He wants to give us second helpings and even thirds!

Saint Therese of Lisieux
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Another way to understand this God-sized mercy is to realize that what makes our sins so sinful is our puny desires behind them. We stretch out for the bitter fruit that cannot satisfy, and we ignore the life-giving fruit that God wants to give us. The prodigal son only asked for half of the father’s inheritance, when the father wants to give to his sons all that he has and all that he is, as he told the older brother: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Lk 15:31).

If our sins expect too little from God, how easily can our repentance also expect too little from God. Let us repent not only of asking too little from the goodness of God. Let us repent also of expecting too little of his mercy. His heart is wide open. He is pierced with love. Let us drink deeply at the stream of his delights.

Fruitful repentance

Thérèse offers us one more lesson in how to sin like a saint. She offered up the sufferings from her own sins, not just enduring them as her punishment, but presenting them to God as a sacrifice.

As mentioned above, Thérèse corrected her sister, Mother Agnes, on this very point. Agnes was tending to her dying sister, and she shared with her sister about her own discouragement over a fault. Thérèse mustered her strength to teach her older sister a different way to respond to one’s faults: “I hasten to say to God: My God, I know I have merited this feeling of sadness, but let me offer it up to You just the same as a trial that You sent me through love. I’m sorry for my sin, but I’m happy to have this suf­fering to offer to You.”

Pope Francis uses incense to venerate an image of St. Thérèse of Lisieux during a prayer vigil in 2019. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Many Catholics were taught by their parents to offer it up when we suffer, and we know to apply this when we suffer because of life’s hardships, the failings of others or the penances of Christian life. Thérèse dared to apply it to her suffering because of her own sins, as if she were offering up a trial sent by God, and she did this with a joyful heart. Yes, she knew that one suffering came from her fidelity to God and the other came from her infidelity. But Thérèse trusted the Father to forgive her infidelity and to receive her meager offering, to sanctify it and to make it fruitful.

“I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love, asking you to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within you to overflow into my soul.”

St. Paul gives us a basis for this daring hope when he writes to the Romans: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (8:28). Sometimes, we think that God only works through godly things to accomplish his purpose. But both Paul and Thérèse knew that Jesus Christ is Lord, and he reigns over all creation, even the places where we doubt his presence or power. For “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

A great example of this offering up is King David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51, when he prays: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn” (v. 19). We do not offer up sacrifice only when our heart is put together and feels holy. Rather, the Lord particularly cherishes the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart. He desires our trust, even when we have just broken trust with him.

Thérèse’s Little Way

Through the daily multiplication of such small incidents, Thérèse perfected her famous “Little Way” to holiness. Being a small person with a small soul, she reasoned, she lived in an environment that invited only small deeds of kindness. But perform those acts with great love in total obedience to the will of God and the result was something great.

“My vocation is love,” she wrote. “… I, too, would like to find an elevator to lift me up to Jesus, for I am too little to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” Addressing her prioress, she explained: “My dear Mother, you can see that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things. … I ask Jesus to draw me into the flames of his love, to unite me so closely to him that he live and act in me.”

From Russell Shaw’s article, “St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the story of a soul who lived the little way”

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Sister and teacher

In all these ways, Thérèse shows herself a sister and teacher to all of us, in our own littleness and even our sinfulness. She protects us against the subtle and deadly temptations to discouragement and despair. How often the tempter insinuates that we should already abandon all hope, as if we had already passed through the gates of hell. But Thérèse proclaims the faith in Jesus Christ that always prevails against those deadly gates.

Thérèse loved her littleness, yes, but in a way that welcomed the Lord to make her a mighty warrior. Now in heaven, she stands ready with all the holy ones to defend us, especially in those moments after our falls and sins, that we may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and be filled with all the fullness of God.

Father Joseph Martin Hagan

Father Joseph Martin Hagan, OP, is associate chaplain at the Catholic University of America. He is also a member of the Dominican friars’ bluegrass band, The Hillbilly Thomists.