She’s a saint whom many of us recognize, a saint of whom we have not just paintings but actual photographs. She’s one of the four female Doctors of the Church, a woman who believed that daily life gives us thousands of little ways to practice holiness.
She’s St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and I’m not alone in calling her one of the most compelling saints I know.
If you aren’t familiar with Thérèse, her brief life (she died of tuberculosis in 1897, at age twenty-four) is worth a look. Much has been written about her, including her well-known autobiography The Story of a Soul. But if you’re looking for a readable, brief but very rich introduction to her, the new book Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux: A Saint for Our Times by Patrick Ahern is a fantastic choice.
I should add here that I’ve read a lot about her, and I still got so much out of this book. It was published posthumously; Patrick Ahern, who was a priest and bishop, wrote it a few years before his death in 2011 at age ninety-two. It’s a real love letter to this saint who touched his life profoundly, offering not just a rich overview of her unique spirituality but also sharing personal stories about how her “Little Way” inspired Ahern and others he knows. These personal anecdotes really make this book sing.
One thing I’ve learned about myself: I get the most out of spiritual books when I feel like the author would be a good person to hang out with over coffee. (Prickly or pedantic writers need not apply.) Ahern meets my “café table” criteria; he comes across as such an honest, humble man who admits to the struggles he’s faced over his long life, and who is not afraid to show that he’s been in need of the wisdom and forgiveness of others. (His enthusiasm for spreading the wisdom of St. Thérèse is also infectious.)
As someone who knows a thing or two about anxiety disorders, I could especially relate to his story about facing panic attacks when going up to the pulpit to preach. The way that Thérèse was involved in helping him with that struggle was very beautiful (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers.) It’s a documented fact that Thérèse herself suffered from anxiety disorders — the signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder are evident in her writings — and that part of her own spiritual journey involved learning to let herself off the hook for these intrusive thoughts that she could not control. Hearing how Bishop Ahern was able to get a handle on his own anxiety was inspiring, and was my favorite part of the book.
I actually blogged last October about how Therese’s “Little Way” to holiness is perfect for the life of a mom of young children. Reading Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux, written so lovingly by a priest at the very end of his life, I’m struck by how universal a saint she is. Female or male, forty-something or ninety-something, married or celibate, mom or priest — she’s a saint for everyone, everywhere. If you don’t know her yet, this book is a terrific place to start.
Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux is published by Image Books, who kindly sent me a review copy. Today is also their Day of the Little Way, encouraging those with a love of Thérèse to share their thoughts/stories about her on social media. If you want to join the movement, check out their website!