Snapshots of Sanctity: Flip Through St. Thérèse’s ‘Family Album’
BOOK PICK: ‘Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Living on Love’
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Living on Love
By Father Didier-Marie Golay, O.C.D.
Ignatius Press, 2021
Thérèse Martin’s youthful smile seems to leap off the page.
Tender scenes of domesticity abound.
Holy insights are duly noted.
Surprising details are brought to light.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Living on Love is an all-in-one biography of a popular saint and her family, an art book, and a lesson in loving God and family. This oversize book is beautiful in every way, from the page-turning writing to more than 150 stunning photographs and artwork — all showcasing the world and life of “the greatest saint of modern times,” as Pope St. Pius X called Thérèse, the Little Flower.
In the introduction, Carmelite Father Didier-Marie Golay, the author and chaplain of Lisieux, stated that he wanted to preserve the simple and pleasant dimension of a family album for this workfilled with photographs of the Martin family and their relatives and places they lived and visited, highlighting St. Thérèse from her childhood through her years at Carmel. It invites readers to linger, learning about her, her saintly family, and her life and writings in the convent.
This book makes it seem as if one were living right alongside not only Thérèse, but the whole Martin family, watching as they cultivated their domestic church through the years. Readers “accompany” Thérèse and see the main influences on her life, from her parents and siblings to her Carmelite sisters. At the same time, readers also receive an excellent personal look into her father and mother, now Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, and her sisters, all of whom also became nuns.
This album is chockful of photographs of people and places, with many of Thérèse herself that her sister Céline (who followed her into the Carmel as Sister Geneviève) took with the camera their father bought her.
Pages are sprinkled with photos of personal items and effects, such as Thérèse’s baptismal robe and cradle, along with manuscripts from her birth certificate to handwritten letters and even a play script. Her childhood long curls have been preserved, too, as a photo attests. Photos of Zélie’s workroom and office as well as the Alençon needle lace she made are included; there are also images of Louis’ workroom desk and the clock he made for the family mantle.
We see what Thérèse saw daily at Carmel, too, such as the statue of the Good Shepherd by the choir, and statues of St. Joseph outside and the Immaculate Conception inside the Carmel chapel. Thérèse liked to throw flowers to St. Joseph. “This touching scene [of the saint honoring another saint] says much about the depth of the spiritual bond that Thérèse preserved with Saint Joseph,” writes Father Golay. “She did not speak much about him, however, but that suits him well who, with his silence, accompanied the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus.”
Then there is the image of St. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Crucified that Thérèse kept in her missal and the magnificent chasuble she made from her mother’s wedding dress while at Carmel. Holy cards she made for herself and for brothers and sisters who died as infants or in early childhood are also featured. Other examples of her artwork, such as the fresco around the tabernacle in the oratory of the sick, highlight her holy heart.
Portrait of an Artist
The author calls two of her pieces of art a “kind of self-portrait. The one that she painted herself on the wall of the oratory of the sick. Among a dozen angels, forming an honor guard around the Monstrance, is a child who is asleep (she does not have wings) and is pressing on her heart a lyre and a lily. Sleep of a child’s confident abandonment, the radiance of the lily of the valley that is Christ Jesus, the song of the lyre. … We find all these various symbols in the letters written during this period.”
The Martin family comes to life not only through old photos but also in various charcoal and ink drawings, like the wonderfully detailed charcoal drawing of Thérèse and her “dear King,” her father Louis, which radiates the great love and affection she had for him. It was done by her sister Céline. Céline’s paintings significant to Thérèse, whether done before or while in the monastery, also appear in the book.
Along the way, readers also see beautiful images done by Thérèse herself that played an important spiritual role. Two that she herself did not draw or paint were images of Joan of Arc. Not only was she devoted to this saint, but little did she realize one day this maiden of Lisieux would be named co-secondary patron of France along with the Maiden of Orléans.
Thérèse “spent hours contemplating holy pictures. Reading also played an important part,” writes Father Golay. One book that was integral to her spiritual life was The Imitation of Christ, translated by Father de Lamennais, “which in the end she knew by heart and from which she could recite entire chapters. She quotes from this work some 50 times in her various writings.”
Perfectly weaving together this story of St. Thérèse is a rich text. We learn about her early life not only from Thérèse herself but from her interactions with others, especially her sisters Pauline, Marie and Céline.
The story of her healing by Our Blessed Mother in the image of Our Lady of the Smile is told by her to her sister Marie, who later recounted it. Other very touching parts about Thérèse and the family come through quoted letters written by Zélie that show the faith, prayer and good works central to their family’s life.
“We picked beautiful bouquets for the month of Mary, and we were very happy with this outing,” Zelie recounts of a typical time walking with her family in the fields after Mass. “On our way back we met a poor old man. … I sent Thérèse to bring him a few alms. He seemed so touched by this and thanked us so much that I saw he was very unfortunate. I told him to follow us and that I was going to give him some shoes. He came, and we served him a good dinner; he was dying of hunger.”
Other words of wisdom include a few poems or stanzas from poems that Thérèse wrote. “Love had been the driving force of her whole existence,” explains Father Golay. “And we can see some of her life and her message with the title of one of her poems: ‘Living on Love.’”
In one stanza she writes;
Living on Love is giving without limit
Without claiming any wages here below.
Ah! I give without counting, truly sure
That when one loves, one does not keep count!
Living on Love is sailing unceasingly,
Sowing peace and joy in every heart.
Beloved pilot, charity impels me,
For I see you in my sister souls.
Charity is my only star. In its brightness I sail straight ahead.
Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face also composed two beautiful prayers to Jesus. And she talks about abandoning oneself to Divine Mercy years before that became well known as a Church devotion.
We learn of Thérèse’s nightly custom of scattering flowers to honor Jesus on the tall crucifix in the Carmel courtyard, having her novices throw roses, too, and the spiritual meaning behind it.
Throughout, readers also see in her writings the teachings of her “Little Way.” As Thérèse writes, “Ah! How little known goodness, the merciful love of Jesus. … It is true, to enjoy these Treasures one must humble oneself, recognize one’s nothingness, and that is what many Souls do not want to do.” And “what offends Jesus and what wounds his heart is the lack of confidence!”
What a matchless treasure this book is — a must-have for not only St. Thérèse devotees, but for anyone who would like to learn more about, as Pius X said, this “greatest saint of modern times.”