O, Little Flower, Bloom
A reflection about St. Therese of Lisieux’s spirituality, life, and preferred form of prayer.
Unlike other saints well known for their laundry list of accomplishments, St. Therese of Lisieux lives a hidden, ordinary life; however, what she lacks in great works, she makes up for in her piety and childlike simplicity. Her spiritual journey starts in her household, as her parents, Louis and Zelie, aspire to be a Saint and a monk, respectively. Everything they do with the leading lady, as well as her sisters, aligns not only with the Catholic faith but with their unconditional, familial love. The future nun especially has a tight bond with her mother, but she dies from breast cancer when Therese is four and a half years old.
Traumatized, she unconsciously displays childish behaviors as she gets older like temper tantrums. Her older sister, Pauline, conversely, is forced to mature much quicker as she assumes the role of second mother: teaching her and her younger sister, Marie, and serving as an excellent role model for love and grace. Even so, the eldest child must leave to answer her call to the Carmelite convent of cloistered nuns.
Removed from the distractions of the outside world (like materialism), cloistered nuns find God through prayer, isolation, and contemplation. This approach differs from apostolic nuns, who go out into the world to preach the Gospel. Nonetheless, the cloistered nuns share the same mission: to grow more connected to their Holy Father, as well as to their fellow sisters. Marie eventually joins the convent, too. The leading lady suffers depressive episodes, hallucinations, and fevers when she hears of Pauline’s departure, because she fears just like shortly after her mother’s death, she would spend her days living in fear — especially since she would only see the twenty-one year old maybe once a year.
Her motivation to willingly isolate herself as a cloistered nun is because she sees herself as a Little Flower. Yes, the then nine-year-old is too young to enter the convent (the reason why she is initially rejected); however, in the grand scheme of things, she wants to have her spiritual Father look down at her and be pleased by the great acts of kindness she performs to uplift the kingdom. She gets her wish at fifteen when she becomes a sister. Even so, Therese’s spiritual journey did not come without its challenges. While the other Carmelite nuns receive her as a “good” nun, they frequently gossip about her incompetence. There is especially one nun in particular, Sister St. Pierre, who demonstrates ageism towards her. Moments like these make Pauline’s little sister want to leave nunhood behind, thinking she will never measure up to the standards of the more experienced sisters. Still in all, the hallmark of her spiritual journey is in her composure and loving smile, which is how she overcomes these obstacles.
There exist plenty of misconceptions about cloistered nuns, for the image of elderly women praying all day in a chapel might come to mind. Be that as it may, St. Therese lives out her spirituality by treating her everyday actions as extensions of God’s love. Cloistered sisters, in addition to their constant responsibility to pray for human suffering, are expected to help out around the convent such as by cooking, cleaning, or gardening. This compares to a five-year-old boy helping his mother bake Christmas cookies, or a five-year-old girl drawing a picture for their father on Father’s Day. Of course, an adult does not expect a kindergartener to produce Mona Lisa or Julia Child level work. All that matters, at the end of the day, is they set the goal of accomplishing a small task, then worked diligently and lovingly to make the final product the best it can be.
Like a child who marvels at their surroundings, the fifteen-year-old girl is enamored by the beauty and simplicity of the world in spite of its violence and destruction, in spite of being separated from her second mother, in spite of the trauma of losing her mother. That is not to say the convent serves as an automatic escape from Pandora’s Box. But the solace it provides helps the main protagonist remain motivated to complete menial tasks, like folding napkins, with extraordinary love, because she knows the concrete acts of service will ultimately unify her as God’s co-creator: someone who is an active participant in fulfilling God’s purposes for their life, just as adults motivate young children to foster, nurture, and demonstrate their gifts.
St. Therese’s preferred form of prayer is mental prayer, whereby the individual either has a meaningful dialogue with God or silently reflects on Him. This often leads to contemplation, or feeling and resting in the presence of God. Pauline’s younger sister sits in a space between her bed and a wall to think about her greater purpose in life, about the dichotomy of life and death, and about eternity. Moreover, the leading lady especially surrenders herself to the Lord in her times of darkness. Christians all too often believe that the key to overcoming their suffering is by “leaning on [their] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5–6), or else society may perceive them as weak. However, this sometimes results in poor, immoral decisions. With the childlike approach to God, you admit you need help meeting your specific needs. Otherwise, you will die spiritually, the way that a youth will die physically if not given proper food, water, and shelter.
The patron saint, in particular, craves safety because she feels alone without her second mother raising her, and she craves someone to help her adjust to Carmelite nunhood. Her spiritual Father, like any earthly father, makes her feel secure by validating her emotions and answering her cries for help and gratitude. His responses may not always come instantly, however, St. Therese can restore her confidence that with Him, all things are possible.
What I admire most about St. Therese’s spiritual life is that she believes goodness lies within each and every one of us. For starters, the criminal, Pranzini, robs the innocent woman, daughter, and servant in their apartment, and the court sentences him to capital punishment. The thief tries but fails to plead not guilty. It is human nature for individuals to automatically label each other “bad” based on negativity they hear in the news, the way that cancel culture aims to damage celebrities’ reputations for making small mistakes x amount of years ago. While viewers are not given insight into what society as a whole thinks about the crime, it is fair to assume they possibly write him off as a terrible human being. Therefore, the guillotine seems like a just punishment. Perhaps he now feels hopeless about changing his narrative to a self-empowering one. It should also be noted that these potential thoughts may stem from physical abandonment, in terms of someone refusing to meet his basic and emotional needs because they believe he is beyond help.
In actuality, nobody is beyond help in God’s eyes; He often sends angels in disguise to help even the most wayward of His children. I believe Little Therese to be one of them, because instead of seeing Pranzini as an inherent sinner, she sees the French man as a child of God. The only way to silence his restless heart is in finding eternal happiness, which in this case involves repentance so he emerges more Christ-like than ever before. The Little Flower, to this end, constantly prays for the convicted murderer to repent even though he feels his future getting bleaker each day. But brighter days are in store for Pranzini when he takes out the cross and kisses Jesus’ wounds three times, as if to say “Thank you” to her for granting him a second chance. Had it not been for Therese emulating God’s love from afar, the criminal would still use grave sins to fill his loveless void. He also would have died without making a positive impact on the world. Hence, Therese sees his humanity to prove it is never too late for someone to change the course of their life — even if they are a second away from being beheaded.
Thank you for reading,
Originally written for my Religion class on October 20, 2021, when we were studying Prayer & Spirituality.
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