By Denise Trull
I once had a delightful conversation with three British nuns. We were talking about the monastic life and St. Therese, of course, came up. One of the nuns chuckled and said, "I prefer to think of her as the little wrought iron flower." And that pithy little phrase put her in perfect perspective for me: a will of iron guiding her childlike love of Jesus.
When I was a young girl, I remember it was Therese who first wakened in my heart a sense that God was very real and that I was His child. Hers were the first words that took hold of my twelve year old imagination. Lovely words that went right to the heart of the matter, as she always did. They will be very familiar to you if you are a lover of St. Therese, but I will put them down so we can just delight in them together:
"It is just the same in the world of souls - which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses; but He has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, on being that which He wants us to be.”
I loved these words. They made such sense to me. That God was looking down on me and that I could please Him. Only much later did they take on a newer meaning beyond my twelve year old understanding.
In my early twenties, I came across a book about her last conversations with her own blood sisters Pauline and Marie in the Carmelite Monastery where they were all three nuns. It was a wholly immersive and mesmerizing few days for me. I felt steeped in its intimate and honest acknowledgement that death is truly a cavernous, dark and fearful void - even, and especially for a saint - and she was not afraid to say so. She was slowly suffocating from Tuberculosis which had spread throughout her body. Her soul was filled with darkness and she held on to her faith alone. There was no sweetness or light for her here. Only pain of soul and body. I began to see how truly brave and spiritually tough she was. This was her greatest hour of “littleness” before God, “on being what God wanted her to be”, and she did not falter though she was filled with fear. She revealed truly that she was a wrought iron flower with a spirit that St. Colette aptly calls “Viriliter” - a soldier’s spirit which fought until the bitter end. It was magnificent.
It is somewhat unfortunate that Therese lived in a time when the spiritual writing was somewhat “over-sugared” and sentimental. This sort of style masks with sweetness and light the real spiritual efforts it cost to be a little flower. Only later do we hear of envious nuns putting dirt in her oatmeal, of other nuns saying things like, “how can a big, smiling girl like yourself know what suffering is?” They had no idea what an effort it caused her to smile through her darkness of soul. Of the very real suffering we don’t know in our own time - of living all day in a freezing monastery trying to un-numb her hands. And all the daily “pinpricks” of remarks, slights, rudeness, or know-it-all rolls of eye in her direction, assailing her sensitive soul. She was passionate, she was French, she had a tender heart and these things cut her to the quick. If you have that kind of nature, you know then what the battle felt like - the battle over self that she won without returning evil for evil. The battle we so often find vanquishing.
Therese was indeed a little wrought iron flower. One of the small but mighty “violets that rejoice his eye whenever He glances down”. She gave us the courage to go and do the same by the example of her life. And, too, by her promise that she would spend her Heaven doing good on earth - for us.