On this memorial of the “Little Flower,” I had to think of Thomas’ Merton’s discovery of Saint Thérèse. In his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain Merton describes the startling realization that the so-called Little Flower was “a saint, and not just a mute pious little doll.” Merton’s surprise at this woman’s profound holiness is coupled with his acknowledgement that Thérèse “kept everything that was bourgeois about her.” Her holiness, in other words, did not undo her life’s particularity. And what a stereotypically feminine bourgeois description of that particularity Merton provides: “her taste for utterly oversweet art, and for little candy angels and pastel saints playing with lambs so soft and fuzzy that they literally give people like me the creeps.” Despite all this, Thérèse de Lisieux and Thomas Merton became joined in a holy friendship that he describes thus:
The discovery of a new saint is a tremendous experience: and all the more so because it is completely unlike the film-fan’s discovery of a new star. What can such a one do with his new idol? Stare at her picture until it makes him dizzy. That is all. But the saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them.
It was Thérèse de Lisieux–of all possible saints!–whom Merton invoked at a defining moment of his life: “You show me what to do. … If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do.”