Africa, March 2019 Vol. 84 No. 2

From My Bookshelf: Frank Conlisk reviews

The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The Irish Connection

by Com Keane & Una O'Hagan

It’s Spring – and with it comes a book from my bookshelf that I feel confident will put a spring in your step! It’s The Little Flower – St. Thérèse of Lisieux – The Irish Connection by Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan. 

 

To my shame I must admit, that this is the kind of title I wouldn’t usually pick up. However, when I saw that it was written by two journalists, I got interested. You don’t expect journalists to be writing about Catholic saints in the Ireland of today. But I’m very glad that I did pick it up…and I think you will be too. 

 

This is a beautiful book – clearly a labour of love. I was struck immediately by the simplicity of the writing style. The story is told – a series of stories are told – with openness, trust and acceptance. You get the feeling the style may have been intentional, reflecting as it does “the little way” of St Thérèse herself. 

 

In the first chapter, we are given a sketch of her short life. Thérèse died at 24 from tuberculosis, a disease that was also common in Ireland at the time. We hear of her happy, early childhood with the family at Alençon in Normandy and of the death of her mother, Zélie Martin, when Thérèse was just four and a half years old. Her love of nature, especially of flowers and animals and how she hated school where she was bullied, is recounted. At just 14, her desire to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux was such that, on a visit to Rome, the precocious young Thérèse broke all protocol by making her request directly to Pope Leo XIII himself! She was allowed to enter the following year. She would spend the rest of her days there. 

 

Her autobiography, Story of a Soul, chronicles how she practiced her “little way” in the Carmel. “In my ‘little way’ everything is most ordinary” she explained. It meant simply that all tasks, however menial or seemingly unimportant, were done with humility and commitment because they were done to please God. You didn’t have to be an important person, she believed, or do great, heroic things. “I have always therefore remained little, occupying myself solely in gathering flowers of love and sacrifice and offering them to the good God for his pleasure,” she wrote. Very soon, she became known as “The Little Flower.”

 

The remainder of the book focuses on the remarkable impact Thérèse and her “little way” have had on Ireland and on the Irish living further afield. Accounts are given of several miracles attributed to her and of conversions to the Catholic faith by Presbyterian and Anglican ministers resulting from their reading of her Story of a Soul. It is commendable – and a relief – that the authors make no attempt to “convert” the reader. Instead, each incident is well researched with accounts from the newspapers of the day, several eye-witness reports and verbatim reports from those directly involved. The reader is left to make up his or her own mind. Particularly moving are the accounts of soldiers during WWI who experienced her presence and/or her healing and of course there is the intriguing story of the visit of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and future President of the Irish Republic, Éamon de Valera to Lisieux in September 1938, seeking help for his failing eyesight. 

 

Her influence on the Irish further afield is sketched in the stories of Dorothy Day and Archbishop Fulton Sheen among others. In his book on Thérèse, Sheen writes “There is no need of anyone wearing a hair shirt…your housework, your office work, whatever you happen to do, that’s where you start”… and that’s where you become a saint. 

 

The authors describe well the “outburst of euphoria” (p156) that greeted the relics of The Little Flower when they arrived in Ireland on 15 April 2001. “…between two and three million people, including the young, old, sick and healthy, packed themselves into churches or lined the streets to pay their respects to the saint.” (p188/189) Again, there were several reports of healings during the eleven-week visit – healings that medical experts could not explain. We are given full accounts of some of these.  

 

This is a thought-provoking book. Employing an approach that is never preachy, the authors simply tell the story and present the testimonies and the evidence with great sensitivity and without judgement. They conclude: “Her little way shows us how the trivial can become the profound; how the mundane can blossom into the rarest of flowers. In these complicated, impatient, assertive times, her message from Lisieux is appropriate and opportune.” I couldn’t agree more. 

This book can be ordered from the publisher Capel Island Press, Ring, Dungarvan, Co Waterford +353 (051) 222817, from Veritas on veritasbooksonline.com and from Amazon, the kindle edition. €14.99; $5.93. Also available in local bookshops.

Please note: Africa Magazine and St Patrick's Missionary Society do not stock books that are reviewed. Details of publishers and suppliers are given in each review. 

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