I searched long and hard for the patron saint I wanted. In the end, my heart chose the one I needed.
“We are still on the road to which you have called us, but whose name you have not given us. We are carrying the poverty of not knowing where you are leading us.”
I had intended to change the world when my husband and I left Texas to serve indefinitely as nondenominational missionaries in Southeast Asia. Two years later when we returned home, the world hadn’t changed, but I had.
Disillusioned and confused, I tried to make sense out of what had happened. I had made myself available to God; why hadn’t he used me for something extraordinary? I had been ready to pour my life out, ready to do radical things, ready to be a martyr! But it was all so . . . ordinary. I was turning out to be awfully small, when all I had ever wanted was to be great.
I became a mother. All my childhood dreams of adopting a child were realized, only to find that I am an utterly broken and weak human being. Each day that dawned brought new opportunities to see how very much I lacked. Parenting strips you of hubris, and I had plenty to spare.
While the winds of change swept through our family, my husband and I began searching for a faith expression that felt more true to what was being stirred in our hearts. We began inching our toes into the waters of Catholicism: filling our shelves with books on suffering and social teaching, going to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, ordering a copy of the Catechism on Amazon. As the months rolled by, we knew we would be confirmed at Easter, and Lent brought with it the realization that we needed to each choose a patron saint.
Awesome! I thought eagerly. Let’s see what kind of brazen woman I can find to identify with. And all of heaven laughed.
Who Chose Whom?
“Although our hearts are poor and empty, they are available: We make them a place of welcome for our brothers.”
They say our patron saints choose us more than we choose them. I was immediately put off by St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was just another one of those frail, holy people who never did anything wrong; she was just so saintly in her preciousness. Even her nickname made me roll my eyes: the Little Flower? I mean, really. Give me a St. Perpetua or a Dorothy Day, please. Give me a woman of faith with some chutzpah.
But for some reason I started reading Story of a Soul anyway, although now I can’t for the life of me remember why. What I found shocked me. Past the first impression of a spirit so pure and naturally pious I wanted to throw the book across the room, I soon found the voice of a woman who sounded a lot like me: a woman who longed to do great and important things in the kingdom (who even wanted to be a missionary) but was making her peace with her own limitations and weaknesses. Unlike me, however, she had an incredible revelation of her identity in Christ just as she was, in all her littleness.
The pen and inkwell used by St. Therese of Lisieux rests on a facsimile of handwritten pages from the saint's "Story of a Soul." St. Therese is patron of missionaries and missions. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
St. Thérèse wrote that there is more power in one little act done with all the love one possesses than in the most impressive spiritual displays or works of service if they are not rooted in pure love for God. She wrote of how one moment of sincere worship brings more joy to Christ than anything we could ever “do” for him.
In fact, the Little Flower got her name from the following simple yet theologically profound revelation: “I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, our Lord’s living garden.”
This saint and doctor of the Church understood that it is not the size of the mission one is given, but the amount of love with which it is undertaken that determines its heavenly value. She recognized her inner poverty more than anyone else, but she also recognized that was the very reason God was able to use her. Pride keeps us from loving our neighbor; poverty of spirit is the well from which love is drawn.
Here was a woman who was willing to release her own idea of impact or accomplishment. Here was a woman willing to let go of her ego, her false self, and look her Savior in the eye to say, “I trust that your plan is better than my own. May it be done to me according to your word.”
I had found my patron saint.
The Little Way
“Although our hearts are poor and empty, they are wounded: We let the cry of our thirst rise to you. And we thank you, Lord, for the road of fecundity you chose for us.”
The life my husband and I currently lead in small-town Iowa looks nothing like the enthralling missionary life we pictured 10 years ago. Here in the mundane of motherhood, parish service, and community involvement, littleness is ever before me—my own poverty still surprising and embarrassing me after all these years.
But St. Thérèse of Lisieux reminds me that my story doesn’t end there. My poor and empty heart is available; there is room for my brothers and sisters inside it. My poor and empty heart is wounded; my own thirst is the greatest gift I can offer him. And with my patron saint, Thérèse, I can look at the smallness of my life and, with faith-filled confidence, join her in thanksgiving for the road of fecundity that was chosen for us.