A valuable lesson from the most ambitious saint

I’ve heard it said that after her death from tuberculosis in 1897, some of St. Thérèse’s religious sisters wondered what would be put in her obituary. After all, she was only 24 years old, and she hadn’t done anything of real significance in her short life. She’d joined the Carmelite monastery at age 14 after an unremarkable childhood, and she’d done nothing notable in the monastery. What could anyone possibly write about her?

Over 125 years later, countless books and articles have been written about this unassuming woman. She was canonized only 28 years after her death and named a Doctor of the Church (one of only four women with this distinction) in 1997.

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Of course, she didn’t aspire to any of this, right? She was a humble woman, and humility and ambition aren’t compatible … right?

Actually, if you read her writings, you’ll find that St. Thérèse was a very ambitious woman. The difference between her and the hustle culture and “girlboss” cliche is that her ambitions were aligned with God’s will and grounded in humility. In fact, she had one ambition, and it’s the greatest, holiest, perhaps most audacious ambition of them all: to become a saint.

The true meaning of life

When he declared her a Doctor of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II said: “Thérèse of Lisieux did not only grasp and describe the profound truth of Love as the center and heart of the Church, but in her short life she lived it intensely. It is precisely this convergence of doctrine and concrete experience [emphasis his], of truth and life, of teaching and practice, which shines with particular brightness in this saint, and which makes her an attractive model especially for young people and for those who are seeking true meaning for their life.”

Thérèse knew that the “true meaning” of life was to be a saint, and she had no doubt that she could achieve this ambition, because she knew that she couldn’t do it on her own and that she didn’t have to.

“God cannot inspire unrealizable desires,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Story of a Soul.” “I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. … I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” That elevator was Jesus himself.

Fearless determination

St. Thérèse may have led an unimportant life by worldly standards, but she was fearless in asking for what she felt she was called to. At age 14, she asked for permission to join the Carmelite convent where two of her sisters had already joined. The priest in charge of the decision said she could not enter until she was 21.

But Thérèse felt so strongly that God was asking her to become a Carmelite despite her young age that she went all the way to the bishop and then to Pope Leo XIII to ask for permission. She and the other pilgrims at the papal audience were told it was forbidden to speak to Pope Leo, but, despite feeling her “courage weaken,” she kissed his shoe and said, “Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!”

The pope told her, “You will enter if God wills it.” The guards then had to carry Thérèse away.

Thérèse was not some spoiled, bratty teenager whining to get her way. She’d discerned a call from God, and then she had the courage to do whatever it took to follow it. She didn’t want to be a Carmelite because it was a nice career option; it was because she believed it was her path to holiness.

Ambition after death

At the end of her life, Thérèse said that she did not want to rest when she reached heaven. It was there that she would fulfill her ultimate ambition as a saint: “My mission is about to begin,” she told her sister, Mother Agnès, “my mission of making God loved as I loved Him, of giving my little way to souls.” As anyone who has received a “rose” from Thérèse will tell you, she has kept her promise. The number of reported miracles, small and large, that have come through Thérèse’s intercession is incredible. Last year, we celebrated 150 years since her birth, and in 2025, we will celebrate 100 years since her canonization. And she is still fulfilling her ambition of sharing Jesus’ love with the people who need it most.

There are many lessons we can learn from St. Thérèse’s life. One that we may easily overlook is that it’s OK to have ambitions, even in our careers. But our careers — and our lives — must be a constant process of discernment to make sure, to the best of our ability, that our ambitions are aligned with God’s will. And our ultimate ambition must always be “to know and love God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church) and be united with him one day in heaven.

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