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Saint Therese of Lisieux inspired Dorothy Day

The ninth article in the series on the influences on Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in founding the Catholic Worker features St. Therese of Lisieux.

It would be hard to imagine two more unlikely soul mates than Dorothy Day and Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower.

Dorothy Day cofounded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin in the midst of the Great Depression, devoted her life to serving the poor, and confronted the powers of the 20th century with her writing and speaking on behalf of social justice and peace.

Therese of Lisieux grew up in a pious, middle-class, 19th century French family, entered a cloistered convent at the age of 15, and died at the age of 24 leaving behind an account of her life and a collection of letters.

How did it happen that Dorothy Day found in Therese’s spirituality an essential expression for her own personal experience and spirituality?

A year after her baptism as a Catholic, Dorothy was given Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography to read by her confessor, Father Zachary.

“I dutifully read The Story of a Soul and am ashamed to confess that I found it colorless, monotonous, too small in fact for my notice. What kind of a saint was this who felt that she had to practice heroic charity in eating what was put in front of her, in taking medicine, enduring cold and heat, restraint, enduring the society of mediocre souls, in following the strict regime of the convent of Carmelite nuns which she had joined at the age of fifteen?” (Therese by Dorothy Day, p. viii)

Dorothy dismissed the book as “pious pap” that insulted her intelligence. She told Father Zachary that her concept of a saint was more heroic and that Therese’s approach didn’t quite fit this era of world revolution (it was 1928). She wondered if the time of saints had passed.

However, by the early 1950s, Dorothy had had a turnaround in her view of Therese, so much so that she began to write a full-length book about the saint. We get some idea of how important this book was to Dorothy, then in her 50s, when we consider her persistence in getting the book published. There were those around her who thought another book about Therese wasn’t needed; then her manuscript, which she had worked on for more than five years, was rejected by her publisher. When Therese was finally published in 1960, Dorothy wrote in the Preface: “In these days of fear and trembling of what man has wrought on earth in destructiveness and hate, Therese is the saint we need” (xii). Dorothy had undergone a complete reversal of attitude about Therese.

The Little Way

What was it in the life and teachings of Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy Day found so compelling? First and foremost, of course, was Therese’s Little Way, the way of absolute abandonment of ourselves to the love and mercy of God, trusting that God will sustain us in all that we are and do. Dorothy wrote of Therese:

“She knew with a certainty that is heaven itself, or a foretaste of heaven, that she had been taught the secret, the ‘science of love.’ She died saying, ‘Love alone matters.’ She died saying that she did not regret having given herself up to love. Her secret is generally called the Little Way, and is so known by the Catholic World. She called it little because it partakes of the simplicity of a child, a very little child, in its attitude of abandonment, of acceptance. (Therese, p. 154)

In Therese’s understanding, no act, however apparently insignificant, is without meaning when done within the awareness of God’s loving presence. Whatever our situation in life-—a mother with children at home or a mother working, a store clerk, a scholar, a nursing home assistant, a suburbanite, an assembly line worker-—all of us, in the ordinary and required activity of daily life, have available to us in the Little Way a means to holiness, to love as God loves us. The Little Way is the ordinary way we can all become saints.

Dorothy herself was committed to becoming a saint and she expected that all who follow Christ should want to become saints as well. She wrote, “We are all called to be saints, St. Paul says, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us” (Selected Writings, pp. 102-3).

For Dorothy, becoming a saint wasn’t merely a matter of personal salvation. Her vision was that the work of social transformation requires saints. “Sanctity alone will meet the crisis of the day. Nothing else matters. One can feed the poor, shelter the homeless, comfort the afflicted, but if you have not charity, the Love of God, Sanctity, it is worthless” (Archives: Notebook, November 1951).

Dorothy didn’t just read about the Little Way and then decide to adopt it as a spiritual practice or attitude from among other spiritual methods or outlooks. Rather she discovered the Little Way within her experience of Catholic Worker life. Year upon year of serving meals, making beds, cleaning, and conversing with destitute, outcast people provided Dorothy with “schooling” in the Little Way. Added to this daily routine were her writing and publishing the Catholic Worker newspaper, speaking around the country, praying, fasting, protesting, and enduring jail on behalf of peace and justice.

Simply put, the Little Way was active love, the “harsh and dreadful love” that Dorothy often spoke about, quoting Dostoevsky’s character Fr. Zossima. And when Fr. Zossima spoke of active love becoming for some people “a whole science” it was Therese’s Little Way that was that science. As Dorothy expressed it, “We want to grow in love but do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” (Therese, vii).

The Little Way of Therese became Dorothy’s way as well, the way to make saints and to transform the world.

Redemptive Suffering

Earlier in her life, Dorothy dismissed the little privations of Therese’s life as insignificant; Therese called them “pinpricks.” But in her mature assessment of Therese Dorothy understood how even small sufferings accumulate and weigh one down: “One needs to have gone through these small martyrdoms to understand them.” She realized that, without confidence in an ever loving and merciful God, to keep going day after day, year after year, would be a life of folly difficult to endure. Dorothy grasped that Therese was a saint who could address all those people who felt “a sense of futility” in life, who were feeling hopeless, wasted, ineffectual and powerless (Therese, xii).

The Little Way for Dorothy included a kind of martyrdom of everyday suffering. She called Therese “our modern Job,” one who knew well both mental and physical suffering. With great sensitivity Dorothy wrote of Therese’s pain in the loss of her mother at an early age, the periods of mental anguish and distress she suffered as a child, her extreme religious scruples in childhood, and then the austere life of Carmel with Therese having to enduring being constantly cold in winter.

But Therese’s greatest suffering came during her last years, when she experienced both spiritual darkness and extreme pain as she was dying from tuberculosis. Dorothy described Therese in that period:

“To the community she gave every appearance of serenity and peace, and yet ‘in peace is my bitterness most bitter’ she quotes. On another occasion she says, ‘Let us suffer if needs be, with bitterness.’ She, the realist, well knew that suffering of body and soul is not lofty and exalted, but mean and cruel, a reflection of the blackness of hell. It was not suffering for itself that she embraced. It was a means to an end; the very means used by Jesus Himself.” (Therese, p. 161)

Dorothy was keenly aware of the redemptive value of suffering and that our sufferings were meant to fill up the suffering of Christ, as St. Paul said and she often quoted. She had an appreciation of the “victim soul;” she understood that Therese’s way was to produce “a legion of little victims,” all bringing redemptive love to bear on the pain of this Earth through the acceptance of their own suffering. Dorothy could relate this aspect of the Little Way to herself and ordinary people, whose sufferings have meaning because Christ’s cross has meaning. This was the power that could defeat even the mighty atom and bring about the transformation of society.

These teachings are not easy to assimilate. No wonder Dorothy once spoke of Therese as a saint we should dread!

Nonviolent Love

At the heart of Dorothy’s spirituality and her legacy to the Catholic Worker Movement was her commitment to nonviolence as an essential means of transforming society. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy has written that “any attempt to understand or live Christian nonviolence, as Dorothy understood and lived it, independent of Gospel nonviolence as revealed in the life of St. Therese, is not realistic” (Catholic Worker, Oct-Nov 1991, p. 7).

The Little Way is the way of Gospel nonviolence because it invites us to love one another as Jesus loved us (Jn 13:34), an unrestricted love that brings mercy and compassion to all people. Jesus’ nonviolent love extended even to giving his life in redemptive suffering on the cross.

Family Life

In this era that yearns for healthy “family values,” it is noteworthy that Therese’s family life struck Dorothy as very significant. She wrote in a letter to one of Therese’s sisters, who was still alive in 1956 when Dorothy was working on the manuscript for Therese:

“I have laid great emphasis on the homelife of St. Therese, because of its great importance today. The need to foster the family, the good life of the community of the family, as a beginning in restoring all things in Christ, is a theme of the book I am writing.” (Archives: Letter, April 16, 1956)

Dorothy deeply appreciated the loving parents and extended family of Therese, who helped each other in times of sickness and grief. She admired the parents who prayed with their children. This was a family that valued hard work, that cared for the poor in their home and in direct works of mercy each week, that rejoiced when their children chose to enter religious life (all five daughters eventually became religious), that enjoyed holidays and pilgrimages together.

This family’s “natural happiness” was the milieu for raising saints. These parents created the kind of home “where it would be easier to be good.” “When I pray to St. Therese,” Dorothy wrote, “I like to remind her of her own natural happiness as a child. It helped to make her what she was and so I do not hesitate to call upon her to ask for temporal favors, a happy home, so that families may thrive and produce saints” (Archives: Notebook, November 1951).

In Therese’s parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, Dorothy saw an example of a profound vocation:

“The love they both had for the children they were bringing into the world, the feeling they had of being co-creators with God, their sense of fulfillment, their joy at adding to the sum total of praise of God in the world, all this is expressed in the story of their lives. Louis and Zelie were whole man and woman, with a proper balance of soul and body, and to them the marriage act was as truly a sacrament as Holy Orders” (Therese, p. 103-104).


There are more ways that Dorothy resonated with Therese of Lisieux that can only be mentioned here: Therese’s love and prayer for priests and for seemingly lost souls, her devotion to the Gospels, her love of natural beauty, and her conviction of the primacy of individual conscience.

Dorothy Day’s mature assimilation of Therese of Lisieux’s spirituality is a vital legacy for the Catholic Worker Movement and for anyone whose life is dedicated to working for peace and justice. The spirituality of the Little Way is necessary for our era and it remains the surest way, to borrow one of Therese’s phrases, “to make Love loved.”


Archives: Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University.
Dorothy Day. Therese. Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1960.
Robert Ellsberg, ed. Dorothy Day: Selected Writings. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 3, May-June 1996.