Following Jesus

A Lift Up the Stairs of Perfection

Musings on The Story of a Soul

November 10, 2020 by

Therese Martin
Saint Therese at age 15 before entering the Carmelite Community. Public domain.

Therese Martin expressed her wish to be a saint as prosaically as I would express my wish to publish a book. She uses such a relatable analogy in The Story of a Soul that every time I walk up the eighty-nine concrete steps to my house, I smile, remembering it:

It is impossible for me to grow bigger so I put myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new. We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I am determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection . . . It is Your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven . . .

Other translations of Therese’s (originally French) autobiography use the word “elevator” rather than “lift,” but the concept of Jesus reaching down and lifting up his children without them having to frantically drag themselves up “the steep stairs of perfection” seems to me like such a relief to millions of believers, that I very much prefer it.

Skimming through Therese’s story can leave you with an oversweet taste in your mouth. From day one she seemed too good to live. Her mother’s letters describe Therese as a toddler wishing aloud that her parents would die. “I scolded her,” her mother writes, “She said, ‘It’s so that you can go to Heaven…When she is overcome with love for her father, she wishes he were dead too.”

At the age when some little girls are playing house, Therese played “hermits” with her cousin Marie. They pretended they were two hermits in a hut. “We spent our time in ceaseless contemplation,” she remembered. “Everything was done in silence and perfect religious decorum.” By the time she was nine years old Therese was determined to enter Carmel. Her conviction and determination led her to persist in gaining permission to enter the cloister at fifteen, far younger than was usual.

Yet around Chapter 5 in The Story of a Soul, Therese seems to become discouraged with herself, realizing that her overactive conscience has not been helping her come closer to God: “My extreme sensitiveness made me quite unendurable. If I ever offended someone accidentally, instead of making the best of it I wept bitterly and so made things worse. Then, when I’d stop weeping, I’d start all over again and weep for having wept.” But eventually God lifted her out of “the narrow circle in which I’d been going round and round.” She found her “bright and straight” path and fearlessly followed her vocation.

I had to read her confident assertions about her relationship with God a few times over before I could appreciate the unshakeable faith behind them and not just dismiss them as self-righteousness. When she said that God needs no intermediaries with her and that He deals with her directly, I thought, this is not normal. But eventually I realized that here was a love so much greater than any daughter can feel for her father. Maybe it is comparable to the love of a little girl who has not yet seen her father make a mistake or break down – a little girl who instinctively knows that her father gave her life and will do anything to protect her.

Jesus told us that the road to life is narrow and “only a few find it.” I’m sure Therese read that verse many times and when she talked about an elevator to Jesus, she wasn’t trying to contradict his warning. She just didn’t feel any divide whatsoever between herself and God and knew that God wanted her to find that road to life even if she felt lost on her own.

I love metaphors and analogies as much as Therese does. Her “Little Way of Spiritual Childhood” brings back one of my earliest memories. When I was about three years old, my older brother and I were going swimming while my dad lifeguarded. I dreamily wandered in and sat down. Of course the water closed above my head, but before I even had time to be scared or notice the cool little bubbles around me, I felt my dad lifting me out into the sunlight.

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About the author

Esther Keiderling

Esther Keiderling

Esther Keiderling lives and works at the Platte Clove Bruderhof.

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