Descending Ego’s Stairs: St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Christmas Conversion

The traumatic loss of her mother when she was four deeply wounded the youngest daughter of French lacemaker Louis Martin.  By the age of 13 Thérèse, all frills and curls, was a sensitive “tween” given to tearful outbursts.

Pampered by her older sisters and doted on by a father her who called her his “little queen,” Thérèse was nevertheless a serious Christian girl whose volatile temperament troubled her as much as it did the rest of the family.

But on Christmas Eve of 1886, after returning home from Midnight Mass, Thérèse was given grace to “get over herself” just as Christ’s descent into humanity was being celebrated in the prayers of the liturgy. The fact that this grace occurred on Christmas morning was not lost on the devoted and well-catechized girl.

May we all receive such grace this Christmas.

It was a traditional ritual in those days for French children to leave their shoes on the hearth, where parents would fill them with toys and treats, surprises from the Christ Child whose birth they were celebrating.

While Thérèse was already a bit old for such games, she’d been babied so long it didn’t occur to her that that the rest of the family may have grown weary of her prolonged childishness.

But this night, on the way upstairs with her sister after Midnight Mass, Thérèse and her sister Celine overheard their tired father mutter under his breath that he hoped this would be the last year of the charade.

Thérèse was heartbroken to hear her beloved father, her “little king,” speak like this; she was shattered to realize what his true feelings were.

Her ordinary reaction would have been a dramatic outburst of tears, and she was tempted to give into it.

But she didn’t. Thérèse received a grace she recognized as granted to her by Christ, who, “being found in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

She knew just what to do.

Responding to the grace she sensed in her heart, Thérèse suppressed her natural instinct to burst into tears, Thérèse pulled herself together out of love for her father and descended the stairs as if nothing had happened. 

She delighted in each little gift in her shoes, and she did it with such grace and enthusiasm that her father “got over himself” as well. Louis Martin recovered his humor and laughed along with the rest of the family, taking joy once more in his sweet “little queen.”

This “Christmas conversion,” as it is sometimes called, was an important turning point in the life of the teenage girl. It began working in her the courageous heart of a saint, a heart given over to loving service, all for the love of Christ.

Christmas is often a time of high hopes and impossible expectations even for we who understand its true meaning.

Along with the desire to meditate on the manger and offer the Babe gifts of song and service, we will be with people who may want the celebration to go differently than the way we imagine the “best Christmas ever” to be.

This humble episode in the life of a young woman who would soon live a cloistered life of prayer for the world shows a path toward true freedom that is open to every one of us.

The “little queen” became a servant who performed the simplest acts of love for her sisters in union with Christ whose sacrifice and servanthood showed us something we’d never imagined: the humility of our God. In union with him, Therese found a mission of simple (yet intensely difficult) friendship with God.

This freedom is available to you and me.

Christmas is an invitation to each of us “get over ourselves” and become little children once more.

The Little Way of spiritual childhood requires innocent humility and steely maturity at the same time. These never happen without God’s grace.

But grace is a gift we can request.

When the pampered 13-year-old surmounted her emotions, descended the stairs and acted in love for her father, she mirrored the Babe in the manger, God Incarnate showing us the meaning of Love.

This Christmas, the Little Way still calls.

It is the Call of the Small.

May we receive grace to descend ego’s stairs and love with Christ’s love this Christmas.

Thank you for reading and sharing Sparrowfare. May you be richly blessed with a spirit of peace and reconciliation this holy season.

Photo by Prachi Palwe on Unsplash. Photo of Thérèse and J. Hoover’s Christmas Eve, 1878 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Descending Ego’s Stairs: St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Christmas Conversion

  1. Peggy, can’t tell you how timely this post was for me. Thank you for this reflection – it blessed me!

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