Thérèse was no stranger to suffering, but through it all her love for God only deepened. Her faith came from the cross, which revealed that we never suffer alone. Even in our darkest pains or the hurts we bury deep within our hearts, we can never say to God: You cannot understand this.
To those around her, Thérèse seemed exceptionally ordinary. When she died at the age of 24, the people with whom she lived didn’t even know how they would fill her obituary. She might have passed through this world without being noticed if she had not written anything about her life.
Though she died young, Thérèse endured much suffering. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 4 years old — the emotional trauma caused by that loss lingered with Thérèse through all her life. She joined a community of nuns and when her father started showing signs of dementia, she had to watch from the convent as her family coped; news of his death broke her heart.
At age 22, Thérèse contracted the tuberculosis that eventually claimed her life. On her deathbed, she gasped that she had never thought it possible to suffer so much. With her eyes on the crucifix hanging on the wall in her room, she died saying, “I love Him. My God, I love you.”
After so much suffering, how was she able to say those words? Not only did she hold on to faith in all of this pain — it grew and deepened within her. How?
A story I once heard about the girl who would become St. Thérèse of Lisieux might point to an answer.
One day, her sister Léonie offered Thérèse and her sister Céline a basket of her old toys to choose from. After Céline picked a ball of yarn, Thérèse said, “I choose all,” and walked away carrying the entire basket.
Though she spoke the words, “I choose all” in a moment of childish self-interest, something in that impulse characterized her spiritual disposition. Reflecting on this scene years later in her autobiography, Thérèse wrote, “I don’t want to be a saint by halves.” She knew that she couldn’t become good by loving God only partially — it was going to ask everything of her. So that’s what she gave.
She “chose all” that life gave her — the joy as well as the suffering — because she knew God was with her through all of it. She chose all because she wanted heaven — she wanted it more than anything in this world.
Thérèse learned to choose all from Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. When He prayed in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion, He was asking God to spare him the violent death that He knew awaited Him. But then instead of his own wishes, He chose all: He gave himself over to whatever suffering was ahead because He knew He was not alone — that even in a humiliating, violent, terrible death, He could rely upon God’s love.
In praying with St. Thérèse, I’ve come to realize that when Christ chose to accept all of His sufferings, He also chose to accept all of mine. Because of His cross, I never suffer alone. Even in my darkest pains or the hurts I’ve buried so deeply in my heart that no one will ever find them, I can never say to Him: You cannot understand this.
He can understand it because He has endured all the pain, malice, derision, and betrayal that this world offers. The gamut of human suffering is contained in His cross. With His arms outstretched and nailed to it, Christ is choosing me — all of me: my sufferings, my sins, my joys, and all the unique things that make me me.
To love is to give ourselves away. God loves us first, and Jesus proved the depth of this love by giving Himself away, even to death — even in the most painful and despairing of deaths. When Christ chooses me so wholeheartedly and so completely, how can I cherry-pick what I am willing to offer in return?
Suffering is hard — no matter if it’s mildly uncomfortable or cruelly soul-crushing, it threatens and isolates us. We become defensive and loving becomes difficult — we don’t want to give ourselves away when suffering is taking so much already. Instead of choosing all, we want to choose ourselves and our own safety.
But rejecting suffering doesn’t make it go away — it will find us regardless. We are all destined to die some day. So we really don’t have a choice of whether or not we will suffer. Our choice is whether or not we will search for God within that suffering. And the only way to find God is to choose all, as St. Thérèse did.
Jesus has chosen all for us because He wants heaven for us — He wants us to be with Him forever. For us to choose all in return isn’t an invitation to accept suffering; it’s an invitation to accept God’s love for us, which is stronger than death.