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One powerful spiritual practice is the imitation of a spiritual teacher as a way to gain understanding and discipline. For example, in Christianity, many people study The Imitation of Christ and ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”

In the secular world, I suspect, people often read biographies for spiritual reasons: they want to learn from the example of great lives. As a writer, I’ve steeped myself in the lives of Winston Churchill and John Kennedy, and it seems to me that much of the popular fascination in these two towering figures comes from people’s desire to imitate their great qualities (though of course they both also had some not-so-great qualities).

Oprah is a spiritual teacher for a lot of people; also, I think, Steve Jobs. Some lucky people have found a spiritual master within their set of personal relationships.

When I was writing my book The Happiness Project, I decided to study and imitate a spiritual teacher—but whom? I didn’t feel a particular affinity for any potential figures, until I came across St. Thérèse of Lisieux. 

I became interested in St. Thérèse after I saw her praised in Thomas Merton’s famous memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. I’d been so surprised to see the cranky Merton write with reverence about the sappily-named “Little Flower” that I became curious to read her spiritual memoir, Story of a Soul. 

Since then, I haven’t been able to learn enough about St. Thérèse. I own almost twenty biographies of her, and I spent $75 on a book of photographs of her. Ah, St. Thérèse! 

She is the perfect spiritual teacher for me—the fact that I’m not Catholic doesn’t change that.

Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in France in 1873; she died of tuberculosis at age twenty-four, after having spent nine years cloistered in a Carmelite convent. While in the convent, she wrote her spiritual memoir, Histoire d’une âme. She was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997. 

I’m drawn to the fact that Saint Thérèse’s spiritual achievement was to attain sainthood through the perfection through small, daily acts. She’s known for her “Little Way”—holiness achieved by little souls. 

I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet…if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet.

As a child, Thérèse was babied by her family, and she was sensitive to any cross word. She delighted in the Christmas ritual of opening the presents left in her shoes (the French version of hanging up stockings). One year, when she was fourteen, she overheard her father complaining, “Thank goodness that’s the last time we shall have this kind of thing!” Thérèse froze; this kind of comment would usually make her dissolve into tears. But instead of weeping at her father’s unkind words, or telling him, out of pride, that she’d outgrown his gifts, she ran down and opened the presents with a greedy joy. Her father laughed.

Thérèse realized that the loving, selfless response was to accept the presents eagerly.

Sometimes, we can be generous by taking, by being helped, by allowing others to gratify our desires.

When I was writing my book The Happiness Project, I wrote my “Twelve Personal Commandments”—the transcendent principles that I use to guide my thoughts and actions. The tenth item on this list is “No calculation.”

This entry was inspired by Saint Thérèse. One of my most persistent faults is that I’m a score-keeper; I’m always thinking, “I did this, so now you have to do that.” “I let you take a nap, so you…” “I had to deal with packing, now you…” I wanted to stop my insistence on being paid back or getting a return—especially with my husband Jamie. I reminded myself of what Saint Therese wrote: “When one loves, one does not calculate.” “No calculation” became one of my personal commandments.

When writing my new book Life in Five Senses, I considered my sense of hearing and how often I felt irritated by sounds. When I was annoyed when the woman working next to me at the library kept sighing noisily, I was inspired by St. Thérèse: she tells the story of how she once broke into a sweat at the effort to conquer her annoyance when a fellow nun made maddening clicking noises during evening prayers. (Surprisingly, for a saint, Thérèse is very funny.)

One day in 1897, when she in her early twenties, and weakened by the tuberculosis that would soon kill her, Thérèse was sitting in her wheelchair in the convent garden. Ordered by her Prioress to complete an account of her childhood memories, she was trying unsuccessfully to write:

When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits of the doctor, everything is discussed…another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems…I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so

Thérèse emphasizes the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, instead of responding to the gift itself. She doesn’t want to be distracted with chit-chat; she wants to write. She doesn’t want a bouquet in her lap; she wants to see wildflowers growing in the fields. But she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.” What, exactly, did Thérèse mean by that? I reflect on that question all the time.

What figure would you choose to be your spiritual teacher? It might be obvious to you; it might take some serious reflection. Once we’ve identified a spiritual teacher, we can try to learn more about their life; think about why we’ve chosen that particular figure; and, most important, how to incorporate the lessons of that life (which is probably very different from our own experience) into our own lives.