In the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s Sorting Hat places new students into one of four houses, each house having been founded by a wizard or a witch who wanted to form students according to his or her favorite character trait. Gryffindor’s students were known for bravery, Ravenclaw’s for intelligence, Hufflepuff’s for steadfastness. Only the house of Slytherin valued a character trait considered by most to be a vice, not a virtue; ambition.
I once asked my Facebook friends, just for fun, to imagine that the Sorting Hat had the opportunity to sort saints. Into which Hogwarts house would it have placed your favorite saints? In my own answer, I might have shocked a few friends by saying I thought the Sorting Hat would have placed St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) in Slytherin.
The idea that the sweet young girl whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow—who died at 24 and who was the epitome of the sentimental Catholic piety of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—as an ambitious ladder-climber like Rowling’s Slytherins seems unimaginable. At least on the surface.
“I choose all!”
The youngest of nine children born to the recently canonized saints Louis and Zelie Martin, St. Thérèse was ambitious from earliest childhood. In her spiritual testament, Story of a Soul, Thérèse shares several anecdotes about her life that demonstrate her ambition. One of the first was the time her sister Leonie offered Thérèse and another sister, Celine, items from a basket filled with pretty scraps for making doll clothes. Celine chose a single item from the basket, a ball of wool. When it was Thérèse’s turn, she grabbed the basket, saying “I choose all!" She wrote:
This little incident of my childhood is a summary of my whole life. . . . There were many degrees of perfection, and each soul was free to respond to the advances of our Lord, to do little or much for him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices he was asking. . . . I cried out, “My God, I choose all!"
St. Thérèse’s ambition continued into her teen years. When her older sisters, Marie and Pauline, left home to become Discalced Carmelite nuns, Thérèse knew she too had a vocation and was eager to enter the Carmel of Lisieux as soon as she could convince her family and the local bishop to permit it. When she met with resistance, she pleaded her case to the pope himself during a pilgrimage to Rome with her family. She was finally able to enter the Carmel at the young age, even for the time, of 15.
Call to a priestly vocation
During her years in cloister, St. Thérèse struggled to discern her vocation within the Church, over and above her vocation to the Carmelites. She wanted so much:
Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr. . . . I feel within my soul the courage of the Crusader, the Papal Guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.
It’s worth pausing a moment on St. Thérèse’s ambition to be a priest. At the time, there was no debate within the Church about whether a woman could be a priest. And she clearly did want to be an ordained priest:
I feel in me the vocation of the priest. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry you in my hands when, at my voice, you would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give you to souls!
St. Thérèse went on to observe, “But, alas, while desiring to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the priesthood." She instinctively realized that, however much she desired the priesthood, however much she felt drawn to it, the priesthood was not for her.
A true vocation: love
And yet her ambition did not falter. St. Thérèse finally discerned her true vocation, a vocation that would make a less ambitious soul tremble at the thought:
I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places—in a word, that it was eternal! . . . My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place. In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.
Perhaps it might seem that, like Icarus, the boy whose ambition to soar ended with his fall into the sea, St. Thérèse was doomed to disappointment. How could a young girl, hidden away in a cloistered convent by her own choice, possibly achieve her dreams of glory?
And, yet, after the release of Story of a Soul, published a year after her death, St. Thérèse’s dizzying ascent to the heights of glory in the Church began. She was canonized a saint in 1925 after several popes sped up the process. Two years later her feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar so that it would be celebrated throughout the Church. She was named a co-patron of the missions, alongside St. Francis Xavier; and she was named a co-patron of France, alongside one of her favorite saints, Joan of Arc. In 1997, the centenary year of her death, Pope St. John Paul II named St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church, fulfilling Thérèse’s desire to be a doctor.
Ambition, then, is not necessarily a vice. As Rowling depicted in the Harry Potter series, it can be put to the service of evil. But as St. Therese demonstrated, it can also be put to the service of good and can be a God-given impulse by which God draws us to himself. It’s fitting to end with one more quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched, then, in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: “Whoever is a little one, let him come to me." And so I succeeded.