THE REAL ST THERESE OF THE CHILD JESUS IS ELUSIVE
“For millions St Therese of Lisieux has become an inspiration and a challenge. Story of a Soul, already in its fortieth French edition, has over fifty translations, making Lisieux as famous as the Eiffel Tower and giving the Christian world a whole new vocabulary and a renewed school of spirituality.
LOVE OF HIDDENNESS
Though famous, she is not always understood; though millions know her, not everyone has grasped her essential greatness and originality. She has had a bad press, and too often has been presented in cheap sentimental terms or, at the other extreme, as an unreal, superhuman model of virtue and innocence. It must be admitted, the real Therese is elusive; the limitation of her own stylised language, the cultural milieu in which she wrote, as well as her own love of hiddenness, make it essential that we probe beneath the image and strip the statue clean.
Just how elusive Therese was, even to her own sisters in Carmel, is delightfully captured for us in one of the most vivid portraits we possess of her, written by Sister Marie of the Angels when Therese was twenty: ‘… tall and robust, with a childlike face, and with a tone of voice and expression that hide a wisdom, a perfection and a perspicacity of a woman of fifty… a little innocent thing to whom you would give communion without previous confession, but whose head is fills with tricks to be played on everyone she pleases. A mystic, a comedian, she is everything! She can make you shed tears of devotion, and just as easily make you split your sides with laughter during recreation.’ Hardly enough to make her ‘the greatest saint of modern times,’ but enough, surely, to make us cautious of any over-simplification about her.
A VERY ORDINARY LIFE
Therese claimed that her life was a very ordinary one. Others were of the same opinion. ‘Whatever will Mother say about her?’ one of the community wondered shortly before Therese died. Unknown to any of the great ones of her day, untouched by the political or social crises of the age, she lived nine of her short twenty-four years within the cloistered walls of a Carmelite convent. And yet, today, she holds her own with all her contemporaries, taking her place with the great thinkers and philosophers of her age, one who wrestled with the deepest problems of human existence, the enigma of human suffering and the ultimate question of life itself. With them she shared the suffering, the mystery and even the despair but not the ultimate solution; that was uniquely her own.
‘GOD IS LOVE’
Monsignor Vernon Johnson, the great apostle of the Little Way, loved to tell the story of the old priest who, on the day St Therese was canonised, turned to his colleague on the steps of St Peter’s and said, KIt is the Gospel that has been canonised today.’ It would be difficult to express more accurately the whole life and message of St Therese of Lisieux. To understand her is to understand the Gospel. Essentially her doctrine is nothing but a fresh and vigorous restatement of the basic Christian truths. This, in fact, was the genius of St Therese that she rediscovered for her own age and for ours the hidden face of God. And she did so like an explorer, through the sheer force of her love and her burning desire to know the true heart of God…
The heart of St Therese’s discovery was that the God of Revelation was a God of love and mercy. For her the ‘good news’ of the Gospel was summed up in John’s cryptic phrase ‘God is Love.’ The meaning of the Incarnation, as she understood it, was to make love visible. In her soul she experienced, in their deepest theological sense, Jesus’ words from the Cross, ‘I thirst,’ as a cry, a plea for the free gift of each human heart. For her He was a ‘beggar of love.’ She realised it did not matter how weak, fragile, even sinful these hearts were previously, as long as they were given in love. Hence her joy at the so-called ‘Gospel love scenes’; the woman at the well, the good thief, Mary Magdalene… where love and mercy met and overlapped.
LIVING GOD’S LOVE
Where, for the majority of people, the truth of God’s love is marginal, for Therese it was a truth to be lived, a central dynamic principle of her life. Her greatness was not that she discovered God’s love but that she lived it at white heat. Fearlessly she stood before the abyss of God and the abyss of herself and found in the mystery of God’s love for her the bridge – ‘the lift’ as she called it – to reconcile them both. It is only in this way that we can understand the intensity of her inner life – her heroic virtue, her willing obedience, her patient acceptance of her father’s humiliating illness, her daily faithfulness, and her gentle surrender to her own painful death. In the burning intensity of her love, old religious cliches – victim, sacrifice, abandonment, oblation – are given back their original beauty; they are purified and renewed. Her last words ‘My God I love you,’ give meaning to her whole life and every particular detail of it.
FOR THERESE THERE WAS NO TOMORROW; ONLY TODAY, LIVED OUT MOMENT BY MOMENT IN LOVE
Her life was love lived. Nothing was too small or too insignificant to be a vehicle of this love. She simply lived each day fully, never missing an opportunity to make this love visible: ‘a smile, for instance, or a kindly word, when I would rather say nothing or look cross.’ It was not the greatness of life that Therese discovered, but the greatness of the ordinary, the mundane, the trivial. The black and white dreariness of everyday living was the raw material out of which she fashioned her ‘Little Way.’ For Therese there was no tomorrow; only today, lived out moment by moment in love. ‘Everything,’ she exclaimed, ‘is a grace.’ And when she said ‘everything’ she meant everything.
On her death bed, the very day in fact that she died, Therese could sum up her life for her sisters with the statement: ‘I have never sought anything but the truth.’ A few weeks earlier she had expressed her understanding of truth in her ardent prayer; ‘O God, I beg You, answer me when I humbly say ‘what is truth?’ – Let me see things as they are, let nothing blind me to it.’ Seeing things as they are – this for Therese was the absolute condition of her way of spiritual childhood. To her search for love she brought a similar quest for truth, making her own St Paul’s summary of the Christian life ‘doing the truth in love.’
‘IF I DID NOT HAVE FAITH I SHOULD HAVE KILLED MYSELF WITHOUT A MOMENT’S HESITATION’
Seeing things as they were was not easy for Therese. Her bold, independent spirit amazed and sometimes shocked her sisters. To one, taken aback by the directness of her answer, she replied, ‘If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me questions.’ It was not so much that she rejected the devotional and the pious but that she purified and restored them to their true place in the Christian life. To her prayer, her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, her love for Our Blessed Lady, her daily practice of virtue, she brought a realism and an authenticity that feared nothing except illusions. And, from illusions, she felt, ‘God in His mercy has always preserved me.’ In the last few months of her life, the honesty with which she confronted her own desolation of body and soul – the humiliation of her physical suffering, the darkness of her night of faith – proved too much for many of the community even to watch. Yet Therese could not dissimulate; ‘if I did not have faith I should have killed myself without a moment’s hesitation.’
THE TRUTH, SHE KNEW, WOULD MAKE HER FREE
Therese was not afraid of the truth; for her it was never hurtful or diminishing. On the contrary it was the essential condition for that true freedom of spirit which she so strongly desired. The truth, she knew, would make her free; free above all to be herself without any masks or any pretence before God or before others. Countless witnesses attest to her gaiety and spontaneity at recreation – ‘clever, witty and full of fun’ one sister remarked, recalling Therese’s impersonations and her ability to make others laugh. Again, how often her famous smile lightened the burden of another sister’s weariness. Neither was she afraid to weep or show her emotions or admit defeat. She was the enemy of sham and of false virtue. A novice who boasted of her mortification in not eating her desert was sent straight back to the kitchen to collect it! The infirmarian who asked her to say ‘something nice’ to the doctor got an even more direct response, ‘let him think what he likes, I love simplicity, I hate humbug.’
FOR THE GLORY OF GOD; PROCLAIMING HIS MERCY
In her Little Way there was no room for theatricals and mock heroics. She was a saint who was not a hero; she loved her poverty, her weakness and her littleness too much for that. ‘We carry the cross,’ she told her novices, ‘not bravely but weakly.’ Seeing things as they are meant, above all, seeing herself as she was, accepting the full reality of her fragile humanity. The ingredients of her Little Way were commonplace experiences of every human life: weariness, sadness, defeat, fear and disappointment. What for so many are stumbling blocks, for Therese became stepping stones. She knew that weakness was perfected by grace, poverty enriched by love. Hence her joy at coming before God ‘with empty hands’ for it was only when they were empty that God could and would fill them.
When Mother Agnes was asked at the official Process of Canonization why she wanted to see her sister canonised, she replied spontaneously, ‘Because it will be for the glory of God, by proclaiming His mercy.’ In her constant striving to ‘do the truth in love’ St Therese discovered there was ultimately only one thing that made it all possible: the mercy of God.”
– This is an excerpt of an article by Fr Eugene McCaffrey, OCD entitled “The real Therese is elusive” published in the magazine “The Little Wasy Association” (Helping the missions side by side with St Therese) issue No.74; originally published in the Carmel Magazine. For information and donations for the missions all over the world please contact: The Little Way Association, Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 0PR. Tel. +44 (0)20 7622 0466.