THE REAL THERESE IS ELUSIVE
Fr. Eugene MacCaffrey O.C.D.
For millions Saint 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 to the Christian world a whole new vocabulary and a renewed school of spirituality.
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 stylized 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 confession, but whose head is filled with tricks to be played on anyone 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 oversimplification about her.
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. Externally all this is true and the biographical details of her life are easily enough recorded. Unknown to any of the great ones of her day, untouched by the political of 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.
Monsignor Vernon Johnson, the great apostle of the Little Way loved to tell the story of the old priest who, on the day Saint Therese was canonized, turned to his colleague on the steps of Saint Peter's and said, “It is the Gospel that has been canonized today.” It would be difficult to express more accurately that whole life and message of Saint 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 Saint 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. Without realizing it, she was giving back to the Church and to the modern world the God of the Gospels.
The heart of Saint 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 in love.” She realized 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.
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 clichés - 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.
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 every day 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 Saint Paul's summary of the Christian life “doing the truth in love.”
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 of hesitation.”
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 pretense 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 other 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 dessert 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.”
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 the 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 her sister canonized, 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” Saint Therese discovered there was ultimately only one thing that made it all possible: the mercy of God.
Therese starts her Autobiography with the words, “I am only going to do one thing: start singing now what I must repeat forever: the mercies of the Lord.” She ends the same story of her soul by saying, “I do not know now this story will end, but what I do know is that the mercy of God will accompany it forever.” And to her sister Marie she could say, “What pleases God most is the blind hope I have in His mercy. This is my only treasure.”
The climax of Therese's life was the self-offering to Merciful Love that she made in June 1895. Quite on her own, without guide or teacher, save only the Spirit living in her heart, she came to discover the core of revelation “that the mercy of the Lord is above all his works.”
For Therese, ever practical and daring, there had been only one response, to launch out full sail on the way of confidence and trust. Where others opposed mercy and love, Therese in the simplicity of her childlike vision saw them both as one. Henceforth she would not speak of one or the other but only of the totality: Merciful Love.
Once Therese grasped this new found vision of God she never looked back. She took God at his word and surrendered herself totally to Him. She offered everything and God, for His part, accepted the offering. Many things she let go herself willingly - her natural affection for her own sisters, the human props and comforts that the self so eagerly craves - but there were many things that God asked of her in darkness and in faith. He led her into the deeper trials of the spirit, where her soul was cleansed and purified in what she could only describe as a “night of nonexistence” and where she mingled with the mocking spirits of atheism and unbelief.
Yet her confidence held firm and she pushed trust to the limit: “Even if God kills me, I will still trust in Him.” Even when the very foundation of her confidence was removed - her “vision” of heaven, her idea of God, her certainty of His love - she still trusted. And in one of her most extraordinary phrases, reminiscent of the great Teresa of Avila, she shows the stubborn determination of which the saints are made, “He will get tired of making me wait for Him long before I get tired of waiting for Him!”
And so Therese had come the full circle. She had set out on her journey to God with boundless desires. “I choose all,” she exclaimed in her childhood enthusiasm, “no use in becoming a saint by halves.” But, in the end, she had to let everything go: nothing was to remain but God. She made the longest and the greatest journey of all and, in doing so, opened up a path - a way of spiritual childhood - to make the Gospel message as fresh and clear as on the first Easter morning. The last sentence in the last letter she ever wrote told it all: “He is love and mercy - that is all!” In her own fearless quest for truth and love Therese had touched the core of every human spirit where the whole fragile world of men and women meets. She found strength in weakness, victory in defeat, life in death. She had released the human spirit and set holiness free.