Canon Paul Travert
“Behold the greatest saint of modern times.” (Saint Pius X)
We might debate at length upon the meaning of this pronouncement, were it not that on two occasions the saintly Pope defined the reasons for his admiration of the Saint of Lisieux. One day a priest, seeking to convince the Holy Father that there was nothing extraordinary in the life of this saint, received the following reply: “Ah! What is most extraordinary of all in her life is precisely her extreme simplicity. Consult your theology!”
This is the first point. In the view of Pope Saint Pius X, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus is a great saint for the very reason that her spirituality is extremely simple, and adds the Supreme Pontiff, such is the teaching of the Church: “Consult your theology.” There is a need in our day to bring this theological lesson to light once more.
The second point which impressed this same Pope concerning Saint Therese’ sanctity is revealed in the following episode. Msgr. de Teil, vice-postulator of the cause of the Saint, had shown the Holy Father a letter written by the young Carmelite to her cousin Marie Guerin, who was allowing scruples to keep her away from Holy Communion. Here Saint Therese warns all the scrupulous against the wiles of Satan “who seeks to deprive Jesus of a loved tabernacle, well knowing that he will then have won the victory over this poor heart, empty without its Lord.” The reaction of Pope Pius X to this letter is described in the following passage: “‘Opportunissimo! Opportunissimo!’ he exclaimed on reading the opening lines; then, addressing Msgr. de Teil, ‘This is a great joy to me, we must use all speed in dealing with this process.’“
The supernatural simplicity of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and her enlightened love for the Holy Eucharist, wherein she discerns the means par excellence of withstanding the devil and securing the strength of Our Blessed Lord Himself are then, in the eyes of Saint Pius X, the two things which prompt him to declare her “the greatest saint of modern times.” The teaching of Saint Therese provides a corrective for many errors, if not of doctrine in the exact sense of the word at any rate of method, and for errors which are positively harmful to the spiritual life. Two examples of this error of method are to be found in the way in which the essence of the spiritual life has so often been rendered complex and theories on the mystical life have failed to assign an adequate place to the Holy Eucharist.
There is surely no saint in modern times who has gone further than Saint Therese of the Child Jesus in detachment from the means which lead to sanctity. For her “the divine lift (elevator)” is no mere metaphor, it expresses a perfect conception of simplicity. Just as once we have entered a lift we pay no further heed to the steps of the stairway but merely to remaining safely within the elevator, so in the “little way” of Saint Therese we are no longer concerned about the ground we have covered, that is to say, we are not anxious to know at what stage of the spiritual life we have arrived and into what state of prayer we have entered, for our sole care is to remain within the divine arms. Our whole attention is directed so that we do not fall back, but maintain a constant surrender to Our Blessed Lord by humility, confidence and a generous love.
Saint There could not read those books where “perfection is put before us with the goal obstructed by a thousand obstacles.” The soul is often discouraged by such reading, and wonders when it will reach the end of so many trials. For Saint Therese there are no barriers before God. At whatever stage of the spiritual life the soul may be, whether still struggling against sin or advancing in the practice of virtue, there is but one thing to do: “to surrender oneself more and more like a child to God’s affectionate embrace” by repentance, confidence and love. To love without any thought for self, such is the wonderful simplicity of Saint Therese. The soul which treads her “little way” has no other task than to seek that most precious simplicity of a little child, who has no other understanding than to love his Heavenly Father.
Thus, understandably Holy Communion was the greatest inspiration of Saint Therese’s simple, wholehearted life of love. Her First Communion was one of the peaks of her spiritual life. Let us recall this stirring passage from the Bull of Canonization:
“As soon as she had tasted of the Eucharistic Bread, she felt an insatiable hunger for that Heavenly Food, and, as if inspired, she begged of Jesus, her sole delight, to ‘change for her into bitterness all human consolation.’ Then, all aflame with love for Christ and His Church, she had a most keen desire to enter among the Discalced Carmelites, so that by her self-denial and continual sacrifices ‘she might bring help to priests and missionaries and the entire Church,’ and might gain innumerable souls for Jesus Christ. At the approach of death she promised that when with God she would continue this work.” Thus we see all the intensity of little Therese’s love for God, already so great, still further increased by her First Communion, and it would seem that this First Communion was the starting-point of her apostolic life and her devotion to the sanctification of priests.
From her earliest years it was her chief delight to talk frequently of God, and she always kept before her mind the thought that she must not inflict the slightest pain on the Holy Child Jesus. Notwithstanding this early union with God Saint Therese had an ardent longing to receive the Eucharist. Holy Communion was not a participation in the life of Jesus but the coming into her soul of Our Blessed Lord Himself. “How lovely it was,” she says, “that first kiss of Jesus in my heart... It was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved, and said ‘I love You, and I give myself to You for ever.’ Jesus asked for nothing, He claimed no sacrifice. Long before that He and little Therese had seen and understood one another well, but on that day it was more than a meeting; it was a complete fusion.” It was veritable personal presence that she felt: “...Jesus alone remained the Master and the King.” And we see Therese throughout her life yearning for this Heavenly Bread which she longed to receive daily.
In the world of today, as in the time of Pius X, there is an urgent need to learn this lesson. Many books on the mystical life omit altogether or assign only a very secondary place to the part played by Holy Communion in its development. It would appear that progress in the life of prayer is alone necessary in order to attain to intimate, experimental and finally habitual union with God. Union with God in contemplation becomes the essential aim to the detriment of Eucharistic union.
If we had a deeper realization that the Holy Eucharist is more than a participation in grace, that it is indeed a participation in the very substance of God made Man we would unite ourselves more and more perfectly with Jesus in the Sacred Host; and in the simplicity of the life of faith, without any illusions our union with Him would often become a “fusion”. Here we have the precise teaching of Pope Pius X, but it is also the teaching of all Catholic tradition from apostolic times. No wonder then that she who recalls us to the practice of the first centuries of the Church is named by the Pope of Frequent Communion “the greatest saint of modern times.”
It would be difficult to utter a more sublime sentence than this, for it expresses in the simplest terms the reality of the most perfect love of God in complete detachment from the highest gifts of this life, gifts which derive from the experiential knowledge of the divine. The desire to await eternal life in order to know God other than in the night of faith is one of the most profound dispositions of Saint Therese’ soul. At no moment of her life does she depart from it, no even when her most ardent desire is fulfilled and she becomes united to her Divine Spouse in the Holy Eucharist. “I desire Him to come for His own pleasure,” she confides, “not for mine.”
It was the great simplicity of Our Lord’s interior life as it stands out in the Gospel which attracted her above all else. “When I picture the Holy Family,” she said, “the thought that does me most good is the simplicity of their home-life. Since Jesus has gone to Heaven now, I can only follow the traces He has left behind. But how bright these traces are! How fragrant and divine! I have only to glance at the Gospels; at once the fragrance from the life of Jesus reaches me, and I know which way to run; to the lowest, not the highest place! Leaving the Pharisee to push himself forward, I pray humbly like the Publican, but full of confidence. Yet most of all I follow the example of Mary Magdalene, my heart captivated by her astonishing, or rather, loving audacity, which so won the Heart of Jesus.”
In the simplicity of Our Lord’s life Saint Therese found the model upon which she would mold her own life right up to the end: “The death of love which I desire is that of Jesus on the Cross.” And privileges which in His life on earth Our Lord had not chosen for Himself seemed to her of no value in her union with Him. The union of love, that alone was her goal: “Jesus! I would so love Him! Love Him as He has never yet been loved!”
We know that she reached this goal, for she herself tells us how she did it. “The only way to make quick progress along the path of divine love is to remain always very little. That is what I have done, and now I can sing with our holy Father, Saint John of the Cross:
‘By stooping so low, so low,
I mounted so high, so high,
That I was able to reach my goal.’”
Transforming union, living communion with Christ, was indeed the ideal to which she aspired throughout her life, and this aspiration derived from her great love for Our Lord. Transforming union seemed to her the only means of rendering Him love for love and responding in the most perfect way possible to His union with us in the holy Eucharist. At the very beginning, on the day of her First Communion, grace had prompted her to cry: “I felt that I was loved and I said: ‘I love You, and I give myself to You for ever.’”
“O Jesus, let me tell You that Your love goes as far as folly! In face of such folly, what can You expect, save that my heart should fly out to You? How can my confidence know any bounds? I know that the saints have done foolish things as well as wonderful ones, and my foolishness lies in hoping that Your love accepts me as a victim; it lies in counting on the angels and saints to help me, my beloved Eagle, ‘to fly to You on Your own wings’... Love calls to love, and mine longs to fill the abyss of Yours in its flight to You, but it is not even a drop of dew lost in that sea. If I am to love You as You love me, I must borrow Your love; I can find peace no other way.”
She is conscious of having experimental knowledge of the divine truths and of Our Lord who contains them all, and she describes her mystical experience as follows: “Jesus has no need of books or doctors to instruct our soul. He, the Doctor of doctors, teaches us without the sound of words. I have never heard Him speak, and yet I know He is within my soul. Every moment He is guiding and inspiring me, and just at the moment I need them, ‘lights’ till then unseen are granted me. Most often it is not at prayer that they come but while I go about my daily duties.”
This action of Our Lord in Saint Therese as guide and inspirer is so strong, so predominant, that she attributed to Him all her virtues, all her sanctity, all her charity. “I know,” she says, “that whenever I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting through me, and that the more closely I unite myself to Him, the more I will be able to love all my Sisters.” She expects no reward for her works because she has none of her own, but, she hastens to add, “He will reward me according to His own works.”
And so we see “little Therese” arrived at transforming union, in habitual “fusion” with Jesus. “Little” in the pejorative sense of the word for those who have not understood her way of absolute truth and simplicity, but for us ever greater and greater in proportion as we compare her life and teaching with the Gospel revelation of the life and teaching of Our Blessed Lord. The simplicity which Christ willed to establish in His relations with us provides the key to the spirituality of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. Too many of us forget the lesson which Our Lord gave to Philip when he asked to see the Father: “Philip, he that sees Me, sees the Father also.” (Jn 14:9). Our Heavenly Father is no less accessible than His Incarnate Son.
By becoming incarnate and giving us His Body for our daily Bread Our Blessed Lord has most surely willed to render easy for us the closest union with Himself. Before her First Communion she had already abandoned herself wholly and entirely to Our Lord in her simple way of love. Then, when Jesus came to her in the Holy Eucharist, He produced glorious fruits in her soul. Therese “had disappeared like a drop of water lost in the mighty ocean; Jesus alone remained the Master and the King.”
In conclusion we will claim, then, that the genius of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus lies in her simplification of the spiritual life and particularly in her return to the simple Eucharistic spirit of the first centuries of the Church. It is not surprising, therefore, to hear a Pope of eminent sanctity declare her “the greatest saint of modern time,” since that humble, rare simplicity which was hers received the unmistakable commendation of the Divine Master Himself: “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:4)