SAINT THERESE’S USE OF SCRIPTURE
Msgr. T. Bird
The Autobiography is not a big book, yet it contains more than 130 quotations from the Bible, besides a number of allusions. When we remember that Saint Therese died at an age when most candidates for the priesthood have not yet left the seminary, and that during her religious life her time was fully occupied, until an illness (which usually gives the sufferer little taste for reading) confined her to bed, we are utterly astonished at her wonderful familiarity with both the Old and New Testament.
It is clear that she studied the whole Bible - Old Testament as well as New. In the Autobiography there are quotations from no less than thirteen books of the Old Testament (I, II, III Kings, Tobias, Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonas and Joel). From the New Testament passages are drawn chiefly from the Gospels, but there are quotations from seven of the Epistles. The Psalms in the Old Testament and Saint Luke’s Gospel in the New seem to have been her favorite books. Yet up to the time of her entry into Carmel, she had not read the Scriptures. When she did discover the treasure she used it whenever she needed consolation during her trials and anxieties, or when she required an inspired guarantee for her teaching. Here are the passages:
“In my helplessness, the holy Scriptures and the Imitation are of the greatest assistance; I find in them a hidden manna, pure and genuine. It is from the Gospels, however, that I derive most help in time of prayer; I find in their pages all that my poor soul needs, and I am always discovering there new lights and hidden mysterious meanings.”
“I sought to find in holy Scripture some suggestion of what this desired elevator might be, and I came across these words, uttered by Eternal Wisdom Itself: Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me. But wishing to know further what He would do to the little one, I continued my search, and this is what I found: You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees; as one whom a mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.”
“I draw from the rich mine which our Saviour has opened up to us in the Gospels; I search the depths of His adorable words, and I cry out with the Psalmist: I have run in the way of Thy commandments since thou hast enlarged my heart.”
“These aspirations becoming a real martyrdom, I one day sought relief in the Epistles of Saint Paul, and my eyes lighted on the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Straightway I was inspired to take up the Gospels and opening the book at random, I lighted upon a passage which had hitherto escaped me: He whom God hath sent, speaketh the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.”
It is quite obvious that she was guided from heaven in her use of the sacred Book; she was “inspired” to consult it, and straightway she found the appropriate text. There is nothing here of the Protestant presumption of “private interpretation”; that would simply have horrified her. She loved Holy Church and its teachings with an ardent love; she would have laid down her life in defense of any article of Catholic faith. “I am a child of Holy Church”, she joyously exclaimed; and as a child of the Holy Church she studied the sacred archives of the Church under the direction of the Church’s teaching, but with special assistance from above.
Hence it is that in spite of the fact that she had never taken a course of biblical lessons she knew the Church’s teaching on biblical matters with astonishing accuracy. She knew that the sacred Books were divinely inspired and that they were free from errors; she studied the literal and historical sense first of all, but she did not stop there; she went on to “discover new lights and hidden mysterious meanings.” Thereby she followed the method of the best exponents of the sacred text. We can almost hear her saying with Saint Jerome: “I tell you how you are to walk in the holy Scriptures. Everything that we read in the sacred Books shines and glitters even in the outer shell; but the marrow is sweeter. He who desires to eat the kernel must first break the shell. Open Thou my eyes, says David, and I will consider the wondrous things of Thy law.”
It would appear to me that her heavenly guide in her Scripture reading was no other than the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. Mary, who knew the holy writ so well, Mary, the ultimate author of the first two chapters of the third Gospel, Mary, who wrote in her mind all that happened to her Child and pondered over every detail, this same Mary seems to have been appointed by God as the patroness and teacher of all those saintly men and women who, in successive ages, have been raised up by the Holy Spirit in the Church to find their delight in the law of the Lord, to meditate on it, and then expound it for the edification of the faithful.
It would take us out of our way to develop this argument; we can only say that a long list of names beginning with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (who taught that Mary is the second Eve), and including Saint Ephrem of Syria (who wrote Mary’s praises in prose and verse), Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Jerome (the defender of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity) and many others, down to Pere Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P. (in our own day), could be drawn up to illustrate its truth. It is not surprising then that when, under obedience, Saint Therese of Lisieux was about to write the story of her soul she first knelt down before the miraculous statue of Our Lady to ask that her hand might be guided, and that at once that hand reached out to the book of the Gospels, where she read the words: Jesus going into a mountain called unto Him whom He would Himself. By those words “a clear light” was thrown upon the mystery of her vocation and of her entire life, “and above all upon the favors our Lord has granted to my soul.” Mary was her tutor, and under her direction she learned the holy Scriptures with ever-increasing love.
Appropriate texts and passages seem to have come before her eyes in a marvelous manner. She fingered no concordance; she did not hunt through the pages of pious writers; nothing was borrowed from sermons or retreat exercises; she knew the Scriptures so easily that the right quotations simply flowed from her pen with a facility that is quite difficult to understand if we seek for merely natural explanations. The number of uncommon or out-of-the-way texts which she quotes is also surprising. Let us take a few and see if the reader can give the references:
“He gave us His kiss and now no one may despise us... Man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart... Tell me just man that all is well... A net is set in vain before the eyes of them that have wings... And therefore I have raised thee, that I may show My power in thee, and my name may be spoken of throughout all the earth... A brother that is helped by a brother is like a strong city.... Yea, it is the Lord who hath bidden him say all these things... I cry like a young swallow.”
These are not hackneyed texts borrowed from pious manuals. They find their place in the Autobiography simply because its author was saturated with the dew of the divine scriptures. It need hardly be said that the whole of Saint Therese’s teaching on spiritual childhood is founded on inspired passages of holy writ. Childhood supposes a father; Saint Therese has proclaimed to the world that God is OUR FATHER. On one occasion, a novice entering her cell was struck by the heavenly expression of her countenance. Though sewing most industriously she seemed lost in contemplation. “What are you thinking of?” the young sister asked. “I am meditating on the Our Father”, Therese replied, “It is so sweet to call God ‘Our Father’!”... And tears glistened in her eyes. As a natural foundation for the building up of this teaching God had given her a most lovable and saintly father, Louis Martin. From her earthly papa Therese turned her thoughts to her heavenly Father.
In the Old Testament the concept of God as a Father is unknown, except in a restricted and national sense. One passage only approaches the revelation of the New Testament, viz. Psalm 102, 13: As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear Him; but even here “they that fear him” are pious Israelites, children of the Covenant. It was Christ who taught us that God is the Father of all mankind because He made them all and loves them all. Yet, strangely enough, Saint Therese after learning this great truth from the New Testament, found passages in the Old Testament that illustrated it. Speaking of the way of self-surrender she describes it as “the confidence of the little child who sleeps without fear in its father’s arms,” and as “quickly taking refuge in our Lord’s arms, imitating those babes who when frightened hide their faces on their father’s shoulders”; then her four proofs ex sacra scriptura for her teaching are all taken from the Old Testament.
1. From Proverbs 9,4: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.”
2. From Wisdom 6,4: “To him that is little, mercy is granted.”
3. From Isaiah 40, 11: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather together the lambs with His arm, and shall take them up into His bosom.”
4. From Isaiah 66, 12-13: “You shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you; as one whom a mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.”
Thus was revealed to this little Saint the meaning of texts which ‘wise and prudent’ commentators had failed altogether to penetrate. “Because I was small and frail He deigned to stoop down to me and instruct me gently in the secrets of His love.”
In these days Saint Therese teaches us what the Greatest Doctors taught: “Love the Bible and wisdom will love you; love it, and it will keep you safe; honour it, and it will embrace you... Read assiduously and learn as much as you can; let sleep find you holding your Bible.” For it was from the sacred Scriptures that Saint Therese came to know our Lord so well. “Ignorance of the Bible means ignorance of Christ”, says Saint Jerome; and the converse is just as true, for, as Lacordaire puts it, “The Gospel is Jesus Christ living.” Hence it is that in an age when the Church is calling upon her children to read the sacred Scriptures with greater diligence, Saint Therese of Lisieux stands before us as a modern disciple of the great Saint Jerome.