ST THERESE OF LISIEUX AND SPIRITUAL CHILDHOOD
John F. Russell
In an age that savours insights related to growth, maturity accountability and responsibility, it might appear jejune to suggest ‘spiritual childhood’ as an appropriate image for the spiritual journey. The ‘little way’ associated with St Therese of Lisieux can readily be misunderstood. In her writings, focus on the child does not promote childishness, passivity, immaturity, nor a romantic sphere of eternal play. Rather, it points toward a theocentric view of grace: God initiates relationship, enables, nourishes; we recognize, discover, respond, grow within the ambience of God's merciful love. A child develops best in an environment of trust, love, forgiveness, generosity. St Therese’s personal experience led her to recognize that God was at the centre of her existence as Love. In view of the immensity of the world and the complexities of life she saw herself as ‘a child’, ‘a grain of sand’, ‘little’ but energized by a God who directed her journey in faith.
Concept of Spiritual Childhood
Bishop Guy Gaucher, O.C.D., has written that the notion of spiritual childhood as applied to St Therese is a limited expression and can readily distort her spirituality. The words ‘spiritual childhood’ never came from Therese's pen. Mother Agnes (Pauline) willingly admitted that she had inserted the expression into the long synthesis presented to the Apostolic Process. A similar observation in more theological language has been made by Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Her teaching is not a theological system...; it is an immediate, total vision, and on that account requires many forms for its exposition”. The vision suggests a ‘primitive Christian power’ rooted in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection, ‘of dying and rebirth’. Thus no one image can capture the depth and breadth of Therese's spiritual journey.
The image of the child or childhood does find a place in the religious experience of Therese in two fundamental ways: (1) she cultivated a personal relationship to the child Jesus; and (2) as mentioned above, she employed the image of childhood or littleness as one construct in communicating her own spiritual journey.
Relationship to the child Jesus emphasizes the humanity of Christ and suggests a sense of dependence, poverty, trust, and wonder. The child Jesus theme is found in the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and in writings of the Franciscan tradition.
Devotion to the child Jesus was rather common in France in the nineteenth century. Therese’s own relationship to the child Jesus came from initiatives taken by Pauline, her second mother. For example, when Therese was nine or ten she received a letter from Sister Agnes encouraging Therese to be “very good during this Lent. Each day, you will have to offer to the child Jesus a pretty bouquet made up of acts of virtue.” Pauline was aware that Therese was suffering severe emotional strain from the loss of her mother, and also of her sister Pauline to Carmel. Apparently, Pauline believed that the image of the child Jesus would be beneficial for her young sister; Therese would be able to relate to the child in the crib. She wrote in December 1882 or January 1883: “I still think that for little girls, very good, very sweet... the Holy Child in the crib reserves all kinds of divine caresses.” In a series of letters written by Pauline to Therese as she prepared for her first communion, the child Jesus or ‘little Jesus’ is frequently mentioned. Therese’s sacrifices and acts of virtue would be the flowers offered to little Jesus at her first communion.
While the language Pauline employs is rather sentimental and simplistic, the God image is gentle and comfortable for a child. In due time Therese would reject the ‘meritorious acts’ approach to spirituality (her act of oblation to God’s merciful love stated: “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before You with empty hands, for I do not ask You, Lord, to count my works”). Therese's spirituality would focus on love alone, accepting the push and pull of the ordinary and the everyday in forging a meaning for authentic sanctity. While never rejecting the image of the child Jesus (she wrote two Christmas plays focusing on divine infancy), the mature Therese holds together the full humanity of Christ who suffered in love for the salvation of all. Thus, her name in religious life became ‘Soeur Therese de l’Enfant Jesus et de la Sainte Face’ (Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face) on 10th January 1889. It was the day that Therese received the habit of Carmel.
It is important to recognize that St Therese's literary style can obscure at times the depth of religious experience and commitment that marks her journey.
She was prone to use diminutives in a way that can distract from the demands of the so-called ‘little way’. She views herself as ‘a little ball’, ‘a little hermit’, ‘a little boat’. In a letter written to her sister Celine in 1893 she refers to her as ‘a little drop of dew’. Other aspects can slow down our desire to read further. She sought an image of the spiritual that would be more simple and direct, like an elevator that ascends directly and swiftly. That construct seems mechanical, to say the least. That is why a number of readers find meaning in the writings of St Therese only by returning to them numerous times. The process leads to insight, to understanding, to a deeper appreciation of her total self-gift to Jesus Christ, to her community, to the mission of the church.
I believe that the image of ‘spiritual childhood’ (more accurately ‘the child’) or ‘the little way’ arises from Therese’s own experience of the Scriptures, family life, and religious life. The concept of childhood allows Therese to express at least three convictions about the journey of faith that run counter to the prevailing ethos of her time. These convictions arise from her image of God, her image of self, and her understanding of authentic discipleship.
(1) Her Image of God: Therese grew up in nineteenth-century France which was still caught up to some extent in the rigors of Jansenism. Furthermore, France still reeled from its loss in the Franco-Prussian war. Consequently, God appeared more as a just Judge who was punishing France for its sins. The spiritual climate called for reparation, mortifications, prayers offered in atonement. Therese, of course, was also influenced by this climate. Yet the God of Judgement did not obscure what she learned from the Scriptures and from her own religious experience: God is above all a God of merciful love who has come to us unsurpassably in Jesus Christ. In Manuscript A of the Story of a Soul, Therese makes it clear that as a child she experienced God as love: “God was pleased all through my life to surround me with love, and the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses. But although He placed so much love near me, He also sent much love into my little heart, making it warm and affectionate.”
St Therese does record the tension she experienced relating to the God of justice: “I was thinking about the souls who offer themselves as victims of God’s Justice in order to turn away the punishments reserved to sinners, drawing them upon themselves. This offering seemed great and very generous to me, but I was far from feeling attracted to making it. From the depths of my heart, I cried out: ‘0 my God! Will your Justice alone find souls willing to immolate themselves as victims? Does Your Merciful Love need them too?’ How sweet is the way of Love! How I want to apply myself to doing the will of God always with the greatest self-surrender!”
(2) Her Image of Self: An initial reading of the Story of a Soul could lead one to conclude that Therese suffered from poor self-esteem. She frequently refers to weakness, being little, imperfect, limited. Yet a second level of consideration would reveal that Therese had strong character: she trusted her own experience in relationship to the Scriptures (‘Jesus will be my director’); she spoke the truth as she understood it, whether popular or not; she handled suffering without carping and with a sense of ultimate purpose.
What she did encounter in her own culture was the preoccupation with perfection, merit, degrees of sanctity. The situation of the child enables her to accept weakness and limitation and to trust in God's love and mercy. God as father is a warm and inviting image for her. While perhaps not the ipsissima verba of Therese, the sense of 'spiritual childhood' is recorded in the Last Conversations: “It is to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father; it is to be disquieted about nothing, and not to be set on gaming our living. ... To be little is not attributing to oneself the virtues that one practices. ... It is not to become discouraged over one's faults, for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”
St Therese is providing an alternative view of relationship to God: not a formal, stiff, perfectionist, scrupulous, fearful model, but a relaxed, loving, open and meaningful one. Her popularity among Catholics, particularly from the 1920s through the 1950s, perhaps stems most of all from her picture of a merciful God and her ability to articulate relationship to God in clear, simple language.
(3) Her Understanding of Discipleship: Because Therese was unable to attain perfect love by herself, she centred herself in God's loving mercy. Because she put little stock in an act-centred approach to sanctity (it was too self-focused), she was able to centre upon the heart of the gospel-love. What Therese reveals is the paradoxical character of Christian discipleship. While God seeks covenant fidelity, people are weak and sinful. Therese therefore sees the ground for hope in God's mercy. Furthermore, Once the virtue of hope finds a place in one's heart, there is every reason to get on with the mission of Christ: to love unto folly.
Conrad De Meester, O.C.D., has expressed the pulse beat of St Therese's spirit of discipleship: “Love demands a fidelity that is centred round the countless mundane ‘little’ things of each day, things that are within everyone’s power. We see that Therese is not advocating an easy solution. Heroism is not eliminated, rather it is brought within reach of the poor [person]. The torrent of love is channelled into ordinary everyday life. We are struck by the place held by ‘all the smallest things’ in Therese’s programme through which she wished to realize her dream to be love in the heart of the Church, these ‘worthless petals’ ... these ‘nothings’: a little sacrifice, a look, a word, a smile!... Sometimes the action is nothing more than faithful effort, the fact of having tried, the good will that is untiringly put into the journey: true bearers of love, but witnesses of imperfection and appeal to God’s mercy.”
In an essay entitled ‘Ideas for a Theology of Childhood’, Karl Rahner notes that childhood suggests openness. ‘The mature childhood of the adult’ signifies an openness in discipleship of Jesus Christ even though circumstances and experiences tempt us to close up, to withdraw. It is because of God’s grace, God’s ‘self-bestowal’ that remaining open to existence is possible. It seems to me that St Therese had made this point about childhood and discipleship through her own life and writing. ‘Tout est grace’ she had said, ‘All is grace’. All of her experiences found their centre in a fundamental union of love of God and neighbour. She lived out this commitment in the midst of ‘a dark tunnel’ during the last year of her life and through her affliction and suffering. The child of her beginning had moved into the adult child of mature discipleship. Both phases were identified in the heart of love.