THE FATHERHOOD OF GOD
The purpose of this book is to try to develop the teaching of Saint Teresa of Lisieux in its relation to our holy faith and to the Sacred Scriptures. The scene which expresses most completely the essence of her teaching is to be found in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Our Lord has just returned from one of his long journeyings with his disciples, those journeyings in which he was continually teaching them the mysteries of the kingdom of God. On arriving at the house at Capharnaum, Our Lord asked what it was that they had been discussing on the road, and Saint Mark tells us that they were all silent because on the road they had been disputing as to who should be the greatest Our Lord does not condemn them out of hand; he knows our human nature too well. He does not even point out their mistake, but directs their attention to the truth. He calls a little child to him and takes it in his arms, then, looking upon his apostles, he tells them: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
Saint Teresa was raised up by Almighty God and canonised by the Church to be for all the faithful the teacher and model of the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. The Little Way was revealed to her through Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the passage which inspired her most immediately and most profoundly being those words of Our Lord to his apostles: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
With that direct simplicity which is the dominant characteristic of her spirituality, Saint Teresa sweeps aside all accidentals and goes at once to the very heart of religion. Our Lord had said that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven she must become a little child. Now, a little child postulates a father, so Saint Teresa sees at once that if she is to become her heavenly Father’s little child then, for her, God must be before all else a Father. Here then is the starting-point of the Little Way – the Fatherhood of God. She will treat God in the supernatural order exactly as a little child treats its father in the natural order, and so, provided she surrenders herself to him, she is safe and nothing can hurt her, for “we know that to them that love God all things work together unto good.” (Romans 8:28) The Little Way is founded upon the truth that God is our Father, and it is in the light of this that Saint Teresa sees all the ups and downs of life, every human experience, including the final one which awaits us all, death.
In all this there is nothing new. The Fatherhood of God is one of the oldest doctrines of the Church. But that is just the difficulty; we are so familiar with the doctrine that we take it for granted, and so miss much of its strength and its intimacy. Almighty God has willed in our own time to make this ancient doctrine live afresh, and has chosen Saint Teresa as his instrument. How does she fulfil her mission? Simply by taking Our Lord quite literally: Our Lord did not merely say that she must be converted and become a child, he said she must become a little child. Now a child can have to a certain extent an independent life of its own, calling upon its parent only in moments of need. A little child cannot do this: it has no life of its own: it is completely dependent on its parent and so lives with perfect serenity and trust within that parent’s protection. For Saint Teresa the word “little”, which many would like to eliminate from her teaching, is the key to everything. She has made the Fatherhood of God live afresh for thousands of the faithful by calling us back from being children with a more or less independent life of our own, to become, as Our Lord would have us, little children, with no independent life at all, but depending absolutely on our heavenly Father. In so calling us to a fresh realisation of the Fatherhood of God, she enables us to move through life with a serenity and confidence which is the prerogative of the childlike soul, for she makes known to us one of those secrets which God hides from the wise and prudent and reveals only to little ones. It is in this sense that the present Bishop of Lisieux is never weary of saying that Saint Teresa has shed a new light on one of the oldest and most fundamental of Catholic doctrines: God is our Father.
Just as a little child, looking upon its father, is not concerned as to whether he is rich or poor, plain or handsome, stupid or clever, but sees only one thing – father, so to little Teresa, as she looked at God, the fact that he was the Creator, the Omnipotent, or the Omnipresent, was purely secondary; to her he was, above all, Father. That God was really and truly her Father, was to her the all-absorbing truth. This intimate realisation of the Fatherhood of God is vividly expressed in a scene during her life in Carmel. One of the Sisters, wishing to speak with her, knocked at the door of her cell, and on entering found Saint Teresa sewing, with a rapt expression on her face. “What are you thinking of?” asked the Sister. Saint Teresa replied: “I was meditating on the Our Father. It is so wonderful to be able to call God ‘Our Father’.” As she said it, tears came into her eyes. To many this scene may appear emotional or even sentimental, whereas it is profound in its simplicity. It is we who are too complex in our sophistication to fathom its depths. It takes the simplicity of a Saint to realise the Fatherhood of God so intimately as to be unable to get beyond the first two words of the Pater Noster.
The truth is that the Saint in her simplicity is at the very heart of Scripture. Let us consider this. All down the ages, men have sought to probe the mystery of God and of his nature. In their search they came to think of him as Infinite Truth, Infinite Goodness, and Infinite Beauty. This conception, however, only left them dissatisfied, for it kept God far away; it was not personal enough. Leaving the human heart cold, it could not effectively influence the lives of men. We cannot easily love Infinite Truth, Infinite Goodness, or Infinite Beauty. A few of the prophets had some glimmering of this, but it was not until God became Man that the overwhelming truth was revealed, the truth that God is our Father. From first to last it is the one word out of all others which Our Lord chose, to reveal the character of God to men. The Gospels tell us how Our Lord was praying in the presence of his apostles, and when he ceased, his apostles said to him: Teach us to do that – “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1) And what answer did Our Lord make? He did not say: When you pray, say O Infinite Truth, Infinite Beauty, Infinite Goodness. He said: “When you pray, say Our Father.” In that moment Our Lord brought the unknown God out of eternity into time, out of the unseen into the seen, out of the unknowable into the lovable, right into the very hearts and home of men and women, for we all know what a father should be. In these two words, “Our Father”, lies all the strength and authority of a Father who is a Creator, all the love and tenderness of a Creator who is a Father. The Gospels are full of it. Our Lord’s first recorded words spoken to Our Lady concern the Father: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) and his last dying words were: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) And in between, he was constantly teaching the Fatherhood of God. We will consider two occasions. The first is on the mountain side. Wanting to inspire the men and women around him with a practical confidence in the Fatherhood of God, he relates it directly to the material necessities which cause us most anxiety – food and clothing. In order to drive home his lesson, he who is the Truth and therefore the perfect Teacher, draws the attention of the crowd to something very simple, something which they can all see and understand. He points to the birds as they fly overhead: “Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns, and your heavenly Father feedeth them.” (Matthew 6:26) Then comes the irresistible argument: “Are not you of much more value than they?” Not satisfied with only one exposition of his point, he – as all good teachers do – repeats the same lesson in a rather different form: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is today and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God does so clothe, how much more you?... For your Father knows that you have need of all these things.”
On that first occasion Our Lord teaches confidence in the Father for material necessities; on the second he teaches the same confidence in the Fatherhood of God, but this time for spiritual graces. Again he takes simple things as an illustration: “Which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? Or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12) Then once again comes the argument: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him?” As for the rest of Our Lord’s teaching, we need draw attention only to the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, which has touched the hearts of men and women perhaps more than any other, and which was one of those most loved by Saint Teresa, the tragedy of sin is seen to lie precisely in this rejection of fatherhood with its consequent loss of sonship; while repentance is symbolised as the return of the son to his father’s arms.
The doctrine that God is our Father is not something idealistic and unpractical quite unrelated to the world in which we live. Our Lord not only taught it, but lived it out in the midst of the ruthless realism of human life with all its tragedy, its injustice, its suffering and death; and in so doing he has made it possible for the Fatherhood of God to be a living reality for every human being. From the very outset, his public life can be summed up as one continual vindication of the loving providence of the Father. He begins his public ministry as his Father’s Son, for at his baptism there comes a voice from heaven: “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) It is within this relationship of Father and Son that Our Lord moves throughout his earthly ministry, but scarcely has he begun his public life than the spirit of the world rises against him. Inevitably so, for, in spite of its vaunted desire for the brotherhood of man, the world does not want the Fatherhood of God, upon which alone the brotherhood of man is based. If the Fatherhood of God is made effective, at once it means authority, and authority means obedience, and obedience means sacrifice. This the world will not have, for the spirit of the world is essentially selfish, independent and disobedient.
During his Passion the powers of evil closed in upon Our Lord to destroy him. He did not meet the onslaught by counter-attack, nor elaborate self-defence, but simply by complete abandonment to his Father’s loving will and providence: “Amen, amen, I say unto you, the Son cannot do anything of himself but what he sees the Father doing: for what things soever he doth, these the Son also doth in like manner... I cannot of myself do any thing. As I hear, so I judge. And my judgment is just; because I seek not my own will but the will of him that sent me.” (John 5:19-30) It is with this assertion of his complete dependence, as Man, upon his Father, that, standing in the Temple courts, he confronts the hatred of the Jews as they compass his destruction. He has no other weapon.
As he draws near to his Cross this calm reliance on his Father’s loving providence, so far from being obscured, shines out all the more clearly. To Our Lord the Cross meant simply a going to his Father, who, all the while, held Calvary within the hollow of his hand. There is a calm serenity in the words with which Saint John opens the story of the Passion: “Jesus knowing that his hour was come, when he would pass out of this world to the Father... knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, and that he came from God and goeth to God, he riseth from supper.” (John 13:1-3) The evening before his death, the theme of his discourse to his apostles was the Father’s love for him and his love for the Father, and the Cross as the fulfilment of that love. Some time before, he had told them: “Therefore doth the Father love me: because I lay down my life.” (John 10:17) Now he adds: “That the world may know that I love the Father: and as the Father hath given me commandment, so do I. Arise, let us go hence.” (John 14:31) And he went straight to his Cross.
On that last evening he had returned to the same theme: “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and I go to the Father.” (John 16:28) “Going to his Father”, thus Our Lord sums up his death and Passion. Not so Saint Peter. To him as he saw Our Lord taken prisoner at the entrance to Gethsemane, it spelt complete failure; and to avert this he draws his sword. He is met by the calm reply: “The chalice which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11) To Our Lord the Cross is the Father’s most precious gift to his beloved Son, and he accepts it willingly. “Thinkest thou that I cannot ask my Father, and he will give me presently more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Amid the uproar and frenzied fever of the Passion the only one who moves serenely is the “most beloved” Son of God. As they nail him to the Cross his first word is “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) On that same Cross his last words were “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Hanging helpless and dependent he dominates the scene, and freely surrenders himself into his Father’s arms. There is agony there and desolation, but peace at the end. Never was the most beloved Son more securely in the bosom of the Father than when, in the very last moments on the Cross, he cried “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Yet to those who stood around, the Fatherhood of God seemed to have been lost in darkness. To talk of sonship in such circumstances seemed but an illusion. Indeed the passers-by threw it in his teeth: “He trusted in God; let him now deliver him if he will have him. For he said: I am the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:43)
Three days afterwards the grave is opened, and by it, the “beloved Son”, whom we last saw hanging helpless and dying, now stands triumphant. Go to my brethren, he says to Mary Magdalene, “and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” (John 20:17) The Cross, which seemed to be irreparable disaster, is revealed as the centre of the Father’s most exquisite plan for the redemption of his children. Our Lord’s death on Calvary reopens the possibility of sonship to men, and the grave becomes the gateway to heaven. Suffering, pain, and death, the results of man’s sin and the marks of his separation from his Father, become, through the Passion of Jesus Christ, the stepping-stones which lead us back to heaven. Thus are the tables turned on the devil. The very act of obedience by which, in our human nature, Christ vindicated the Fatherhood of God in the face of the worst the powers of evil could accomplish, is seen to be the only means by which we can return effectively to our Father’s arms.
The genius of Saint Teresa is that, meditating upon the Passion with the simplicity of a little child, she goes straight to the central point and sees nothing but the Father’s merciful love for his children as he gathers them into his arms upon the Cross. Her very simplicity takes her to the heart of Holy Scripture.
Because Saint Teresa is at the heart of Scripture, she is also at he heart of theology, for theology tells us that the object of the Redemption is to enable us to say once again “Our Father”, not merely with our lips but with that complete response of a life in which the will is entirely surrendered to the Father’s love. But the restoration of his children to the Father’s boson was not to be achieved by a merely external act, however sublime. It was to be worked out within every single soul by a special gift of the Father’s love enabling every child to live by his Father’s life, and love with his Father’s love, and be, in very fact, a partaker of the Divine Nature.
This gift we know in theology under the beautiful name of “the adoption of sons”, an adoption different from every other adoption of this world, for in no earthly adoption does the child share the very life, and so posses the actual likeness of the father who adopts him. To recall us, through her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood, to this central doctrine, as our supreme glory and the foundation of our hope, is the mission entrusted to Sain Teresa. She calls us to regard this doctrine not from the more or less independent standpoint of grown-up men and women, but in the dependent spirit of a little child. In order that she might do this, Almighty God in his providence ordained that she should do nothing great, that she should perform no startling miracles while on earth, but that she should grow to sanctity solely through living as a true child of God within her convent walls. To teach us to say “Our Father” with the complete surrender and dependence of little children is Saint Teresa’s great vocation.
In this she is at one with Saint Paul, who tells us that to enable us to call God “Our Father” is the supreme work of the Holy Trinity in our souls: “Because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6) To Saint Paul as to Saint Teresa this cry of “Abba, Father” is not the cry of more or less independent men and women, it is the cry of children dependent entirely on their Father. “You have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear: but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba, (Father).” (Romans 8:15) It is a cry of confidence, born of the very knowledge of our utter helplessness and a consequent surrender to the Holy Spirit working in us. This is precisely the confidence of which Saint Teresa spoke when she said: “My little way is the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.” This cry is far less an articulate utterance than a sob wrung from the heart. To express its intensity Saint Paul uses the word “groan”: “Ourselves also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God.” (Romans 8:23) The whole passage breathes complete helplessness. In our dependence we do not know how to pray, so the Holy Spirit comes to our aid. “Likewise, the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.” (Romans 8:26) In the inmost recesses of our being, the Holy Spirit cries in our hearts, and deep within us stirs that cry of childlike confidence, that cry which no mother can resist in her little one, still less the heavenly Father when he hears it rising from the depths of the truly childlike soul. This is the De profundis of the Psalmist, the “Lord, save me” of Saint Peter sinking in the sea, the “Our Father” of the Little Way.
This, then, was the Father’s plan: to re-establish all things in Christ, giving us the power to say with our whole being: “Our Father” – a thing we had been unable to do ever since the Fall; and so to restore to us everything that through the Fall we had lost, bestowing upon us sanctifying grace, a life of supernatural love, a partaking of the Divine Nature, a place in the family of our Father, in a word the ability to become again the children of God. When we know God as our Father, heaven has begun on earth, for that is what the life of grace is. Listen again to Saint Teresa: “To call God my Father and to know myself his child, that is heaven to me” – accurate theology in the simple language of the Saint.
At the heart of Scripture and at the heart of theology, Saint Teresa is necessarily at the heart of the Mass. The Mass is the continuation of that sacrifice which restored us to our Father’s arms, gave the word “Father” an effective meaning; and it is therefore fitting that the Church should place upon the lips of the priest, as the first prayer to be said aloud after the Consecration in the name of all the faithful, the words “Our Father”.
Now that the sacrifice is accomplished, now that the way back to heaven has been opened for us, with complete confidence audemus dicere Pater Noster. In this prayer the whole company of the faithful is gathered with the priest into the family of God, fulfilling the destiny for which they were originally created, which was lost through the Fall, and is now restored to them for ever. To Saint Teresa, Our Lord’s sacrifice and its continuation in the Mass was, above all, the heavenly Father’s merciful love stooping down from heaven to earth, and gathering his children once again into his arms. This indeed is the whole purpose of the Mass.
Finally, since Saint Teresa is at the heart of the Mass, she is at the heart of the priesthood too. The word by which the faithful address the priest is “Father”. “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you,” (John 20:21) said Our Blessed Lord to his apostles, his first priests. The mission given by the Father to the Son was precisely this, to restore his erring children to their heavenly Father, by the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of the Cross, so that the word “Father” might become a reality to them once again. In this was the merciful love of the Father manifested in all its perfection.
The heart of the priestly vocation is the same, to restore the erring children to their Father through the confessional and the Mass. The priest is God’s chosen instrument to continue and apply the plan of his Redemption to the souls of men. The priest, in the language of theology, is ordained to have power over the Actual and the Mystical Body of Christ; in the language of Saint Teresa, to represent and apply the merciful love of the Father.
Our part, our response, is to become childlike. Our Lord said: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”, and as he spoke those words he took a little child in his arms. To us today the same voice speaks through the Church. As she speaks, she too directs our attention to a child whom she is holding in her arms. That child is the “little Teresa” of Lisieux, the great Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus.