We have seen, under the guidance of Saint Teresa, the place which suffering holds in the divine plan. It is the divinely appointed means, ordained from all eternity, whereby Almighty God, our heavenly Father, delivers us his children from our sin and selfishness, and restores us, and reunites us with himself in supernatural love: so far from being something to be feared and dreaded, or even accepted merely with resignation, it is a treasure to be embraced with joy. We are now going to see how the loving acceptance of suffering not only reunites us ourselves with God, but is also the means by which we can help other souls.
The desire to offer herself for the salvation of souls came into the life of Teresa at a very early age; it was towards the end of Mass in Lisieux when she was still only a girl of thirteen. She describes it thus: “One Sunday on closing my book at the end of Mass, a picture of the Crucifixion slipped partly out, showing one of the divine hands pierced and bleeding. An indescribable feeling, such as I had never before experienced, passed through me: my heart was torn with grief at the sight of the Precious Blood falling to the ground, with no one caring to treasure it as it fell. At once I resolved to remain continuously in spirit at the foot of the Cross, that I might receive the divine dew of salvation, and pour it forth upon souls. From that day the cry of my dying Saviour: ‘I thirst!’ resounded incessantly in my heart, kindling within it new fires of zeal. To give my Beloved to drink was my constant desire; I was consumed with an insatiable thirst for souls, and I longed at any cost to snatch them from the everlasting flames of hell.”
This passage from the Autobiography is worth our most careful consideration. In those simple words, without involving us in the intricacies of theology, she takes us right to the source of the doctrine of vicarious suffering – the Cross. All flows from the Cross. It is at the foot of the Cross, therefore, that Saint Teresa will remain continuously in spirit, that she may receive the divine dew of salvation and pour it forth upon souls. This is the true order. The God-Man redeems us by his self-oblation consummated on Calvary. “By one oblation he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)
Saint Teresa saw quite clearly that the means, chosen from all eternity, whereby this should be accomplished, was the loving acceptance of suffering by the beloved Son – a truth brought vividly home to her by the sight of the Sacred Hands pierced and bleeding, as the picture of the Crucifixion slipped from her missal at the end of Mass.
The vital principle of his self-oblation is his love for his Father expressed through a suffering obedience. That suffering obedience was consummated on the Cross. “Christ was made for us obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.” To us, earthbound as we are, living in a world under the shadow of original sin, the word “obedience” carries with it a grim connotation; we shrink from it just because we know it means suffering. Our Lord, on the contrary, embraced that obedience, and the suffering it involved, with eagerness. Wherein lies the difference? In the two little words “for us”. “Christ was made for us obedient unto death.” The key to Our Lord’s loving acceptance of suffering lies in the fact that he saw it all in the eternal plan of the Merciful Love for the souls of men. In thus surrendering himself to his Passion, Our Lord offered himself as the Victim of his own Merciful Love for the souls of men. In her contemplation of the Passion it was thus that Saint Teresa always saw him. “Our Lord died upon the Cross the most glorious death of love that has ever been seen.”
Hence flows redemption. “Being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation.” (Hebrews 5:9) The moment of the consummation of Our Lord’s obedience, that is to say the moment of his death – to human wisdom the grimmest moment of the Passion – is seen to be precisely the moment of the perfect revelation of the tenderness of the Merciful Love of God, for by that death, and by that death alone, heaven is once more opened to men. So the Church sings in her great song of triumph: “Thou, having overcome the sting of death, hast opened to believers the kingdom of heaven.” But, in order to enter thus into the kingdom of heaven, one condition is absolutely necessary. Omnibus obtemperantibus sibi – to all that obey him – what exactly does this mean? In the language of Saint Teresa it means to all those who “remain continuously in, spirit at the foot of the Cross”; in other words to all those in whom there is the same mind “which was also in Christ Jesus, who was obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause, God also hath exalted him and hath given him a name which is above all names.” (Philippians 2:5, 8-9) Just as the loving acceptance of suffering is the vital principle of Our Lord’s self-oblation on the Cross, by which heaven was opened to all mankind, so the loving acceptance of suffering in union with the Cross was to be the vital principle of that self-oblation of Saint Teresa which should open the kingdom of heaven for her soul.
To offer him, and herself in him, that he might offer himself and suffer in her, and that so the whole redemptive activity of the Merciful Love on Calvary might be worked out in her own soul – that is what Saint Teresa means by offering herself as a little victim of the Merciful Love of God: little, because the more wholly she surrenders herself to the grace of her Baptism with the simple dependence of a little child, the more complete will be her offering, her conformity with Christ.
But it is not only for her own soul’s sake that she will thus make her offering as she takes her stand at the foot of the Cross; she will offer herself also for the salvation of others. Our Lord has willed that we as members of his Mystical Body should make one thing, or, as Saint Thomas says, “one mystical person” with him, and thus should be able to appropriate the sacrificial activity of him who is our Head, so that he offers and suffers in us. It follows then that we appropriate that sacrificial activity in all the fullness of its application, not only for ourselves, but for all the members of the Mystical Body, and indeed for the whole human race, for God will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Thus it is that we are able to share by participation in Our Lord’s redemptive work for the salvation of mankind. Thus Christ is fulfilled only through the sufferings of us, his members. “I... fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24), says Saint Paul. “I resolved to remain continuously in spirit at the foot of the Cross, that I might receive the divine dew of salvation and pour it forth upon souls,” says Saint Teresa.
Christ can no longer suffer in his Natural Body; he does so in his Mystical Body. “The Church fills up those sufferings that are still lacking to the whole Christ; ...her passion is the extension of Christ’s own passion and therefore an extension of his redemptive victory. By our willing acceptance of suffering, therefore, Christ continues to suffer in us and to work out to its completion through the centuries the effect of his redemptive act for the salvation of the human race performed once for all on Calvary.” (Dom Bruno Webb) Such is the theology of the profound doctrine of vicarious suffering underlying the simple language of the Little Flower, when she says that she will remain continually in spirit at the foot of the Cross in order to receive and pour forth the divine dew of salvation upon souls. Thus it was not just a pious picture which touched merely the imagination of Saint Teresa at Mass that morning, but solid doctrine which illuminated her soul by the light of the Holy Ghost.
Thus far we have considered the principles of the doctrine of vicarious suffering in their relation to Saint Teresa and the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. We have seen how the thirst for the salvation of souls first came into her life. We are now to consider how that longing for the salvation of souls found its practical expression in the everyday life in Carmel. In a letter written shortly before her entry, we find that longing still uppermost in her mind. It is a remarkable passage when we consider that she was only fourteen when she wrote it. “It is such a joy,” she says, “to think that for each pain cheerfully borne we shall love God more for ever. Happy should I be if at the hour of my death I could offer Jesus a single soul. There would be one soul less in hell, and one more to bless God for all eternity.” Once within Carmel, the salvation of souls through the loving acceptance of suffering becomes Saint Teresa’s supreme preoccupation. “Suffering opened wide her arms to me from the first and I took her fondly to my heart. In the solemn examination before making the vows I then declared my reason for entering Carmel – ‘I have come to save souls and especially to pray for priests.’ The end cannot be reached without adopting the means, and since Our Lord had made me understand that it was through the Cross that He would give me souls, the more crosses I encountered the stronger became my attraction to suffering.”
The same theme runs through all her early letters written from the convent to her sister Celine: “Let us go forth to suffer together, dear sister, and let us offer our sufferings to Jesus for the salvation of souls.” Again: “Celine, during the fleeting moments that remain to us, let us save souls! I feel sure that our Spouse asks us for souls – above all for the souls of priests... It is He who bids me tell you this. There is but one thing to do here below: to love Jesus and to save souls for Him that He may be more loved.” And what exactly are the sufferings that she will thus offer for the salvation of souls? We might expect that with a soul of such mettle as Saint Teresa’s they would take the form of some elaborate or lofty penance. On the contrary, the sufferings that she offered were the everyday sufferings common to all of us – for example, daily worries or lack of courage. “While in the world I used, on waking, to think of all the pleasant or unpleasant things which might happen throughout the day, and if I foresaw nothing but worries I got up with a heavy heart. Now it is the other way about. I think of the pains and of the sufferings awaiting me, and I rise, feeling all the more courageous in proportion to the opportunities I foresee of proving my love for Our Lord, and of gaining – mother of souls as I am – my children’s livelihood.” Speaking one day of lack of courage to a novice who was wavering, she said: “In being distressed at your lack of courage you are complaining at what ought to be your greatest happiness. If you fought only when you felt ready for the fray, where would be your merit? What does it matter even if you have no courage, provided you behave as though you Were really brave?... Instead of grieving, be glad that, by allowing you to feel your own weakness, Our Lord is furnishing you with an occasion of saving a greater number of souls.”
Saint Teresa saw things in their totality. She saw the smallest detail of life as part of an infinite whole; she saw the smallest suffering in its direct relation to heaven.
What was it that enabled her to see things thus? It was her littleness, that very thing in her which we so readily misunderstand. To the really little, to the really humble, to the soul, that is to say, that is completely dependent upon God, the whole universe and every detail of human life within it is a unity. The smallest thing on earth is inseparably linked with heaven. It is the humble who see things in their totality, because for them, God is the centre of everything. Their life therefore is a harmony, and they are at peace. On the other hand, the more grown-up we are, the more self-reliant and independent we become, the more is this truth hidden from our eyes, precisely because, self being the centre, we see things only after a fragmentary fashion. Life is full of discord, and conflict, we become anxious and rebellious and know no peace.
We have seen that in the last years of her life Saint Teresa was overwhelmed with spiritual darkness, and ceaselessly assailed by temptations against the faith, but so far from being dismayed or thinking, as we might so easily have done, that all was lost, she saw it all within the will of God. It was the fact that she was so completely her Father’s little child which enabled her to see that this supreme trial against her faith was her supreme opportunity of securing the salvation of just those souls whom it is most difficult to save, the souls who have lost their faith. Such is Saint Teresa’s thirst for souls that her very darkness becomes a prayer for unbelievers. “Lord, Thy child believes firmly that Thou art the Light Divine; she asks pardon for her unbelieving brethren, and is willing to eat the bread of sorrow as long as Thou shalt will it so. For love of Thee she will sit at this table of bitterness where these poor sinners take their food, and will not rise from it till Thou givest the sign... May all those upon whom faith does not shine at last see the light... I tell Our Lord if He will deign to open it for eternity to poor unbelievers, I am content to sacrifice during my life all joyous thoughts of the home that awaits me.”
We might have expected that in her long and exhausting illness Saint Teresa’s resolution might have been weakened by bodily weariness, and her vision clouded by the nauseating details of the sick-room. On the contrary, every detail is pressed into the service of this ardent winner of souls. Almost the last thing she did before retiring finally to her sick-bed was to take a walk in the garden at the bidding of the infirmarian. Noticing how much the effort cost the invalid, a Sister said to her: “Soeur Therese, you would do much better to take a rest; walking can do you no good when you are suffering so much, you are only tiring yourself.” “That is true,” replied Teresa, “but do you know what gives me strength? I offer each step for some missionary, thinking that somewhere far away, one of them is worn out by his apostolic labours, and to lessen his fatigue I offer mine to God.”
Confined within the limits of the infirmary, her vision as she lies upon her sick-bed becomes the more all-embracing. Every detail is gathered in, and nothing less than the whole Church is the object of her apostolic zeal. “I keep nothing in my hands,” she says. “All that I have, all that I gain, that is for the Church and for souls.” And again: “I would not pick up a straw to avoid going to purgatory. All that I have done, I have done to give God pleasure and to save souls.” Six weeks before her death she said: “Do I wish to acquire merits? Yes indeed, but not for myself – for souls, for all the needs of the Church, in short, to scatter roses on the whole world, upon the just and upon sinners.”
Her field of activity is not limited to this world; in purgatory she would be active too. “If I go to purgatory I shall be quite contented, I shall do as did the three Hebrews. I shall walk in the midst of the furnace singing the song of love. How happy I should be if, through that, I was able to deliver other souls and to suffer in their place, for then I should be doing good.” Should she go straight to heaven, well then, the attraction of heaven for her lies in the fact that there she will in the fullest measure be able to quench her thirst for God and for souls. “In heaven one sole expectation makes my heart beat fast. It is the love that I shall receive, and the love that I shall be able to give... I think of all the good I shall do after my death... I will help priests, missionaries, the whole Church.”
Saint Teresa never allowed her wide vision to dim the realisation that, as she lay on her sick-bed, her power for saving souls lay in the offering of the pains of the present moment. In view of her extreme weakness the doctor ordered some strengthening remedies. She was distressed at first because of their cost. Afterwards she admitted: “I have made a covenant with God that they may be for the benefit of poor missionaries who have neither time nor means to take care of themselves.”
Not long before her death, she related to her sister an incident which perhaps more than any other shows the delicacy of her love for Our Lord, the intimacy of her conformity with him in his Passion, and the intensity of her love for souls. “On one occasion, during the ‘Great Silence’, when I was in a high fever and parched with thirst, the infirmarian put a hot-water bottle to my feet and tincture of iodine on my chest. Whilst submitting to these remedies I could not help saying to Our Lord: ‘My Jesus, Thou seest I am already burning and they have brought me more heat and more fire. If instead they had given me even half a glass of water, what comfort it would have been! My Jesus! Thy child is very thirsty! She is glad however to have this opportunity of resembling Thee more closely and thus of saving souls’.” The material thus seized upon by Saint Teresa for the salvation of souls was something which may easily come the way of any of us –the unnecessary blunders of those who nurse us in our last sickness. No wonder that such fidelity roused the devil to fury. But all the spiritual suffering – and it was very great – with which he was allowed by Almighty God to afflict her during her last days on earth, was to Saint Teresa merely a further battle which she was waging for some other soul. One night she begged the Sister who was tending her to sprinkle holy water on the bed, saying: “The devil is near me: I do not see him but I feel his presence. He torments me; he holds me with a hand of iron, preventing me from getting the slightest relief; he increases my pain in order to lead me to despair... And I cannot pray. All I can do is to look at the Blessed Virgin and say ‘Jesus’. How necessary is that prayer at Compline: Procul recedant somnia, et noctium phantasmata! What I experience is altogether mysterious: I do not suffer for myself but for another soul... and the devil is angry.”
Till her very last moment upon earth Saint Teresa remained continually in spirit at the foot of the Cross, receiving the divine dew of salvation and pouring it forth upon souls. Thus did she fulfil to the uttermost the resolution which she had made years before, at the end of Mass, when she was only a girl of thirteen. The fruits of her loving acceptance of suffering as the divinely appointed means of saving souls became increasingly evident every day. “If today the little Saint, as she is so often called, transforms countless hearts in such an amazing manner, if the good she does upon earth is beyond reckoning, we may believe without any doubt that she bought it all at the price with which Jesus bought back the souls of men – suffering and the Cross.” Saint Teresa’s self-oblation still bears fruit in our own day; she has told us it will do so till the end of time. “I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. This is not impossible, for the angels keep watch over us while they enjoy the Beatific Vision. No, there cannot be any rest for me till the end of the world – till the angel shall have said: ‘Time is no more.’ Then shall I take my rest, then shall I be able to rejoice, because the number of the elect will be complete.”