OUR LADY (1)
God has “predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5), and in proportion as we realise that our adopted sonship is our supreme glory and the foundation of our hope, in that proportion shall we revere and love the instrument ordained from all eternity” through which the design of Almighty God for our souls was to be accomplished – Mary. And what we shall value in Mary is that motherhood by which our adopted sonship came into being: when the fullness “of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman... that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)
“The Blessed Virgin is more mother than queen.” These words contain the essence of Saint Teresa’s devotion to Our Lady, and that devotion is fully expressed in the conversation with Mother Agnes in which they occur, a conversation which took place only six weeks before Teresa’s death. “One knows well that the Blessed Virgin is Queen of heaven and earth, but she is more a mother than a queen, and I do not believe (as I have so often heard said) that because of her prerogative she will eclipse the glory of all the Saints, just as the sun when it rises blots out the light of the stars. That is indeed very strange! A mother who could make the glory of her children disappear! I think just the opposite, and I believe that she will greatly increase the glory of the elect. It is well to speak of her prerogatives, but that is not enough. We must make her loved. If, while listening to a sermon on the Blessed Virgin, one is constrained to exclaim to oneself from beginning to end: ‘Ah!... Ah!’ one grows weary, and that does not lead on to love and imitation. Who knows if some soul might not go so far as to feel a certain estrangement from a creature that is so very much superior? The unique privilege of the Blessed Virgin is to have been exempt from original sin, and to be the Mother of God. And on this latter point Jesus has said to us: ‘Whosoever doeth the will of My Father in heaven, he is My brother, My sister and My mother.’ On the other hand, we are happier than she is, for she has not the Blessed Virgin to love... That is such an increase of joy for us, and a loss of joy for her! Oh, how I love the Blessed Virgin!” In this passage the prerogatives of Mary are clear, and given their true place, but never are they allowed to cause any sense of separation and estrangement. Mary is the Mother of the Word made-flesh, God Incarnate, but never is the divine Motherhood, with the splendours of its attendant prerogatives, allowed to obscure the equally vital truth that Mary is therefore the spiritual Mother of all the members of his Mystical Body: never is it allowed to obscure the truth that she who is the natural Mother of the firstborn of many brethren, is the spiritual Mother of many children.
As, in our progress along the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood, we look upon Mary, our Mother, with the utter dependence of a little child – and precisely because we do so regard her – our devotion will bear a double impress. Our littleness will light up and throw into brilliant relief the magnificence of her splendour: we shall see her divine Maternity as something which indeed distinguishes her completely, from us – something unique, investing her with a glory far surpassing that of even the highest of the angels. At the same time, our very littleness will enable us to realise that the glory which distinguishes Our Lady from us is itself the bond which binds us to her with an intimacy greater than any other known to human kind – the intimacy of a mother with her little one. To those who tread the Little Way, the glories of Mary are indeed apparent, but they are all the time enveloped in her Motherhood. The passage we have quoted is typical of this. It opens with a clear statement of the glory of the divine Maternity, and closes on a note of intimacy possible only between a very small child and its mother. “We are happier than she, for she has not the Blessed Virgin to love... That is an increase of joy for us and a loss of joy for her! Oh, how I love the Blessed Virgin!” That is a typically Teresian intimacy, born, not of sentiment, but of her accurate grasp of where Our Lady’s greatness really lies – she is more Mother than Queen.
Since, then, the relationship of Saint Teresa to Our Lady is essentially that of a little child to its mother, we find that relationship characterised throughout by the simplicity and directness which belong so specially to little children. “How very glad I should have been to be a priest,” she said on one occasion, “so as to preach about the Blessed Virgin! I feel that I should have needed to preach only once to make my thoughts understood. First I should have shown how little is known of the life of the Blessed Virgin. It is not well to say things about her that are unlikely, or that we do not know, as, for example, that at the age of three she went to the Temple to offer herself to God with feelings of extraordinary fervour and on fire with love, while perhaps she went quite simply in obedience to her parents. Why, again, say, a propos of the prophetic words of the venerable Simeon, that the Blessed Virgin from that moment had constantly before her eyes the Passion of Jesus? “A sword of sorrow shall pierce thine own. soul.” You see very well, my little Mother, that it was a prediction of what was to come later on. For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to bear fruit it must manifest her real life such as the Gospel has set before us, and not her supposed life, and one can well understand that her real life at Nazareth and afterwards must have been quite ordinary... “He was subject to them.” How simple that is! Instead of showing the Blessed Virgin as all but inaccessible, one would show her as possible of imitation, practising the hidden virtues, and living by faith just as we do. And we should give proofs of this, taken from the Gospel, where we read: “They understood not the things which he said unto them.” And again: “His father and his mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him.” That wonder implies a certain astonishment. Do you not find it so, Mother? How I love to sing to her:
“And thou, by practising the lowliest virtues here
Hast shown us how to find and tread the narrow way.
O, Queen of the elect, if I but follow thee,
Thou’lt guide my faltering feet so that they never stray.”
Saint Teresa does indeed see Our Lady as the Mother of divine grace, as the instrument divinely chosen to give us the Sacred Humanity, the Word made flesh, the source from whom all grace flows; the Mother who, at Bethlehem, and supremely by her travail pangs on Calvary, brought her forth to supernatural life. But she does not halt here; she sees her above all as the Mother who, from moment to moment, watches over her with the most understanding and tender love, mothering her little one, and supplying her every need from the cradle to the grave. The consciousness of our need of this moment-to-moment mothering love of Mary will be in proportion to our littleness, for the truth that there is literally no grace which does not come to us through Mary, is one which only the truly humble can realise and appropriate to themselves. Only the humble can realise the need of such a Mother, and out of their need they learn the intimate delicacy of their Mother’s love, ever obtaining for them, by her all-powerful, unique and universal supplication, just those graces which they need, not merely in the spiritual order but in the material order as well.
To that Mother’s love, Teresa responded with the spontaneity of a small child, looking to her for everything. On opening the Autobiography, we are met at once by an example of her trust in her heavenly Mother. “When you, my Mother Prioress, asked me to write the story of my soul, I feared the task might unsettle me, but Our Lord has deigned to make me understand that by simple obedience I shall please Him best... Before setting about my task, I knelt before the statue of Our Lady which has given us so many proofs of our heavenly Mother’s loving care. As I knelt, I begged of that dear Mother to guide my hand, and so ensure that only what was pleasing to her should find place there.” Thus the Autobiography from which we are making our study comes in a real sense from Our Lady herself.
Little Teresa was mothered, as indeed we all are, from the very font. On January 4th, 1873, the day on which she was baptised in the church of Notre Dame at Alencon, Our Lady took her under her protecting care. When still only four years old, she used to be taken by her mother for country walks around Alencon. From these walks little Teresa would return laden with bunches of wild flowers – daisies, buttercups and wild poppies – which she had gathered here and there along the path. With these she would deck the statue of Our Lady which stood in the home of the Martin family in the Rue de Blaise, which later on, was to play so great a part in the life of the Little Flower. Even at that early age, Teresa seems to have had some understanding of the offering of flowers as the symbol of the oblation of her life: at all events her devotion to Our Lady was very real. “It is quite a ceremony,” writes Marie to Pauline, “this preparation for the month of Mary. Mamma is so very particular about it, more particular than the Blessed Virgin herself. She wants hawthorn branches reaching to the ceiling, the walls decorated with evergreens, etc. Therese is in wonderment at it all. Every morning she goes running with delight to say her prayers there.”
On August 28th, 1879, Madame Martin died, when Teresa was four and a half years old. With the loss of her earthly mother, she turned more than ever to her Mother in heaven. In the first year at Les Buissonnets at Lisieux, the little child of five was considered too young to be present every evening at the May devotions. It made no difference. She had a chest of drawers in her elder sister’s room converted into a Madonna altar, with tiny flower-vases and candlesticks. Victoire, the devoted servant, alone formed the congregation at these ceremonies, of which the principal exercise was the recitation of the Memorare.
The first years at Les Buissonnets, though quiet and peaceful, were not easy for Teresa. As we have already seen, it was during this time that Pauline left home to enter Carmel. That separation, coming so soon after her mother’s death, was more than Teresa’s sensitive nature could stand: she became desperately ill. But the Mother of Sorrows, who herself became the Mother of the Man of Sorrows in order that the world might be rescued from its suffering, is truly the Mother of Consolation, ever at hand with her perpetual succour to mother her children in their pain. We will let Saint Teresa herself describe what happened. “I became so ill that, humanly speaking, there was no hope of recovery. I do not know how to describe this extraordinary illness. I said things which I did not think, and I did things as though I were forced to do them in spite of myself. Most of the time I appeared delirious, and yet I am quite certain that I was never for one moment deprived of my reason... What fears the devil inspired. Everything frightened me... In the hours when the pain was less acute, it was my delight to weave garlands of daisies and forget-me-nots for Our Lady’s statue. We were then in the lovely month of May, and the earth was adorned with the flowers of spring. Only the Little Flower drooped and seemed to have fade for ever. But close beside her was a radiant Sun, the miraculous statue of the Queen of Heaven, and towards that glorious Sun the Little Flower would often turn. Father came into my room one morning, evidently in the greatest distress. Going up to Marie, he gave her some gold pieces, and bade her write to Paris for a novena of Masses to be said at the shrine of Our Lady of Victories to obtain the cure of his little Queen. His faith and love touched me very deeply and I longed to get up and tell him I was cured. Alas! My wishes would not work a miracle, and an extraordinary miracle was necessary if I were to be restored to health. But it was wrought and my recovery made complete by the intercession of Our Lady of Victories... One Sunday during the novena, all efforts having failed, Marie, was kneeling in tears at the foot of my bed. Then, looking towards the statue, she implored Our Lady’s assistance with all the fervour of a mother who begs the life of her child and will not be refused. Leonie and Celine joined in her prayer, and that cry of faith forced the gates of heaven. Utterly exhausted and finding no help on earth, I too sought my heavenly Mother’s aid, and entreated her with all my heart to have pity on me. Suddenly the statue became animated and radiantly beautiful – with a divine beauty that no words of mine can ever convey. The look upon Our Lady’s face was unspeakably kind and sweet and compassionate, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was her gracious smile. Instantly all my pain vanished; silently my tears began to fall, tears of purest joy. ‘Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled on me! How happy I feel! But I shall tell no one, for if I do my happiness will leave me!...’ From that moment Our Lady’s Flower gathered such strength that five years later she unfolded her petals on the fertile mountain of Carmel.”
During those five years Saint Teresa was to meet with many difficulties and temptations, but before they befell her she had the great joy of making her First Communion. In the afternoon she was chosen to make the Act of Consecration to Our Lady on behalf of all the first communicants, and in her description of this we see how closely she was united with her heavenly Mother on that happy day. “In the afternoon,” she writes, “I read the Act of Consecration to Our Lady in the name of all the first communicants; probably the choice fell on me because my own earthly mother had been taken from me while I was still so young. I put my whole heart into the reading of the prayer and besought Our Lady always to watch over me. It seemed to me that she looked down lovingly and once more smiled on her Little Flower. I recalled the visible smile which had cured me, and my heart was full of all I now owed her, for it was no other than she who, on that very May morning, had placed in the garden of my soul her Son Jesus – the Flower of the field and the Lily of the valleys.” Our Lady is the Mediatrix of all Graces, an office which implies the most intimate relationship with every one of her children; in the passage just quoted, Saint Teresa expresses this truth in a way which everyone can understand.
She was by now growing up into a beautiful and attractive girl: this was to be the cause of temptation to her more than once. In order to complete her education, her father sent her to have private lessons with a lady who, in addition to being a competent teacher, was evidently a centre of society in Lisieux. “Visitors,” writes Saint Teresa, “were often shown into the quaintly furnished room where I sat surrounded by my books; though seemingly absorbed in my work, little escaped my attention, even of what it would have been far better for me not to hear. One visitor remarked on my beautiful hair; another enquired, as she left the room, who was the pretty little girl. Such remarks, all the more flattering because I was not meant to hear them, left a feeling of pleasure, clearly proving that I was full of self-love: had not my heart been lifted up to God from its first awakening, had the world smiled on me from the cradle, there is no knowing what I might have become.” Instinctively she turns to her heavenly Mother. “I resolved,” she says, “to consecrate myself in a special way to Our Lady, and therefore I sought admission into the Sodality of the Children of Mary.”
Saint Teresa was soon to realise the need of Our Lady’s protection, for temptation was to come to her in a more subtle form. Her father had planned that she should go with him on a visit to Rome: in order to do this they joined the diocesan pilgrimage from Bayeux. It was arranged that the projected journey should be not only an act of filial loyalty to the Holy Father, but at the same time a pleasure trip. The programme was made so attractive that many of the leading families in Lisieux decided to take part. Instinctively Teresa realised the danger. On passing through Paris, she was able to fulfil one of her greatest desires: she was able to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Victories. The fact that her miraculous cure had been made public had caused her great suffering. Her visit to Our Lady of Victories set this at rest. “I can never tell you,” she says, “what I felt at her shrine; the graces she granted me there were like those of my First Communion Day, and I was filled with happiness and peace. In this holy spot the Blessed Virgin, my Mother, told me plainly it was really she who had smiled on me and cured me. With intense fervour I entreated her to guide me always, to realise my heart’s desire by sheltering me under her spotless mantle, and to remove from me every occasion of sin. I was well aware that during the pilgrimage I should come across things that might disturb me...”
She was right. A young man, one of the pilgrims, was greatly attracted by her and showed her marked attention. She received his advances with reserve, and as soon as she was alone with Celine she confided her trouble. “Oh, it is indeed time that Jesus took me away from the world. I feel that my heart would easily let itself be taken captive by affection, and where others have perished I would perish too, for every creature is weak, myself in particular.”
We have seen then that, through becoming the little children of our Father in heaven, we have Mary for our Mother. We have also seen that her Motherhood does not cease there, but that she continues from moment to moment to watch over us with the tenderest care. All this we have found exemplified in the life of Saint Teresa. Conscious of her Mother’s love enveloping her from the very first, she responds to that love with all the surrender of a very little child – in her early days at Alencon, in her great sorrow at her mother’s death, throughout her schooldays, and during the struggles she endured in following her vocation. In our next chapter we hope to show how the interplay of Our Lady’s motherly care on the one side, and Saint Teresa’s trustful and childlike response on the other, grows and deepens throughout her life in Carmel, throughout her last sickness, and, above all, in the hour of her death, when a little one most needs its mother’s care.