OUR LADY (2)
We have considered so far the part played by Our Lady in Saint Teresa’s life up to the time of her entry into Carmel; within Carmel’s walls we find her intimacy with Our Lady developed in the endless everyday trials and disappointments of her convent life, just such trials and disappointments as have their obvious parallels in our own life. Once again she is a model and guide whom we can all follow.
One such disappointment came to her towards the end of her novitiate; her profession was postponed for eight months, and she describes this delay as follows: “At the close of my year of novitiate, Mother Mary Gonzaga told me I must not think of profession, as the Superior of the Carmel had expressly forbidden it, and I must wait for eight months more. Though at first I found great difficulty in being resigned to such a sacrifice, divine light soon penetrated my soul... Since I belonged to Our Lord and was His little plaything to amuse and console Him, it was for me to do His Will and not for Him to do mine. I understood also that on her wedding-day a bride would be scarcely pleasing to the bridegroom if she were not arrayed in magnificent attire. Now, I had not as yet laboured with that end in view. Turning therefore to Our Lord, I said to Him: ‘I do not ask Thee to hasten the day of my profession; I will wait as long as it may please Thee, but I cannot bear that my union with Thee should be delayed through any fault of mine. I will set to work and prepare a wedding-dress adorned with all kinds of precious stones’... Our Lady helped me with my wedding-dress, and no sooner was it completed than all obstacles vanished and my profession was fixed for September 8th.” As a result of the delay, the date actually chosen for Saint Teresa’s profession was Our Lady’s birthday. Thus the delay, which at first seemed such an unrelieved disappointment, was the very means of uniting her in a special way to the Mother who had prepared her soul for the great event.
“When at the close of that glorious day”, writes Saint Teresa, “I laid my crown of roses as was usual at Our Lady’s feet, it was without regret: I felt that time could never take away my happiness. Was not the Nativity of Mary a beautiful feast on which to become the spouse of Christ? It was the little newborn Mary who presented her Little Flower to the little Jesus. That day everything was little except the graces I received, except my peace and joy as I gazed, when night came down, upon the glorious star-lit sky, and thought that before long I should take flight to heaven, and there be united to my Spouse in eternal bliss.” We must be careful not to miss the point in this passage. It does not lie in the Saint’s appreciation of the star-lit sky as a symbol of eternal life, but in the words: “It was the little newborn Mary who presented her Little Flower to the little Jesus”. Why does Saint Teresa, at that supreme moment of her vocation, the very day of her profession, linger thus upon the thought of her littleness? Is she just a sheltered nun, altogether lacking in any understanding of the ruthless realities of human life, playing with pious fancies while the world outside suffers and dies? It is not so: never once is Saint Teresa divorced from reality, least of all on the day of her profession. On the contrary, she is in perfect harmony with Holy Scriptures. It was out of her littleness – He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid – that Mary made her complete offering of herself, her fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, and the Incarnation and the whole of our Redemption was set in motion. It was out of his “littleness”, his complete dependence upon his Father’s will – “he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8) – that Our Lord made his perfect offering of himself upon the Cross, and the whole world was saved. Next to her heart, on this the day of her profession, Saint Teresa bore a slip of paper on which she had written: “I offer myself to Thee, O my Beloved, that Thou mayest ever perfectly accomplish Thy Holy Will in me.” It was precisely out of her littleness that Saint Teresa was able to make the offering with such perfection that to-day the whole Church resounds with her glory. Thus, on littleness in union with Jesus and Mary, did little Teresa, on the day of her profession, lay the foundation of her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood.
One of the things which cause us most distress as we try to follow the Little Way of Saint Teresa, is the complete absence of any consolation, and the sense of utter weariness which so often attends us during our prayers. We all suffer from this: it is when it occurs at Mass that it is most disconcerting. If, so we argue, the stream of grace is shut off at the very source, how can there be any progress in our spiritual life? We grow disheartened, and our fervour begins to fail. In our innate self-reliance, we fuss and fret, and either turn in upon ourselves to examine our consciences afresh – with the only result that we become still more discouraged – or else we turn outwards to new and varied prayers and devotions which equally fail to lead us anywhere. We will so insist on trying to make earth reach to heaven. Now, part of Saint Teresa’s great appeal is the fact that she experienced that lack of any consolation, that utter weariness, for the greater part of her life, especially in connection with her Mass and her Communion: it is no less part of her appeal that she shows us the way in which to meet it. Instead of being self-reliant, and fussing and fretting as we do, she, realising her littleness and her utter dependence, remains calm and undisturbed, and instead of trying to make earth reach heaven, she calls heaven down to earth to work out in her soul what she cannot achieve for herself: and as she is a simple child of Mary, it is her Mother in heaven whom she calls down to her aid. “There is no time,” she writes, “when I have less consolation than in my thanksgivings after Communion – yet this is not to be wondered at since it is not for my own satisfaction that I desire to receive Our Lord, but solely to give Him pleasure. Picturing my soul as a piece of waste ground, I beg of Our Lady to take away my imperfections which are as heaps of rubbish, and beautify it with her own adornments... It seems to me that Jesus is well pleased to find Himself welcomed with such magnificence, while I too share His joy. But this does not keep off distractions and drowsiness, and I often resolve to continue my thanksgiving throughout the day for having made it so badly in choir.” Saint Teresa’s way of dealing with the situation is fundamental. She takes those human feelings which seem to us to indicate the loss of supernatural grace and the closing to us of the gates of heaven, and makes them the very means of a closer intimacy with Our Lord and his Blessed Mother, and of a fuller inflowing of the life of supernatural grace into her soul: and it is precisely the realisation of her littleness that makes this possible. Mary is her spiritual Mother: she, Teresa, is her child born of that Mother’s travail-pangs at the foot of Calvary. She even tells Our Blessed Lady that Our Lord, when he comes to her heart in her Communion, thinks that it is within his holy Mother he comes again to rest.
“Since thou to me, thy child, beloved Mother art,
Thy virtues and thy love, are they not wholly mine?
So when the frail white Host descends into my heart,
Jesus, thy tender Lamb, thinks to find rest in thine.”
Her certainty of her heavenly Mother’s help did not depend upon any consciousness of that Mother’s presence, or of her action upon her soul, for, as she tells us, the distraction and drowsiness continued. It depended upon a loving trust, born of faith in the full Catholic doctrine of the Motherhood of Mary – a simple faith which does not belong to the wise and prudent, but is given to little ones.
If we are discouraged by difficulties at prayer, we are often far more discouraged by the apparently endless activities of our daily routine. Now the difficulty of all routine is that it seems to stretch far ahead into the future without any relief, and so easily becomes monotonous and wearying. How does Saint Teresa meet the difficulty? Well, little children do not worry about the future, so she meets it with the surrender of a little child. “If I did not simply live from one moment to another, it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I look only at the present. I forget the past, and take good care not to forestall the future. When we yield to discouragement or despair, it is usually because we think too much about the past or the future.” And in this surrender it is to her Mother Mary that she commits herself for protection and for guidance.
“Thy light, O purest Virgin, Star serene,
Draws me to Jesus by His own bright ray.
Hide me, my Mother. Be thy veil my screen,
For this one day.”
Many of us have the responsibility of educating, or in some way of guiding, others. Saint Teresa offers us invaluable advice in this matter – the fruit of her experience in guiding the novices entrusted to her care. Conscious from the first of her inability to shoulder the responsibilities which the task involved, she turned in complete dependence to Our Lord and his holy Mother. “I saw at a glance that the task was beyond my strength, and quickly taking refuge in Our Lord’s arms, I imitated those babes who, when frightened, hide their faces on their father’s shoulder. ‘Thou seest, Lord’, I cried, ‘that I am too little to feed Thy little ones, but if, through me, Thou wilt give to each what is suitable, then fill my hands, and, without quitting the shelter of Thy arms, or even turning my head, I will distribute Thy treasures to the souls who come to me for food’.” To the novices expressing their surprise at the unfailing wisdom with which she met their needs, she replied: “This is my secret: I never reprimand you without first invoking Our Blessed Lady, asking her to inspire me with whatever will be for your greatest good. Often I am myself astonished at what I say, but as I say it I feel I make no mistake, and that it is Jesus who speaks by my lips.”
By her complete dependence on Jesus and Mary, Saint Teresa was established in that supernatural detachment which is vital if, in our dealing with others, we are to guide them according to the will of God, and not according to human feeling, to mere human sentiment. The most difficult thing, Saint Teresa tells us, is to point out the will of God when it is painful to the human nature of the person it is our duty to guide. Upon our fidelity at such times all may depend. On one occasion Saint Teresa had had to treat a novice with severity and, afterwards, was greatly tempted to go back on what she had said. “Only too happy”, she writes, “to follow the dictates of my heart, I hastened to serve some food less bitter to the taste. But I soon discovered that I must not go too far, lest a single word should bring to the ground the edifice that had cost so many tears. If I let fall the slightest remark that might seem to soften the hard truths of the previous day, I noticed my little Sister trying to take advantage of the opening thus afforded. Then I had recourse to prayer, I turned to Our Blessed Lady, and Jesus was victorious.” For Saint Teresa, in her Little Way with others as in the Little Way of her own spiritual life, it was always per Mariam ad Jesum.
So in the last illness of Saint Teresa, there is, in the midst of the most acute suffering, an ever increasing’ interplay of care and confidence between the Mother of Sorrows and her suffering child.
As we come to those final months of Saint Teresa’s life on earth – months so vital to her apostolate both then and since – it would seem best to re-tell the story, already told in Chapter III, emphasising this time how at each turn she sought her heavenly Mother’s aid and counsel.
On July 8th, 1897, Saint Teresa became so ill that it was necessary to move her into the infirmary. As she was led from her cell, she said: “I have suffered greatly here. I would have liked to die here.” On a table near her bed, her sister had placed the miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin which had once cured her. On entering the infirmary, Saint Teresa paused and gazed upon it. “Never has it appeared so beautiful to me”, she said to her sister Marie who, before, had witnessed her cure, “but today it is the statue; before, as you well know, it was not the statue.”
During the Saint’s last four months on earth, the thought of Our Blessed Mother seems never to have been absent from her mind. Knowing that her sufferings were causing pain to those around her, she said: “I have asked the Blessed Virgin not to let me be as exhausted as I have been these last few days. I know very well that I have distressed you. Today she has heard me. O my little sister, I am so happy. I see that I am going to die soon, I am sure of it. I should like to have a beautiful death just to give you pleasure. I have asked it of the Blessed Virgin. To ask it of the Blessed Virgin is not the same thing as to ask it of God. She knows well what to do with my little wishes. She will decide whether to ask for them or not... After all, it is for her to decide so as not to force God to hear me, but to leave all to His will.” Teresa showed the same reliance on Our Lady’s all-powerful supplication when a little later on she said: “I very often ask the Blessed Virgin to tell God that He must not bother Himself on my account, and that she will look after my commissions.” Recording in the Autobiography the interview with her father, in which she first told him of her desire to enter Carmel, she had written: “Father, plucking a little white flower growing on a low stone wall, gave it to me and remarked with what loving care God had brought it to bloom, and preserved it until that day. I thought I was listening to my own life-story, so close was the resemblance between the little flower and little Therese... I fastened my little flower to a picture of Our Lady of Victories, so that the Blessed Virgin smiles upon it, and, the Infant Jesus seems to hold it in His hand. It is there still, but the stalk is now broken close to the root. No doubt God wishes me to understand that He will soon sever all the earthly ties of His Little Flower, and will not leave her to fade here below.” On one occasion when she had been badly misunderstood, she said nothing at the time, but afterwards, to someone who had noticed it, she said: “The Blessed Virgin kept everything in her heart. They cannot blame me for doing what she did.”
On July 25th, Mother Agnes remarked that death was very distressing to those who had to look upon it. At once Teresa’s thoughts turned to her heavenly Mother in her hour of dereliction. “The Blessed Virgin,” she replied, “held the dead body of her Son in her arms, disfigured and bloodstained. At least you will not see me like that. Ah! I do not know how she did it. I wonder if they brought me to you in that state what you would do.” When one of her sisters expressed the fear that she would die during the night, she replied: “I shall not die during the night. I have had the wish not to die during the night, and I have asked that of the Blessed Virgin.” As August wore on, Saint Teresa seemed overwhelmed with suffering, both spiritual and physical, for, as we have seen, in addition to her bodily pain, she was afflicted with spiritual desolation, and with temptations against the faith, which were ceaseless. On August 10th, she made allusion to those interior sufferings. Mother Agnes was talking with her about heaven, Our Saviour, and the Blessed Virgin. Involuntarily Saint Teresa let a deep sigh escape her. Her sister said: “That sigh tells me how much you are suffering interiorly.” Fearing lest she might have betrayed some lack of trust in her heavenly Mother’s care, Teresa immediately replied: “Yes! But ought one, loving God and the Blessed Virgin so much, to have those thoughts?... At least I do not dwell on them.”
Her physical weakness became extreme. A week later, August 19th, she made the last Communion of her life. Her preparation for that last Communion was a night of unrelieved pain. In consequence of her extreme weakness she nearly fainted while listening, before Holy Communion, to the chanting of the Miserere, even though it was chanted in subdued tones. Afterwards she said: “Oh! If you only know what this trial is like! Last night, being unable to do more, I asked the Blessed Virgin to take my head in her hands so that I might be able to bear it.” At times she was unable to pray at all; still she was undefeated. “I cannot pray, I can only look at the Blessed Virgin, and say: ‘Jesus’.” To the infirmarian, Saint Teresa said: “Pray much to the Blessed Virgin for me, for if you were sick I should pray much for you. When it is for oneself, one is not very bold.” Then she added: “When we pray to the Blessed Virgin and she does not hear us, we ought to leave her to do what she pleases without insisting, and not to go on tormenting ourselves any more.”
During all her intense suffering, Saint Teresa was continually thinking of others. Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face – “little Celine, sweet companion of my childhood”, as Saint Teresa used to call her – slept in a cell close to the infirmary so as to be ready at hand. “I asked the Blessed Virgin last evening,” Teresa told a Sister, “that I might not cough during the night so that Sister Genevieve might be able to sleep, but I added: ‘If you do not do this for me, I shall love you all the more’.” She had always dreaded a long illness which might make her a burden to the Community. Looking at the statue of Our Lady, the statue which had given her so many evidences of her heavenly Mother’s tender care, she said: “My Mother, what makes me want to go is that I cause so much fatigue to the infirmarian, and such grief to my little sisters to see me suffering so much. Oh, I should indeed be glad to go.”
On September 11th she rallied a little, and her sisters tell how very feebly she set to work to make two little crowns of wild flowers for the statue of Our Lady. One was placed at Our Lady’s feet, the other in her hands. The Sister sitting with her, pointing to the latter, said: “Perhaps this is destined for you.” Teresa replied: “Oh no! The Blessed Virgin can do what she likes with it. I give it to her for her pleasure.” The significance of such an incident is all the more compelling when we realise that Saint Teresa had no special sense of Our Lady’s presence with her: still less did she ever see her. That was exactly what the little Saint preferred. “I love the Blessed Virgin and the Saints very much, and yet I do not desire to see them. I prefer to live by faith.” The whole of Saint Teresa’s last illness was passed in the obscurity of faith, and in that obscurity of faith it was to Our Lady that she continually turned. At half-past two on September 30th, the day of her death, she raised herself in bed, which she had been unable to do for weeks, exclaiming: “My God, whatsoever Thou wilt, but have pity on me. Sweet Virgin Mary, come to my aid.” Towards three o’clock the Mother Prioress placed a picture of Our Lady of Mount Carmel upon her knees. Looking at it for a moment, she said: “O Mother, present me very soon to the Blessed Virgin. Prepare me to die well.” At six o’clock, as the convent bells rang the evening Angelus, she gazed appealingly at the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Was she remembering the last poem she wrote?
“Mother, whose smile consoled me in the dawn,
Smile on me once again, for darkness falls.”
After one more hour of intense suffering she gave up her soul to Almighty God, to the end a true child of her heavenly Father, and a true child of Mary.