The fast-approaching feast of St Thérèse on October 1 got me thinking. We mostly associate St Thérèse of Lisieux with her little way. I suppose if a person had the resources, time and energy to explore the depths of the spirituality that is Thérèse’s little way, a wide horizon of possibilities for personal holiness would open up. But, as most of us don’t have this opportunity, I’m afraid the “little way” becomes something of a comfort to us who are little. I know, it in some way justifies the way I feel and choices I make. It assures me that Jesus loves me, and that my sin doesn’t stop his loving me. However, Thérèse wrote “little way” only once. And she herself never wrote the words spiritual childhood.
Thérèse is a great saint. She is a doctor of the Church. Her life from the moment of her death brought light into a darkened Church and world. So instead of writing another article about the little way, I wanted to share with you her giant heart because, actually, we all need truly giant hearts if we are to weather the storms in the Church today.
These days it seems the question for some is this: should I stay in the Church and give it my fidelity and money or just cut my ties and go elsewhere. Obviously, the Church, meaning the hierarchy, doesn’t deserve my money and faithfulness. We may be feeling powerless in the face of so much chaos and pain on all sides around us, like we are stuck in a bad dream or a vast battlefield that we can’t escape.
In truth, however, we are called to be faithful to the Word of God in the way we live out our faith. What does St Thérèse tell us today, this cloistered nun who lived in the 1800s? Here are three things I think we can learn from this teenager of a hundred years ago:
Illusions die—and they are supposed to.
I’m sure that just as any young person who begins their vocation in life, Thérèse had great ideals as she entered the Carmel in Lisieux. She was fifteen with a heart aflame. In fact, her prioress Mother Marie de Gonzague wrote to the prioress of Tours on the eve of her profession two years later that though Thérèse was only seventeen and a half, she had the sense of a thirty-year-old and the religious perfection of an old and accomplished novice.
Thérèse’s postulancy began on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1888. Her desires at last realized, she felt a “deep sweet peace” which filled her soul and which never really left her for the rest of her short life on this earth. Looking from the outside at the community of the monastery of Carmel in Lisieux as a teenager, Thérèse probably had wonderful dreams about what it would be like. She had visited the parlors often. Her three sisters were already there. The nuns probably appeared very saintly. But like all religious, she discovered it is not all sunshine and roses. While a postulant, Thérèse’s lack of aptitude for handicrafts and manual labor caused her to be the butt of jokes among the sisters. Sr. St. Vincent de Paul, the finest embroideress in the community, made her feel awkward and even called her “the big nanny goat.”
After nine years she wrote, “The lack of judgment, education, the touchiness of some characters, all these things do not make life very pleasant. I know very well that these moral weaknesses are chronic, that there is no hope of cure.”
On top of the turmoil in her soul as she sought to navigate the community dynamics, her father Louis Martin, now himself a canonized saint, disappeared from his home for four days. He was finally found at the post office in Le Havre, but this first incident of wandering marked the beginning of her father’s steep physical and mental decline.
I have to admit that in 2002, when the Archdiocese of Boston was the epicenter of a clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the lives and faith of so many Catholics, my own illusions about the ministers of the Church were quickly and painfully demolished. It was like standing stark naked with all one’s skin torn away in the darkness alone. It hurt.
This hole in my heart was for me a giant leap forward in being able to hear the Word of God and respond more faithfully in a rapidly evolving and devasting situation. It has been called, and certainly was, the Long Great Lent of 2002. To this day when we read the same cycle of readings during Lent, the emotions, the lessons, the pain becomes once more the kaleidoscope through which I examine my life with God. We all know that our illusions about life, relationships, the Church, even God get stripped away from us little by little that we might relate in truth, not in our idea of what the other is. It is one way to turn inward, and find the finger of God in our own soul, and to respond as he invites.
The contemplation of the Holy Face of Jesus will nourish us in this time when we feel so disconnected from ourselves, from others, from the Church, and from faith.
While Thérèse was a novice, she contemplated the Holy Face of Jesus, and it was this Face that nourished her inner life. You have seen this Face, I am sure. It is an image that represents the disfigured Face of Jesus during his passion. If you have seen in person or on the internet the Shroud of Turin, you have seen this disfigured, yet stately, Face of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As she gazed upon the Face of Jesus, Thérèse meditated on the words of Isaiah in one of the suffering-servant psalms. Six weeks before her death she wrote: “The words in Isaiah: ‘no stateliness here, no majesty, no beauty, one despised, left out of all human reckoning, how should we take any account of him, a man so despised (Is 53:2-3),’ these words were the basis of my whole worship of the Holy Face.”
On the eve of her profession, Thérèse wrote to Sister Marie, “Tomorrow I shall be the bride of Jesus ‘whose face was hidden and whom no man knew’—what a union and what a future!” The meditation also helped her understand the humiliating situation of her father.
I have found that loving that Face is not easy. The Good Shepherd’s Face that smiles at me? I like that. It comforts me. But the disfigured Face of my Master haunts me. It is the Face of a divine Lover who loves me unconditionally at his own expense. That Face doesn’t say to me that he really doesn’t care about the pockets of sin that still hide in my heart. He assures me that he can hold in his mercy my weakness and sin even as he holds in his unconditional love who I am in my createdness, I who am a daughter of his Father, on whom he can still see the fingerprints of the Tender Creator. And like a fire he seeks to demolish all strongholds of sin that block union with him.
And that’s what’s so hard these days. We see and hear a lot that makes us angry, enraged even. We sorrow, we hide our faces in shame. But Jesus didn’t do any of that. He let his own Face be disfigured by pain and humiliation so that he could forever look on us in his Father’s Kingdom with an undying eternal delight.
As I look around the Church these days, there are many disfigured faces that I contemplate: the faces of the victims, the faces of the scandalized, the faces of everyone trying to continue ministry in this situation, the face of the Church. Friends, the Holy Face will always bear this disfigurement. Despised, humiliated, considered of no account…
I want to stand near all these Holy Faces as Jesus stood by me, with a love that overcomes sin and sorrow. She wrote: “I, too, wanted to be without comeliness and beauty…unknown to all creatures.” Since I probably will be unknown except to a small few, I can take a giant step toward loving in the Church by choosing not to beautify and promote myself, but like Jesus to live in solidarity with those whose Holy Faces bear the wounds of Christ.
Thérèse’s vocation was to be love, a love so sorely needed in the Church today.
Thérèse famously said her vocation in the Church was to be love. It was a direction for her life that she found in reading the Word of God. It was a direction she was faithful to all her life, at every moment, in the “little things,” (there it is… the little way), that presented themselves to her during the day. “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.”
We’ve all heard the quaint stories of how Thérèse chose to assist the most disgruntled nun that none of the other sisters wanted to be around. Or she sat next to the sisters in recreation who were discouraged or down, rather than enjoy the joyous laughter of friends. She said nothing when she was splashed with dirty water while doing laundry. These seem so small to represent “being love in the heart of the Church.” I would imagine someone with such a mission would conduct herself like my patron saint, Catherine of Siena. Now that was someone who accomplished great things in the Church at a time in which it so needed holiness and prophetic witness!
But Thérèse is perhaps who this post-modern world needs. Things were simpler back in Catherine’s day. She sent letters to the Pope with messages from Jesus encouraging him to return the papacy to Rome. She visited his court. She probably had no knowledge of much else that was going on in the world outside her own part of Europe.
But we today know instantaneously the most hideous and the most glorious of news. We are bombarded with commentary and fake news and don’t know who to believe. People can make their case on social media and bring together millions of people overnight to advance their cause. We know what is happening in every country of the world, the minute it happens. How can we influence such a world, such a Church? Here is where St Thérèse’s small ways of loving are genius.
There is so much hateful language around us, and I believe it is truly changing our hearts in very sad ways. People feel free to say things without the slightest consideration of how their “thought” might affect others (or even if it is based on fact or pure emotional reaction). But I believe that divine acts of loving (even if seemingly insignificant) can work miracles. It is true that we need a St Catherine of Siena for our day, and a St Benedict, and a saint that God right now is raising up to show us God’s light in today’s shadowed chaos. But most of us, as St Thérèse teaches, like her will be little.
Thérèse wrote: “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
“To love is to give everything and to give oneself.” (PN 54, stanza 22, OC 755)
The strong maturity of this veritable giant of holiness is absolutely what we need today. We may not feel that we are giants, and I’m sure Thérèse certainly didn’t run around the monastery proclaiming she was a giant. But we can love the Holy Faces around us, wipe the tears of the Holy Faces that have suffered whom we know, honor the disfigured humiliation of the Face of Christ as it appears today as the suffering Christ continues to love you and me and all. Like Thérèse, we can BE LOVE.
If you have concrete ideas of how to BE LOVE today, or examples from others or yourself, I’d love to hear about them.
In my heart,
ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE? HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO GO DEEPER…
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