The SMA Laity Coordinator, Mrs Dympna Mallon, spoke at the 4th night of the St Therese Novena in Blackrock Road. Here is an edited version of her sharing.
In preparing for tonight’s Novena, it occurred to me that the life of a saint can be inspiring but it can also highlight our inadequacies and the sense that we could never be like them. We know of their virtue and we recognise their self-giving and sacrifice out of their love for Jesus and His Father. It almost goes without saying that, for these most dedicated followers and disciples of Jesus, including St Therese, their vocation is first and foremost about love.
Then I began to wonder – why do we find it so hard to accept that we too are called to be disciples of Jesus, like the great saints of the Church and those many unnamed saints who have lived among us? And how well do we respond to that vocation? Are we prepared to accept the challenge of the Gospel message, the importance of love of God and neighbour above all else and do we each recognise this as our vocation in life – or do we pass this challenge to those whose vocation has taken them to the seminary, the monastery or the convent, to the foreign missions or to Rome? Do we even consider that each of us has a vocation that no other person can fulfil precisely in the way that we can, a vocation that has been chosen for each of us by God?
We might say that the life of St Therese inevitably led her to holiness. Her parents were holy people who were themselves beatified. She had four sisters, each of whom joined religious orders in their turn. Her faith in the short 24 years she lived made such an impact, with so many miracles attributed to her intercession, that she was canonised as a saint in 1925, less than 30 years after her death. So how do we relate to this vocation of love? How can we possibly strive to reach such holiness in our own lives?
Let’s consider the reality of Therese’s life in the Martin home. Although surrounded by love, Therese knew and experienced loss and pain from very early in her life; her mother died when she was less than five years old; several of her siblings died in infancy; her older sister Pauline, her second mother, left for the Carmelite Order when Therese was just nine; Therese was of a nervous disposition which left her bedridden on more than one occasion, and finally she endured a prolonged illness and death from tuberculosis. Her autobiography speaks frequently of the “darkness” she experienced in her spiritual life after she joined the Carmelite Order at the age of fifteen and the sense that God had abandoned her, so maybe she was more human than we would like or want to believe.
It is actually the way in which Therese dealt with the various challenges in her life that offers something concrete to you and me, today, in the 21st century. As the “Little Flower of Jesus”, her “Little Way” places simplicity at the centre of her teachings. She sought to see God’s hand in all things, choosing to be like a little child in her devotion to and her trust in God.
She is quoted as saying, “What pleases the good God in my little soul is to see me love my littleness and my poverty, and the blind trust that I have in His mercy.”
She saw herself as a child before a compassionate parent whose love is so overwhelming, any offence can be forgiven and whose help and guidance is always granted once requested. So her message is one of little things, not grand gestures; simplicity not complexity; trust not fear and love not indifference.
Perhaps we struggle with the idea that our life, our everyday routine, represents a vocation like the life of a priest, a sister or a brother . Perhaps we feel that their freedom from many worldly burdens , the secular life of the laity, makes it easier for them to aspire to and achieve holiness and closeness to God. But if we really accept the message of St Therese we must value every occupation or vocation and its significance in spreading the Good News of Jesus. After all St Paul tells us,
“There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service to be done, but always the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same Lord works all of them in all men…All then are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1Cor12:4-11)
Therese identified her own vocation as that of love, saying simply that “the whole point of love is making yourself small”.
We make ourselves small when we help someone in a quiet, perhaps unseen way, seeking no acknowledgment; when we make a sacrifice or do without, so that someone else may have; when we decide to love and respect those whom we find difficult and tiresome; when we welcome and include those whom we dislike or who challenge us, every time our actions echo the words of Jesus in the Gospel
” love your enemies, bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you…for if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do as much? And if you save your greeting for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Do not even the gentiles do as much? You must therefore set no bounds to your love…In so far as you did this to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it to me.” (Matt 5:43 -48, 25:40)
As patroness of the missions, Therese is the embodiment of this challenge to reach out to those around us and to bring God’s message of unconditional love to all. Her love knew no bounds – she sought to love those she didn’t know and to act as a channel of God’s love to everyone, praying for the soul of a convicted criminal and offering prayer and spiritual support to priests in the missions through her correspondence with them. She found life in the convent demanding and many of the community difficult to live with so she chose to focus her love and friendship particularly on those sisters who challenged her most. This was so effective that one of the most difficult sisters wondered why Therese loved her so much more than she did anyone else.
Much of what Therese can teach us flies in the face of modern norms, where the interests of the individual surpass all other concerns and where success is measured by what we own, where we work and who we know rather than how we live. Yet if we accept that we are called to be disciples of Jesus, that we are called to a vocation of love, we have to ask ourselves: are we committed to live by a different set of standards from those embraced by the world around us? Are we willing to risk ridicule by showing compassion and love to those rejected by society? Do we challenge injustice when we encounter it? Do we treat all people with dignity and respect regardless of their culture, ethnicity or religion? Are we prepared to be missionary to everyone we meet, acting as channels for God’s mercy and love without the need for recognition or reward?
This is a huge challenge. Huge challenges are off-putting and threaten to overwhelm us. We may try to avoid the task for fear of failure or a realisation of our own inadequacy. But the Little Way of St Therese can help . She urges us to love God without fear or reserve because God loves us without reserve and in this way our lives can become a process of “transforming nothingness into fire”. She teaches us that holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, doing them out of love. She is quoted,
“I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places…in a word that it was eternal.”
The vocation to love underlies all our activities, all our occupations, whether in the workplace or at home, on or off duty, in or out of the office. It is given to us at our baptism and through it we are challenged to see the face of Jesus in every other human being. Our human instinct is to change others so that we find it easier to love them. But our divine heritage as God’s children calls us, like St Therese, to love and accept others as they are, to recognise that in spite of their differences, imperfections and flaws, they too are God’s beloved children. Therese understood that true love is not the result of personal achievement but of complete availability to God, and that demonstrations of care, compassionate service and affection, are God’s love flowing through us.
As we move through this Novena in honour of St Therese let us ask her to intercede for us, to teach us how to do ordinary things well, for a childlike trust and belief in God’s mercy and love as in a loving parent, that we may become channels of that love to everyone we meet and in so doing, that each of us may enter more fully into the discipleship of Jesus, embracing our vocation of love.