Mr Noel Bradley preached on the eighth evening of National Novena in honour of St. Therese. His theme was St Therese: Her suffering and death.
30 September 2014
My name is Noel Bradley from Buncrana in Co. Donegal. I am a married man with two young children and I have been asked to say a few words on St. Therese and her suffering and death. I was a student with the SMA in Wilton between 1964-1967. I am grateful to the SMA that they would ask me to preach at their Novena of St. Therese. There was an old and kindly priest in Wilton at the time I was there, a Father Michael Collins and he had a great devotion to St. Therese and I heard something about her ‘ little way’ and something about ‘Spiritual Childhood’. To be honest I was not too impressed at the time. I was younger then and cycling in and out to UCC and playing football and ‘littleness’ or ‘spritual childhood did not appeal to me. Later in life I read her autobiography and have kept a soft spot for her in my heart ever since and have even grown to appreciate her life more and more through the influence of a Carmelite nun in New Ross, Co. Wexfort.
What I appreciate about her is that a conversion or transformation took place over time and (naturally enough not without suffering and I don’t want to glorify the suffering). Conversion or transformation is what should happen to us over time as well, and not without leaving our own comfort zones. Her life can teach and encourage us. ‘Conversion is the experience by which we become an authentic human being’ is how one theologian put it. So I will offer you some sayings and snippets of her life in the context of conversion or transformation.
(After Midnight Mass on Christmas 1988) when she was 13 and her father was annoyed at her for wanting to be the centre of attention again. ‘In an instant’ she says she had a ‘complete conversion’, from being as she said ‘a girl who was ‘really unbearable because of her extreme touchiness’ to ‘a strong and courageous’ young women. From crying at every little hurt she said ‘the source of her tears dried up and rarely re-opened’. She who was ‘unaccustomed to doing things for herself now experienced the need to forget herself in order to give pleasure’ to others. She now had a great desire ‘for the conversion of sinners’. ‘I felt CHARITY come into my heart’ she says. So we can see some one who has moved from chidishness and selfishness to self-forgetfulnes. She began to become an adult taking responsibility for her life. For example she began to trust her own interpretation of Scripture and of the spiritual writers even though her convictions were misunderstood or rejected by her companions. ‘I am constantly discovering new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings (in Scripture). I understand… from experience that: The Kingdom of God is within You’. When she shared her insights with her Carmelite sisters they consistently misunderstood. Earlier in life she confessed that she wanted to be a saint and the priest was scandalised by her ‘pride’ and ‘presumption’ and told her that she should moderate her (temerarious) desires.
She went on to struggle against a French religious culture (Jansenistic) that viewed God as demanding retribution in justice for every human sin and fault. She suspected that God could completely accept a person who was full of faults. She told this view of God to a confessor and fortunately he confirmed her in her attraction. But her Prioress was shocked and forbade her from speaking to him again. Therese obeyed and never spoke to him again but she retained her image and developed it into her spirituality of God as total mercy and loving acceptance of her as weak and full of faults. She says ‘I am not disturbed at seeing myself WEAKNESS itself. On the contrary it is in my weakness that I glory, and I expect each day to discover new imperfections in myself’. Needlesss to say this type of spirituality involved misunderstanding, suffering and tension to keep true to herself in the religious culture of the time.
Her love kept on deepening and expanding and always with trials. At first it was characterised by a certain condescending attitude towards sinners. She would ‘snatch them from the eternal flames’. Nine years later she was plunged into a ‘night of the spirit’ and in this she loved sinners not from some place above them but from a place of companionship which she imagined as eating ‘at their table’. Her love had become like that of the heart of Jesus who welcomed and ate with sinners. This dark night was a real experience of lack of belief, a kind of atheism. The idea of heaven became she says ‘a subject of nothing but conflict and torment’. All she could hear in her head was ‘Its all a dream this talk of a heavenly country…and a God who made it all…death will only give you-not what you hope –but a still darker night, the night of nothingness..I no longer believe in eternal life..’and then she adds ‘Love alone remains’. This was her greatness. She retains the core of faith which is love. ‘Although I have no feeling of faith..I do try to live the faith even when I get no satisfacion out of it’. ‘I have my faults, but I also have courage’.
‘Charity gave me the key to my vocation…My vocation is love’. And to love ALL. ‘I understand now that…charity must enlighten and rejoice not only those who are dearest to us but ALL in the house’ without distinction. Not just her three sisters with her in Carmel but caring especially for those women who were very difficult, neurotic or compulsive.
There seems to be two kinds of suffering: a suffering that is dark and isolating and often leads to depression and even suicide and a suffering that is dark but also full of compassion and forgiveness and outgoing. The second we can say is a share in the suffering of the Servant of God, Christ Himself. The one who in todays Gospel ‘took the road resolutely to Jerusalem’(30th Sept). But for Therese and Christ all the suffering is in the context of a wider love. Friendship for all was her deepest desire and final experience. Like Christ who prayed ‘Father may they be one in us…as we are one ..so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and that I may be in them’.(John 12:21-26). She wanted and lived friendship in God for everyone.
So here we have a young woman who died of tuberculosis at 24 years, yet through misunderstanding and suffering made a journey with God’s grace to be a lover of everyone, ‘God’s love flooding her heart’ (St.Paul). Her model is the ‘little child’ who takes for granted that it will receive from God, the ‘little way’ of confidence and trust, born from her own experience of being loved and gifted by her father. Remember that her mother died when she was four and she had a very loving and tender relationship with her father. This was the foundation of her great trust in God and reminds us of how important a tender love for our children is in their growth as human beings. We too can be ‘love at the heart of the Church’ in our own domestic Church at home with our families. ‘As one whom his mother comforts so I will confort you’ was a significant text for her. Her last writings, in spiritual darkness are full of missionary concern to draw every one in the world into the immensity of God’s love. I will end with the remark recorded on her death bed.
‘Oh how HAPPY I am so see myself imperfect and to be in need of God’s mercy so much even at the moment of my death’ What a wonderful thing to be able to say at the moment of death!
St. Therese, pray for us.
– Noel Bradley, 5 St. Mary’s Rd, Buncrana, Co. Donegal.