St Therese: Mission & Family Life

Noel Bradley, from Buncrana, Co Donegal, shared on the 2nd night of the SMA Novena in Blackrock Road, Cork. The following is an edited version of Noel’s presentation.

I was a priest for 29 years with the SMA, mainly in Nigeria. I am now married to Rosanna and we have two children at Secondary school. I have been asked to say something about ‘Mission and Family Life’.

‘Mission’ might be a strange word for you and you probably think of Missionaries like the SMA working in Africa. Mission is going out to other countries. But Thérèse never left her Convent and died of Tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Yet she is declared Patroness of the Missions. A bit strange! So what is mission? Have you and I a mission?

From a Christian perspective we all have a mission and I think it is simply ‘to grow in love’ where we are, and that would mean helping others to grow in love as well. That would seem a good definition of the mission of parents or grandparents in the family. Our mission is to help people grow in love. What I say of parents applies to grand-parents as well. Parents have to help or facilitate their children to become loving  human beings. We are like mid-wives helping to give birth to this LOVE in their children. It is an awesome responsibility. What they become as persons will depend alot on us.

I would like to pick up a few things from the life of St. Thérèse and relate them to this mission of facilitating this growth of love in our children. I will speak personally as a parent.

(1)        At 11 years of age Thérèse was looked on at school as a very intelligent student but at home she was never given this impression. So it was hard for her to know the truth or reality of this.  We can help our children to know the truth by affirming them  and by encouraging  them to  wonder and to ask questions and to seek the truth about things. I certainly don’t want my children just blindly following all the advertisements that tell them they are inadequate unless they buy this and that. I don’t want them to follow blindly their own group or gang, saying and doing what everyone else happens to be saying and doing. I want  to help them to question and to be their own persons and to be able to stand on their own feet, and more and  more in the truth of things.

(2)        At 13 years of age, after Christmas Midnight Mass, she was expecting to be her usual childish, self-indulgent and touchy self when she heard her father’s annoyance at this. ‘In an instant’ she says there was a change from ‘extreme touchiness’ to a ‘strong and courageous’ young woman. From an excessive desire to receive attention she began to move to self-forgetfulness and a desire to please others and to help sinners. I too, as a parent, want to help move my children beyond their own satisfactions sometimes for some greater good, even in small things like putting their plates back in the sink or learning to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, joining us for Mass on Sunday and helping with chores around the house. I want them to learn to transcend themselves. Of course there is often a lot of resistence as we all know. But this is part of our mission.

(3)        At the age of 18 she began to trust her own insights. She began to see in faith that God was not a harsh judge demanding retribution for every human sin and fault but that he could accept her or any person full of faults. ‘I am not disturbed at seeing myself weakness itself (she says).  On the contrary… I expect each day to discover new imperfections in myself’. This was very contrary to the spirituality of the times (Jansenism) which was very legalistic, with a God of justice needing reparation for all the sins of the world.

She told her image of God as mercy and compassion to her confessor and he confirmed her in this. But when she told the prioress about this she was forbidden to speak to him again. She obeyed but stuck to her image of God and made it the basis of her spirituality. I want my children to be strong like that, fighting their corner. So I realise that it is a good thing when they resists me and go their own way sometimes.

Thérèse went on to grow to trust her own understanding of her own experience by finding her own insights in Scripture and sticking with them despite being unable to convince her community sisters about them. ‘I am constantly discovering… new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand… from experience that: The Kingdom of God is within you’.

I want my children to trust their own insights, to reflect and affirm their own truth too. I want them ‘to march to the music that they hear how ever distant’ or far away. As they grow I have to allow them more freedom to choose for themselves. There will be many tussles as they push their boundaries especially in their teens. I don’t know how it will go. I trust that if I love them and try to support them that maybe they will turn out to be OK and that they will find their way in the end. I certainly don’t want them breaking in and beating up an old lady over 90 years of age as we heard about during the week!  I want them to be moral people with basic principles that they will live out in  their lives.

(4)        Finally, a big change came for Thérèse when she realised that in the end it was only love that mattered. You have probably heard her words on this many times.

“Charity gave me the key to my vocation..I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places… that it was eternal! … (she cries out) in an excess of delirious joy… O Jesus, my Love… my vocation at last I have found it… My vocation is Love”. She grew to love all, not just favouring her own three sisters who were in Carmel with her, but caring especially for the women who were very difficult, neurotic or compulsive. Friendship for all was her deepest desire and final experience. Like Jesus, she want all ‘to be one, your love in me and my love in them, all completely one’ as we read in the Gospel a few minutes ago.

Now this might sound all very idealisic but I really want my children to grow up to be loving people not just nice decent people (I want that too), but I want them to be able to engage in a Christian self-sacrifing love of their neighbour. Not just ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, and just concerned about ‘what is in it for me’. But that they would put themselves out a bit for the neighbour or stranger. But I know that while I can help to form them morally to choose values in life over their satisfactions I cannot give them this self-sacrificing love of God. This is beyond me and us. This can only come from God. Maybe my love for them can prepare the way. But ultimately it comes from God. ‘God’s love poured into our hearts’ as St. Paul says. We can pray for more of it in our lives. In the Second Eucharistic Prayer at Mass we pray to God: ‘make us grow in love’. The Church knows that only God can make us grow in love. Make us grow in love.

Is this the meaning and mission of our life? To grow in love. To become more and more like God. To actually share in his life of love. Jesus prayed to his Father ‘that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them (John 17:26).  Is this really our happiness and fulfillment despite all the darkness and lack of faith that we have to endure and Thérèse had more than her fair share of the ‘dark night of the soul.  Jesus believed we were made for this love and wants us to trust him that it is true for us and our children as well.

One thing we do that I think is helpful is that before they go to bed we look over the day together and each of us gives thanks for something good (a blessing) in the day e.g. someone came to the house, a safe journey, a sunny day, a nice meal etc) and we mention any difficulty or ‘niggle’ or setback that may have happened. We conclude with the Our Father. I think it helps to keep the reality of God in our lives. I want them to be grateful in life. 

There is a lovely quotation by Sebastian Barry in his play, ‘The Steward of Christendom’ that seems relevant. His wife Cissy is after giving birth to another baby called Dolly and he says:

I walked out through the grounds of the Loreto College as far as the sea. The mid-wife had bade me go. I was a man of fifty… and I thought I would do anything for that woman of mine behind me in the house, where we had done all our laughing and quarreling. But my mind was in a peculiar state. I thought of all the Sunday roasts she had made, all piled up somewhere in eternity, a measure of her expertise. And I thought of how much her daughter and her son loved her, and depended on her for every sort of information, and how stupid and silent I was with my son. How she made the world possible and hopeful for him and the two girls. I started to tremble. It was a moment in your life when daily things pass away from you, when all your concerns seem to vanish, and you are allowed by God to see a little space of clarity and grace. When you see that God is in your wife and children, and they hold in trust for you your own measure of goodness. And in the manner of your treatment of them lies your own salvation. I went back to the house with a lighter heart, a simpler man than the one who had set out.

And that moment led him to commit himself, to pledge himself in love.

‘The house was quiet (he says)… It was as if it were asleep… suddenly I was terribly afraid that my new child was dead. I don’t know why. You expect its cries, you long for its cries. I pushed open my front dood and hurried down into the backroom. The mid-wife was over by the window, with a little bundle. And Cissy was lying quiet, still, at ease. The mid-wife came over immediately and placed her bundle in my arms. It was like holding a three-pound bag of loose corn. And there was a little face in the midst of the linen, a little wrinkled face, with red skin, and two big round eyes seeming to look up at me. I pledged all my heart and life to that face, all the usefulness of my days to that face. And that was Dolly. And that was just as the candlelight fails, and the early riser needs no candle for his task.’

As I get older and in my better moments I find that there is a glimmer of desire in me to grow in this love of God. Maybe you can sense that in you too, at least at some moments? Isn’t it more important than money and popularity or anything? On a quiet silent retreat recently for a few days I found after a day or two as things settled inside me and I was wondering what do I really want for God at this time in my life. It was that I would grow in His love. I recalled this prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman and tried to pray it: Maybe we can make it our own at some  level of our being. St. Thérèse would have liked it.  

“Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with your spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours.

Shine through me and be so in me

That every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only You, O Lord”.

Saint Thérèse, pray for us to grow in love when times are easy and when times are hard.

24 September 2015