St Therese & the Mission of Prayer

Fr Michael McCabe, SMA Provincial Leader, celebrated the Opening Mass of the 2015 Novena in honour of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus [The Little Flower] at the National Shrine to the Patroness of the Missions in St Joseph’s SMA Church, Blackrock Road, Cork. In his homily, Fr Michael spoke about St Thérèse and the Mission of Prayer. The following is an edited version of his homily.

Thérèse Martin was only 15 years old – little more than a child – when she, like her older sisters, joined the Carmelite convent at Lisieux in Normandy, France. There she was to spend the remaining 9 years of her short life. An enormous transformation took place in her during those years. As the youngest member of the Martin family she had been rather pampered as a child. She admits herself that she was overly sensitive and quite self-willed. However, at Lisieux she learned to abandon herself totally to God. She died a thousand deaths to self and came to rejoice in her own nothingness. She was spared nothing: family tragedy, intense physical suffering, emotional turmoil and spiritual anguish. Through all of this, she became a soul radiant with the divine spark of utterly self-giving love.

Prayer was at the heart of that transformation. She had learned the importance of prayer as a child from the example of her own parents and used to spend some time in the quiet of her room reflecting on the life of Jesus and on God’s love for her. When she joined the Carmelite convent in Lisieux she had to follow the appointed times for community prayer throughout the day. Recitation of the breviary, a daily Eucharist and vocal prayer were part of the daily schedule of activities at Lisieux. But there was also time for personal or private prayer. Each day the nuns spent about an hour in quiet meditation on God’s word. Thérèse reports in her Story of a Soul that she was faithful to community prayer but often enough experienced dryness in prayer.

One way of prayer was especially attractive to her, what we now call “lectio divina” – the meditative reading of the Word of God in Scripture. She loved to read and reflect on the Scriptures and to learn about Jesus Christ from the gospels. Thérèse wrote that when she was having a particularly dry period in prayer, the Gospels always nurtured her. She found that the word of God was “a lamp for her feet”, as Scripture says. She liked to learn by heart favourite passages or lines from Scripture. These would come back to her during the day and energise her commitment to Jesus Christ. Thérèse wrote that a word from God, an insight, a sense of direction, a response to a situation often came to her not during the hour of prayer but while she was going about her daily work. Praying with Scripture led Thérèse to profound convictions about God and his ways and an understanding of her vocation that was unusual for her time.

In general, the spiritual life of sisters in the 19th century would have been largely a matter of following the Rule laid down for them by their superiors, a matter of obedience – and blind obedience at that. Sisters were not encouraged to think for themselves, to reflect on their own experience of God and interpret this experience in the light of Scripture. Certainly, Thérèse was scrupulously obedient to her Superiors, but her spiritual path was directed by her personal experience of God. Following this criterion sometimes led her to convictions quite at odds with those of her superiors and fellow sisters. By the age of 18 years she had become convinced that God was the kind of lover who would have no difficulty accepting people with all their faults. When she expressed this conviction to the Prioress, the Prioress was shocked and forbade her to share these views to any of the other sisters. Thérèse obeyed her Prioress, but held on to the conviction garnered from her personal experience.  

It is consoling for us to learn that Thérèse didn’t find prayer at all easy and was, by the standards of the times, far from perfect. She had a habit of falling off to sleep during her times of formal prayer. However, instead of indulging in guilt feelings she turned her weakness to her own advantage. She sees herself to a little bird which is distracted by all kinds of things but, instead of going off to hide, it abandons itself to its beloved Sun. That abandonment would not be complete, however, until her beloved Sun hid his smiling face and plunged her into what she terms her “night of nothingness.”

Dying in intense physical pain and inexpressible spiritual darkness, Thérèse was filled with the immensity of God’s love and with a missionary desire to draw everyone in the world with her into the immensity of this love. In her very emptiness she was fulfilled by reaching out in love. At the end of her life, when there was nothing in her that was not of God, she could in truth say: “My little story, which was like a fairy tale, has suddenly turned into prayer” (from The Story of a Soul). In these words Thérèse has surely voiced the deepest meaning and final purpose of all our lives. When, instead of a life filled with prayers, our life is turned into prayer, then and only will our transformation be complete. We can find no surer guide in our own journey to God than Thérèse of Lisieux.

23 September 2015