The Adult Spirituality of St Therese

The SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Michael McCabe, celebrated Mass on the 9th evening of the National Novena in honour of St Therese in Blackrock Road, Cork. Below is his homily, delivered to an overflowing congregation gathered for the final night of the Novena. After Mass everyone was invited into the community dining room for some refreshments.

The spirituality of St Thérèse has been described as a “Little Way,” or the way of “Spiritual Childhood,” and there is a great deal of evidence to support that description.   Her best-selling autobiography, The Story of a Soul, abounds in the use of the word ‘little.’ She sees herself as God’s ‘little flower.’ She talks of her ‘poor little wounded soul.’ She even describes her Dad as ‘her little father.’ The Mother of Jesus is ‘the little Blessed Virgin,’ and Jesus is ‘little Jesus.’  

When I first entered the Novitiate of the African Missions in Cloughballymore, Co Galway, in 1964, it was the childlike quality of Thérèse’s spirituality that first attracted me. Therese made the spiritual life, which appeared so complex and daunting when you read about it in the spiritual textbooks, seem attractive, simple and down to earth. A few years later, however, when I began to study Philosophy, I foolishly turned aside from Therese, considering her approach simplistic and childish. Like St. Paul I thought it was time for me to put away childish things and to digest more solid spiritual food (cf. 1 Cor. 3: 1-2). Then, about 20 years ago, following a visit to Lisieux with some confreres, I had an experience which let me to explore again the spirituality ofThérèse. This time I came to realise that, while her spiritual way was certainly simple and childlike, but there was nothing in the least childish or simplistic about it. Her spirituality is best described as an adult spirituality centred on loving God with all one’s heart, and shaped by the passion of Christ.

An Adult Spirituality

From the time she entered the convent, Thérèsedesired nothing more or less than the total surrender of herself to God. She had no illusions about what this would mean: the daily death to self. She knew that all real holiness is forged out of the ordinary concrete circumstances of everyday life. She was drawn to Our Lady precisely because her holiness, as she said, consisted not in raptures, miracles or ecstasies but rather in her daily living the life and responsibilities of a real mother. There are several stories which illustrate the sterling quality of Thérèse’s loving self-surrender to God.   Although greatly weakened by illness, her infirmarian told her to take a daily walk. Her older sister, Marie, felt that she would be better off to rest herself. In reply Thérèse said: “Yes, it’s true, but do you know what gives me strength? When I am walking, I think that, far away, there is a missionary who is perhaps exhausted in his apostolic endeavours, and to lessen his fatigue, I offer mine to God” [from Thérèse: Her Life and Message].

Centred on Loving God

Seeking to discover the particular role God wanted her to play in the Church’s mission, Thérèse turned for spiritual guidance to chapters twelve and thirteen of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. She found the answer to her quest in Paul’s famous passage about love being the supreme gift of the Spirit. Here is how she expresses that discovery:

Now I was at peace….If the Church was a body composed of different members, it could not lack the noblest of all; it must have a heart, and a heart burning with love….Love, in fact, is the vocation which includes all others….I had discovered where it is that I belong in the Church…. to be nothing else than love, deep down in the heart of Mother Church: that is to be everything at once [from The Story of a Soul].

Thérèsewas convinced that it was far more important to be in love with God than to be a perfect religious, free of faults.   In a letter to her sister, Leonie, she says that the one thing God cannot resist is love. Since he loves us madly (a la folie), she writes, how can he resist us if we simply present ourselves to him with all the confidence of children? In doing her religious exercises, Thérèsewas, according to 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 giving way to guilt feelings she surrendered herself to God’s loving arms, like a bird surrenders itself to the sun. That surrender would not be complete, however, until her beloved Sun hid his smiling face and plunged her into what she terms her “night of nothingness.” Finally, the spiritual journey of Thérèse was shaped by the passion of Christ.

Shaped by the Passion of Christ

In the final phase of her life, Thérèse had to endure, in addition to her physical and mental suffering, the most severe trials of faith imaginable. Her faith in God’s love was put to the supreme test. She lost all sense of God’s presence and the very thought of heaven, which had always been such a consolation to her, became nothing but a cause of struggle and torment. This experience is best described in her own words:

My soul was invaded by the thickest darkness and my mind was filled with the thoughts of the worst atheists. If you only knew into what darkness I am plunged.   A mocking voice seems to say, ‘Are you sure God loves you? Has he come to tell you so? [from The Story of a Soul].

Yet this trial, far from breaking her spirit, matured and transformed her. Like her Master and Lover, she learned to combine the cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” with the prayer “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” A few days before her death on the 30th September 1897, still in her 24th year, she was able to say “I go to him with confidence and love.”

Thérèse’s trials of faith brought her to realise two profound spiritual truths: first, that “love is more important than explicit faith” (Cf. Michael Paul Gallagher, Help My Unbelief), or that love is the only form faith can take when darkness invades your soul like a starless night and all understanding becomes impossible. Just a few days before she died, she wrote: “I no longer have any great desires except that of loving to the point of dying of love” [from Thérèse: Her Life and Message]. Second, in her trial of faith, Thérèse came to understand and identify herself with God’s ways of loving. This meant loving people in their sins and weaknesses not in spite of them.

Conclusion

The spirituality of St. Thérèsemay be described as a “little way” in that took completely to heart the Gospel injunction: “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 18:30). But there was nothing easy or childish about her response to God. The intimacy of her love for God which marked her early years gave way first to spiritual dryness (when she became a nun) and later on, towards the end of her life, to “the night of nothingness.” And yet it was precisely in this way that she came to understand the reality of God’s love and to complete her apostolate of 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 has surely voiced the deepest meaning and final purpose of all our lives. When our life itself becomes a prayer, then and only will our transformation be complete. We can find no surer guide in our own journey to God than Thérèseof Lisieux.