The SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Michael McCabe, celebrated the Mass for the fourth night of the 2014 National Novena in honour of St Therese of Lisieux. The theme of his homily was ‘My vocation is love’.
Henry Miller, the famous American novelist, wrote: “The one thing we never get enough of is love; and the one thing we never give enough of is love”. In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminds us that Love is the core of the Gospel message: God’s love for us and our love of God and one another. He writes: “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others… All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love” (The Joy of the Gospel, no. 39). Perhaps no saint has reflected this truth more perfectly or more attractively than the nineteenth century French Carmelite nun, St Thérèse of Lisieux.
St Thérèse was just fifteen years old when she entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux where she was to spend the remaining nine years of her short life. An enormous transformation took place in her during those years. From being a rather pampered and overly sensitive child she learned to abandon herself totally to God, trusting in his love for her and loving him in return with all her heart. She lived and died in obscurity and we might have known nothing about her had she not written her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, at the behest of her Superiors. It was edited by her sisters and published after her death in 1897. It became an immediate best seller and has been translated into over 60 languages, with more copies sold than any religious book apart from the Bible. Clearly, this modern spiritual classic has struck a chord in the hearts of millions of ordinary men and women seeking a way to relate to God that made sense to them. Why? I would say: because her story portrays vividly the meaning, beauty and attractiveness of the Gospel Message of Love – something Thérèse discovered from her own experience and personal reflection on the Gospel.
In her autobiography she speaks of the way she uses the Scriptures to shed light on her own experience. “I am constantly discovering in the Gospels,” she says, “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand and I know from experience that ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’” [from Thérèse: Her Life and Message]. In the nineteenth century most French Catholics had a rather harsh image of an angry God who would never let any sin go unpunished. Indeed, many religious at that time saw themselves as ‘victims to divine justice.’ Thérèse’s experience of God led her to reject completely this entire vision of God and Christianity. For her, it is God who is helplessly at our mercy precisely because he is a beggar for our love. It was out her own personal experience of God’s love for her that Thérèse came to centre her spirituality on loving God, rather than on trying to be perfect or to placate God’s anger with sinners.
Seeking to discover the particular role God wanted her to play in the Church’s mission, Thérèse turned for enlightenment 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. When St. Paul was talking about the different members of the mystical body I could not recognize myself in any of them; or rather I could recognise myself in all of them. But charity – that was the key to my vocation. 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. And I realised that this love was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function, the apostles would forget to preach the gospel; the martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. Love, in fact, is the vocation which includes all others; it is a universe of its own, comprising all time and space – it is eternal. Beside myself with joy I cried out: ‘Jesus, my love! I have found my vocation, and my vocation is love.’ I had discovered where it is that I belong in the Church, the niche God had appointed for me. To be nothing else than love, deep down in the heart of Mother Church: that is to be everything at once. My dream was not a dream after all [from The Story of a Soul].
Thérèse was convinced that it was far more important to be in love with God than to be a model 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 (á la folie), she writes, how can he resist us if we simply present ourselves to him with all the confidence of children? So, instead of trying to appease God with loads of pious practices, Thérèse proposed simply to accept God’s love and let him take full responsibility for the consequences.
In the carrying out of her religious exercises, Thérèse 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 the guilt feelings her superiors tried to make her feel, she turns her weakness to her own advantage. She sees herself to a little bird, distracted by all kinds of things but, instead of going off to a corner to indulge in a guilt trip, it abandons itself to its beloved Sun. This abandonment, however, was no romantic dream but a constant day to day struggle. Thérèse had no illusions about what loving God would mean: the daily death to self. Exotic ideas of holiness, filled with all kinds of heavenly revelations and extraordinary manifestations of the divine, so popular at that time, held no attraction for her. She knew that the holiness which is the fruit of love 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 loving mother.
Underneath the surface of Thérèse spiritual life, then, there was a core of steel. This core of steel manifested itself especially in the courage with which she bore her final fatal illness and the spiritual trials that accompanied it. Nothing so tests our commitment to Christ as suffering does. So often our response is indulge in self-pity. We feel we deserve better of God than this. We doubt God’s love for us. ‘Surely,’ we say, ‘if God really loved us, God wouldn’t let this happen.’ However, even in her most intense sufferings, Thérèse never gave in to self-pity or lost her sense of humour. Her thoughts and prayers were constantly for others – for unbelievers, for priests and for missionaries. There are several stories which illustrate the steely 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, told her that she should rest herself instead. In reply she 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].
There was nothing soft or sentimental about Thérèse’s abandonment to God’s love. Hers was a truly adult response that cost her not less than everything, even the consolation of God’s loving embrace. 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 what she called “the night of nothingness” (when, like Jesus in his agony, she felt that God had abandoned her). It was in this seeming hour of desolation that she came to understand and identify herself totally with God’s way of loving and to complete her apostolate of love. The best way we can honour St Thérèse today is to do, in our own time and circumstances, what she did: that is, abandon ourselves to the God who cannot help but love us, and let the power of his love transform us as it transformed her.