The SMA Laity Coordinator, Mrs Dympna Mallon, spoke at the 5th night of the St Therese Novena in Dromantine. Here is an edited version of her sharing.
We are sometimes told that for faith to be real it must be experienced or mediated through a human life. Our Lady has mediated the reality of the Christian faith to humanity for centuries, and is reverenced even by non-Christians. Born just 140 years ago St Therese mediates a real and human Christianity to us now in the 21st century. Both were chosen by God for greatness, one through her faithful devotion as the Mother of Jesus, the other, the Little Flower of the Child Jesus, through her childlike devotion and love.
In our Catholic faith we look on Our Lady as the spiritual mother of every home, of every human being and we are dependent on her as the Mediatrix of all the graces we receive. St Therese practiced a spiritual childhood throughout her life, embracing and advocating the “Little Way” to holiness in which she taught about the virtues of trust in God and in being small. A fundamental aspect of her life however was a deep devotion and dedication to Our Lady
St Therese knew the reality of pain and loss, with the death of her mother when she was just 4 years of age and the departure of her “second mother”, her sister Pauline to the convent, when she was less than 10. Having lost her own mother so early in life, it’s no surprise that she sought the solace of a mother figure and the devotion to Our Lady was confirmed by a Marian vision when Therese was seriously ill as a child, and experienced a miraculous recovery. From that point on Therese lived in the conviction that her Holy Mother was always with her and watching over her.
In Mary, Therese found a mother she could admire and imitate, a mother who could lead her to Jesus. She discovered not only a loving mother, but a mother who had led an ordinary life like her own. It is easy to forget that St Therese lived a very human life in a large family surrounded by loving parents and siblings. She recalls, in her autobiography, incidents where her behaviour was demanding and where she found it difficult to control her emotions. Her life and spirit tap into something universal in our human experience. We have all struggled to control our emotions, especially when those around us seem unreasonable and difficult. Few of us have always resisted the temptation to demand our share, our place, our rights. Perhaps part of the reason we are able to relate to St Therese is because she learned to accept, in her own life, the difficulties and the challenges in the common relationships she was given, and through these relationships, to grow in love for God and others.
So now we have before us images of both women; humble, chaste, virtuous. These images of virtue and humility that we associate with both Our Lady and St Therese are based on respect and devotion and this is entirely proper – but not, surely, to the exclusion of their humanity. For there is, in that humanity, the possibility of our finding courage, strength and inspiration in their lives.
Our Lady was forced to flee her own country, to become a refugee to protect the life of her infant child. She must have worried about her son’s nomadic lifestyle and open criticism of the Jewish authorities. She had to endure the heartache of watching his trial and execution as a common criminal and still try to cling onto the belief that God knew what He was doing. For Therese, her journey to God was neither straightforward or simple. Having chosen to dedicate her life to God, it was only through sheer determination, persistence and petitioning of the church hierarchy that Therese was permitted to enter the Carmelite convent at the age of 15. Once there she experienced frequent spiritual darkness, finding the formal religious structure oppressive and often feeling that God had abandoned her. She had to endure illness throughout her life and great physical suffering from the tuberculosis which led to her death at just 24 years of age. But like Our Lady she clung to the conviction that God loved her unconditionally and that her trust in Him would not be in vain.
Both Mary and Therese demonstrated courage and conviction in the face of adversity and uncertainty. They endured hardship and suffering in the course of their lives, had moments of doubt and darkness. Yet they remained faithful to the promise given to them by God and in so doing became beacons of light and hope for generations of people striving to follow their example of holiness. So how, then, would you react to the suggestion that Mary and Therese were somewhat radical in their vision of Christianity ? In the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn after the Annunciation, she proclaims a vision, which resonates with the Old Testament image of a God of judgment. This hymn of a simple, country girl, not yet left her parent’s home nonetheless echoes the forthcoming message of Jesus, a radical message of forgiveness and unconditional love. We don’t tend to think of Mary as a herald for her son, or even as a woman with a voice and yet the Magnificat is a powerful statement of vision, even pre-empting the Beatitudes,
“He has cast down the mighty from their throne, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
One writer takes the view that Jesus came not only to turn the world upside down, but to put things the right way up and that the Beatitudes are the manifesto for that. Is Mary’s Magnificat, in promoting justice, peace and human dignity, a sneak preview of what her son will do? Do we limit Mary to the role of obedient, humble, virtuous servant of God because we are comfortable with that image? Are we reluctant to acknowledge her challenge of the status quo because it represents a challenge to us in the way we live our lives?
The spirituality of Therese, known as the “Little Way”, derives its message of service to God and others from Christ’s teaching – there would seem to be little that is radical in that. But imagine if we really try to promote the message of Therese here and now in the 21st century. We live in an age where success is all about gain and achievement, celebrity and status, where my interests take precedence over the interests of all others; where those who are rewarded (and sometimes respected) are those who have clamoured their way to the top of the pile, regardless of how many they have trampled on to get there. If we advocated the Little Way as a means to happiness and peace, would it be a popular message or would we be regarded as ridiculous – or even radical?
When we pray to Our Lady and St Therese we are asking them to intercede on our behalf. But are we also prepared to follow their path and take up our respective challenges as they did? Will we be prepared to stand up and advocate, with conviction, a radical new way to live as disciples in the modern world ? Will we encourage others by the example of our own lives as Mary did, as Therese did, as Pope Francis is doing? When we identify the barriers to our bearing witness through our lives, do we ever consider that the only limits on us are those we place on ourselves? That the fences holding us back are mental fences, constructed by us in our own minds? If we truly accept the vision of Mary, the vision of her son, if we hope to act justly, love kindly and walk humbly with our God, it cannot be a personal, private thing – we are called, by our Baptism, to holiness and discipleship in the world, no less than Mary or Therese or Francis and there is no “get out clause”.
Our Lady has given us the vision of how the world can be, and in the Little Way of St Therese we have been given the tools by which we can make that vision a reality. We are all called to love God without reserve or fear because He loves each one of us without reserve and in this way our lives can become a process of “transforming nothingness into fire”. Therese tells us that holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.
Before Therese died, one of her novices promised her that after Therese had gone to heaven the novice would herself would strive for the same level of holiness, she would aim to become a saint. Therese responded by asking what she was waiting for, advising her that the present moment is the time for action and to begin at once to pursue her goal of sainthood. Perhaps there is a message in that for us during this Novena to St Therese.
Let us ask Our Lady and St Therese for the grace to act as they did: for the courage to hear God’s voice in our hearts; to answer His call now, today, whatever the cost; and to strive for justice, peace and the dignity of all humanity by doing the ordinary things in our ordinary lives extraordinarily well.