Saturday, October 3, 2009

Thérèse of Lisieux: The Hidden Face of the Church

(Original drawing by Sister Therese, OJN)

"For let us be honest with ourselves: Who among us has ever read The Story of a Soul for the first time without being disappointed?..." (Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, p. 15)

I can't recall when my first reading of The Story of a Soul took place during my seminary years. It's possible that I read it even a couple of times; at least I was familiar with it. My devotion to St. Thérèse probably flowered (excuse the pun!) some time in my year of novitiate, 1967-68. Brother Al Kramek, C.PP.S., who was stationed at St. Charles Seminary, our major seminary nearby St. Mary's Novitiate, learned of my devotion and gave me my first personal copy of The Story of a Soul, and later a first-class relic of St. Thérèse, which several years ago I passed on to Julian House Monastery. Though I don't recall making a big deal out of it, Thérèse has always just been "there" through the years, as a sort of silent big sister. In the past ten years or so I've found myself becoming more intrigued by the great Carmelites, her among them, the details of their lives, and especially the common thread of spirituality running throughout all their teachings.

For a long time, and even now to some extent, Thérèse's writing style was off-putting to me: too "precious" and somewhat saccharin. I've learned to see it in the perspective of the times in which she lived. One can only wonder, if she had written in our idiom, how even more intensely powerful what she had to say might have been. But if one "listens" closely to her and reads between the sugary phrases, one can discern how steely a person she actually was. Her "little way" looks tame and innocent at first glance, but underneath that lies the depth of Thérèse's realism and straightforward strength which constitutes her genuine sanctity. Görres notes: "The third section [of her autobiography] is the real heart and soul of the book; here strong fire glows through all the lace frills and painted glass... "

Thérèse's message can be summarized in many ways, I suppose, as many as there are devotees of her. For whatever it's worth, here is my take on it. Thérèse writes, in The Story of a Soul: "...I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church's members act...I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that It embraced all times and a word, that It was eternal!...My vocation is Love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus shall I be everything, and thus my dream will be realised..."

She believed and lived this in her short 24 years, and she pledged to continue this ministry, if you will, after her death: "Je ferai pleuvoir sur vous une pluie de roses. = I shall rain down upon you a shower of roses." What a loss it would have been, to the Church and to humanity, had Thérèse not had the spiritual maturity to heed her own sister's [Pauline was her superior at the time] directive to put her unique message to writing in her notebooks. "Only because of this," says Ida Görres, "have countless persons realized that this existence of theirs is a 'way', even a way to sanctity, a way to perfection; that there is an inherent value in all the things which seemed themselves not worthy of attention..." Görres points out that Thérèse bridges the gap between the "old" and "new" piety in the Church: a marvelous example of the Church's power of "semper reformanda", of being able "always to be re-formed". Thérèse could do this because she was far removed from the endless haggling and discussions over reform and rebirth, so common in our day. From within her own pure, childlike soul arose this simple, unshakeable love of God which she would share with her "even Christians", to use Julian of Norwich's terminology, thereby transforming the whole Church.

In her example of the little, loving soul, according to Görres, Thérèse captured the very essence of what the Church is.
"...In the quiet life of Thérèse there was revived the ancient, original, Gospel concept of sanctity, of the baptized Christian whose whole life reflects Christ in all its elements, who is saintly not because [s]he does or says special things which set [her] him off from others, but because [s]he is a tiny member of Christ present in the world and because [s]he endeavors to walk worthily in the path of [her] his vocation..."

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