ST THÉRÈSE of Lisieux (1873-1897) was a French Catholic who became a Carmelite nun at an early age. She died in obscurity at the age of 24. However, after her death, her autobiography ***Story of a Soul*** was published and became a best-seller around the world. Her books explained her spiritual path of love and selflessness, and she became one of only three females to be considered a doctor of the Catholic Church.
Free gifts make us suspicious. Even with God’s gifts, we feel uneasy. How can God give me love unless I deserve it?
Thérèse of Lisieux had a unique insight into God’s generosity: our failings are like a drop of water in the furnace of God’s love. Because we little appreciate God’s compassion, we project onto him our narrow human standards. We imagine that our weaknesses drive a wedge between God and us.
Thérèse says the opposite: ‘Resign yourself to stumbling at every step, even to falling; love your powerlessness;’ and again: ‘What a grace when in the morning I feel no courage, no strength to practise virtue.’ It’s okay not to be okay. It is hard for us to believe this, and harder still to live by it. This may be due to a religious heritage which told us that God’s love must be earned by observing his law. The guilt such a tradition induces has more to do with pride than holiness. When I fail, it is not before God that I feel guilty, but before an idealised image of myself. I have let myself down. Despite my efforts, I failed to live up to my ideals, so my pride is wounded. The God I’m serving is not the God of Jesus Christ; it is my image of God, my ideal self.
For Thérèse, conversion meant abandoning this illusory God in which there is so much self-centredness. This led to her discovery of the ‘little way’ that turns upside-down how many of us look at the Christian life, introducing us to a spirituality of imperfection. Thérèse does not trivialise moral failings, but sees them in the perspective of God’s mercy. As a mother overlooks her child’s failings, so does God look generously on our weaknesses. Far from displeasing God, they can be grace-bearing. They help us experience Christian life as a celebration of God’s love rather than a struggle towards self-perfection.
Thérèse says: ‘The more one is weak, without desires and without virtues, the more one is suited for the operations of God’s consuming and transforming love.’
This brings our relationship with God to a new level. From being timid and distant, we develop a boldness that thrills God’s heart. We experience how passionate God’s love is for us. In that strange logic of love, we come to understand the vulnerability of God; he cannot refuse our neediness. Our faults remain, but rather than damage our relationship, they draw us into deeper levels of intimacy.
There is no room for God’s love in the hearts of the proud. Effort, not grace, is their way to God. They need to learn that God cannot be bought. His friendship cannot be won by our achievements. All is gift.
Thérèse tells us: ‘Those who live by the Gospel are not looking anxiously to see results, not counting on success, not concerned about what progress they have made. They live by faith and confidence, giving themselves completely over to God’s mercy.’
She illustrates this by the image of a stairs. God is at the top, watching our efforts to reach him. Knowing that we cannot measure up to the Gospel ideal, he bends down to us. This is the way we reach union with God – not through grim determination and effort, but through his love taking us to himself.
Miraculous invocation to St Therese
***O glorious St Thérèse, whom Almighty God has raised up to aid and inspire the human family,
I implore your miraculous intercession.
You are so powerful in obtaining every need of body and spirit from the heart of God.
Holy Mother Church proclaims you ‘Prodigy of miracles … the greatest saint of modern times’.
Now I fervently beseech you to answer my petition (mention in silence here) and to carry out your promises of spending Heaven doing good on Earth … of letting fall from Heaven a shower of roses.
Little Flower, give me your childlike faith to see the face of God in the people and experiences of my life, and to love God with full confidence.
St Thérèse, my Carmelite Sister, I will fulfil your plea ‘to be made known everywhere’ and I will continue to lead others to Jesus through you. Amen.***