Last week I attended a retreat on St. Thérèse of Lisieux given by Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt.
Br. Joe has written several books on Thérèse and gave the green light to write up and post a series of notes on the retreat.
A little background:
If you’re interested, you can read up on her at one of Thérèse’s many “official” sites or at wikipedia, but briefly, she lived from 1873-1897, was the youngest of four sisters originally from Alençon, France, all of whom entered a cloistered convent, led an outwardly completely unremarkable, obscure life, died at the age of twenty-four of TB, and on the way developed an inner life and a spirituality known as “The Little Way” that is at once so revolutionary and so true to and reflective of the Gospels that this essentially unschooled bourgeois French girl was canonized a mere twenty-eight years later and in 1997, made a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women to date upon whom the title has been bestowed).
She left behind poems, plays, letters and an autobiography, written under orders from her superiors at the convent, called The Story of a Soul. What I love about her is that she was humble, meek (in the true sense of the word), and mild, and she also was fierce, hard-core, and determined unto death. Because Thérèse’s vocation, she discovered, was love. And authentic love is hard-core. Non-violent love is as hard-core as you can get–Christ on the Cross being the clearest possible demonstration…
One way to describe Thérèse’s spirituality is INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM, an attitude characterized by:
1. Seeing Through the Eyes of God:
Christ comes to re-vivify our spirit. Christianity is not a matter of taking on extra pain. It’s a matter of taking on the pain of being who we are, and patiently bearing with ourselves and the SLOW work of God.
To be loving means that we never make ourselves or others into an adversary. To try to fix things, ourselves and others up is adversarial. One weakness is failing to respond to God’s mercy and love. God “loves us into” boundaries. Boundaries are to be made lovingly, for our good and the good of others.
We are welcoming of the world and of our experiences. We deal with our experiences through God’s point-of-view.
2. Doing Everything with the Intention of Pleasing God:
“The great saints worked for the glory of God, but I’m only a little soul; I work simply for His pleasure,” said Thérèse.
This requires an awareness of our motivations. Before we take an action, we ask ourselves: What does this look like from the standpoint of eternity? To be present to our motivations without fear requires great spiritual discipline. We don’t want to get hooked into retaliation. We want to do good to those who hate us (which is often ourselves).
But the point is that we do everything with the intention of pleasing God. Not with the intention of pleasing ourselves (though if our intentions are pure, that comes along the way). Not with the intention of pleasing others if the pleasing is so that they’ll approve of us or give us what we want. And definitely not with the intention of appeasing God or placating God or hoodwinking God or earning God’s love. Because God already loves us. And now we simply get to please him.
3. Receiving Everything from God:
Self-love is letting God love us. Our spiritual journey is accepting our life as God’s providence. It’s not to become “moral” and “gain” virtue. Virtue is the capacity for non-violence. Virtue is to realize we are loved.
Thérèse spoke often of surrender and gratitude. Surrender doesn’t mean passively accepting violence. Surrender means staying with our painful memories and feelings, bringing them into God’s presence.
One major way we experience God is through our feelings (an area that to date we have not much talked about in the Church). Thoughts drive us, but feelings precede thoughts chronologically, so this is a significant issue. In a former post, I set forth some of Br. Joe’s insights on the subject.
Our feelings of shame and guilt are real. They come from way back, from our childhoods. The feelings are so intense because they have a physiological basis to them. We’re not crazy to have them, but as adults we don’t need them. And in spite of the fact that we don’t need them, they don’t go away. We’ll still have them on our deathbeds. But we do have a responsibility to treat the feelings so that what remains is more a tendency to have them, and/or to be triggered and then react to them with violence toward ourselves or others.
Nobody gets what they need as a kid. Even under the best of circumstances, we are left unsatisfied; fretful for the transcendent. So whose fault is it that none of us get what we need? Nobody’s. And especially not yours. So don’t blame yourself.
Thérèse’s great gift was to integrate the psychological and the spiritual. Her life experiences and her teachings are integral to each other. She addressed these childhood feelings directly and in that sense (among many others) she is radical.
We all need this contemplative spirit, this “incarnational mysticism” by which we begin to see through the eyes of God. As children, we see through the eyes of hurt, fear, and confusion. But as we work on these childhood feelings—through prayer, inventory, sharing with a trusted friend or spiritual director—we begin to develop a more mature point-of-view. We begin to heal our “original sin,” in the sense of original sin as not trusting in God’s goodness for us. We begin to see that God blesses all our experiences, even the most painful.
We do not get RECOGNIZED for living in incarnational mysticism (I, personally, think this is very unfair).
We will, however, become the saints we were meant to be. Not the saints we wanted to be. The saints God wants us to be.