As you may remember, in the summer of 2011 I did a retreat with Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, a devotee and scholar of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I was already quite taken with his book, Everything is Grace, and posted–some might say OVER-posted–on his insights. (The first of a series of four ran on 7.28.11 and the next three directly follow).
Now Br. Joe has a new book: Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux,
I identify strongly with Thérèse’s over-sensitivity, the wrong kind of people-pleasing, the violence of our intense reactions against others and against ourselves, the way our efforts to whip ourselves into shape are utterly, fatally doomed…In fact, I can’t imagine that a human being who has deeply examined his or heart could do anything but identify with St. Thérèse, as described in this book. Her confluence of the psychological and the spiritual is very much of, and deeply relevant to, our times.
Br. Joseph breaks every incident of Thérèse’s life down: the early death of her mother; the Christmas eve “second conversion” when, at the age of 14, and in the space of a few seconds, Therese transformed from a neurotically self-centered adolescent to a mature young woman who would achieve almost unparalleled spiritual genius; the loving way she dealt with her borderline personality Superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague; the crotchety old nun Thérèse took it upon herself to accompany each night after Vespers to the refectory; her slow, agonizing death, at the age of 24, from TB. He shows how, guided by little other than fervent prayer, the Sacraments, an intelligent, tender heart, and a close reading of the Gospels, her actions and thought evolved.
Here’s an excerpt called “A Way That is New.”
In her maturity Thérèse came to refer to her path of love as a little way, a way that is . . . totally new (SS 207)*. Her little way is, of course, not new in the sense that it really is “the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time,” as Pope John Paul II said in proclaiming her a Doctor of the Church (DAS 10).**
However, Thérèse’s little way can be considered“new,”since it is a way of spirituality that had been lost to the common religious teaching. By rediscovering Jesus’ spirituality of love, Thérèse has rediscovered the treasure hidden in a field; she has grasped the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). Her little way is the newly unearthed cache of gold, the treasure of apostolic faith that had been hidden beneath the misunderstandings of the prevailing spirituality, buried in the field of the common sense of the conventional wisdom, the culture of violence and death of our times.
Thérèse’s “intimate sense of spiritual realities” provides through the vision and life of a contemporary young woman a new, fresh, creative expression of Jesus’ teaching of love without violence. Thérèse’s little way offers a new emphasis in the developing understanding of the apostolic faith as that understanding“makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DAS 7). Thérèse’s little way, therefore, contributes to the Church’s development of doctrine in our time by proclaiming a spirituality that negates any violence that might linger in a mistaken understanding of the Church’s authentic teaching.
As we noted, Thérèse’s spirituality in particular shines the Gospel light on the violence hidden in Jansenism, perfectionism, and Pelagianism. These errors poisoned the spirituality of Thérèse’s day and continue in various forms to contaminate religion in our own time. Among other errors, there is a mistaken belief that a so-called “good” or “sacred” violence can be used to end the perceived evil in oneself or others. This “good” violence is often thought to be pleasing to a vengeful, punitive God. Thérèse simply rejected all aspects of these notions.
Specifically, she rejected violence, not violently but by being more and more available to the source of love. She resisted violence and subverted it, serenely bearing its pain, resisting its contamination, opening herself more fully to God’s love, and quietly living and teaching her little way of love.
In her maturity she managed relationships without the codependency of her youth, setting appropriate boundaries of detachment and self-protection. She avoided violence to herself, fleeing situations that she could not cope with but returning without resentment or revenge. The inevitable violence that she encountered in her life of love, violence that she could not end, she diminished with patience and kindness but without masochism or self-pity. She resisted being violent to others through faith and prayer, not engaging in rivalry or gossip. When in a position of authority, she acted responsibly but without compulsion or arrogance, requiring obedience but without overpowering. She made judgments without condemning and corrected without retaliation. She avoided the violence of striving for perfectionism and resisted the violence of excessive fear or guilt in failing. Her spiritual discipline was not self-punitive but consisted in maintaining awareness and faith as she established her identity, security, and self-worth in her union with God. In all of this she combated evil but without using evil’s means.
By living a life of love and revealing what loving might feel like and look like, Thérèse has become a “living icon of God,” as Pope John Paul II called her. She manifests the feminine face of God, “who shows his almighty power in his mercy and forgiveness” (DAS 8). Her understanding that God desires love without violence is a “new” modern lens through which to read the signs of our time and a light of hope in the darkness of contemporary confusion and conflict.
* Story of a Soul, Thérèse’s autobiography
** Divini Amoris Scientia, Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II
Br. Joe’s insight that the heart of Therese’s spirituality is the utterly nonviolent nature of God’s love can hardly be overemphasized. How incredible, how glorious, how difficult, what an ongoing scandal that the way to end abortion, war and violence of all kinds is to be kind to the crabby person beside us at home, at work, at school, in the line at the Post Office…It is somehow the last thing we want to hear–because to be kind to people toward whom we do not feel a natural affection or preference seems to be the hardest, least glamorous, least glittery, least outwardly interesting, attractive, or compelling thing imaginable.
And it is exactly what Christ taught.
Inwardly, of course, the call to love is the pilgrim’s journey: the most interesting, the most compelling, the most perilous, the most radical undertaking.
But read Br. Joseph’s book. It will give you a whole new appreciation of the crazy paradox that this bourgeois French schoolgirl became one of the most important spiritual figures of our time. It will give you a whole new sense that your own outwardly meager, mostly unseen, often seemingly pathetic hero’s journey will somehow, someday, bear fruit. It will make you really, really, grateful for central heating and morphine.
|“Like You, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged
and crucified. I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be
plunged into boiling oil like St. John; I would undergo all the tortures
inflicted upon the martyrs.”