St. Thérèse of Lisieux has been accused of being too sweet, too simple. She is sometimes dismissed as sugary. In point of fact, however, she should terrify us. The “little way” is for God’s simple souls, but it is not for the faint of heart.
When in 1997 John Paul II elevated Thérèse to the status of a Doctor – one who, in all the ages of the Church, has contributed forever to its living faith – he acknowledged the lowly position of the one he sought to elevate. This little one had only a very limited education; this one lived but a short life to the age of twenty-four; this one lived in the holy obscurity of a Carmelite cloister. All true. None of it enough to lessen the intensity of her impact on the universal Church, or the brilliance of her brief life. In John Paul’s II words,
In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God, but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God’s merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.
The singular quality of Thérèse’s life and writings, both of which appear at first all too limited, is in their brilliant synthesis of the life of Christ and the life of the simple disciple. This is no brainless or morally-atrophied accomplishment. The simplicity here is, rather, a generosity. A willingness to go absolutely anywhere with Christ, even behind the cloister grill, even to the heights of participation in Trinitarian life. Augustine said, “Love and do what you will.” Thérèse lived it. She herself was very simple – delighting, it seems, in everything – and the magnanimity of her simplicity goes so far as to embrace the whole world through the love of the Trinity. Again, as John Paul II explains,
The core of her message is actually the mystery itself of God-Love, of the Triune God, infinitely perfect in himself. If genuine Christian spiritual experience should conform to the revealed truths in which God communicates himself and the mystery of his will (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 2), it must be said that Thérèse experienced divine revelation, going so far as to contemplate the fundamental truths of our faith united in the mystery of Trinitarian life. At the summit, as the source and goal, is the merciful love of the three Divine Persons, as she expresses it, especially in her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. At the root, on the subject’s part, is the experience of being the Father’s adoptive children in Jesus; this is the most authentic meaning of spiritual childhood, that is, the experience of divine filiation, under the movement of the Holy Spirit. At the root again, and standing before us, is our neighbour, others, for whose salvation we must collaborate with and in Jesus, with the same merciful love as his.
The terrible genius of Thérèse, the insight that should strike us with amazement and fear, is her total abandonment to love. She smiled, made it seem almost soft. Anyone with an ounce of reflection can discern the almost horrific bravery it must take to greet abandonment with cheer. Let us not forget surrender takes the form of the cross. Let us not forget that suffering perfects love. Let us not forget that Thérèse herself, at the end of her young life, experienced terrible agony. It was not an act of false humility for her to call herself “little,” or a “child,” as she so often preferred. It was the truth, and to live so thoroughly under the twin stars of littleness and abandonment renders the Little Flower a brave soul indeed. She knew that, in order to love, the soul must permit itself to be lifted into Triune love – and it is this way, and no other, that leads to holiness. It leads, in fact, to the unrestricted love of every single soul for the love of God. She herself says it best at the beginning of her Act of Oblation:
O my God, O Most Blessed Trinity, I desire to love Thee and to make Thee loved—to labour for the glory of Holy Church by saving souls here upon earth and by delivering those suffering in Purgatory. I desire to fulfill perfectly Thy Holy Will, and to reach the degree of glory Thou hast prepared for me in Thy Kingdom. In a word, I wish to be holy, but, knowing how helpless I am, I beseech Thee, my God, to be Thyself my holiness.
In words such as these is perhaps no better attitude toward love and grace, especially in their acknowledgement that one needs grace in order to love fully. This is the object of Thérèse’s surrender, and it would be a serious misunderstanding here to accuse her of twisted-self abasement. She acknowledges in her Oblation that she will come before God “with empty hands,” and she lays herself before God in her emptiness not as one to be detested, but as one who knows God loves her in all the inconsequence of her existence. “I desire no other Throne, no other Crown but Thee.”
This desire for God, the desire that burns in Thérèse with a harrowing and unremitting force, is the wellspring of her breathtaking love for others. She burns with the love of God’s own heart:
I, too, cry ever unto Thee
Thine own divine and tender cry:
“I thirst!” Oh, let me die
Of love for Thee. – “I Thirst for Love“
This becomes in her a desire to be all things for all people (echoing, in a way she understood well, the sentiments of St. Paul). Yet her vocation is startlingly specific, one she never appears to seriously doubt: praying in the cloister as a Carmelite nun. This would seem to limit her, a fact of which she is painfully aware. I will permit her for a moment to speak for herself:
To be Thy Spouse, O my Jesus, to be a daughter of Carmel, and by my union with Thee to be the mother of souls, should not all this content me? And yet other vocations make themselves felt—I feel called to the Priesthood and to the Apostolate—I would be a Martyr, a Doctor of the Church. I should like to accomplish the most heroic deeds—the spirit of the Crusader burns within me, and I long to die on the field of battle in defence of Holy Church.
The vocation of a Priest! With what love, my Jesus, would I bear Thee in my hand, when my words brought Thee down from Heaven! With what love would I give Thee to souls! And yet, while longing to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and am drawn to imitate him by refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood. How reconcile these opposite tendencies? – excerpt, Story of a Soul, Chapter XIX
Her response is not to demand all things from God. Not to resent those who are and who do the things she cannot. This would be the opposite of her essential attitude, a betrayal of the littleness she knew to be itself a divine gift. In all the pains of her struggle, her desire to be like the great “eagles” of the Church, she knows her littleness too well (one might say too honestly) to strive after its destruction. That would be the same as seeking her own self-destruction, or – and this is worse for her, and by far her central concern – the refutation of God’s will for her. No, she says elsewhere in the same chapter, “all that I can do is to lift up my little wings—it is beyond my feeble power to soar. What is to become of me? Must I die of sorrow because of my helplessness? Oh, no! I will not even grieve.” Her surrender is knowing that God will elevate her as he sees fit, and not otherwise. Her little wings reach outward in love, and love alone. Inconsequential, feeble love. Vulnerable. This is what makes her great, and lets her stretch to embrace all things. Thus she concludes her struggle: “I understood that love embraces all vocations, that it is all things, and that it reaches out through all the ages, and to the uttermost limits of the earth, because it is eternal.”
She was nothing but an obscure Carmelite nun. Through her total love of God, this made her an indispensable treasure to the Church – precisely through her littleness.
This is Thérèse’s daring trust, a fearless act of total love. One could call it soft only in ignorance. Instead, Thérèse is stretched beyond the farthest reaches of human imagination: during life, a creature of unremitting prayer for the sake of the world; after death, that same creature, made more effective in Beatitude. We are all little as Thérèse, though few of us ever so great. Few of us brave enough to be used to the very last, in the very least, as she was.
The close of her life saw the fullness of her humble surrender, pressed past the limits of dim human expectation. Thérèse died of tuberculosis. A horrendous death. This was her final act of courage, strictured according to the humiliating confines of a slow agony. Thérèse, the little one, was made even littler. She suffered greatly, but she suffered according to the pattern she loved so well in the copy of the Gospels she carried with her everywhere: according to the pattern of Christ. She was conformed, in this final way, to her beloved Christ. Thérèse, the little one, was made so small that her fullest desire would be realized: that the faithful would look upon her and see, not her, but Christ. Hans Urs von Balthasar narrates the pain and beauty better than I could, and with his reflections I close:
She feels to be “as if in Purgatory”. She is seriously frightened of losing her reason, remembering her father’s suffering, perhaps. She asks the Mother of God to take her head in her hands, so that she can stand it. She says she is not surprised that “so many unbelievers commit suicide”. More and more she is deprived of the world’s air, the air for herself. “The air of the earth is withdrawn from me! When will the good God grant me the air of heaven?” No sooner, Thérèse, than the moment all air is withdrawn from yourself! With this suffering, her plans of love are finally realized: “I, who have desired every form of martyrdom for myself – ah, a person has to be plunged into it to know what it means!” But, all alone, she is being taken at her word in her longing for God alone; her plunge into the “fiery abyss”; her longing to burst forever the shell of sanctity with which she had been encrusted. Now she will live in the sanctity of God.