I am writing to ask for some explanations about Saint Therese of Lisieux’s spirituality. As a matter of fact, I have read Story of a soul and a few books about her thought. It is my understanding that the Saint claims that we need to accept and love our littleness, our incapability to achieve high goals, without becoming demoralized, but rather doing everything we can and entrusting ourselves to Divine Mercy.
Now, if this is really the Saint’s thought, I have an impression that it moves in the opposite direction from the values of the society we live in, which holds in high regard success, achievements, relying on one’s own strength — and even causing harm to others, if necessary — in order to attain significant accomplishments.
Furthermore, as far as I know, Catholicism deems works to be very important for salvation. This being the case, if I am not mistaken, the Saint’s thought is closer to what is held by the Protestants, who extol faith as the only way to attain salvation, to the detriment of good works. As a matter of fact, the Saint says: “In the evening of life I shall appear before you with empty hands”.
Finally, in modern psychology there is the theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which asserts the importance of other people’s esteem as a typical human need. Actually, people are very keen on being praised and applauded, whereas the Saint declares that what matters most is doing things, however small, out of love, without being acclaimed by others.
Nevertheless, I have an impression that the Saint was peaceful and felt good about herself; therefore, I wonder how can one actually follow her spirituality, considering that we live in a society that is based on quite opposite values, and given that the need to be appreciated by others is very deeply entrenched in the human soul.
The priest’s answer
- First and foremost, I am pleased with the fact that you have done some reading about Saint Therese, and I am especially glad that you have pored over her own writing, the Story of a Soul. When we are close to Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, we immediately feel a joy that in my view stems from this: we feel we are carried in the real world, in the presence of God, in the presence of Jesus. At the same time we feel encouraged to do what she did, namely to make eternal what we do in time.
- To come to your query, you have asked three questions that can be summarised as follows: how can one live following the little way of Saint Therese in a society that rushes in a totally different dimension?
- First of all, you argued that what matters most in the society we live in is success, achievements, relying on one’s own strengths to attain great accomplishments. Well, I would say that also Saint Therese pursued success, great goals, great achievements. Nonetheless, she sought after the true success, the greatest goal, the highest achievement. It is a kind of success that lasts forever and that brings about the greatest and most durable joy.
- In addition, you remarked that Saint Therese’s doctrine is more similar to the Protestant’s than to the Catholic’s. I cannot agree with you on this, because Saint Therese’s life was a chain of acts of love one more beautiful than the next. Impressed by Saint Paul’s statement about the Church being like a body with many parts, each of whom is endowed with an important function, Therese wanted for herself the most important function of all, the one without which the whole body cannot survive: the heart. She wanted that every act of hers delivered in the various parts of the Church’s body the strength to fulfill its role. I will transcribe one of the most sublime pages of the Story of a Soul:
These aspirations becoming a true martyrdom, I opened, one day, the Epistles of St. Paul to seek relief in my sufferings. My eyes fell on the 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. I read that all cannot become Apostles, Prophets and Doctors; that the Church is composed of different members; that the eye cannot also be the hand. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires, or give to me the peace I sought. “Then, descending into the depths of my nothingness, I was so lifted up that I reached my aim”. Without being discouraged I read on, and found comfort in this counsel: “Be zealous for the better gifts. And I show unto you a yet more excellent way”. The Apostle then shows how all perfect gifts are nothing without Love, that Charity is the most excellent way of going surely to God. At last I had found rest. (Story of a Soul, 253)
Meditating on the mystical Body of the Holy Church, I could not recognise myself among any of its members as described by St. Paul, or was it not rather that I wished to recognise myself in all? Charity provided me with the key to my vocation. I understood that, since the Church is a body composed of different members, the noblest and most important of all the organs would not be wanting. I knew that the Church has a heart, that this heart burns with love, and that it is love alone which gives life to its members. I knew that, if this love were extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, and the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. 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. Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love! …Thus I shall be all things; thus will my dream be realised… (Story of a Soul, 254)
- Finally, you point out that men seek others’ esteem, while Teresa sought to be humble and hide away from the eyes of others. Saint Therese used to seek esteem, too, but she did not do this the way worldly people do. For her, it was an act of charity: she used to do everything in the best possible way, not only out of love for God, but also so as not to give her neighbor the least chance to sin against charity.
- As for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it must be remarked that it classifies man’s needs according to the world’s criterion. But, Saint Therese was uninterested in the world’s criteria, which often bring about apprehension rather than satisfaction. The world cannot understand how a person can go as far as adhering to the life program envisioned in The Imitation of Christ: “love to be unknown and counted as nothing” (ama nesciri et pro nihilo reputari). For the world, this is insanity. While Saint Therese regarded as insanity the world’s criteria.
- She was happy to acknowledge her weakness. As reported by her sister, Mother Agnes, she used to say: “I am exceedingly happy not only that I am considered imperfect, but above all that I myself feel that I am, and that I am going to need God’s mercy at the moment of death”. She writes about herself: “I am the least of creatures, I know my mean estate, but I know that noble and generous hearts love to do good. Therefore, o Blessed Inhabitants of the celestial city, I entreat you to adopt me as your child. All the glory that you help me to acquire, will be yours; only deign to hear my prayer, and obtain for me a double portion of the love of God”. (Story of a soul, 255) Here, as you can see, there is that humility that makes us pleasing in the eyes of God and that, for this very reason, seeks the greatest things.
- The Sacred Scripture casts a deep light on your questions when it says: “Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually” (1Cor, 2:14). In contrast, Saint Therese used to judge the world’s criteria from a higher point of view, that of the Spirit of God. Being able to judge according to the Spirit of God gave her an absolute superiority. She knew she possessed the only gaze that really matters: the gaze of God.
I wish you a double portion of Saint Therese’s spirit of holiness, so that you may own eternally the real greatness, the heavenly one.
I guarantee you my prayers for this and I bless you.
Translated by Alessandra N.
Verified by Debora