Wednesday, September 19, 2007

St Therese of Lisieux, by Fr JA Hardon, SJ

Historical Setting
Unlike the great Catholic books of history, the Autobiography of St.Therese of Lisieux hardly has a historical setting that occasioned its publication or shaped its composition. Its author lived only twenty-four years, and nine of those were spent in the obscurity of a Carmelite cloister. Yet there is a deep sense in which we can speak of the historical circumstances in which the book was written. Two French writers, who were contemporaries of St.Therese, give us some insight into the devastating ideas that began to plague Christianity in her day. Ernest Renan, the ex-seminarian of Brittany, repudiated the divinity of Christ, portrayed Him as a charming Galilean preacher, and denied that He had ever worked any miracles. Alfred Loisy, a priest from Lorraine, denied that Christ ever founded a Church or instituted any of the sacraments. No contrast could be more startling than to compare, for example, Renan's Life of Jesus or Loisy's Gospel and the Church, with the Autobiography of St. Therese. She is writing in a spirit of deep faith, especially faith in the Divinity of Christ, Time and again she speaks to Jesus, as "My God"; whereas Renan and Loisy abandoned the faith they once had, and then studiously contradicted what they had formerly believed. What should be emphasized, however, is that St.Therese's faith was severely tested. An essential part of her sanctity, therefore, was her courageous profession of faith in spite of the serious temptations against the faith that God allowed her to experience. The latest publication of Therese's sayings reveals this side of her life which many commentators have overlooked. She was not only plagued with trials about the faith, but she saw the sufferings that God sent her as a providential means of obtaining or restoring faith for unbelievers. "I offer up," she confided to her superior, "these very great pains to obtain the light of faith for poor unbelievers, for all those who separate themselves from the Church's beliefs." Keeping this in mind will give an entirely new dimension to St.Therese's practice of spiritual childhood. She was an extraordinarily gifted person, with a penetrating intellect. Yet she believed and grew in the faith almost because her faith was so sorely tried by the Lord.

Our Spiritual Focus
From the library of literature on the Little Flower, there are five chapters in her autobiography that give us the core of her spirituality.
1. "Towards the Heart of Charity" may be called a personal commentary on the meaning and practice of supernatural love. The author brings out the sobering lesson that our love for God must be shown in deeds. Moreover, the normal and constant opportunity for loving God comes from the cheerful patience we show to the sometimes difficult persons that God puts into our lives.
2. "Therese as Novice-Mistress" brings out one aspect of God's providence that we are liable to overlook. As the directress of novices, she learned how differently God dispenses His grace to different souls. It not for us to ask the reason why. After all, He is Master of His gifts, which He distributes to whom and as much us He wills.
3. "On Prayer" reveals the lack of sensible consolation that Therese experienced for long periods of time. It also shows us something about her that many believers can identify in their own lives. "It's a terrible thing to admit," she confessed, "but saying the Rosary takes it out of me more than any hair shirt ... Try as I will, I cannot meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. I just cannot fix my mind on them."
4. "Therese and her Brothers on the Mission" gives some explanation of why she was declared patroness of the missions, along with St. Francis Xavier. She recognized that "prayers and sacrifices ... are the best help one can give to missionaries." It was on this basis that the Second Vatican Council made a surprising statement. "Institutes of the contemplative life, by their prayers, penances and trials, are of the greatest importance in the conversion of souls, since it is in answer to prayer that God sends workers into His harvest, opens the minds of non-Christians to hear the Gospel, and makes fruitful the word of salvation in their hearts" (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, no. 40).
5. "Her Apostolate of Prayer" provides a simple explanation of a profound truth, that prayer is the most powerful means we have for bringing souls to God. The final reason is hidden in the mystery of the Trinity. But we get some understanding of what this means from the comparison of prayer with a fulcrum. Therese quotes Archimedes as saying, "Give me a lever and a fulcrum,""and I'll shift the world." She went on to explain that "the saints have really enjoyed the privilege he asked for; the fulcrum God told them to use was Himself, nothing less than Himself, and the lever was prayer."
This year is the centennial of the death of St. Therese of Lisieux. It comes almost on the eve of the twenty-first century. We can safely say that never before in Christian history has there been more need for an unhappy world, intoxicated with self-love, to learn from her that the only true happiness comes from surrendering one's heart to the Heart of God.

Father Hardon, S.J. is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.