Saturday, October 1, 2011

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Today in the Church's calendar is when we thank the Lord for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite sister who died at the age of 24 in 1897 after years of illness and spiritual struggle. Often referred to as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and "the Little Flower", Thérèse understood the entire Christian life - with all its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows - as a response to God’s love. It’s what she called her “little way.”

Nourished by the Scriptures and the Sacraments, her relationship with the Lord Jesus was one of such love that even when her suffering and pain was at its height, her inner struggle was most intense and she lacked any “spiritual feelings”, she had the strength to write letters of support and encouragement to Maurice Bellière, a stumbling young man preparing to be a missionary priest.

He’d experienced a moral failure, and couldn’t quiet his conscience. There was a fair amount of gloom and guilt in the religion of the day - both Catholic and Protestant - and Maurice needed to hear what Thérèse told him. Do you know what she said? She said it is not God’s will that our relationship with him be based on an obsessive fear of punishment. Neither, she said, does God want us to try and bargain for salvation by promising to do good works.

With all who have begun to grasp the meaning of the grace-filled Gospel down through the Christian centuries, Thérèse knew that no amount of “good works” could buy God’s love. She knew that in our better moments we would always wonder if we had done enough. In fact she even said to Maurice that the best of our “good works” are blemished, anyway, and they make us displeasing to God if we rely on them!

Thérèse knew that Jesus bore our sins on the Cross to make us free. She reminded Maurice of St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene, both of whose sins “which were many” were forgiven. She wrote to him, “I love them. I love their repentance, and especially their loving boldness.”

She relied only on God’s love. In her “Act of Oblation” in Story of a Soul, Thérèse wrote these words she had said to the Lord:

“After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone …. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”

Thérèse knew that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, she said, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but Mercy and Love?” “Confidence, nothing but confidence” in God’s love was what she stressed.

To some in the catholic tradition this might sound like spiritual presumption. But it echoes the teaching of Hebrews 10:19-22:

“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

No wonder Thérèse is the most quoted woman saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No wonder Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a “Doctor of the Universal Church” in 1997, pointing out that she is the youngest Doctor of the Church and the one closest to our time. He said:

“in every age, so also for her, in her spiritual experience Christ is the centre and fullness of Revelation. Thérèse knew Jesus, loved him and made him loved with the passion of a bride. She penetrated the mysteries of his infancy, the words of his Gospel, the passion of the suffering Servant engraved on his holy Face, in the splendour of his glorious life, in his Eucharistic presence. She sang of all the expressions of Christ’s divine love, as they are presented in the Gospel.”

Icon of St Thérèse in the Lady Chapel
of All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia,
written by iconographer William Lawrence

St Thérèse is shown as a young Carmelite nun. In her right hand she holds a cross, not the usual crucifix, but the Slav cross of the Eastern Church. The cross is a three bar cross, recalling her roles as Patron of the Russian College (Russicum) in Rome and her patronage of missions. The cross is red, symbolic of martyrdom.

The slavonic letters on the cross are abbreviations and read:

Gospodi = Lord (top),
Tsar Slavi = King of Glory (first bar),
IC XC = Jesus Christ (cross beam),
NIKA in Slovonic transcription = victory (foot pace).

Thus the first inscription, Lord, King of Glory is a reference to Thérèse’s frequent references to Jesus as her Lord and King; the second inscription (IC XC) and third inscription NIKA allude to the Paschal troparion “Christ is risen from the dead trampling death by death.”

In her left hand Thérèse holds the book of her autobiography. Written in French on the book is her personal motto “Love can only be repaid by love”. With her index finger Thérèse subtly points to the cross.

In her arm Thérèse holds some roses as is traditional in her iconography. We can see one bud already falling to the earth.


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