of the Child Jesus
and of the Holy Face
Today is the feast of the saint often referred to as "The Little Flower". Perhaps that reference was one of the things that turned me off with regard to St. Therese for so many years. Perhaps my disposition was also based on an early reading of her much edited autobiography, so massaged by her well-meaning sisters and others in the Carmelite community of Lisieux. We now know they had edited out the muscle of this young soul and left only weak submission behind. Fortunately, those impressions have been corrected by publication of the unedited "Story of a Soul", by wonderful essays from spiritual, theological and psychological points of view appearing in the journal "Carmelite Studies" (Experiencing St. Therese Today, ICS Publications, 1990), and, most recently, by the 2007 biography "Everything is Grace", by Joseph Schmidt, FSC.
Fifteen year old Therese arrrived at the Carmel of Lisieux with a lot of the emotional baggage we speak of so freely today. As an infant she experienced separation from her mother and family and, over a year later, separation from her surrogate mother. Barely out of toddlerhood, she lost her mother who had suffered with cancer of the breast for years. Later, one after another, she endured the loss of yet other substitute mothers, her older sisters who entered Carmel before her. At the same time she was gradually losing the father she adored, one of those who tended to pamper this bereft child who experienced what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression. She knew her father's mind was gradually slipping into a world which neither she nor her sisters could penetrate. In the large community of Carmel she had to stand alone, serve her King, prove herself, and deal with the challenges of community life.
So many approach the pursuit of God, especially in religious life, thinking that God is calling them to holiness of life and greater love for Him. They assess the calling rightly but often their notion of how one goes about following the call is much too limited. The spirituality of St. Therese has none of these limits. While she speaks of her formal devotional life - meditating on scripture, communal and private prayer, other devout practices - she does not place these at the heart of her spiritual life. Rather she comes to see that it is the "little way of love" which must be the core, center stage for the pursuit of holiness. And this "little way" has everything to do with human interaction, with her responses to those around her, to those with whom she must work, pray, eat, and recreate in the Carmel of Lisieux. She develops an acute awareness of self, a mystical consciousness, of her own responses and behavior when she is hurt, insulted, discounted, rejected, past over. But she also becomes aware of what happens when she makes the effort to see another's pain, to imagine their feelings, their predicaments, their struggles. She determines to be love in the heart of Carmel because this is what love of her King, Jesus Christ, requires.
St. Therese would not advise those who ardently wish to grow in holiness to increase the hours on their knees, or the number of Rosaries, or their bodily mortifications. Rather she would advise them to pray for clear-eyed self-awareness, for a mystical consciousness of the call to love. It is a call to love those whom it is impossible to avoid each day - our children, our spouses, our co-workers, our community members, friends, and family, as well as the people "down the street" in our neighborhood, town, country, and world.