As part of my formation for the Secular Carmelites, my group has been reading “The Story of a Soul,” the well-known autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Each month, we are assigned a few chapters to read and then discuss at our next meeting. Here is my reflection on this month’s assignment: Chapter 4-5. I hope you gain some insight into this special saint, a Doctor of the Catholic Church, or find yourself inspired to learn more about the Carmelite nun know as “The Little Flower.”
“I know that Jesus considered me too weak to expose me to temptation.”
I often wish that Christ would treat me as St. Therese said He treated her. That can be a danger when reading about God’s saints, at least in my experience. I find so much to admire in their devotion, their strength, their frequently uncanny holiness. That said, some of their devotion and strength seems to come so easily; I wish God would give me such a firm grasp on such virtues.
Like with the most talented and gifted athletes, the saints can make the most difficult things in life look easy.
St. Therese’s Chapter 4 in her autobiography proved most fascinating, as she revealed two key characteristics of truly holy people: the aforementioned strength against temptation and a willing acceptance of suffering.
“How I pity people who lose their souls!” Therese said. “It’s so easy to go astray along the world’s primrose paths.”
She noted that she didn’t think it would be possible for her to resist the temptations of the world if she actually felt attracted to such human delights, thus she turned that into gratitude for God not allowing her to be the least bit enticed by them. I’m more inclined to believe that those temptations indeed were present in her heart but she was so focused on her love of God that the devotion to Him overpowered the worldly temptations.
For me, the evidence comes in the fact that Therese received the sacrament of Confession. Such an experience requires having sins to confess. Even if Therese’s sins were of the venial and not mortal variety, still they were sins. I doubt she would commit the grave sin of confessing fabricated transgressions to her priest. Two of her quotations from the third chapter seem to support my theory.
- “He wants me to love Him because He has forgiven me not just a great deal, but everything.”
- “I’ve heard it said that a pure soul does not love with the passion of one that has sinned but repented. What a lie that is!”
Although some of her written thoughts might indicate otherwise, Therese didn’t seem to be a woman able to completely avoid the temptations of all worldly allurements or every human tendency. She had attachments to people and things other than the divine – her father, sisters and other family members, gifts, grand works of nature, the beautiful sculptures in an Italian cemetery, the magnificent architecture and splendor of venerable churches.
Therese’s handling of those aspects of “the world” was unusual because she didn’t allow them to drag her into the world. Her attachments, admiration and even her affections for those things didn’t completely divert her heart’s desire away from God. So despite the times she stumbled spiritually in her earthly journey, her focus never wavered from things of heaven.
I credit that to the gift of surrender.
That I suffer in life doesn’t make me unique. Every girl and boy, man and woman, will encounter some form of suffering during their lives on earth. Either in themselves or in loved ones, they will confront financial setbacks and dashed dreams, serious illness and death. They will be the subjects of compassion and sympathy from others. They will cry and hurt, probably feel helpless and hopeless.
Therese displayed two truly admirable (for me) and powerful traits in relation to suffering: She wanted it, and she accepted it with a heavenly grace.
The desire probably makes her stand out from most people in all of human history. What normal-thinking person would want to suffer? Presumably, the desire goes beyond the suffering that naturally accompanies every life. Therese seemed to say to God, “I will take whatever hardships you already have planned for me, but You can give me extra torment and misery.”
The story involving her First Communion impressed me. She felt so much excitement and joy that day, but immediately the next day she felt sadness that receiving Christ’s Body in that tangible way wouldn’t happen every day. (We take that blessing for granted, I am afraid. At least I do too often.) The sadness apparently was so profound that, in the same paragraph of telling the story, Therese segued into thoughts about suffering. Her sister Marie once had voice the opinion that God would care so tenderly for Therese that He wouldn’t allow her to suffer in life.
“After Holy Communion the next day,” Therese said, “I remembered this and was seized with a passionate longing to suffer. I felt absolutely certain that Jesus had many, many crosses in store for me. My soul was flooded with such consolation that I regard it as the greatest consolation of my life.
“I was drawn to suffering. It had about it a charm that delighted me, although I didn’t really understand much about this charm, for until then I had suffered without loving suffering. But from that day I felt a deep, true love for it.”
I safely can say I can’t recall longing to suffer, so I can’t completely comprehend that emotion. What suffering I have abided can’t measure that of a great portion of the world’s population. No starvation. No homelessness. No loss of limbs or living in a war zone or loss of senses. No disease that permanently disabled me or my family.
Nonetheless, I know deep and weighty suffering. I carry my crosses, and I willingly help others carry theirs. And that has transformed my spirit into one of acceptance, even of desire. There can be great spiritual consolation in suffering. Yes, there can be a supernatural charm to it, a connection with God that I’m convinced can’t be known any other way.
Knowing that charm, even loving that charm, is a great grace. I have learned that it’s not something we can acquire; it only can be a Divine gift. Therese received the gift, I think, because she disposed herself to receive it.
I also credit that to the gift of surrender.
Saintly suffering clearly involves two prongs: Desire and endure. Many of us might willingly accept suffering, especially if we ask to help carry someone else’s cross. But to actually lift that burdensome cross onto our shoulders and drag it without an end of the road in sight, that often breaks down many would-be saints.
It’s telling that Therese’s dealings with this stage of suffering in her life involved two sacraments. When she first tasted the Body of Christ, physically taking Him into herself, she hatched the hunger and thirst for suffering – or, I believe, to share more fully in His suffering, to link her burdens to His on the cross. The second incident occurred at her confirmation. “On that day,” she said, “I acquired the strength to suffer.”
The longing came from Jesus. The strength came from the Holy Spirit. If we wish to receive those gifts, the experiences and graces of Therese show us to whom we need go.
Well before those days of receiving the sacraments, Therese gradually had surrendered herself to God. He had been preparing her, inviting her, in subtle and small ways throughout her life. That ongoing invitation gave her an opportunity I think we all have: We can surrender. That must be an opportunity for all of us because we all are called to be saints.
Therese shows me that can result from a life of holding only loosely to things of the earth while maintaining an ever-vigilant, ever-present gaze on heaven.
Said Therese: “It’s impossible for one bound by human affection to have intimate union with God.”
To surrender, I must pray to loosen all that binds me. Thus I pray.