Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to implore the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold, yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, / “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”Zechariah 8: 22-3
Today is the Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her very brief life, she died at the age of 24, is an exemplification of the call of the Fundamental Principles to allow ourselves to be formed by “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” Although her language reflects the spiritual and cultural pulsations of her time, her life is a revelation of the God who is found and responded to through the way, Thérèse called it the little way, we live the common and ordinary moments of our lives. She sought to recognize the image of God in others and she devoted herself to allowing the unique image of God that she was to be released through the practice of overcoming those dispositions in her which beclouded that image.
Thérèse’s God was not an idea or a theological construct but rather the source and central relationship of her life. Her life was truly a hidden one, never moving far from the home of her family and then for the last years of her life spent in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux. But through her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she has drawn and continues to draw countless persons to God through their appropriation of their own unique life call and their devotion, in practice, to living that call out in their world. As we hear in the passage from Zechariah today, persons of every nationality, speaking different tongues and believing in differing manifestations of the transcendent, are drawn by her life because they recognize that God is with her.
When we were novices, sayings of St. Thérèse were read every day in the refectory. These were mostly a source of amusement to us who were only in our late teens ourselves. Her devotional language was strange to us, and she often spoke of Jesus in terms a child might use of a close friend. What we couldn’t understand was her experience of true intimacy with God. The key to appreciating Thérèse‘s spirituality is the realization that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is not far away from us but is to be found in the formation field that is our life. As Thérèse reflects on the selfishness of her young childhood, she realizes that it is her selfishness that distances her life from the life of God in her, and so inhibits the expression of God’s love in the world. When she experiences the very understandable anger and resistance at the ingratitude and selfishness of a narcissistic member of her community, she experiences the truth of Jesus’ call to love her enemies and do good to those who hate her.
One of the greatest counter-signs to the truth of the reality of Jesus and power of the gospel for many in the world is that those of us who claim to be his disciples, and even sometimes are involved in grand projects in the name of the gospel, do not reflect in our personal and relational lives the love that the gospel proclaims. In Thérèse we see the teaching of Jesus lived out in ordinary life, and we recognize the deep challenge that it is to personal and communal transformation. There is no such thing as a disciple of Jesus who is not constantly changing, reforming, and being transformed in Christ. If the basic dispositions of our heart are not always learning “obedience by what we suffer” then we have not, as Luke says of Jesus in today’s gospel reading, “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” We are reminded in the letter to the Colossians that we have now died and our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). It is the task of our lives, as lives in formation, to bring that hidden light into the world, to allow that light of our hidden life to shine.
One of the greatest trials of Thérèse’s life, prior to her long decline from tuberculosis, is to experience her beloved father as stricken with mental illness. She struggles with her own powerlessness in this regard and she searches intensely for the call of God in the experience. What she hears as the call to her, as her way to somehow serve her father, is to give special care to those members of her community who are most mentally and emotionally unwell. She works in the very small ways she can to attend to and care for them, most of all to recognize their humanity. To recognize the truth of the Mystical Body, of the Universal Christ, is to come to see that we are never totally powerless to bring the light of Christ into the world. To serve one of God’s children is somehow to serve the whole.
It also means that we need never despair of our own sinfulness. Even when we have done what seems to be irreparable harm to another person, we can in the present do good for another. We may not be able to go back and atone to the one we have harmed, but we can now serve another or others who need to be attended to and cared for. So often we experience in ourselves and others deep regret for the past. The opposite of regret, however, is present love and service. I speak often with a person who looks back on his failures in his marriage with a regret that often borders on despair. He recognizes his selfishness and lack of love for his former wife and senses that his life has been wasted. What he does not recognize is that he is still alive. There are many who would come to life if he attended to and cared for them. For, we are one body. In our lives we all at different times both wound and heal the body.
So, the hidden life of St. Thérèse in the Lisieux convent, only unhidden because of her writings, powerfully impacts the world. What so appeals about her, I suspect, is that there is nothing heroic or spectacular about her, but there is true human nobility. It is living deeply in the truth of who we are that makes for that nobility. It is not so much what we do, but how we do it. It is not the recognition we receive that makes us truly human, but the integrity and faithfulness of our words and deeds, the expression of our heart and soul in whatever we do. As she was dying, Thérèse said that she wanted to spend her heaven doing good on earth. She didn’t live as she did for the sake of some future reward. In fact the last months of her life were ones of the greatest darkness and dread. Her little way was and is the way of the truth, of being who we are and giving whatever little it is we have to give. It is overcoming our self-preoccupation and doing whatever good we can. Thérèse does not see heaven as a reward for herself. Because she has allowed the love that she truly is to become her life, she desires to spend eternity serving others, doing good on earth. Despite the preciousness of her devotional language, Thérèse draws people to God because she is “the real thing.” She longs to be nothing else but one who, in whatever little way she is able, does good for others.
If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the caseSt. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul